'The Principles of the Congregational Independents'
prepared by the committee of
A hundred years ago there were over 4,000 Congregational Churches in England and Wales. Now there are not many more than 500. And even those that remain may be described on the notice-board outside their buildings in various ways:- Independent Chapel, Free Church, Mission, Evangelical Congregational Church and so on.
And not all who worship in these buildings are ready to admit that they are Congregationalists. Even a Church Secretary has been heard to remark: “Of course, I am not a Congregationalist.” Yet he would be a member of a church outside whose building the notice-board read 'Congregational Church'.
How has this sad and confused situation arisen? So far as the names are concerned, this is largely due to the long and varied history of churches of the Congregational denomination. All Congregational Churches are 'Independent' - this was the name more commonly used in earlier years: the terms 'chapel' or 'meeting house' were used to indicate that 'church' meant people rather than a building. All Congregational Churches are 'Free Churches', in the sense of not being under the authority of the State. All the old Congregational Churches were 'evangelical', in their submission to the authority of Scripture, in their dependence on the grace of God, and in their determination to 'hold forth the word of life' to a perishing world.
But what of their sad decline and of the reluctance even of officers to acknowledge their Congregationalism? To this we shall return later. First, we consider the ways in which the Church of Christ orders itself, and make a brief review of the Congregational story.
The Ordering of the Church
All Christians must acknowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ is Head of the Church but, historically, there have been three kinds of church order, or ways in which the Church expresses that Headship and manages its affairs. These can be described as Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Independent.
The episcopal system of church government recognizes a bishop who can be said to rule as a 'monarch' within the denomination. The Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox Churches are examples of this.
In the presbyterian system, the denomination is governed by 'presbyters' or appointed leaders meeting in a 'synod' or 'conference' drawn from many congregations. With certain modifications, the Church of Scotland, the Elim Church, the United Reformed Church, and the Methodist Church are examples of this.
In Independency, it is held that each local church has 'congregated' under the Headship of Christ alone and is, therefore, independent of all or any external human control, whether this be of the State or of any other church (or group of churches or church representatives). The Assemblies of God, the Baptist Churches, the Churches of a Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, are examples of this system of church order. Congregational Churches are independent.
Congregationalists are the descendants of the first Free Church martyrs in England. In the early days of the Reformation, the 'official' Church (and therefore the State) frowned upon any dissent from its authority. But there were those who longed for far deeper reforms than the 'established' church would permit. Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood, and John Penry, all graduates of Cambridge, would not be silenced and were placed in the Fleet Prison, now the site of the Congregational Memorial Hall in London. From thence they were taken to be hanged at Tyburn in April and May, 1593. Their story and that of the many other separatists of Elizabeth's reign reminds us forcibly of the churches in Eastern Europe today. They were pioneers of gospel witness from the dock, openly confessing their faith in the full knowledge that it meant imprisonment and suffering. Indeed, Dr Peel, the Congregational historian, suggested that four hundred years ago, 'the largest Congregational churches were those which met in London prisons'.
The Independents were the acknowledged founders of the United States. The Visitors' Book in the parish church of the little village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire is filled with the names of American visitors to the home of William Brewster, leader of the Pilgrim Fathers. Oliver Cromwell was an Independent and the army which rid the England of his day from the curse of arbitrary despotism was very largely an army of Independents. His government, in days of extraordinary success and influence, was a pioneer and model of toleration and administrative efficiency. Judged as one of the finest generals in the history of war, yet his supreme concerns were the worship and service of God and the spreading of the Gospel. His Congregationalist contemporary, John Owen, Vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, ranks as one of the greatest theologians England has produced.
With the death of Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy, there came in 1662 the Act of Uniformity compelling all ministers in the Church of England to assent to the 39 Articles of Religion and conform to the Prayer Book services. Nearly 2,000 ministers refused and were ejected from their livings. Many were Presbyterian but others became ministers to the number of Congregational Churches whose formal beginning dates from that time.
In the development of worship, it was the Congregationalist, Isaac Watts, who established modern hymnology. Many consider him a finer writer of hymns than even Charles Wesley, whose prolific and poetic output makes him Watts' only possible competitor. Watts delivered the congregation from the exclusive use of the psalter, sung all too often in the forced rhymes and rhythms of the metrical psalms. Philip Doddridge, Watts' younger contemporary, was preacher, pastor, educationalist, theologian and himself a hymn-writer. High academic standards owe much to the dissenting academies at a time when the ancient universities, closed to the Non-conformist, were often hardly worthy of the name of educational establishments. In this sphere the contribution of Doddridge at his Northampton Academy was outstanding.
Later, when God blessed with revival in the Evangelical Awakening in the days of Whitefield and the Wesleys, in the main, after initial hesitation, the Independents were ready to receive and reap a blessing.
The closing decade of the eighteenth century opened the era of modern missionary enterprise. The Congregationalists of the London Missionary Society, founded only three years after the Baptist Society of Carey, provided an astonishing array of pioneers. They included Van-der-Kemp among the Kaffirs, Robert Moffat to Bechuanaland, his famous son-in-law David Livingstone to central Africa, Robert Morrison and Griffith John to China, and John Williams to the South Seas. These were worthy successors of the Congregational missionary pioneer, John Eliot of Nazeing, who joined the Pilgrim Fathers in America in 1631. He has been called the 'Father of Modem Missions' and was the first to translate the Scriptures into a heathen tongue for the purpose of missionary work.
At home the nineteenth century was the period of the exploding population that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Moved by a passion for souls the Congregationalists of those days produced evangelists and preachers determined to search out 'every creature' and bring them the Gospel. This earnest zeal resulted in the planting of very many churches in the expanding cities and industrial towns and in the least significant villages of the countryside. They were home mission pioneers to countless places.
This concern to spread the news of salvation brought the county unions and associations into being. The Independents, who had always recognized their family identity, could not in isolation achieve their aims. Without compromising their local independency they co-operated to act effectively in a mission to 'darkest Britain'.
Even in the twentieth century Congregationalists can claim in Lionel Fletcher one of the greatest evangelists this country has ever known. Although he itinerated widely his supreme gift was in pastoral evangelism. The churches in which he ministered became the largest Congregational Churches - in Australia, his native land: in New Zealand: and, most outstandingly, in Britain. His robust soul-winning proclamation filled the three thousand seats of Wood Street Congregational Church, Cardiff, and services often began half-an-hour early when every seat was taken. His books 'Mighty Moments' and 'After Conversion - What?' deserve to be reprinted for the edification of the present generation.
These, then, are the Congregationalists. They are Christians who believe that each church is 'independent' of external control. They disallow the authority of the State to dictate how they should worship or serve God. They do not acknowledge the right of any other church (or group of churches or church representatives) to intervene in their affairs. They are 'congregational' because every believing and covenanted member of the local church has a part in the government of his own church. They differ from Baptists because they baptize infants as well as believers. Their essential witness is to the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ in the life of each local congregation.
Any modern Congregational church-member who denies he is a Congregationalist (though by definition and practice he is one!) may well have a misconception of the meaning of the word 'Congregational'. Or he may be unaware of the glorious heritage which is his. Or, as likely as for any other reason, he may have been ashamed of what the term 'Congregational' had come to convey to the evangelical Christian. To so many, the term denoted a denomination that had denied the truth of the Bible and lost the cutting edge of the Gospel.
None of the major denominations passed unscathed through the theological tribulation that spread from Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century. In due course it engulfed virtually the whole Christian world. Known variously as 'modernism' or 'liberalism', the 'social gospel' was one of its facets. Gradually the colleges of the Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians succumbed. The ministerial products of these colleges used the pulpit to introduce the 'new theology' to the pew. In truth it was no more than a fresh manifestation of the age-old devil of humanism and unbelief. Spurgeon's great and fruitful ministry was almost certainly shortened by the strain of the warfare in those days of the 'Downgrade Controversy'. At least, his own Pastors' College preserved for many years an evangelical influence among the Baptists, particularly of the South-east. The Anglicans, too, never completely lost evangelical centres for the training of their ministers.
