A Brief History of Congregationalism

©1998 Phillip A. Ross
Renewal is often the rekindling of a former glory, and the former success of Congregationalism was indeed great. Yet, history does not travel backwards.

The majority of contemporary Congregational church members are not from Congregational backgrounds. Even so, most Congregationalists themselves do not know about the long struggles that mark the history of Congregationalism. Therefore, I will attempt to briefly point out some important markers in the landscape of Congregational history. Ours is a long history, and quite significant in the development of the modern church. Consequently, Congregationalists must receive both credit and blame for much in the contemporary Christian situation.

We will begin our tour of history in the modern era with the New England Puritans and the development of the Westminster Confession of Faith, adopted by an act of the English Parliament in the 1640s under Charles I.

“What does that have to do with us?” you might ask.


“Whatever associations the word ‘Congregational’ may have in the modern church, Congregationalism was once regarded as the most radically Calvinistic wing of English Puritanism.” (All subsequent quotes, unless otherwise noted are from The Cambridge Platform: A New Edition of the Historic Puritan Congregational Church Order, by Darrell Todd Maurina, Editor, 1994) In other words, Congregationalists took Calvinism very seriously.

Here we find our first difficulty because many modern members of Congregational churches don’t even know what Calvinism is. And if they do, they most likely have a second hand understanding of the so-called “five points” of Calvinism. Allow me to review.

James Arminius challenged the basic tenets of Calvin in the 1600s. The Synod of Dort was called to settle the differences between Arminius and Calvin. The defenders of Arminius presented the Arminian position by way of five main points. The Calvinists argued against those points, winning the decision of Dort and establishing the five points of Calvinism.

The traditional five points of Calvinism were developed in response to Calvin’s enemies in order to refute them. While true and foundational to Calvin’s understanding of Scripture, the five points alone strip the life out of his biblical understanding and set up a kind of straw man that can be more easily attacked.

Calvinists themselves found it necessary to school themselves on the five points in order defend their position. Over time, Calvin became known for these ‘five points’, which he himself did not articulate as they are commonly described. None of the five points were unique to Calvin’s teaching, but are found throughout the Bible and the biblical teachings of the Third Century Church Father, Augustine.

But before you begin to think that Congregationalists were radical because of their Calvinistic theology, you must realize that the vast majority of Protestant churches in existence at the time were Calvinistic. It was not Calvin’s theology that set the Congregationalists apart, it was their radically consistent application of Scripture to church government—polity. Congregationalists were convinced that churches should be organized and governed by the dictates of Scripture alone.

Congregationalists did not organize and govern their churches on the basis of Calvin, but upon Scripture. They merely cited Calvin to substantiate their case, as did the Presbyterians and early Baptists. Neither did they conform their biblical understanding to Calvinism. It was never Calvin first and the Bible second. Rather, they found Calvin to be in harmony with fundamental biblical truth. Only then did they adopt him.

Although Congregationalists agreed with the theology of the Westminster Confession, they took exception to its Presbyterian polity. The Westminster Confession sought to establish regional churches in presbyteries, composed of representatives from several churches in a given region. The presbytery, then, had the authority to dictate policy and procedures to local fellowships.

The Congregationalists, while always willing to gather in regional associations, did not believe that the Bible gave any such authority to regional associations or presbyteries. Rather, they found the Bible to put all of its authority in the local church itself.

They believed there was no higher biblical authority than the local church, and based their belief on the total depravity of man. Sinful men would always sin and abuse power. They found that the Bible itself limited the power of the church to its local expression. Biblical elders and deacons never had jurisdiction beyond the confines of the local church. Congregationalists have always been cooperative, but leery of authority because of the sinful tendency to abuse it.

“A number of Congregationalists had been members of the Westminster Assembly, but had not been successful in preventing the inclusion of the hierarchical system of Presbyterianism expressed in Chapters 30 and 31 of the Westminster Confession” (p. iii). At the time the American colonies were part of the Church of England. So, the Westminster Confession found its way to America. But the colonists, leery of the abuse of power that they had suffered at the hands of the Bishops of the Church of England, resisted its simple adoption.

