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In freedom and unity - Congregationalists in times of change

As a church, we talk to all because they are loved by God and try to lead them to the faith in Jesus. But we also claim our right to form life from the Holy Scriptures.

FEATURES AUTOR 273/Johannes_Reimer 08 DE JULIO DE 2022 11:41 h
Photo: [link]Mitchell Leach[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Congregationalism as an opportunity and a problem

Most European free churches are constituted congregationally. The autonomy of the respective local congregation is a high good. [1]

In its local form it is the body of Christ and in all matters of organization, doctrine and conduct of life it adheres to the truth it has discerned from Scripture. The Baptist German professor Ralph Dziewas correctly states:

"In matters of doctrine as well as ethics, the local community of believers seeks the will of God in Scripture, and only what the local congregation - grounded in Scripture - believes to be binding is binding.

In congregationalism, to put it sociologically, is the center of theological-ethical discourse, and it is also the decision-making authority for locally shared convictions." [2]

No supra-local authority can override the decisions of the particular local congregation within the framework of these convictions, whether it be a covenant or asociation leadership or the governing body of the particular local congregation itself. It is the local assembly of believers that sets the principles for faith and life.

The autonomy of the congregation gives congregationalism extensive flexibility in adapting its doctrine, organization, and liturgy to local conditions. Thus, the congregation can act missionally without first having to seek approval from the church leadership above it.

What sounds so positive, on the other hand, has led to permanent divisions among congregations. Free churches are known for quickly allowing disunity, discord and division to arise from structural and content-related differences among their leaders.

The history of the Methodists, Baptists, Brethren, Free Evangelical churches and the numerous Pentecostal churches provide many examples of this.

This is due both to the principled decision to resist all authoritarian-seeming structures outside the local congregation and to the emphasized commitment to following Jesus within the framework of the respective local congregation.

The freedom that is claimed for the individual local congregation in relation to a congregational association is thus rarely granted to the individual congregation member. Rather, since the emergence of congregationalism in Puritan England, something like rigid compulsion to believe has prevailed.

This, in turn, has repeatedly led to the separation of individuals from their respective congregations and the emergence of further communities. [3]

The simple realization that a single local congregation quickly reaches its limits when it comes to questions of the right confession of faith, mission, training of its workers, commitment to freedom of faith in the world and much more, led to the mergers of individual congregations since the beginning of the 19th century.

And the question of a common foundation of faith has determined the agenda of those who have been entrusted with the leadership of such unions ever since.

Often, the task of maintaining the unity of a confederation of congregations proved to be an immeasurable overload. Again and again, deep divisions pervaded what was initially perceived as harmonious cooperation.

No free church in Germany and few in the rest of Europe has been spared. Most recently, the Congregationalist Evangelical Christian Baptists, who came to Germany from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, disintegrated into 16 associations, [4] and the Pentecostal congregations of the so-called Russian Germans into 9. [5]

And the reasons for this are always the same: Disunity in matters of doctrine, liturgy and ethics.


In tension between freedom and unity

Connoisseurs of congregationalism emphasize that it is the two poles of congregationalist beliefs that largely determine its fate: Freedom and Unity. One does not err in speaking here of the basic principles of congregationalism.

One voluntarily joins a local congregation, voluntarily decides to support the congregation financially and to participate in it. Voluntariness is a hallmark of the Free Church. And the "free" in Free Church sets the tone.

Voluntariness leads to the local congregation and thus to a community that wants to have recognized from the Holy Scriptures its principles of faith that are to be followed unconditionally.

Joining the congregation is voluntary, but once it has taken place, it also leads to commitment to the congregation as a collective, which is essentially shaped by the unity of faith in Jesus Christ and presupposes unanimity.

If this is lacking, tensions can soon no longer be ruled out and division is a potential consequence.

Autonomy and voluntariness alone cannot establish the identity of the respective free church. If this were the case, then both the local congregations and the free church associations would resemble a colorful hodgepodge, which would no longer be able to get out of the dispute about the right faith and lifestyle.

Not least for this reason, congregationalist congregations and congregational associations have given themselves corresponding principles of faith, which show a clear framework in which the respective members have to live their faith and thus establish the unity of the body of Christ.

This can be decided by individual congregations for themselves as well as by federal associations for all member congregations.

But such common statements of faith may not be claimed in congregationalism as a confessional tradition that stands alongside Scripture and as a hermeneutical key for resolving life issues.

Rather, they are guardrails that always lead to renewed inquiry into Scripture "whether in this concrete case it is also as previously decided." And they can be set aside, modified, or even completely redesigned at the local and national levels as needed.

Seen in this way, congregationalist congregations are "transforming communities"; they allow themselves to be transformed by principles of faith and at the same time transform them by asking anew for the biblical truth for the context in each new situation.

Holy Scripture, not confessional texts, provides the all-important orientation for faith and life in congregationalism. It is to it that the local church, or even an association of local churches, turns when new questions are raised.

The constant recollection of the Bible is supposed to put a stop to any arbitrariness in view of the currents of thought and life determined by the spirit of the times, the so called Zeitgeist.

Despite all the readiness of missionary Christians to adapt, the faith and life of Christians must reveal their otherness, liberated by the Holy Spirit. Followers of Jesus are called to go into all the world and to disciple the socio-cultural spaces, the ethne, and to teach them to keep everything that He, Jesus, taught them (Mt. 28,19).

They are to change the world and not be taken over by the world. Congregationalists are non-conformists.


Changes come and go

We live in a rapidly changing world. Principles that defined our societies only yesterday are already being thrown overboard today. And people who cling to such principles are quickly labeled as outdated, fundamentalist and stubborn.