There was nothing new in all this. The heyday of 17th century Puritanism had given way to a period of spiritual decline. At that time the theological apostasy was known as 'Deism'. Virtually the whole of the great Presbyterian denomination and the General Baptists turned Unitarian. ('English' Presbyterians of the 19th/20th centuries were the product of 'invaders' from north of the Border!) But, for the most part, at that earlier period of declension, the old Independents stood firm. When the foundations were shaken around them they held fast to the rock of Holy Scripture. Some argue that even when the preacher strayed the congregation sang the great gospel truths in Watts' hymns and remained true to the 'old paths'.
Certainly many a modern Congregationalist is saddened by the way in which his more immediate predecessors drifted with the tide, but he has no more cause for shame than his contemporaries of other denominations. There were churches and ministers whose testimony was unsullied by compromise. Voices were raised in protest at the Christ-denying utterances of the theological trend-setters. If the latest Congregational hymn book was adopted they ignored the vapid rhymings introduced into it and sang Watts and Wesley and Newton and Cowper. But they became voices crying in the wilderness. They were dismissed as theological illiterates or publicly derided in the assemblies of their denomination.
It is not easy to swim against the tide. Such men may not have walked the corridors of the increasing power of the denominational headquarters or ascended the leading pulpits of a Congregationalism which, at an earlier date, would have rejoiced in their witness. But their successors can be thankful for their fidelity. They can work to make 'Congregational' or 'Independent' an honourable term once more. Less now than for many years do we have to bear the reproach of an apostate Congregationalism. We can and should rejoice and give thanks for a distinguished lineage.
To the Bible-believing Christian, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the supreme authority for faith and practice. If our reason for being Congregationalists is no more than the accident of upbringing or of location and not of Scriptural conviction, we are making a mockery of our claim to a Bible-based faith. Our contention is that Independency is the system of church order and government that fully accords with the example and teaching of the New Testament. There are certain aspects of Episcopalianism which accord with Biblical churchmanship. These are found in Congregationalism. Presbyterianism has a number of features which accord with the New Testament. These, too, are found in Congregationalism. But the most essential aspects of Congregational practice are lacking in Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. To that extent, though such bodies may be Gospel-preaching and Bible-believing, we hold that they fall short of the full-orbed and divinely-ordained plan for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr Dale, in his 'Manual of Congregational Principles', provides a logical and Biblical framework for the proposition that only a Congregational Church meets the demands of the New Testament for a true church. He begins with the exposition of two fundamental principles which we expect our readers to accept without discussion.
(1) It is the will of Christ that all those who believe in Him should be organized into churches.
(2) In every Christian church the will of Christ is the supreme authority.
It is when we reach the third principle that a great divide appears between Congregationalists and many Episcopalians and Presbyterians.
(3) It is the will of Christ that all the members of a Christian church should be believers.
Way back in the sixteenth century, Robert Browne, the pioneer of post-Reformation Congregationalism, declared that a church must consist of 'people' and must be 'pure'. This was revolutionary thinking. To Rome the church was an institution, churches were buildings. To Browne the church comprised believers, however few. He saw that not all those who had been sprinkled in infancy by a priest, but those and those alone who had a true Scriptural faith in Christ comprised His body, His Church. Only the regenerate could be members of His Church. It must be 'pure', without that mingling of the unsaved, which every parochial system infers.
The Reformers saw a clear distinction between the Visible and the Invisible Church. The Visible Church was the work of man - man baptized, man confirmed, man put on a church roll. Many have based their hope of salvation upon these alone. The Invisible Church is the work of the Holy Spirit. God has called and moved and saved and He alone knows His true Church.
Dale expounds the words of Matthew 18: 15-20 to insist that only Christians should be members of the Church. His argument can be summarized:
(a) The Church is constituted where there are even so few as two or three gathered together in the name of Jesus.
(b) The function of discipline within the community of faith must be committed exclusively to those who are believers.
(c) The power of binding and loosing implies that the members of the society are loyal to Christ.
(d) The privilege of His presence is assured to those who are His by faith.
As we look at the Church as it grew we see that it was as men and women became believers in Christ. When the letters were written to the New Testament churches we find them addressed to 'saints', which argues that they should live holy lives because of their faith in Christ. Paul's frequent note of thanksgiving stems from his confidence that his readers are rejoicing in the blessing of redemption through Jesus Christ.
The only plea that can be used against the Congregational insistence that all members must be believers is that it is difficult to distinguish wheat from tares. Once the great Roman Empire became at least nominally Christian it was felt that the conflict between Christianity and paganism was over and it was thought impossible to limit membership to the believer. When society is established upon Christian principles it is easy for people to count themselves Christian because of their habits of thought and worship and their moral code. Such people are not so readily discerned as lacking the essential touch of the Holy Spirit's regenerative work. However, because a task becomes difficult it is not to be shirked or regarded as impossible. The alternative is a so-called Christian church on its way back to paganism (a tendency often visible in Roman Catholicism), or on its way to obscurity as a moral or social improvement society (as so much of modern Protestantism). Some in the church of the 4th century accepted the theory that the Christian character of a degenerate Christian society might be preserved by restricting authority within it to a spiritual elite, a priesthood. But within a generation the priestly caste could be drawn from the ranks of the unregenerate and the last state would be worse than the first. Authority would now be absolute in the hands of those who professed Christianity but were in fact unbelievers.
Dale's fourth principle takes us to the very heart of the Congregational understanding of the nature of the Church.
(4) By the will of Christ all the members of a Christian church are directly responsible to Him for maintaining His authority in the church.
We may note here that the term 'Independent' may be used of a church that lacks essential characteristics of Congregationalism. It may be a church that is free of external control but yet surrenders rule and authority entirely to its officers. There are independent mission halls and assemblies that have none of the ministerial offices of the New Testament but are run by committees or even by individuals. This was not the way of the historic 'Independents'. They were Congregationalists, even though they often used the alternative title of Independent.
Two Biblical examples should be sufficient to demonstrate the authority of the whole congregation. First, in the election of an apostle to take the place of Judas the whole church shared (Acts 1: 15ff). Secondly, when the administration of charitable funds required special officers for the work it was, again, the whole church who elected the 'seven' (Acts 6: 2ff).
Similarly the authority to exercise church discipline is, by Matthew 18: 15-20, vested finally in the whole church. When the Corinthians needed to discipline a member guilty of gross immorality, Paul urged, not the officers alone, but the whole church to excommunicate him. The church acted to punish the offender (1 Corinthians 5: 2-8). Later Paul urges them to restore the penitent to fellowship. His appeal is again directed to the whole church (2 Corinthians 2: 5-11).
The authority and influence of the apostles was undoubtedly great. The responsibilities of elders and deacons were obviously real and important. But it is evident in reading the New Testament that the whole congregation was thoroughly involved in ordering all the life of the church.
(5) By the will of Christ every society of Christians organized for Christian worship, instruction and fellowship is a Christian church, and is independent of external control.
The Congregationalism of the New Testament churches assures their Independency. To exercise authority as a believing congregation it must necessarily be free of external control. Without Independency, Congregationalism is impossible.
The vital passage of Matthew 18 assures us that authority lies with the church even though it number but two or three. Its authority derives from the presence of Christ. To believers His authority is absolute. Their profession of faith declares their intention to seek to know His will and then to do it. However they may seek that knowledge, once it is known the decision is made. Their sources of information may be external to their company and they may hear wise counsel from others but, in the end, through the Scriptures and by the Spirit, He reveals His will and purpose to them, His people in that place. They are able to hear and to heed His voice. Since He and He alone is their Lord no external authority is required nor should be admitted.
This is precisely what we observe in the New Testament. Members of the church at Jerusalem founded the church at Antioch. When the Holy Spirit selected Paul and Barnabas for the task of initiating the world-wide mission of the church there was no reference made to Jerusalem or to the apostles. The independent action of the church at Antioch was directed by God Himself as they sought their Lord with prayer and fasting. Again, the church at Corinth, though divided and morally in error, was called upon to obey Christ its Lord in disciplining its offending brother. The Lord used Paul the apostle to awaken the Corinthians to their responsibility to Christ but the apostle did not subvert the authority Christ had entrusted to the church. He did not assume the role the Lord had reserved for Himself.
Another point must be stressed. The word 'church' is used in the New Testament either of a simple, local assembly or of the whole community of believers everywhere. Paul refers to the churches of Macedonia, the churches of Galatia, the churches throughout Syria and Cilicia. John addresses the seven churches of Asia. Never is a church acknowledged that stands between the Church universal and the church local.
