Congregationalism speaks of a form of church government. “Episcopal” church government is rule by bishops, “Presbyterian” church government is rule by elders, and “Congregational” church government is rule by the congregation. Episcopal government usually includes a hierarchy over the local church, and Presbyterian government sometimes does as well. Congregational government nearly always avoids such hierarchy, maintaining that the local church is answerable directly to God, not some man or organization. Congregational government is found in many Baptist and non-denominational churches.
Congregationalists believe their model of church governance fulfills the description of the early church, and allows people the most direct relationship with God.
Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, Beloit, Pomona, Rollins and Colorado College.
Congregational Churches are independent churches in which the members are in charge. We don’t have priests or bishops, and we don’t have an area or national body that tells us how things should be done. Congregational beliefs are in the mainstream of Christianity and belong to what is sometimes known as the ‘Free Church’ tradition. Within most Congregational Churches there is a healthy degree of different understandings of our faith, and tolerance of different points of view.
Most Congregational churches call a Pastor or Minister (it basically means the same thing) to lead them in worship and in spiritual matters, but pastors are there to serve church members, not to have authority over them. This comes from our belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’. The highest authority in Congregational Churches is the Church Meeting, made up of all members of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This church meeting isn’t infallible, but it is at the heart of Congregational Life, as it is where we come together to jointly and prayerfully try to see where God is leading us.
Though we often use these two names interchangeably, the two were distinct groups both in England and in North America. The Pilgrims who first arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 were a small group of Separatist Independents who had fled England in order to establish a “pure” church in the New World, free from Anglican control.
Those who stayed in England resisted the Pilgrims’ call for separation, hoping they could change the Anglican Church from within. Under Archbishop William Laud, prospects for change grew dim, and in the 1630s and 1640s thousands of Puritans left England and settled in Massachusetts Bay. Despite the change of scene, they did not abandon their goal of reforming the English church. New England was to be a “city on a hill,” a perfect Christian society and an example to the world.
In many ways, the Congregational Christian churches are at the heart of the American Protestant tradition. Their numbers declined over the course of the last two centuries, but their influence on American thought and social conscience are still strong. As pioneers in education, social justice, and Christian unity, they have indelibly shaped the world we have inherited.
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