Little wonder that Christians who hold fast to the will of God as expressed in the Bible are becoming the laughing stock of the multi-optional world. Where anything goes, people of principle are quickly dismissed as fundamentalists.

Congregationalists face the challenges of the changing world. They are free to do whatever the spirit of the age demands of them, and yet they distance themselves from it, knowing that not everything that is possible builds them up spiritually (1Cor 6:12).

And nothing is more important to a Jesus follower than to grow spiritually into all the greatness of Christ (Eph 4:12-14). They want to grow into the fullness of God, theosis, and not into the figure praised and accepted by the spirit of the age, raised on a monument today only to be destroyed with equal effectiveness tomorrow.

Congregationalism can respond to changes of times because it is designed for transformation. Change is not a problem theologically or sociologically. Transformation is not blocked here by a tradition that claims to apply once and for all.

Local congregations are free to reconsider their faith traditions and to make censures in questions of ethics and morality. They are free churches in every respect. They do not know guardians of the faith on the pinnacle of their temples. And where they do exist, they have changed in principle to a different type of congregation.

But just as congregationalist congregations resist the dictates of faith from without, so they resist the spirit of the age. Nothing would be less congregationalist than to give up control in the process of change.

With Apostle Paul, they do not allow themselves to be pressed into the world's thought structures, but are transformed by the Spirit of God in the sense of His eternally valid Word (Rom. 12:1-2).

In the midst of a changing world, they are transformed into "His image" from one glory to another. The challenges of the times thus lead them closer to their Lord and His Word and to each other.

The world in which we live today poses new questions and who, if not He, our Lord, knows the answer. It would be insane to look for answers in people and even consider them more relevant to the times than those formulated by our eternal Lord.

Changes must be and also Christians go through serious changes, but they do it guided by the Holy Spirit who leads them into all truth.


But we follow a different approach

Again and again I hear Christians say that they do not want to be shaped spiritually by biblical faith alone. For them, God's spirit is the spirit of the world, which is also active beyond biblical concepts.

And they see God's spirit in the spirit of the age, which has made our democratic values possible over the last centuries. Where would women be today if the so-called "biblical principle" that "women should be silent in church" had prevailed?

Or the apolitical attitude towards slavery? Or ... and now all kinds of evils of the history of so-called Christendom are listed. Was it not ultimately the spirit of God?

And is it not the same spirit today that sets men and women free to live their love for the same sex with their alternative sexual orientation? Admittedly, a few biblical passages speak against this. But there were such passages in the other cases, too, weren't there?

Yes, I can only say there were massive transgressions of the church in her long history. And yes, thank God, the Spirit of God did not leave his Church alone. He was the one who activated men and women in his Church to stand up against slavery and fight for women's rights.

And no, it did not happen in the nebulous haze of a world spirit, but always closely tied to the Holy Scriptures. This was the only way to overcome convictions that had arisen from a particular reading of Scripture.

And after that, people were no less drawn to the Scriptures, but there were spiritual awakenings that gripped entire nations. Christians who helped shape our democracy came from faith in God, appreciated and knew the Scriptures, and were inspired by them.

From this they gained their identity and were motivated to become active for society.

Today, the self-proclaimed society changers gain their identity from vague scientific claims, selfish orientation such as sexual inclination, and more. To follow them would be fatal for the church.

Of course, in an open-minded society, everyone is entitled to be blessed according to his own wishes. And if those among us who believe they have found an alternative approach want to follow it, then they should have the right to do so, but please not in our midst.

Because for us, the first and foremost thing on the discussion table is the Bible. We are guided by it and that is what makes us congregationalists.

No, this does not close our eyes to the challenges of the time, and no, it does not make us dismissive of scientific findings, nor does it exclude us from discourse with people of other opinions.

As a missionary church, we talk to all people because they are all loved by God and try to lead them to the liberating faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

But at the same time, as a local church, we claim our right to form faith and life from the Holy Scriptures and to be continually transformed by them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Johannes Reimer is professor of Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology and Director of the department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).


1.  John Huxtable in his definition of Congregationalism: "Congregationalism is a form of church order based on the conviction that the local congregation is the fundamental and essential element of church" (John Huxtable, Art. Congregationalismus; in: TRE 19, 1990, 452), indeed each individual local congregation is in its form of Christ's body (Cf. Erich Geldbach, Art. Congregationalism; in: ELThG II, 1993, 1151f.

2.  Dziewas, Ralf: Warum Gemeinden sich verändern. Theologische und soziologische Überlegungen zur Wandlungsfähigkeit von Ortsgemeinden im Kongregationalismus, in: Haubeck, Wilfrid / Heinrichs, Wolfgang (Hg.): Gemeinde der Zukunft. Zukunft der Gemeinde. Aktuelle Herausforderungen der Ekklesiologie, Witten 2011 [Theologische Impulse 22], 107.

3.  Dziewas, Ralf: Verbindlichkeit im Kongregationalismus, in: Hailer, Martin / Hafner, Johann Evangelist (Hg.): Binnendifferenzierung und Verbindlichkeit in den Konfessionen, Frankfurt a.M. 2010 [Beiheft zur Ökumenischen Rundschau 87], S.243-265.

4.  Siehe Näheres in John N. Klassen: Russlanddeutsche Freikirchen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Grundlinien ihrer Geschichte, ihrer Entwicklung und Theologie, Bonn: VTR 2007.

5.  Leonard Frank: Gemeindeaufbau russlanddeutscher Pfingstgemeinden in der UdSSR und der BRD. Unveröffentlichte PhD Dissertation. Pretoria: UNISA 2017.




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