All will recognize the frailty of human nature and how this may affect a local church. To some it might appear that things would be better if the churches surrendered their authority to a more spiritual and educated body! But as soon as such a surrender is made - to Synod or Council or Assembly or Bishop or Pope - the Saviour is deprived of His crown rights and unseated from His throne. That moment the local church has ceased to be a New Testament church, however expedient its action may appear. That moment the authority of God's Word has been denied.
The Church Meeting is the most characteristic of Congregational institutions. Those of the past dealt with business but in a context which made the concerns of the King of Kings preeminent. Necessary, mundane details took a secondary place. There was much praying and Bible reading and preaching. Often there was a faithful dealing with the faults and failings of fellow members. Warning and entreaty and discipline were seen as an essential part of true fellowship.
Albert Peel quoted Dr Dale as saying, 'To be at a church meeting is for me one of the chief means of grace. To know that I am surrounded by men and women who dwell in God, who have received the Holy Ghost, with whom I am to share the eternal righteousness and eternal rapture of the great life to come, this is blessedness, I breathe a Divine air.'
But how easy it is for a Church Meeting to fall away from this high standard. A clue to that decline is found in a little sentence in a pamphlet on Church Membership published by the former Congregational Union, 'Our system of Church government is democratic'. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Biblical study which was taken from Dale's Manual one peak of doctrine towers above the surrounding hillocks. At all costs the authority of Jesus Christ as Supreme Head of His church must be maintained. The problem of the modern Church Meeting is that all too often a Democratic notion has been substituted for a Theocratic principle. The rule of men is substituted for the rule of God.
The finest statement of Congregationalism is provided by the Savoy Declaration. It makes plain the nature of a true gospel church in thirty concise and comprehensive propositions. A satisfactory consideration of the Church Meeting will be greatly helped by summarizing a few of the arguments of the Declaration.
(1) Church members are properly those whom the Lord Jesus has 'called out of the world unto communion with Himself'.
(2) A church, then, consists of those who have been gathered by the preaching of the gospel.
(3) These 'saints by calling', known to each other by their confession of the faith wrought in them by the power of God, do willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ giving up themselves to the Lord and to one another by the will of God in professed subjection to the ordinance of the Gospel.
(4) Church officers (pastors, teachers, elders and deacons) are chosen and set apart by the church for their work.
(5) Admission to the church (and excommunication, or lesser discipline), is to be by the whole church and none are to be admitted to the privileges of the church without 'submission to the rule of Christ in the censures for the government of them'.
On Joining a Congregational Church
Before more is said about the Church Meeting it is well to consider how it can be ensured that applicants for church membership are, as far as can be ascertained, Christians. No Congregational Church will for long preserve its spiritual life and vitality unless members are accepted with care. This has always presented difficulties. Even when persecution makes Christian commitment hazardous there could be those added in the succession of the status-seeking Simon the Magician who 'believed and was baptized' yet was 'full of bitterness and captive to sin' (Acts 8: 9-24).
It is obviously an important function of the pastor and elders to advise the church as to the suitability of a candidate. In some churches, the pastor's recommendation alone is considered sufficient. In most, this would be supported by the testimony of others. The church may appoint one or two members to visit the candidate so that they can add their testimony to the minister's recommendation.
The prospective member's own testimony to his spiritual experience can be a great encouragement to the church and it is good if this can be given by those who visited him, but preferably by the candidate himself, either in public worship or at a weeknight meeting. Some flexibility is desirable, otherwise true but diffident believers may be excluded from the church simply because of their natural weakness. But speech is as natural as breath, and the occasion of giving public testimony to conversion may be the time when the barrier of inhibition is broken down and liberty obtained for wider usefulness and effective Christian service. How greatly, too, such costly witness may be used to the conversion of further souls!
In any church there will be problems which arise because of immature Christians, new converts and awkward sheep. But no church should ever impose conditions which turn it into a private club. The New Testament is plain. All believers are members of the Body of Christ, of the Church. A local church is bound, therefore, to accept as members all those who are Christ's redeemed people. The obligations of the new covenant relationship will be explained. If they are willing to 'submit to the rule of Christ' in the fellowship of His people the church dare not refuse them. They are required by the Lord to enter His church and submit to His authority within it. The church is required to receive them and apply Christ's authority to them.
The Church Meeting
The object of a Church Meeting should be to seek and to find the Lord in prayer, to hear His Word and receive His marching orders for advance. He promised that where two or three were met in His name, He would be present. If the Lord were indeed present in power at a Church Meeting, would there ever be any of the bickering arguments and self-assertive displays of the natural man which have sometimes shamed God's people? Would they not rather fall at His feet in repentance as Peter prostrated himself in the presence of the risen Saviour? Such an attitude would lead to the recording of more minutes like the following from a Congregational Church Meeting of 1880:
'The whole of the discussion - amidst considerable diversity of sentiment and great warmth of feeling was marked by that united loyalty to the great Head of the Church which desires that He should Himself be the ruler of His people.'
The Church Meeting should be approached with awe and reverence as well as in loving expectancy. It is not an opportunity to express opinions but to receive orders. The nature of the meeting is such that worship is vital. Testimony to grace needed and given is as appropriate and desirable as in the old-fashioned Methodist Class-meeting. It hardly needs to be said that the discussions of a Church Meeting are confidential to the members.
The concept of a mere 'business meeting' would hardly withstand the impact of a service of true worship and devotion, praise and testimony. It is a family occasion. Warning and entreaty can be given in love where the public profession of members is thought to fall short of what glorifies God. The young in years and spiritual experience are as free to share as those who are aged and of long experience in the life of Christ.
Those who believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are intended for our generation as well as for the apostolic age will look for the exercise of such gifts. Since He distributes 'severally as He wills', the gifts may be manifest through any member. Those who do not accept the continuance of the charismata cannot deny the Scriptural principle of the 'priesthood of all believers'. The Church Meeting is peculiarly appropriate for the ministry of all God's people. Here those who have covenanted together to serve the Lord in fellowship with one another meet for their mutual profit. A long business agenda or infrequency of meeting undermines the purpose of the Church Meeting.
Congregationalists recognize the 'mixed' nature of the meeting. Some members are walking closely with God. The spiritual life of others has waned. The spiritually mature and the 'babe in Christ' are meeting together. All ages are represented and the generation gap of secular society may invade the church. It is evident that these circumstances demand respect for the authority which has been vested in the leaders of the congregation by the Lord, and accepted through the willing suffrage of His people. What ever form the Church Meeting may take it is always the desire of Congregationalists to be able to say at the close:
'It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us' (Acts 15: 28).
Each local church is independent and is fully competent to order its own affairs without external interference and control but it is not intended to be in isolation from other gospel churches.
The Savoy Declaration is most insistent on the responsibility of mutual concern.
'All churches are bound to pray continually for the good or prosperity of all the churches of Christ in all places, and upon all occasions to further it. So the churches themselves (when planted by the providence of God, so as they may have opportunity and advantage of it) ought to hold communion amongst themselves for their peace, increase of love, and mutual edification'.
There follows a statement that synods or councils should meet to consider matters of concern, 'in cases of difficulties or differences', and to report back to the churches. This was to be done by the messengers of the local churches. But no authority was committed to such a council.
The 'Objects' of an Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches well express the principle of mutual aid without interference which has characterized Congregationalism through the centuries. (See Appendix). Especially has it been true that missionary endeavour at home and abroad has drawn the Congregational churches together in co-operative activity. It is a feeble and apostate Christianity which ignores the cry of the perishing. Today there are many villages in Britain deprived of a faithful gospel testimony. Many populous areas, great housing estates and large industrial towns, are evangelical deserts. The Irish Republic is a mission-field on our doorstep and 'English is spoken'. There are needs that call for mutual association that we may obey Christ's command to take the Gospel 'to every creature'.
Isolation, to a small congregation, so often spells discouragement and despair. Isolation, to a flourishing cause, easily leads to complacency and self-interest. Fellowship brings the blessing of enlarged vision, deepened concern, enriched spiritual experience and an increase in intelligent prayer. Revival fire in one place kindles fire in another.
