What is Congregationalism?
Congregationalists of today find their origin mainly from two groups of Christians that formed in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, coming to America through the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation and the Puritans at Massachusetts Bay Colony. While these two groups both believed then that the Church of England was in need of major reform, the Pilgrims sought separation from it and the Puritans aimed at change. Ultimately, both groups faced persecution for their convictions, causing many of these “separatists” to come to the “new world” to exercise their faith in freedom. Mutual interests helped to link these two groups together in England and in America to form what became Congregational churches.
In the United States, historically the Congregational Church was a major voice in the formation and development of this country since well before the original thirteen colonies were created, contributing much in the governmental and educational spheres and in societal structure and character as a whole. Over the years it has gone through several changes regarding associations and affiliations; today in general it can be said to be represented by many non-affiliated churches, and also those in membership organizations such as the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (often referred to as the “3 C’s”), and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (the “4 C’s”). (Memberships here are not defined by an hierarchal structure of governance and authoritative oversight of member churches, but more so as being in an association of independent churches which share commonality in faith.)
Regarding the central belief of the early faithful pioneers for forming local independent churches, Rev. Dr. Mauro writes: “The Puritans and Pilgrims were inspired by the words of Matthew 18:20: Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (NRSV) They believed this expressed God’s Covenant of Grace in their everyday lives. They believed in the presence of Christ. Pilgrims and Puritans committed themselves to live faithfully as God required.”
“The unique emphasis of Congregationalism has been on the right and responsibility of each congregation in local self-governance” (per Schumacher) with regard to its interpretation of the Bible and doctrine, practice, and organization, including the ordination of clergy. Both clergy and layperson make decisions together in a democratic representative governance. It is also not uncommon that some churches rely on laypeople taking on typical clergy roles.
Since Congregationalists believe in the spiritual equality and priesthood of all believers, church membership depends on a covenant of members one to one another, with Christ alone as the head of the local church. Even so, each church tends to recognize and encourage association with other congregations for the purpose of mutual fellowship and shared ministry.
Because of the belief in congregational autonomy, specific doctrines can vary widely, from conservative to liberal; for example, one branch of the Unitarian church found its birth in Congregationalism. Rev. Dr. Mauro acknowledges this: “There is a wide variety of thought and practice among our member churches. This, in itself, reveals an essential aspect of Congregationalism: each church, using scripture as its foundation and guided by the Holy Spirit, determines its faithful forms of worship, governance and belief. This naturally leads to diverse worship practices, beliefs about God, and Biblical interpretations among churches.”
Rev. Dr. Mauro writes a summary of sorts about their living out their faith in community: “At the heart of Congregationalism are relationships, not structures or absolute doctrines. Our Way is highly dependent upon the committed participation of members. You walk this spiritual pathway with many other Congregationalists. Together we encourage, instruct, guide and help each other on this journey of faith.”
First Congregational Church of Peru is an independent body of believers guided by its founding Congregational principles and maintains a sure hope to remain faithful to the Bible in its interpretation and application to life. We are committed to relationship with one another by mutual covenant and are dedicated to the mission of Jesus Christ to share the gospel message in word and deed.
.The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way, by Rev. Dr. D.
Elizabeth Mauro, published by the NACCC, 2014 (quotes cited above – p. 9,2,3)
.“Beliefs That Set Congregational Church Apart From Other Christians
Thursday” by Traci Schumacher (an online published article, 2017)