“In May of 1646, a group of Massachusetts ministers asked the Massachusetts General Court (the colonial legislature) to call a special synod of the Congregational churches throughout New England for September 1646 to debate a number of questions which were troubling the Congregational churches regarding baptism and church membership” (p. iii). Congregational churches insisted that those seeking church membership make public profession of their faith (which usually involved an oral statement of repentance from sin and declaration of conversion), and that only children of regenerate, participating members could be baptized.

Of course, it must be remembered that at the time only Congregational church members were permitted to vote in civil elections. The historical momentum to separate voting privileges from church membership led to a corresponding effort within the church to ease the requirements for church membership. Many people “insisted that as English citizens they had the right to have their children baptized by the local church in their area regardless of whether they were willing to make a public profession of faith or join the church” (p. iii).

Williston Walker, a prominent Congregational historian, “and other historians have generally judged that their primary reason for supporting Presbyterianism was that they could in this way gain civil voting rights” (p. iii). Civil and secular concerns began to shape church polity.

The process of separating the civil government from the church, involved a breaking of the comprehensive theology and discipline of the church. To provide voting rights for more people, the requirements for church membership were eased. The result was that the emerging needs of civil government were gained at the expense of the integrity of Congregational church membership.

To correct the erosion of church polity and to demonstrate general agreement with the theology of the Westminster Confession, the Congregational Synod of Massachusetts adopted the celebrated Cambridge Platform in 1647. “While one with the Presbyterians on matters of Calvinist doctrine and also one with them on their Reformed view that the Bible alone should determine principles of church government, the Congregationalists differed from the Presbyterians primarily on questions of what the Bible teaches about church polity” (p. iv).

While Presbyterians placed church power in the hands of elected elders in Presbyteries, the Congregationalists divided church power between local elders and their congregations. The elders governed the church, but the congregation could veto their decisions if they thought it necessary. Likewise, the Congregational elders could veto decisions made by the voting congregation.

As an aside, “at a later date Baptist pastors in the London area followed the lead of the English Congregationalists and produced their own revision of the Westminster Confession” (p .v), known as the Baptist Confession of 1689. The Baptist Confession, the leading document related to the founding of the Baptists in America, is nearly identical in doctrine to the Westminster Confession, and similar to the polity of the Cambridge Platform.

“The return of the monarchy in 1660 practically destroyed organized Puritanism in England in both its Presbyterian and Congregational forms. Those ministers who would not conform to the rituals and polity of the Church of England were ejected from their pulpits and placed under severe restrictions. Presbyterian pastors, banned from meeting in Presbyteries, were forced into practical Congregationalism. Within a generation, the remaining differences had declined to the point that a merger between the two groups was attempted in 1691. By that time, the Presbyterians were willing to abandon hierarchical synodicalism and the Congregationalists were willing to adopt the unobjectionable parts of the Westminster Confession. This union was eventually disrupted due to the liberalizing tendencies and eventual lapse into Unitarianism of most English Presbyterians—in England itself, unlike New England, the Congregationalists became known as ‘hyper-Calvinists’ while the Presbyterians began to deny the Trinity” (p. v).

Only when we understand that the liberal arguments and perspectives that cause so much struggle in the churches today (1997) are not new, but in fact very old, do we begin to appreciate history. Liberalism is not a modern disease, but an ancient disease in modern disguise. All of its arguments have been addressed and refuted before—much more eloquently than the meager attempts in the modern age. Ignorance of history is one of Satan’s most effective weapons.

While one faction of church historians do indeed argue in favor of man-made traditions (Roman Catholics), others emphasize historical study to keep the church from repeating its mistakes (Reformed and Evangelical churches). Satan keeps bringing the same old, tired arguments to the table, but camouflages them with new jargon.

At about the same time the Cambridge Platform was developed in Massachusetts, a group of Congregationalists met in England with similar concerns. Meeting in the Savoy Castle, they addressed the same concerns by adopting the Westminster Confession, except sections 30 and 31, which they changed to reflect their commitment to Congregational polity. They wrote the famous Savoy Declaration. The Savoy Declaration is a distinction of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC).

Some of the changes the Savoy Declaration made to the Westminster Confession declare that “there are no officers over the whole body, and that officers in one church do not have the indiscriminate right to exercise their office in other churches” (p. vi). Congregationalists do not believe that Scripture mandates regional bishops. “Pastors may not intrude upon other churches to preach, exercise discipline, or administer sacraments unless so invited; elders or deacons who transfer to another congregation serve as elders or deacons in their new congregation only if duly elected to that office by their new church” (p. vi).