The old Congregationalists were sure that only their church order was legitimate in the light of Scripture but that did not make them narrow in outlook or limited in association. More than any denomination they abhorred denominationalism. They joined whole-heartedly with those from whom they differed on non-essentials. They were truly catholic in their regard for all the faithful. As early as 1658 they were adamant that 'churches ought not to refuse the communion of each other though they walk not in all things according to the same rules of church order'. They accepted unhesitatingly their fellow believers, however wrong they may have judged their opinions on church government to be. Their belief that 'church' could only mean either a local congregation or the whole body of Christ preserved them from the narrowness and intolerance that would unchurch the saints of another persuasion.
The Savoy Declaration asserts that the 'officers appointed by Christ to be continued to the end of the world, are pastors, teachers, elders and deacons'.
The world has not yet ended (!) but the separate office of Teacher (as distinct from those known as 'Sunday School Teachers') is virtually unknown today in Congregational Churches. It was not always so. At the end of the sixteenth century the congregation of exiles in Amsterdam enjoyed the ministry of Francis Johnson as Pastor and Henry Ainsworth as Teacher.
The work of pastor and preacher is not strictly that of teacher. True, both pastor and preacher will teach in private and in public as they minister but that is not their special task. The function of the teacher is to instruct and he may serve in a local church or more widely. Perhaps the time will come when a due recognition of Ephesians 4: 11 will lead to the restoration of an office lost to Congregationalism. In present practice, the Pastor is often Pastor/Preacher/Teacher.
The titles we give to our church officers are misleading. A deacon is really one who ministers or serves. A minister is really a 'pastor' or 'shepherd', a 'presiding elder', a 'bishop/presbyter' in the local church.
In the New Testament the terms 'elder' and 'bishop' (overseer) are interchangeable. There can be no doubt about this. Ephesians 4: 11 refers to 'pastors and teachers' but not to elders or bishops. It seems clear that Paul is using an alternative description of these leaders in Ephesians, one which emphasizes their work rather than their status. This is supported by the injunction to elders 'to pastor the flock' (1 Peter 5: 2). The reference in Acts 20: 28 is, likewise, to the Ephesian elders as 'shepherds' or 'pastors'. When Paul and Barnabas appointed 'elders' or 'presbyters' in the churches which they had founded on their first missionary journey they were appointing shepherds to care for the flock.
The supreme function of elders is the rule of the church. In 1 Timothy 5: 17 Paul refers to the elders who rule well as worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and teaching. 1 Thessalonians 5: 12 requires respect for those 'who are over you in the Lord and admonish you'. Hebrews 13: 17 is stronger. 'Obey them that have the rule over you and submit to them'. The reason is that 'they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account'.
It should be apparent that godly rule must be in accordance with the Scriptures. There is a profound difference between the subservience of the cults to their leaders and the free obedience of the people of God. Christian obedience is to the Lord who has appointed His servants to minister in this respect. Their 'rule' is so to admonish that the church conforms to the pattern of the Word in doctrine and conduct. This makes them inevitably teachers of that Word and expositors of its application to the flock. It is arguable that there were elders who were not teachers. Such inference is drawn from the qualifying phrase of 1 Timothy 5: 17 'especially those who labour in the Word and in teaching'. The condition that a bishop should be an 'apt teacher' (1 Timothy 3: 2), 'able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it' (Titus 1: 9), suggests that it must be rare to appoint as elder a man who lacks such qualification.
There will always be problems associated with pastoral oversight. To admonish lovingly and to correct graciously can only be done in the love of Christ. Some judgments are hard to make and discipline not readily administered. Authority can soon be debased into authoritarianism and discipline decline into self-assertiveness. Underlying the pastoral office is the supposition that its holder has been humbled by grace and lives in conscious and deliberate submission to the Scripture of truth. Spiritual maturity implies loving and sympathetic identification with the wayward rather than the superiority of the 'knowledge that puffs up'.
Equally, it is hard for the heart of man to accept meekly God's word of reproof from the lips of a fellow sinner. It is not easy even when it is manifest that the reprover is a mouthpiece of God by the evidence of a holy and sacrificial life and the favour of God upon him. Resistance to correction and resentment at rebuke are typical of unspirituality. Who would be bold to deny that the general condition of the church of our times shows every evidence of experiencing God's judgment? Compared with the vital effectiveness of the church in other lands we are in a parlous state. Decade after decade passes without a true spiritual awakening. When the fallacy that a church is a 'democracy' is accepted this can only aggravate the modern tendency to rebel against authority and truth. The refrain that comments on the days of the Judges could likewise spell the obituary notice of many a congregation of our times. 'There was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes.'
It is difficult to exercise Scriptural discipline in an age of indiscipline and spiritual poverty. It is doubly difficult when the task falls to the lot of one man. A small church may have no one of spiritual calibre adequate to share the responsibility of godly rule with the minister. Where there are those of such calibre there needs to be a speedy return to the Congregational practice of a plurality of elders to care for the flock, as was the practice of the apostolic age.
The Status of a Minister
Too many churches have experienced ministry at the hands of ordained men lacking a true gospel faith. This has led to some suspicion of the pastorate. The mischief of an unconverted ministry is not only the evils done to a particular congregation at the time: it is also the disrepute into which the ministry may fall in the common regard of God's people. Of course it is wrong for men unsound in the faith and lacking the divine commission to be elected and called to the pastorate. The enemy of souls will make every effort to secure their acceptance by the churches of the redeemed. This, however, does not excuse the failure of congregations to accept the shepherdly guidance of those whose ordination was first by the nail-pierced hands of the Redeemer and only secondly by a local church.
When a church calls a minister to be its pastor it has done so after spending much time in prayer and in consideration of the spiritual and practical qualifications of the man concerned. They will appreciate the value of a man of learning for he should be 'a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine' (1 Timothy 4: 6), but they will not despise a man of no academic training, for they will recall that the apostles Peter and John, though regarded as 'unlearned and ignorant men' were yet heeded as those who 'had been with Jesus'. A church might receive more blessing through one who had spent much time with Jesus than one who had read many books about Him. Though obviously a combination of the two could be an improvement on either.
Another Scriptural qualification would be the fruitfulness of a man's previous service for the Lord. According to the apostle Paul, this is a better commendation than any written certificate (2 Corinthians 3: 1-3). So Timothy was bidden to 'lay hands suddenly on no man' (1 Timothy 5: 22). So Titus was urged to exercise care in the appointment of elders:
'Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless - not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to much wine, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trnstworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it' (Titus 1: 7-9 NIV).
Ordination in a Congregational Church is a recognition that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Head of the Church, has already called out and set apart a man for the ministry. The church recognizes God's grace and the gifts of His Spirit and publicly acknowledges that a man is separated to the Lord's service. It is the local church that ordains but, by invitation, brethren of other churches usually join with representatives of the local church in laying hands on the ordinand.
Dismissal of a Pastor
The Savoy Declaration refers to 'The Lord Christ having given to his called ones. . . liberty and power to choose persons fitted by the Holy Ghost. . . to be over them, and to minister to them in the Lord'. There is no reference, however, to the dismissal of those so called.
The right of dismissal must remain with the Church Meeting for it is the final authority under God for the life of the particular congregation. But such a right should be exercised rarely and with extreme care.
It would be very unwise for a church to consider dismissing a pastor just because they do not like what he has to say to them. It may be that God wants to give that church a message like that of a Jeremiah and sends them just such a prophet. If the church, having previously declared that they had recognized the Lord's call to the ministry and to the pastorate, should then find that they do not relish God's message of warning or exhortation, they would surely seek to be rid of their minister at their peril.
On the other hand, it is a tragedy when a pastor assumes, or is allowed to assume, an exclusive authority over the church's affairs contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. Even with authentic evangelical convictions, a man of high principle may alienate a congregation or so fail in certain marks of his character that he presides over a church's decline to a point where, apart from special Divine intervention, recovery is virtually impossible.
Early Congregational Trust Deeds stated that a church was free to dismiss a minister who was guilty of immorality, or who had abandoned the doctrines he had undertaken to maintain, or ceased to do the work of pastor to which he had been called.
Obviously, no minister is entitled to insist on believers' baptism only in a church that has a paedo-baptist foundation. Nor may he preach Arminianism in a church that has Calvinistic doctrines written into its Trust Deed. Modern Trust Deeds generally allow great latitude in doctrines, requiring only that they be 'according to the principles and usages for the time being held by the congregational denomination'. Most older Deeds, however, require very definite doctrines to be held and taught. If a minister fails to do so he can properly be dismissed by the church.
