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Some Guiding Principles of Congregationalism
Congregational Churches are distinguished from other Churches in these respects:
1. The organization of the local, state and national church.
2. The church's position concerning the development of personal faith.
3. The church's position concerning the development and articulation of personal conduct.
4. The means by which church unity may be achieved.
1. THE ORGANIZATION OF THE LOCAL, STATE AND NATIONAL CHURCH.
Congregationalism is democracy in religion. The name congregational implies that the congregation, a company of believers under the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, is the final authority in all matters relating to the organization of the church. Each individual church, through the actions of its members, calls its own minister, plans its own programs, regulates its own finances, determines its own policies, and holds title to all its own properties.
In Congregationalism there are no superintendents, bishops, synods, or presbyteries with authority to establish programs or policies for the local church. No council of churches, nor other organizations can speak for the local church, nor claim that their statements represent the opinions of the members. No mandatory assessments or quotas can be placed on the local church by an outside authority.
Every member of a Congregational Church has equal voice with every other member of the church. Every church has equal voice with every other church in any association of churches. This principle has resulted in a conscientious and progressive ministerial leadership, and a responsible membership without compromising the advantages of local autonomy.
Congregationalists believe that this form of church organization, more than any other, is particularly capable of adjusting and adapting to the spiritual needs of those individuals who are seeking to live the Christian life.
2. THE CHURCH'S POSITION CONCERNING THE DEVELOPMENT OF PERSONAL FAITH
Congregationalists believe in the right of each member to hold their own personal faith in an open, tolerant relationship, respecting the faith of others. Members are encouraged to share their faith, concerns, and ideals in an atmosphere which fosters the exchange of differing view-points for the purpose of encouraging spiritual growth and understanding.
The basis of membership in a Congregational Church is a covenant (a statement of purpose), rather than a creed. What is important is not what we promise to believe, but what we promise, with God's help, to do. We covenant together to walk in the ways of God, known or to be made known to us. Each member of a Congregational Church has the undisturbed right to follow the Word of God according to the dictates of her or his own conscience under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, each member of the church is encouraged to formulate his or her own statement of faith.
To assist in the formation of personal faith, the church may produce a statement of faith which gives a general overview of the teachings of the Christian faith, but which is not binding on the members of the church. No member is ever told what they must believe in order to be an acceptable church member. It is counter-productive to force on the individual an ancient and unchanging statement of faith because this would have the tendency to stifle the search for more light and truth which can break forth from God's Word.
Individuals are welcomed as members whose purpose it is to live a Christian life as that life is understood by faith, conscience, and reason. This means that a Congregational Church provides a place for people of differing views to happily worship and work together with an intelligent desire to learn and know the truth.
3. THE CHURCH'S POSITION CONCERNING THE DEVELOPMENT AND ARTICULATION OF PERSONAL CONDUCT
The basic principle of freedom of conscience determines the attitude of the Congregational Church towards the conduct of the members. Conduct is understood as the working out in life of the Christian principles of love for God, for one's self, and for the neighbor/enemy. There is no book of discipline. There is no attempt to dictate or control the conduct of the members of the church. The conscience, influenced and empowered by the Holy Spirit, is the individual's guide to conduct. It is held that those who become members of the church are desirous of developing and maintaining high moral and ethical standards. This position lifts the whole matter of Christian conduct out of the realm of dogmatic assertions and emotional controversy.
Neither the pastor nor the congregation is authorized to speak on behalf of the membership of the church. The prudent pastor may hold and publish a personal position, speaking only for him or herself. The wise congregation realizes the diversity of opinions and positions of the membership and does not seek to force an issue on the whole of God's people.
Individuals are encouraged to become involved in social issues in a way that reflects their own personal faith and position. The discussion of various, even conflicting, points of view becomes the means of working together in a common search for understanding and possible solutions to the social problems confronting the church and society.
4. THE MEANS BY WHICH CHURCH UNITY MAY BE ACHIEVED
Congregationalism seeks Christian unity by voluntary cooperation, and the practice of neighborly love and persuasion, rather than by the methods of organic, theological, ritualistic, or creedal uniformity. Spiritual unity of all churches is sought through a free fellowship, with mutual respect, and sharing of faith, ideas, and work wherever this is possible. Congregationalists participate in and encourage local, state, national, and world associations of churches so long as such participation does not compromise the integrity of the local, free, autonomous church.
A Congregational Church is democracy in religion. A place is provided by the membership where the sharing of personal faith, beliefs, ideals, and concerns is made possible. This is done within the recognition of the individual's right to freedom of thought and conduct.
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