Thursday, March 26, 2009

Independency and Congregationalism: what's the difference?

John Owen (1616-1683)
A friend asked me to define the difference between Independency and Congregationalism. I used to be a convinced Congregationalist, infant baptism and all. Even though I am now a Baptist, I still hold to Congregational/Independent principles of church government.
The terms are often used interchanchably. But there is a difference in meaning:
Independency defines the relationship between churches i.e. each local church is independent and self-governing under Christ. Local churches may and should work together and express the unity of the body of Christ, but no church is "over" another and no tier of inter-church government stands over the local church. Independents don't recognise the validity of Presbyterian connexions or the Roman Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican hierarchy.

Congregationalism defines the way in which the local church is governed - with the consent of the members, who are meant to be "visible saints". But in classic Congregationalist polity (see John Owen's The True Nature of a Gospel Church - Works vol. 16) this does not mean that the members rule the roost. The eldership has been appointed to rule and govern the church with the consent of the members ( 1 Tim 5:17 etc).


Anonymous said...

So what do you call most evangelical churches where much, if not all, is decided by the vote of members rather than elders, and which may not even had elders?

I've tended to call them congregational whilst reserving independent for churches that have elders to do the ruling.

In Christ,

James Horgan.

PS So how connected are the two churches you pastor? ;)

Exiled Preacher said...

In classic Congregationalist polity as expressed by John Owen, the elders lead with the consent of the members. There is no necessary contradiction between elders leading the church and the members consenting to the proposals of the elders by a vote in the church meeting.

The two churches are independent!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the two are distinct. Classic Congregationalism, as I understand it, eschewed the stigma of independency. The Cambridge Platform (1648) states, "the term Independent we approve not." And on closer examination of their writings and practice, they very much operated on a recognition of the unity and catholicity of the Church. The Platform's teaching on synods is quite strong in my opinion, though it denies to synods a judicial power over the churches.

Good point on their view of the authority of the eldership. Classic congregationalism was hardly a bald democracy.