Finally, it should be noted that a church does not employ a minister. It releases him from the need of secular employment and undertakes properly to maintain him and his family so that he may do the Lord's work among them. He is not a servant of the church but of the Lord who directs his work and who may give him a vocation wider than the narrow interest of a particular congregation. Where there is mutual love in Christ, there will be mutual understanding and support.
The Office of Deacon
When we turn to the office of deacons we have moved into a very different category of ministry, though the identification of the offices of elder and deacon is a long-standing Congregational tradition. The 'diaconate' is considered to incorporate both elders and deacons. The failure to distinguish between the two has been a cause of much confusion and weakness among our churches. There has also often been a misunderstanding of the need for the spiritual status of the deacon. In Acts 6 we read that 'the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said:
"It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word."
We should notice the qualifications of these men, the nature of their work and the distinction between their ministry and that of the apostles.
First, they were to be men of good reputation among their fellow-believers, Spirit-filled men and wise men. The modern deacon may gain office because of his practical wisdom in matters of business. He may be skilful with figures or capable in dealing with the church buildings. Such gifts are welcome, but he may not be recognized as one of the most spiritually-minded among the brethren. Bezaleel, in Exodus 31, worked in metal and wood and fabric for the tabernacle but, because it was for the service of God, he needed to be a man filled with God's Holy Spirit. No less under the new covenant! A deacon was to be no novice. Let them be 'tested first, then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons' (1 Timothy 3: 10). To 'serve tables' deacons must still be men of prayer as ready to receive direction from God as they grapple with a leaky roof as the elders must be when tackling a leaky tongue.
Secondly, the work of a deacon is described as 'serving tables'. The context shows they were to be occupied with the relief of material needs in the New Testament church. The importance of such work is obscured by the affluence of our society. Need is still present. It may be the secret penury of a Christian wife whose unconverted husband deprives her of the very necessities of life. The work of a deacon may be to assist an elderly member through the intricate maze of the social services and their regulations. Deacons were responsible to the church for the care of the sick and the widows and the orphans. They relieved others of responsibility in the realm of the practical. At the time there were no buildings with which to be bothered. The basic principle is unchanged. The apostles were to be set free from concern over such matters.
Thirdly, there is a distinction drawn between this service and the ministry of prayer and preaching which was the supreme preoccupation of the apostles. Yet the deacons were not precluded from prayer and preaching. The longest sermon-outline in Acts follows immediately upon the appointment of the first deacons. It is a message proclaimed by the deacon, Stephen. But deacons need not be preachers or teachers. Theirs is a secondary office but it is one that demands spirituality for its exercise. It should set pastors and elders free from involvement in the practical affairs that are inseparable from the life of the Christian community.
We could stop at this point. We are considering the ministry in Congregational Churches. There are pastors and teachers, often combined in one person. All pastors are elders and, in one sense, all elders are pastors. There are also deacons. Beyond this lies the whole realm of the priesthood of all believers which Congregationalists have frequently neglected to the detriment of their spiritual life and to the reduction of their effectiveness in witness.
The church at Jerusalem, outlined at the end of Acts chapter 2, presents a picture far removed from the institutionalism that developed over the years and perhaps reached its climax in the late 19th century where a church might consist of all sorts of organizations and bodies often operating on their own. Early Congregationalists sought to recapture the community life of the church - a big and friendly family in a neighbourhood, often in each other's homes, conversing over the things of God, and praying together.
The apostle John, notwithstanding all his emphasis upon love, wrote in his third epistle, 'I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are living according to the truth.' Theology is a forbidding word, and doctrine not much better, nevertheless they are the means by which we set out the truths of our faith. Congregationalists have always been prepared to set out such truths and held a consistent position on Evangelical doctrine throughout their history until the drift into the apostasy of the last few generations.
That drift can be seen in the alterations made to the Constitution of the Congregational Union of England and Wales over this period. Until 1904 the first two Objects of the Union were:
1. To uphold and extend Evangelical religion primarily in connexion with churches of the Congregational order.
2. To promote Scriptural views of Church fellowship and organization.
In 1904, these were changed to:
1. To extend and realize the Kingdom of Christ, primarily through Churches of the Congregational Order.
2. To promote New Testament principles of Church fellowship and organization.
In 1958, much greater changes were made to:
1. To serve and bear witness to the Kingdom of God by confessing and proclaiming Almighty God as Creator, Sustainer and Father of all, Jesus Christ His Son as Lord and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as the living power of God.
2. To promote principles of church fellowship and organization that are consonant with the Gospel.
It will be noted that, first, 'Evangelical' disappears, then 'Congregational', and also 'Scriptural' or 'New Testament'. The credal statement in 1958 is extremely vague with the Holy Spirit not even warranting capital letters as the 'Living Power' of God.
Historian Albert Peel ('These Hundred Years') wrote of the stirring of opposition to Biblical authority and the truths of Evangelical religion in the 1870s and recorded a resolution debated and carried by an overwhelming majority by the Assembly of the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1878.
That in view of the uneasiness produced in the churches of the congregational order by the proceedings of the recent Conference at Leicester on the terms of Religious Communion, the Assembly feels called upon to reaffirm that the primary object of the Congregational Union is, according to the terms of its own constitution, to uphold and extend Evangelical religion. That the Assembly appeals to the history of Congregational churches generally, as evidence that Congregationalists have always regarded the acceptance of the Facts and Doctrines of the Evangelical Faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as an essential condition of Religious Communion in Congregational Churches: and that among these have always been included the Incarnation, the Atoning Sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, His Resurrection, His Ascension and Mediatorial Reign, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of men. That the Congregational Union was established on the Basis of these Facts and Doctrines is, on the judgment of the Assembly, made evident by the Declaration of Faith and Order adopted at the Annual Meeting 1833: and that the Assembly believes that the churches represented in the Union hold these Facts and Doctrines in their integrity to this day.'
It is, therefore, a modem myth that Congregationalism rejects all creeds. This myth suggests that it requires no doctrinal position to be held by its members. It exalts liberty of conscience and freedom of thought above all else, especially above doctrinal conformity.
In the series of Congregational Union pamphlets already mentioned, one writer refers to the requirements for Church Membership in this way:
'We know that in our theological interpretations we are bound to differ. Nor do we ask whether you have passed through a certain emotional experience. Our question goes deeper than theology and deeper than emotion. It goes right down to the centre. We ask: "Are you wanting to be like Christ?" If we might put it more simply still: "Are you in earnest about being good?" '
If such ideas were true this present chapter would be pointless. There would be no reason to question prospective church members about their beliefs or their experience of new birth in Christ. There would be no place for a 'Basis of Faith' of an Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches in the Appendix that follows. There would have been no statements of faith throughout the past four hundred years of Congregational history.
No Imposition of Creeds
There is, however, a faint glimmer of reason in the anti-creed myth. Congregationalism has steadfastly repudiated the imposition of creeds. In a preamble to the Savoy Declaration we read: 'Whatever is of force or constraint in matters of this nature causeth them to degenerate from the name and nature of confessions: and turns them from being Confessions of Faith, into exactions and impositions of Faith'. No one can be made a Christian by mental assent to truth. But, having become a Christian, he will know what he believes and will be able to say to a fellow-Christian: “Here are truths that we hold in common: let us declare them together in the fellowship of the Church.”'
Congregationalists have never demanded assent to a creed. They have declared their faith in a 'Confession'. These declarations have been approved by the separate and independent congregations through their representatives. This was so with the Savoy Declaration in 1658. It has also been customary for the various congregations to incorporate a statement of doctrines in their Trust Deed. The earliest statement extant was by a particular congregation in 1596. It was a defence for a church which had been suffering persecution, made jointly on behalf of those who were exiles in Amsterdam and their fellow-believers who remained in London. It was described as ‘A True Confession of the Faith (of those) falsely called Brownists - published for the clearing of ourselves from slanders of heresy, schism, disloyalty, sedition given out against us'.
