The Celebration of Congregationalism

by C. Robert Wetzel

As a young man I spent too much time thinking about what was wrong with the church without reflecting enough on how much I was blessed in being a part of it. And when I thought of church, it was both the local congregation and broader expressions of church. There was, of course, an idealized version of what the pure, New Testament church was supposed to be, but if the ideal existed, it must be in another town, another state, or another country.

Thankfully, the older I grew the more I began to see what is right about the church, both at the local level as well as the church universal. Not that there still isn’t much to critically examine! But somehow the church, with all its problems, is still the body of Christ, and the members who constitute it are saints, called out and set apart by God.

 

AMBIGUITY

It is one aspect of the church upon which I would like to reflect: polity, and specifically a particular form of church polity, i.e. the congregationalism that characterizes churches of the Restoration Movement as well as many other movements within the church.

In recent years I have had the privilege of serving as a contributing editor for Christian Standard. Earlier this year we met to make what we hoped would be some contribution to our editors as they plot the course for this vital publication.

If someone asked us what it means to be a contributing editor, we might respond with the same ambiguity that characterizes the publication itself, an ambiguity that characterizes the very churches we serve. On the one hand, we know what we are about and why we serve as contributing editors. But if someone were to ask, “Are you representative of the churches served by the Christian Standard?” the answer would be ambiguous.

We might respond, “It depends on what you mean by representative. If one is thinking of a representative as one who has been selected by the constituency we serve, then we are not. Rather, we were selected by our wise and judicious editors. On the other hand, we have undoubtedly been selected by our editors because we do represent a cross section of the thinking of the various constituencies served by Christian Standard.” Certainly one of the most delightful and informative aspects of our gatherings for me has been the opportunity to develop friendships with those whose ministries move in different circles than mine.

I want to suggest that what I am calling an ambiguity here characterizes Christian Standard itself as well as what we are as a fellowship of churches. When someone asks Editor Mark Taylor, “Is Christian Standard the denominational publication for your church,” they are undoubtedly expecting a yes or no answer. They do not realize they are actually asking for a brief lecture on church polity and the history of the Restoration Movement.

Those of us in the colleges and seminaries face the same ambiguity. When someone asks me, “With what denomination is Emmanuel School of Religion affiliated,” I usually answer in the language of our accrediting association. I say, “We are a freestanding seminary, and our primary constituency is that group of churches known as Christian churches/churches of Christ.”

This usually satisfies the inquirer, even though I am never sure of what they have made of it. On a few delightful occasions the inquirer has pressed me for further explanation, and a lecture is then forthcoming. (This is just one of the many difficulties of accounting for oneself when you belong to a nondenomination!)

 

LOCAL AND UNIVERSAL

What I have thus far referred to as ambiguity may not be so for those of us whose understanding of church is shaped by the writings of Alexander Campbell and many others in the history of the Restoration Movement. In attempting to discern the nature of the church as revealed in the New Testament, we understand there are local congregations specifically addressed as churches, and somehow these congregations are but local expressions of the one universal church of Christ. Furthermore, there is a very real sense in which the church is the body of Christ.

At this point, we are probably at one with much of the Christian world. And except for some misleading connotations associated with the word catholic, which simply means “universal,” we can readily affirm the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in one, holy catholic church” (small “c”).

Furthermore, I think of those words in the traditional marriage ceremony that say, “Marriage is an holy estate signifying unto us the mystical union that exists between Christ and his church.” When we see the church referred to in Scripture as the body of Christ, it is not just a metaphor. There must be, at least for our limited understanding, a mystical union between the resurrected Christ and the church.

 

PRINCIPAL AND PRAGMATISM

This means our use of the word church is limited to a local congregation or to the church in its most universal sense. Hence we have resisted those understandings of church that are vested in some ecclesiastical structures beyond the local congregation which can somehow exercise both spiritual and corporate authority over the local congregation. I would contend what we have seen in our lifetime among what we now call Christian churches/churches of Christ is a strange but wonderful affirmation of the congregational principal along with a certain amount of cultural pragmatism. Furthermore, I suspect the Holy Spirit has once again demonstrated he can use even the American entrepreneurial spirit when it is submitted to him. After all, I have no doubt the Holy Spirit was at work in those Irish monks who settled on the coast of Scotland in the sixth century, which eventually led to the conversion of Britain and much of northern Europe.

When I think about the congregational polity of Christian churches/churches of Christ, I am immediately reminded of what Winston Churchill said about democracy: “Democracy is the worst of all political systems, except for all the others.” But then, what may look like chaos to us just might be the Holy Spirit once again working with the material at hand in order to bring about God’s redemptive work.

 

AUTONOMY AND ORGANIZATION

It strikes me that Christian churches/churches of Christ have developed the best of congregational autonomy on the one hand and extra-congregational organization on the other. We refer to these extra-congregational entities as parachurch organizations, which are not churches, but travel alongside churches. We have a plethora of such parachurch organizations: publications, educational institutions, mission organizations, benevolence homes, evangelistic associations, conventions, etc. Yet none of them would dare pretend some form of ecclesiastical authority over individual congregations, or at least they would do so at their own peril. There is plenty of organization among us, but the only hierarchy seems to be the corporate structure that governs each parachurch organization.

Hence there are no ecclesiastical bishops among us, but there are centers of influence as well as individuals of influence. At one time it was said the Restoration Movement had no bishops, only editors. But then editors seemed to be replaced by Bible college presidents, and now Bible college presidents have been superseded by megachurch ministers.

Although these people have been very careful not to invest themselves with the title “bishop” or even “elder,” I think there is a sense in which many among us perform pastoral ministries far beyond the local congregation. These individuals may chide us with their preaching at conventions or by their articles in our publications. But they may also extend various forms of compassionate pastoral care. For example, I was never a member of East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, but no one could have been more of a pastor to me than was Russell Blowers.

Those of us past 60 have witnessed a commendable growth among Christian churches/churches of Christ. There has been a flowering of cross-cultural mission endeavors, an emergence of church planting ministries, the growth of megachurches, development of educational institutions, and various forms of benevolence ministries, all of which appeal to individuals and individual congregations for their support. And so I want to celebrate the congregational polity that seems to approximate best the concept of church we see in the New Testament and, like the gospel itself, seems to be able to build a road to the culture in which it finds itself.

But we dare not take this to be an achievement of polity or good methodology. Rather, there must always be recognition it is the Holy Spirit, Christ alive in his church today, that will ultimately prosper these ministries.

And we must ever be mindful that even though we may use the cultural opportunities around us, the church can also be infected by that very culture. C. S. Lewis did well to remind us that every road out of Jerusalem is also a road into Jerusalem.


 

Robert Wetzel, president of Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee, since 1994, retired from that position this summer. 

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