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Congregationalist polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of church governance in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or "autonomous". Among those major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism are those Congregational Churches known by the "Congregationalist" name that descended from the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century, the Baptist churches, and most of the groups brought about by the Anabaptist movement in Germany that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 18th century. More recent generations have witnessed also a growing number of non-denominational churches, which are most often congregationalist in their governance. In Christianity, congregationalism is distinguished most clearly from episcopal polity, which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops. But it is also distinct from presbyterian polity, in which higher assemblies of congregational representatives can exercise considerable authority over individual congregations.
Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian congregations; the principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Canadian Unitarian Council. Jewish synagogues and most Islamic mosques in the U.S. operate under congregational government, with no hierarchies.
The term "congregationalist polity" describes a form of church governance that is based on the local congregation. Each local congregation is independent and self-supporting, governed by its own members.:49 Some band into loose voluntary associations with other congregations that share similar beliefs (e.g., the Willow Creek Association).:49 Others join "conventions", such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention or the American Baptist Churches USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention).:49 These conventions generally provide stronger ties between congregations, including some doctrinal direction and pooling of financial resources.:49 Congregations that belong to associations and conventions are still independently governed.:49 Most non-denominational churches are organized along congregationalist lines.:49 Many do not see these voluntary associations as "denominations", because they "believe that there is no church other than the local church, and denominations are in variance to Scripture.":49
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The earmarks of Congregationalism can be traced back to the Pilgrim societies of the United States in the early 17th century. Congregationalism expressed the viewpoint that (1) every local church is a full realization in miniature of the entire Church of Jesus Christ; and (2) the Church, while on earth, besides the local church, can only be invisible and ideal. While other theories may insist on the truth of the former, the latter precept of congregationalism gives the entire theory a unique character among plans of church government. There is no other reference than the local congregation for the "visible church" in Congregationalism. And yet, the connection of all Christians is also asserted, albeit in a way that defenders of this view usually decline, often intentionally, to elaborate more clearly or consistently. This first, foundational principle by which congregationalism is guided results in confining it to operate with the consent of each gathering of believers.
Although "congregational rule" may seem to suggest that pure democracy reigns in congregational churches, this is seldom the case. It is granted, with few exceptions (namely in some Anabaptist churches), that God has given the government of the Church into the hands of an ordained ministry. What makes congregationalism unique is its system of checks and balances, which constrains the authority of the minister, the lay officers, and the members.
Most importantly, the boundaries of the powers of the ministers and church officers are set by clear and constant reminders of the freedoms guaranteed by the Gospel to the laity, collectively and individually. With that freedom comes the responsibility upon each member to govern himself or herself under Christ. This requires lay people to exercise great charity and patience in debating issues with one another and to seek the glory and service of God as the foremost consideration in all of their decisions.
The authority of all of the people, including the officers, is limited in the local congregation by a definition of union, or a covenant, by which the terms of their cooperation together are spelled out and agreed to. This might be something as minimal as a charter specifying a handful of doctrines and behavioral expectations, or even a statement only guaranteeing specific freedoms. Or, it may be a constitution describing a comprehensive doctrinal system and specifying terms under which the local church is connected to other local churches, to which participating congregations give their assent. In congregationalism, rather uniquely, the church is understood to be a truly voluntary association.
Finally, the congregational theory strictly forbids ministers from ruling their local churches by themselves. Not only does the minister serve by the approval of the congregation, but committees further constrain the pastor from exercising power without consent by either the particular committee, or the entire congregation. It is a contradiction of the congregational principle if a minister makes decisions concerning the congregation without the vote of these other officers.
The other officers may be called "deacons", "elders" or "session" (borrowing Presbyterian terminology), or even "vestry" (borrowing the Anglican term) — it is not their label that is important to the theory, but rather their lay status and their equal vote, together with the pastor, in deciding the issues of the church. While other forms of church government are more likely to define "tyranny" as "the imposition of unjust rule", a congregationally governed church would more likely define tyranny as "transgression of liberty" or equivalently, "rule by one man". To a congregationalist, no abuse of authority is worse than the concentration of all decisive power in the hands of one ruling body, or one person.