When the delegates of 120 Congregational Churches met in 1658 they appointed a committee of six to draw up a Declaration. In due course this 'was agreed upon and consented unto by their Elders and Messengers in their Meeting at the Savoy'. When the Congregational Union adopted its 'Declaration of the Faith, Church Order and Discipline of the Congregational or Independent Dissenters' in 1833 it is significant that it repeated the traditional Congregational objection to the usefulness of creeds. Yet in the same breath they claimed to be: 'far more agreed in their doctrines and practices than any Church which enjoins subscription and enforces a human standard of orthodoxy: and they believe that there is no minister and no church among them that would deny the substance of anyone of the following doctrines of religion, though each might prefer to state his sentiments in his own way'.
Finally, we refer to the 'Basis of Faith' of E.F.C.C., drawn up in 1967. In the Fellowship's Constitution there is stated: 'In order that the witness of the associated churches may be clear a Statement of Scriptural principles has been drawn up to act as a "BASIS OF FELLOWSHIP". This is not a creed we seek to impose upon others, but a testimony to what we ourselves believe. The foundation of the whole Basis is an acceptance of the Divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Bible, and if any statement therein can be shown to be unscriptural it will be corrected at once.'
Evangelical and Reformed
What then are these foundational truths which are considered to belong to true Congregationalism whether we talk of 1596, 1658, 1833 or 1967? First and foremost, they were and are held to be Scriptural. Two other words would be adequate as summary. The confessions are 'EVANGELICAL' and 'REFORMED'. Unfortunately neither word has a clear meaning today. 'Evangelical' can be misunderstood to mean no more than 'evangelistic' - a general commitment to the idea of outreach. It can be so broad as to signify no more than a vague dependency on grace for salvation rather than upon 'works' or upon 'church' or 'sacraments'. 'Reformed' can mean, as in the title 'United Reformed Church', little more than a claim to historical succession from the Reformers of an earlier age.
The 'Evangelical and Reformed' faith cannot be separated from its absolute dependence upon a divinely inspired and infallible Bible as the sole authority for the teaching and practice of the Church. When the Reformers rejected the authority of Pope and priest, they did so only because they were led to see that a higher authority existed upon which alone the Church was established by Christ and by which alone it could be continued in obedience to Him.
Thus the first chapter of the Savoy Declaration is entitled 'Of the Holy Scriptures': thus the 1833 Declaration begins: 'The Scriptures of the Old Testament, as received from the Jews, and the books of the New Testament, as received by the Primitive Christians from the Evangelists and Apostles, Congregational Churches believe to be Divinely inspired, and of supreme authority': thus the first statement of EFCC Basis of Faith declares: 'THE WRITTEN WORD: God's greatness and holiness are such that, without His aid, man can neither understand God nor find the way to a right relationship with Him. In His mercy, however, God has made Himself known. He has done this, partially, through Creation, but explicitly through the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. We therefore accept all that was written in the Bible as not merely containing, but being, the inspired and infallible Word of God and the final and sufficient authority in all matters of Christian faith and life.'
As the whole E.F.C.C. Basis of Faith is set out later as an Appendix it is unnecessary to do more than draw attention to it. It is modern and concise. Compared with the 32 chapters and more of the 'Savoy', it is very brief. The two longest paragraphs deal with the Bible and with the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. The phrase 'all that was written in the Bible as not merely containing, but being, the inspired and infallible Word of God' makes obvious reference to the current issue in the church known as 'neo-orthodoxy' or 'neo-Calvinism' in which the Bible may be appealed to as a source of truth without the necessity of accepting it as a whole. Emphasis is laid on 'Substitution' in the choice of words that describe the atonement.
It may be claimed that a brief statement was sufficient to align E.F.C.C. with other contemporary evangelical societies or associations but the blurring of the lines of demarcation since 1967 has proceeded at such a pace that doubt may be raised on this point. However, it is claimed that the Basis stands in true succession to the earlier Confessions and may be read in their light.
By comparison the Savoy Declaration seems to attempt to summarize a whole library of theology. It has few differences from the earlier Westminster Confession approved by Parliament in 1642. In some paragraphs there are minor verbal changes. The Savoy omits a few clauses.
It should be remembered that both the Westminster and the Savoy belong to the period of the Commonwealth and that behind both lie the Anglican 'Articles of Religion'. The burning issues of Conformity and State relationship, of the laws of the land in the light of the laws of God, demanded treatment in a 17th century Confession whereas present-day evangelicals would regard a definition of the Scriptural teaching on such topics as Sabbath Observance, the Civil Magistrate, and Marriage as unnecessary in a Statement of Faith.
The other great debate of the 17th century was the controversy associated with the name of Arminius. Arminian teaching lays stress upon the part that man plays in the work of his salvation. The strong emphasis on 'predestination' in the Savoy and its thorough exposition of 'grace' stems from this debate. These doctrines had been firmly expounded by John Calvin. Historically, Congregational Churches have been clearly and positively Calvinistic though the intensity with which they have maintained 'Reformed' doctrine has varied. Within that theological tradition they have suffered the barrenness that results from a dead orthodoxy, and also they have known the glorious vitality that flows from a full and explicit dependence upon God, who in grace and by His Spirit quickens the dead and revives His Church.
Our present age is humanistic in its thinking and, as humanism is diametrically opposed to a God-centred, God-dependent faith, our thinking is likely to be so conditioned that we find the theology of the Puritans uncongenial. If, on the other hand, we are determined to submit to the Word of God we shall find the robust statements of the Savoy Declaration meet our need. Here is a clear exposition of the Scriptures in matters essential to the life and work of the Church as well as the life of the individual.
A belief that God has chosen His elect in Christ from the foundation of the world should not weaken but rather enthuse evangelistic endeavour. The preacher is encouraged to unshakeable confidence that God can turn the hearts of the most wayward to Him. George Whitefield is a supreme example of a man who had no doubt of man's inability to respond to the Gospel apart from grace. Yet his preaching, and that of so many who believed as he did, was with fire and with tears. There was no fatalism about their attitude to the perishing. The sovereignty of God was a comfort to their hearts and a sure ground for confidence as they prayed and as they preached.
Space does not allow the expounding of the Savoy Declaration in any detail. Readers should study it, Bible in hand. The writers thought of man as a fallen creature whose will had been brought into bondage through sin. That is not mere orthodoxy: it is a salutary reminder of our true nature. How greatly such a truth is needed when a counterfeit gospel is so widespread - the political/social counterfeit which is the religious stance typified by the World Council of Churches. The Declaration accepts the state of man as corrupt but it exalts Christ as the sinless Saviour and all-sufficient Redeemer of lost mankind. It acknowledges that we suffer the effects of depravity in every aspect of our being but it declares that in Christ God became man. Christ's eternal Godhead, His human and divine natures, His intercession and His personal return are spelt out in positive terms of unmistakeable clarity.
Is 'Congregationalism' Simply Church Order?
It may be argued that 'Congregational' is a word that should be applied only to the doctrine of the Church. Technically, that could be admitted, but to divorce Congregationalism from its history and theological tradition is to deny the mainspring of its effectiveness. Godly men became Congregational Independents because they believed the Bible to be God's Word, because they held the great reformed doctrines, the faith expressed in their Confessions. Because of their beliefs and spiritual experience they 'suffered mocking and scourging, even chains and imprisonment'. Through faith they 'conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight'. It was because of this faith that churches were planted until their number in England and Wales approached five thousand. With the waning of that faith, this century has seen the decline of that work. Those who denied the truth of God were denied the power of God. Miracles of grace ceased, churches closed. Ultimately, with the setting up of the Congregational Church in England and Wales, followed so soon by the formation of the United Reformed Church, there came the denial of the Independent churchmanship that was one of Congregationalism's chief glories.
It is not only the church order but also the faith of our forefathers that we need to cherish and propagate. They held that faith, not in a vacuum, but in the context of a fervent zeal. So through trials and tribulations God was with them and prospered their endeavours. Not just the same churchmanship, but the same faith, and the same spirituality, are needed if we, their successors, are to experience God's hand upon us for good.
The early Independents took a very poor view of liturgical worship and spoke pungently, even harshly, of 'praying with a book'. The resurgence of set forms of prayer and the extensive use of liturgy is often excused today as helping to involve the congregation more fully in worship. It is more likely to derive from a lack of spiritual life in pulpit and pew. Set forms can be used as an attempt to conceal the barrenness of the devotional land.
