The label “congregationalist” is being tossed around somewhat indiscriminately these days in our Presbyterian circles, especially by those who are critical of recent moves by PC(USA) evangelicals. We need to be clearer about what we mean—or ought to mean—when we use that term. It is a useful label for describing a specific view of church governance, but one that sees some basic things quite differently than the theology that informs our presbyterian polity.
A foundational question in sorting out ecclesiastical polity options is this: Where does authority reside, in the most basic sense, in the life of the church? Episcopal forms of government hold to a highly hierarchical understanding: bishops ordain priests who exercise authority over congregations. Congregational polity begins at the other end. The primary decision-making body is the congregation: on key questions of the life of the believing community, votes at congregational meetings are the final authoritative voice.
We Presbyterians take a middle course between these rather stark alternatives: authority in the life of the church resides in the session, and more specifically in the collective judgement of the ruling elders. Congregations elect elders, who in turn exercise authority over the teaching office. In the Dutch Reformed tradition, when the preacher is ready to go to the pulpit—and this still happens today in the Netherlands—the leading elder stands to offer the preacher a handshake. This means that the preacher has the authority, delegated by the elders, to proclaim the Word. After the sermon, there is once again a handshake, this time symbolizing the approval of the elders of what has been proclaimed. The authority of the session/consistory is taken with utmost seriousness, as it should be in a presbyterian polity.
So, when a local Presbyterian congregation expresses dissent from larger governing bodies, even to the point of looking elsewhere for ways of manifesting connectionalism, this is not as such a move toward “congregationalism.” It would only be so if decision of this sort were made by a congregational meeting without deference to the authority of the session.
At some of our Fellowship/ECO gatherings in the past year, we have frequently heard comments about the centrality of the local congregation. One common way of making the point is quoting Bill Hybels’ manifesto: “The local church is the hope of the world.”
As stated, the Hybels slogan is an expression of localism. And a localist perspective can be wedded to the various forms of polity: Anglicans and Methodists can celebrate the signficance of the local church from within an episcopal ecclesiology. Congregationalists can do it within their understanding of congregational authority. And we Presbyterians can also endorse localism—as long as we recognize that the local church flourishes best when its session takes its authority seriously.
Taking seriously the mission of the local church means also taking seriously how we structure our connectionalism. The real question that every congregation must ask is whether its formal relation with other congregations, in the context of the rules and policies of a denominational body, are the best way of carrying out God’s call to the local church to promote (in the words of the Westminster Confession) “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.”
As I have listened long and hard to Fellowship/Eco discussions, that is the primary concern I hear discussed: Is our present mode of participation in the PC(USA) the most effective way of living out our mission of “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” What is clear is that for many evangelicals attendance at presbytery and assembly gatherings serves to inhibit their passion for the cause of the Gospel in their local churches. For some, this means considering a different pattern of connectionalism. For others it means finding new and creative ways of staying in the PC(USA). The discussions of these matters is urgent for many of us. These explorations stem from a healthy “localism” that is solidly grounded in the theology that undergirds presbyterian polity. To seek God’s will on such matters is not to move in the direction of “congregationalism.” Indeed, it could and should be a wonderful opportunity to become more consistently presbyterian in our understanding of “the local church as the hope of the world.”
– Richard J. Mouw