Following this sentiment, congregationalism has evolved over time to include even more participation of the congregation, more kinds of lay committees to whom various tasks are apportioned, and more decisions subject to the vote of the entire membership.
One of the most notable characteristics of New England (or British)-heritage Congregationalism has been its consistent leadership role in the formation of "unions" with other churches. Such sentiments especially grew strong in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when ecumenism evolved out of a liberal, non-sectarian perspective on relations to other Christian groups that accompanied the relaxation of Calvinist stringencies held by earlier generations. The congregationalist theory of independence within a union has been a cornerstone of most ecumenical movements since the 18th century.
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Most Baptists hold that no church or ecclesiastical organization has inherent authority over a Baptist church. Churches can properly relate to each other under this polity only through voluntary cooperation, never by any sort of coercion. Furthermore, this Baptist polity calls for freedom from governmental control. Exceptions to this local form of local governance include a few churches that submit to the leadership of a body of elders, as well as the Episcopal Baptists that have an Episcopal system.
Independent Baptist churches have no formal organizational structure above the level of the local congregation. More generally among Baptists, a variety of parachurch agencies and evangelical educational institutions may be supported generously or not at all, depending entirely upon the local congregation's customs and predilections. Usually doctrinal conformity is held as a first consideration when a church makes a decision to grant or decline financial contributions to such agencies, which are legally external and separate from the congregations they serve. These practices also find currency among non-denominational fundamentalist or charismatic fellowships, many of which derive from Baptist origins, culturally if not theologically.
Most Southern Baptist and National Baptist congregations, by contrast, generally relate more closely to external groups such as mission agencies and educational institutions than do those of independent persuasion. However, they adhere to a very similar ecclesiology, refusing to permit outside control or oversight of local affairs.
Church government is congregational rather than denominational. Churches of Christ purposefully have no central headquarters, councils, or other organizational structure above the local church level.:214:103:124 Rather, the independent congregations are a network with each congregation participating at its own discretion in various means of service and fellowship with other congregations (see Sponsoring church (Churches of Christ)).:124 Churches of Christ are linked by their shared commitment to restoration principles.:106
Congregations are generally overseen by a plurality of elders (also known in some congregations as shepherds, bishops, or pastors) who are sometimes assisted in the administration of various works by deacons.:124:47,54-55 Elders are generally seen as responsible for the spiritual welfare of the congregation, while deacons are seen as responsible for the non-spiritual needs of the church.:531 Deacons serve under the supervision of the elders, and are often assigned to direct specific ministries.:531 Successful service as a deacon is often seen as preparation for the eldership.:531 Elders and deacons are appointed by the congregation based on the qualifications found in Timothy 3 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1.:53,48-52:323,335 Congregations look for elders who have a mature enough understanding of scripture to enable them to supervise the minister and to teach, as well as to perform "governance" functions.:298 In lieu of willing men who meet these qualifications, congregations are sometimes overseen by the congregation's men in general.
While the early Restoration Movement had a tradition of itinerant preachers rather than "located Preachers", during the 20th century a long-term, formally trained congregational minister became the norm among Churches of Christ.:532 Ministers are understood to serve under the oversight of the elders.:298 While the presence of a long-term professional minister has sometimes created "significant de facto ministerial authority" and led to conflict between the minister and the elders, the eldership has remained the "ultimate locus of authority in the congregation".:531
Churches of Christ hold to the priesthood of all believers. No special titles are used for preachers or ministers that would identify them as "clergy".:106:112-113 Churches of Christ emphasize that there is no distinction between "clergy" and "laity" and that every member has a gift and a role to play in accomplishing the work of the church.:38-40