The form of worship which is part and parcel of Congregationalism is more demanding of the worshipper than any other, just as its Scriptural order of church government demands more of the members than other systems. It demands spirituality.
The major elements in worship are praise, prayer and preaching. There is a common practice of reading some verses from the Bible as a 'call to worship'. This can be useful. It can be significant as God directs His people to seek Him. The Bible readings are most commonly related to the subject matter of the sermon that will come later. Such reading can be accompanied by explanatory comments and thus serve the purpose of helping in the instruction of the congregation. This analysis of a service places the Bible reading within the general category of the preaching.
The worship of Congregational Churches has traditionally been marked by a serious reverence and simple joy. The cheery familiarities of some modern gospel rallies would seem strange and indecorous to our forefathers. The liveliness of a service did not depend on artificial aids. If life did not come with the worshippers as they entered God's house to meet with Him, or come with the preacher as he left God's presence with the burden of His message on his heart it could not be manufactured. There was to be no 'false fire'. Their buildings were known as 'Meeting Houses'. The worshippers came to meet with one another. And to meet with God as well.
Hymns and Spiritual Songs
The praise of the whole Church of God was transformed by the contribution of Isaac Watts to hymnody. One day at home he complained of the poetic standard of the metrical psalms and the few hymns sung at church each Lord's Day. He was challenged to do better. He did! Watts' 'Psalms and Hymns' became the vehicle for expressing the praises of Congregational Churches for more than a century. Every worthwhile hymn book, down to the very latest to be published, contains a good selection of his verse.
One of Watts' great merits was that he wrote good poetry, with the restraint on language and imagery that hymns demand. There are some, to us, quaint expressions. There is a sprinkling of uncharacteristic doggerel. More than this, however, he released worship from bondage to the psalter, and his paraphrases elevated the psalms from the level of the Old Testament to that of the New. Most important, his hymns express sound Scriptural truth and deep devotional feeling. How many of our very greatest hymns came from the pen of Isaac Watts! 'When I survey the wondrous Cross' is surely among the very finest, if not the finest, in the English language.
Churches which do not recite a Creed or repeat a 'General Thanksgiving' or a 'General Confession' need nonetheless to incorporate such aspects of worship into the service. This makes hymn singing so important. Adoration and praise are essential. Assurance and testimony are appropriate whenever we meet. Is this not indication enough that no believer is excluded from participation in a service even if his voice be no better than a raven's croak? To conduct a service with a congregation that sings as if they mean every word is an exhilarating experience. How easy then to pray publicly and preach earnestly!
There is a contemporary relevance to all this. Although language changes, and Watts and Doddridge may sometimes sound strange to the ears of modern man, yet the great truths expressed in these older hymns are still capable of touching and enriching the mental and emotional life of a 20th century congregation. The rich vocabulary of Watts or Wesley may puzzle some, but their hymns are to be preferred to the sentimental ballads of the Victorian era; and many doctrinally weak, and often poorly written, contemporary hymns. With occasional brief explanations from the Minister, younger Christians will soon come to appreciate, and delight in the hymns of Watts, Wesley, Doddridge, Newton and Cowper, and see them as, not only a means of enriching their faith, but as guides to a deeper and more profound knowledge of God.
Praying and Preaching
Public prayer is a topic that presents many Christians with difficulty. Some argue that the leading of prayer in worship should not be restricted to the preacher alone. True, it is not desirable that his should be the only voice raised in every service. On the other hand, public prayer must be audible or the congregation cannot enter into the petitions. A standard of dignity in language needs to be maintained, a standard below which free prayer is liable to fall. The pastor-preacher knows what is to come as the service continues, he is aware of the particular needs within the congregation and has taken thought over the matters in church and state which should occupy the minds of the congregation. As they are led in prayer the people must be deeply concerned to join in what is said on their behalf. They must want to confess their sins, rejoice in forgiveness, plead for the lost and cry to God for revival. Their hearts must be warmed by the thought of the riches of their spiritual inheritance in Christ and they must feel for their persecuted brethren in other lands. If they do not 'pray in their prayers' as did Elijah (James 5: 17), a deadness will creep over the whole service. If they follow closely and enter fully into the praying, the 'long prayer' of our tradition will seem all too short. It will be a most precious and blessed part of the service.
Older Independent churches all had central pulpits. This emphasized the centrality of the Word and they were designed so that every member of the congregation would be able to hear the word preached. The preaching was the culmination of worship. All that went before had been leading up to the moment when God spoke to His people by the mouth of His servant. It was not time for a few random thoughts or a sermonette. It was an occasion for the thorough, scholarly (and often lengthy) exposition of the passage under consideration. Whatever their verbosity, the old preachers were seldom guilty of superficiality in their proclamation of God's Word. It was a sign of decadence when congregations gathered to admire the rhetorical fireworks of a pulpiteer, laugh at his humorous anecdotes, or notice his political allusions.
Teaching is not the essence of this part of the service though much will be learnt. Preaching is aimed at the will through the mind and the emotions. If it is truly prophetic it will demand a verdict. Preaching is intended to proclaim the truth of God through His Word, in the power of God's Spirit and in the name of the Lord. A verdict should be demanded on the basis of truth presented, truth not given coldly but with passion. The response may be of repentance and faith. It may be thankfulness and praise. It may be obedience to the call to service. Some unpremeditated aside may have come home to the hearer's conscience fruitfully. The logic of an argument may have convinced the mind and brought response. The fervour and conviction of the preacher may have touched the heart. However God has spoken, it was His grace that moved the true response.
The preaching that is truly in the Congregational tradition will be Biblical and evangelical and serious and demanding. It will involve the whole personality of the preacher as well as his knowledge and training. Above all it will express not just a capacity for fluent speech, even true eloquence, but rather the burning heart, the passion for souls, the vibrant concern for God's will to be done on earth.
The closing hymn ought to provide opportunity for the hearer to express his response to the message preached. He will be saying in song that he has freshly surrendered his will to conform to God's will and purpose.
The Lord's Supper
The usual practice of Congregational Churches is to observe the Lord's Supper once or twice a month, generally as a brief addition to morning or evening worship. In some churches a weekly observance as part of the service of praise and preaching is appreciated as valuable. Thus the message of the sacrament becomes a culmination of all that has preceded. The general rule is that those who serve are elders or deacons. The minister or another elder presides. In the pattern of fixed pews (or of the brief remembrance after public worship), no attempt is made to sit around the communion table. By remaining in their seats the participants symbolize the normal posture for a meal. They take bread and wine individually or unitedly according to the custom of the particular church or as directed by the presiding minister. Often those who serve or others in the congregation are asked to lead in prayer. Sometimes open prayer is part of the service either before or after the distribution of the elements.
Variety in the manner of observance does not imply any serious difference of opinion concerning the meaning and significance of the Supper. First and foremost it proclaims the Gospel. The good news of saving grace is set forth visibly as broken bread and poured out wine are displayed and then taken. In the past it was sometimes described as a 'saving ordinance'. The centrality of the Cross is made plain. Whenever this most important Christian rite is celebrated, the way of salvation is shown to be Christ Himself, the Way, the Truth and the Life. It acts as a constant corrective to misrepresentations of Christianity. The communion table is a clear denial of any theory that makes religion to be a matter of good works. Such would be a religion with no room for a Cross. Nor can the idea that religion consists only of an intellectual understanding of ultimate truth stand against the Supper. Those whose minds consider the Cross to be foolishness make their presence at Christ's table a mockery, for they face that Cross as the symbol and centre of the Christian religion.
At the same time the Congregational form of the Lord's Supper allows neither priestly function nor superstition to play a part. There is no kneeling as if to worship the elements. There are no priestly words of consecration to convert bread and wine into a different substance, supposedly the actual body and blood of Christ. Instead there is the simple declaration of the apostle Paul's word to the Corinthians that this act is to be a remembrance of the Saviour and of His redemptive work. That the Lord Jesus is present goes without saying, by His Spirit and His Word - for this is His table, and this is His church.
The service calls disciples to recall the cost of their salvation. This should quicken them to fresh whole-heartedness in commitment to Him. It is a time of renewal of covenant relationship to their Lord. It is a solemn service because of all that is implied in a moment of the consecration of themselves.