Congregationalists were not opposed to cooperation with other churches, nor were they opposed to synods (regional meetings). Rather, “Congregationalists held that synods were not necessary to the existence of the church but were often helpful due to sin in the church” (p. viii).

Some of the differences between the Presbyterians and Congregationalists are summarized below. Note that the Cambridge Platform and the Savoy Declaration are in agreement in the matters under discussion.

1. The Westminster Confession declared that synods have the right “ministerially to determine controversies of faith and cases of conscience.” The Cambridge Platform defined their power more narrowly as to “debate and determine” such cases. The difference is in the authority of synodical decisions.

2. The Westminster Confession declared that synods may “set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and the government of His Church.” The Cambridge Platform limited this right to “clear from the Word holy directions for the holy worship of God and good government of the church,” precisely specifying that all such directions must be taken from the Word of God.

3. Rather than “authoritatively determining” cases involving church discipline, a Congregational synod is at most “to give direction for the reformation thereof” and is not permitted “to exercise church censures in way of discipline, nor any other act of church authority or jurisdiction, beyond actions of the Jerusalem Synod (Acts 15).” In Congregationalism, synods don’t decide, they recommend, only local churches can exercise discipline.

4. The Cambridge Platform went further in its language that “the principle ground” of obeying the decisions of a synod is their agreement with the Word of God, “without which they bind not at all.”

Many Presbyterians mistakenly believe that Congregationalists don’t believe in eldership. They will be surprised to read the chapter in the Cambridge Platform, “Of Ruling Elders and Deacons”—particularly when they find “a description of ruling elders which is substantially the same as that in their own local (Presbyterian) churches.” Those who think Congregationalists hate synods and any other type of inter church cooperation or mutual discipline will find Chapter Sixteen, “Of Synods,” to be equally jarring. Chapter Fifteen, applying Matthew 18 to inter church discipline, specifying that churches have the right to call a special synod to make a decision about the orthodoxy of a church, and specifying that ‘particular churches approving and accepting of the judgment of the Synod, are to declare the sentence of non-communion respectively concerning them,’ will be especially interesting to those who believe that Congregationalism allows churches to believe anything they want and is neither capable of nor interested in church discipline” (p. ix-x).

So where did all the misunderstandings of Congregationalism come from?

In a word—liberalism. The merger mentality of the present century has mixed together a variety of types of churches under the umbrella of Congregationalism. Congregationalism has always required a regenerate balance of power in the church to function properly. That balance is both its strength and its weakness—strong when regenerate and balanced, weak when not. Its strength is its fidelity to Scripture. Yet, Congregationalism was weak in its ability to resist the historical momentum of regional powers and liberal perspectives of developing denominationalism.

Consequently, the confusion of Congregationalism is historical. For instance, “from the earliest days of Congregationalism, there have two views of the authority of elders in the local church. One view, commonly known as Barrowism, held that rule was placed by Christ in the elders. A second view, commonly known as Brownism, taught that the members themselves exercised primary church rule.” At issue was not final authority, but the governance of the church. Did the Elders rule with congregational approval? Or did the congregation govern itself? What is the role of leadership in the church? What is the proper relationship between the governors (officers, elders, deacons) and the governed (other members)?

“For the first 150 years of Congregationalism, most Congregationalists defined their polity as the view that Christ placed ruling authority, not in a Pope (Roman Catholicism), not in the bishops (Episcopalianism), not in a presbytery (Presbyterianism), not in civil government (Erastianism), but in the elders of the local church” (p. x). The difference between Congregationalism and Presbyterianism of that time pertained primarily to the authority of the Presbytery.

The issue of church government comes to a head when elders abuse their authority. What recourse does Congregationalism provide in such a case? Catholics can appeal to the Pope, Episcopalians to the bishops, Presbyterians to the presbytery, but Congregationalist can appeal only to the local congregation. “The system adopted by the Cambridge Platform prescribed that in ordinary situations no church act could be completed without the consent of both the congregation and the elders.” This provided a ‘veto’ of sorts for both the elders and the congregation.

In actual practice, consent was given to the elders by the silence of the congregation. Most of the time the congregation acted only to ratify the decisions of the elders. Recommendations and suggestions could be made to the elders at congregational meetings, but usually the congregation waited for the elders to come back with a specific proposal for them to ratify. This protected the church from the enthusiasm of quick or rash actions.

