What is Congregationalism?
Congregationalism grew out of the Reformation in England in the 16th century. They are best known to people today as the Pilgrims and the Puritans, the people who founded Massachusetts and Connecticut. While New England still has many Congregational churches, you can find them throughout the United States particularly in the Upper Midwest and the Pacific coast.
There are three main tenets that define Congregational churches today and make them different from other denominations.
The Gathered Church
As the name implies, Congregationalists reject the notion that the church should be led by bishops or a presbytery. Instead the Congregationalists embrace the model of the gathered church. A church is not a building, but a group of believers who come together to worship God and be in fellowship with one another. What binds the congregation together is a covenant, a shared statement of purpose, that is affirmed publicly and before God.
Congregationalists proclaim that Jesus is the head of the church and invoke Jesus’s words "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20) It is important to note that the Greek word that is translated as "church" in the New Testament, ekklesia, actually means "congregation or assembly" and not church.
As a gathered church, Congregationalists recognize no authority above the local congregation. The church members have full control over their theological statements, the hiring and firing of clergy, and all of their property. This makes them different from Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and any other church that is non-congregational in its governance.
A Learned Ministry
Congregationalists have always prized highly educated clergy and encouraged Christian education for all members.
Congregationalists in America were responsible for the first high school (Boston Latin), the first college (Harvard), the first seminary (Andover), and the first law that required public education. Yale, Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Oberlin, Grinnell, and many other colleges were also founded by the Congregationalists.
While some Christians believe that anyone with a Bible can figure things out as well as anyone else, Congregationalists have always believed that we benefit from careful study of the Christian tradition, philosophy, and later science. It is a common practice for Congregational clergy to wear Geneva robes or other academic gowns to signify the importance of a learned ministry.
Freedom of Conscience
Congregationalists have long been suspect of creeds or confessional statements as a requirement for membership. Too often people who recite creeds do not fully understand them or believe every word. Moreover, every creed or confessional statement grew out of a particular moment of history, and there is no reason why they should be held up as defining orthodoxy in every time and place.
Instead of creeds, Congregationalists prefer testimonies of faith, personal statements of what people believe and how God has transformed their lives. We recognize that what we believe changes over time and that faith is a journey. Every member is encouraged to think for herself or himself and to be true to his or her own conscience.
We believe that well-intentioned people, guided by the Holy Spirit, personal experience, the Christian tradition, and in discussion with others can be trusted to find the truth of God’s presence in their lives.
The United Church of Christ
In 1957 the Congregationalists joined with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ (UCC). The merger was not done out of necessity but out of a firm belief that “they should all be one” (John 17:21). Since then the UCC has been a leading advocate of Christian ecumenism and interfaith work.