The oneness of the church is clear at the Table. Here 'earth's distinctions disappear'. Sinners saved by grace alone join together in thankfulness and in acknowledgement of personal worthlessness. A 'closed' table is singularly inappropriate. It is not for us to exclude anyone who has been saved from hell. If Christ has made a saint out of a sinner he should be as welcome at His table as any of those who belong to the membership of a particular local church. The warning that the Supper is for believers only should be sufficiently clear to discourage unbelievers from partaking. They should be more than welcome to remain and watch. This was common in the past. The children of the families of the church would stay with others and gain much profit. If we were attracting more people to hear the Gospel who recognize themselves as outside the Kingdom but have a longing to enter, it would be easier to restore such a practice. May the witness of our churches become speedily effective so that this situation may be reproduced.
Congregational churches baptize converts to Christianity and also the children of a believing parent. Their theological starting point is the emphasis laid by reformed theology on the grace of God. Baptism (according to the Savoy Declaration) 'is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ to be unto the party baptized a sign and seal of the covenant of grace'.
In baptism, God declares His grace by a 'visual aid'. The convert, a believer, is acknowledging that God in His mercy has saved him and that he is submitting to the Lordship of Christ. The believing parents of the infant acknowledge God's graciousness to them and look forward to the fulfilling of His covenant promise in saving their child. The local church, similarly, remembers God's covenant mercy and rejoices in confidence that God will save. 'Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary (again quoting the Savoy Declaration) but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.'
Congregationalists hold that the true Church comprises the covenant-people of God. The church is the heir of the covenant promises, just as Israel in the Old Testament was God's covenant people. The Israelite child was circumcised and so recognized as belonging to the covenant-people and to enjoy its privileges and responsibilities. As circumcision was the sign of the old covenant so baptism is the sign of the new. So the child of the Christian home is regarded as an heir to promises and is baptized as a declaration of God's grace and of the Church's trust in God's faithfulness.
Dr Dale argues for the indiscriminate use of the ordinance. His case was based on a narrow reading of Matthew 28: 18-20. Christ's authority as the risen Lord was absolute 'over all nations' to make disciples and to baptize. He interprets the vital words thus: 'Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing (all the nations) into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching (all the nations) to observe all things whatsoever I command you.' Thus the command to baptize and to teach are treated as of equal relevance and of universal application. Dale's view has little to commend it Scripturally and is quite a novelty to earlier Congregational thinking.
The opposite extreme, of baptizing no infants at all, is equally far removed from Congregational thinking. With hardly a dissident voice Trust Deeds specify that the properties they protect are reserved 'for the use of Protestant Dissenters of the Independent or Congregational denomination, practising paedo-baptism', that is, the baptism of infants. The Congregational position is made clear by quoting the relevant paragraph of the Savoy Declaration. 'Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized, and those only.'
The first words should be noted. There is no refusal of the convert requesting baptism. The heathen, whether of the mission field or of pagan Britain, is to be baptized when he confesses Christ as Saviour. Secondly, there is the restriction to the children of believers. This double position is borne out by the 1833 Declaration: 'They' believe in the perpetual obligation of Baptism. . . . to be administered to all converts to Christianity and their children. . . .'.
The Scriptures show the clear difference and supreme privilege of being brought up within the community of Israel as against belonging to a pagan nation. The Israelite had the Word of God, the ministry of the prophets, priests and kings.
Similarly, the condition of a child nurtured in a Christian home is very different from that of a child brought up in spiritual darkness. The believing parent surrounds his children with prayer and gospel truth. All the promises of the covenant-relationship into which the parents themselves have entered by grace are applicable to their offspring. The reality of these promises can be seen in the Christian homes of the churches. The moment of new birth may be delayed, but any covenant that God Himself has made He will keep.
It is accepted that the discussion of Baptism is much to the fore in the present day. As in all things, love must be pre-eminent. Love seeks to understand and sympathize with the standpoint of brethren from whom we differ. Such love can win the response of a similar desire to understand our own emphasis. Paul insisted that love should take priority over knowledge. Such love, in harness with humility, will lead inevitably to the conclusion that we are unlikely to resolve a problem that has defied the most saintly and scholarly of Christians for so many centuries. Such love could even make us less concerned that it should be resolved.
P. T. Forsyth, perhaps the foremost Congregational theologian of recent times, expressed a conciliatory position which does not renounce long-held attitudes:
'The two forms of Baptism. . . . and their ministers, should be equally valid at choice in Churches of the same polity, each filling out a hemisphere of the whole truth on that subject. There are questions, I know, of historic tradition, of a separate existence dearly bought, of dear denominational ties which no scheme must despise or override, or treat with anything but respect. But they will all fall into place by consent as the passion and ideal of evangelical unity comes to work like a fire in our bones.'
Some who will have read thus far may still be concerned that, in these days of much emphasis upon Church Unity, there should be published a work setting out denominational distinctions. To any such, we would quote the words used by R. W. Dale 100 years ago in the introduction to his 'Manual of Congregational Principles'. They have a familiar ring.
'At a time when Christendom is agitated by controversies reaching to the very roots of the Christian Faith, and when all Churches are struggling with practical duties which are beyond their strength, questions of ecclesiastical polity may appear to have no claim to consideration.
We have to assert the authority and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ against the assaults of speculative unbelief. We have to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard it. We have to lessen the miseries as well as the sins of mankind. There are hundreds of millions of heathen men to whom the redemption of the world by Jesus Christ is altogether unknown: there are vast numbers of our own countrymen who have drifted beyond the reach of all the ordinary institutions of Christian instruction and worship: there are the hungry to be fed and the naked to be clothed: there are low conceptions of morality in domestic, commercial, and public life which the Church ought to elevate: there is selfishness in the Church itself which ought to be inspired with the charity of Christ, indolence which' ought to be set on fire by the zeal of Christ for the honour of God and the righteousness and happiness of mankind. It may be thought that when these great tasks are done it will be time enough to consider whether Episcopacy, Presbyterianism, or Congregationalism is the best form of church polity.
But, meantime, churches actually exist, and they cannot exist without some form of organisation. We are surrounded by Churches differing very widely from each other in the principles of their polity: and we have to elect the Church with which we will become associated. New Churches are being founded, and it is necessary to determine how they shall be governed. The question - What form of Church polity is most favourable to the maintenance of a firm and intelligent faith in Christ among the members of the Church, to the increase of their knowledge of Christian truth and duty: to the energy and joy of their spiritual life: to their mutual affection as brothers and sisters in the household of God: to the development of their Christian morality: to the discipline and effective use of whatever powers they possess for the service of God and of mankind? - this is a question which cannot be evaded or postponed.'
Dale seeks to answer that question and claims that 'Congregational principles are permanently rooted in the central truths of the Christian revelation, and that the Congregational polity is at once the highest and the most natural organisation of the life of the Christian Church'.
In days of either political anarchy or despotism, it is the Congregational principle of the gathered church subject to Christ alone which enables a true Scriptural witness to be maintained.
In Congregationalism there is the true 'apostolic succession'. It is not the succession of the consecrating hands of mitred bishops. It is the succession of gospel truth passed from generation to generation by the testimony of men and women who hold the faith of the apostles. We first read of them as those who 'continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine' (Acts 2: 42) and who were exhorted by Jude to 'earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints'. This 'apostolic succession' is seen in essence in Paul's words to Timothy: 'And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also' (2 Timothy 2: 2).
At one end of the ecclesiastical spectrum there are the episcopal systems with their hierarchy and ritual. At the other end there are those who make much of their New Testament simplicity. They are strong on Bible teaching and any believer can share in ministry in their simple buildings.
Between these extremes, all that is good and all that is Biblical in the theory and practice of the Church has had its place in the life and worship of the Congregational Independents. And their story is not done. By the grace of God, and to His glory, the work continues. Dale concluded his Manual with a humbling challenge and we would close with his words:
'Never yet, perhaps, has any society gathered together in His name been so perfectly one with Him that all its decisions were confirmed by His authority. Congregationalism is an ideal polity. This is at once its reproach and its glory. The transcendent prerogatives and powers which it claims for the church lie beyond the reach of Christian communities which are not completely penetrated and transfigured by the Spirit of Christ. But as churches approach more and more nearly to the perfection to which Christ has called them, their authority becomes more and more august, and they enter more and more fully into the possession of the blessedness which is their inheritance in Him.'
Orange Street Congregational Church