Over time Congregationalists developed a high view of ruling elders. In fact, they set qualifications so high that it was difficult to find any applicants. Many churches ended up with only one ruling elder, some had none. As the number of elders diminished in Congregational churches, the importance of their function in the life of the church also dissipated. This unfortunate turn of circumstances provided a kind of ‘fall’ from the strength of Congregationalism as it was originally conceived.

Some Congregationalists then began to argue for not having elders at all. Having eliminated elder rule altogether, other Congregational churches developed a Deacon/Trustee form of government. Before long, the boards of deacons began to take on many of the former spiritual roles of the elders. “The boards of trustees—originally a civil office to control the meeting house and handle financial administration—increasingly assumed the functions of a diaconate” (p. xi).

“But the prominent Puritan pastor, Cotton Mather, warned that the elimination of ruling elders would result in either the evil of rule by democratic congregational meetings or the evil rule by dictatorial pastors” (p. xi).

By the late 1700s Mather’s prediction bore fruit. In many Baptist and Congregational churches, ruling elders almost entirely died out. In many cases, still today it can be observed that many Baptist (fundamentalist or independent) churches have dictatorial powers delegated to the pastors, and many Congregational churches are ruled by the whims of democratic all-church meetings.

Contrary to popular opinion, historic Congregationalism did not encourage or support democratic governance of the church. Rather, historic Congregationalism supported elder rule with congregational veto, a balance of power between the rulers and the ruled.

The 1801 Plan of Union, an agreement between Congregational and Presbyterian churches to do joint missions in the Old Northwest Territory of the Great Lakes, again brought Congregationalists and Presbyterians together into what some called “Presbygational” church polity. While these churches were generally more tolerant about the inner workings of local church government, they reintroduced elder rule into Congregationalism—which, in turn, set an anti-elder faction into motion.

“The Congregational historians Henry Martyn Dexter and Williston Walker conducted something of an anti-elder campaign in periodicals and church history books, arguing that the Cambridge Platform had erred in its view of elders and that the turn to pure democracy was an improvement” (p. xii). That “improvement” encouraged and strengthened the modern liberalism that is so prevalent today among Congregational churches (and others).

In the years following 1865 (the end of the Civil War), a series of mergers with a number of denominations brought churches of widely differing backgrounds into Congregationalism. The result being that “among modern conservative Congregational churches, it can accurately be said that ‘Congregationalism,’ as a term, is not used to describe a form of local church government; it is used to describe a method of inter church relations” (p. xii).

Today congregationally governed churches include all churches that have an independent polity, churches that do not answer to a higher ecclesiastical authority. But not all independent churches are Congregational churches. Rather, Congregational churches today, while maintaining a fierce independence, cooperate with other like-minded churches for mission, education, and advice. The key factor is that their cooperation is of a non-binding type.

Congregational churches seek fellowship with other churches, but shun the lordship of one church or one body over another. Rather, Congregationalists believe that all born again Christians can be equally guided by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. However, for the sake of church government, more mature Christians are elected to rule, yet their decisions are subject to ratification by the ruled.

The key to making Congregational churches function correctly (as God intends His churches to function) requires that each church member be a born again, believing, and Spirit-guided Christian. Where members fall short of this high calling, Congregational churches fail to function according to the biblical model. Confusion, dissension, and fruitlessness often result.

Successful Congregational churches (unified in truth and Spirit) maintain a high view of Scripture (God’s Word is infallible and sufficient), a high view of worship (not high liturgy, but worship in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit), a high view of the church (active participation in the life of the church), and a high view of calling to personal discipleship.

(See also: Arminianism vs. Calvinism.)

Congregational Polity

“Congregationalist polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of church governance in which every local congregation is independent. The Anabaptist movement, Baptists and others besides the Congregational churches are organized according to it. In Christianity, it is distinguished from presbyterian polity, which is governance by a structure of democratically-elected representative bodies of clergy and lay “elders”; and from episcopal polity, which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops. Scriptural support can be found for all three forms of church polity.

Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian congregations. The principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association, some of which are Christian assemblies, by direct historical descent from the Congregational Church.…”

from Wikipedia

Note that the Wikipedia article fails to mention any theological issues, or the fact that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is not a Christian church, by its own definition.

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