On Congregationalism: Congregationalism Defined.Posted: January 18, 2012
What is congregationalism?
Congregational churches believe that Jesus Christ governs his church through the members of a local congregation. More specifically, all congregational churches share two basic features that distinguish them from all other churches.
First, congregational churches are governed by the local congregation. They are subject to no other ecclesiastical authority. If they happen to be part of a denomination, it is because the local church has chosen to be part of that particular denomination. If the church decides to leave that denomination, it can and does. But the salient point here is that congregational churches are governed locally by the local congregation.
Second, congregational churches select their own leaders. This means congregational churches have an identifiable church leadership structure. They have pastors. They often have elders or deacons or boards. Moreover, the congregation selects these leaders themselves. No outside ecclesiastical body selects these leaders for the church. The congregation selects its own leaders themselves.
This is very different from other models of church governance.
The non-governmental model is similar to congregationalism in that the church is governed locally. But unlike the non-governmental model, congregationalism has a clearly identifiable leadership structure. In congregationalism, church decisions are not always made by all of the church’s attendees. Instead, leaders are selected and empowered to make decisions for the church.
The presbyterian model is similar to congregationalism in that the church has an identifiable leadership structure. Each local church has a pastor and elders who may be selected locally. But each local church also belongs to a larger governing body of churches called the Presbytery. And those Presbyteries (groups of Presbyterian churches) make up a larger governing body of called the Synod. And those Synods make a larger governing body called the General Assembly.
The important point here is that in the presbyterian model, local churches do not govern themselves. They are part of a governance structure that goes from the General Assembly to the Synod to the Presbytery to the local church. And the authority goes from the top down.
Congregationalism is unique among the church governing models. Only congregational churches have these two features: local governance and identifiable leaders whom the congregation selects.