Today's Congregational Church Christians trace their core religious beliefs back to the Pilgrims and Puritans who fled persecution from the corrupt, authoritarian Church of England of their time, as described by the church publication, The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way.
In the United States, the Congregational Church includes the United Church of Christ, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference. Each of these groups is an association of independent, autonomous individual churches.
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Here are five key beliefs of Congregational Church Christians that set them apart from other Christians:
The importance of self-governance of the local church congregation gives the church its name. Local congregational churches recognize no higher outside authority or governing body such as most denominations have.
Decisions of doctrine and practice are not handed down to the church from outside, but rather originate from within. Because of this belief in congregational autonomy, specific doctrines can vary widely, from theologically conservative to liberal and Unitarian.
Congregational Church Christians believe in the spiritual equality and priesthood of all believers. In practice, this means they hold to the Bible and belief in Jesus, but individual members have "the full liberty of conscience in interpreting the Gospel," according to The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way.
Church members are trusted to interpret the Bible and apply it as they best understand it, and the church embraces differences of interpretation. The elevation of the layperson in this way limits the authority of clergy within the church.
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While the Congregational Church does not submit to outside governing bodies, it does encourage associations of individual congregations for the purpose of fellowship, encouragement, and cooperation in larger ministries. Local churches are represented at association meetings by their chosen delegates.
Church membership is based on a voluntary covenant by which members believe they are bound together with Christ alone as the head of the local church. Within this covenant context, members believe they help to form the body of Christ in the world. The details of these covenants are determined specifically by the congregation and may vary from one church to another.
Congregational Church Christians believe in democratic and representative decision-making within the church. Member consent is required for decisions, and much of the work of the church is accomplished through various types of representative committees to ensure the membership is involved.
So, while they believe in the Bible and Jesus like other Christians, Congregational Church Christians set themselves apart by these important beliefs. Underlying them all is the "congregational" concept itself, entrusting authority to individual members and local congregations, and celebrating the differences that naturally arise, according to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.
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