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1953 Article

Autonomy of the congregation is the freedom of the local congregation, without the supervision and overriding control of a general agency of the brotherhood, to manage its own internal affairs such as formulation of a confession of faith, choice of ministers, determination of qualifications for membership, forms of worship, character of discipline, etc., in effect a congregational church polity. Without doubt such local autonomy was characteristic of the Anabaptist movement from the beginning, with certain limitations to be noted later, and has characterized European Mennonitism throughout its history until the present, with the exception of certain small groups. The development of the conference system everywhere among European Mennonites in the 19th century, in Holland as early as about 1580, has not seriously modified this autonomy. Exceptions were the Mennonite Brethren (founded 1860 in Russia) and the Baden-Württemberg-Bavaria Conference in Germany (organized 1843). In the mid-20th century the latter conference actually had the most rigid control of its some 20 congregations, considering all to be in effect one large congregation (Gesamtgemeinde) and the ministers to be serving the entire group even though with local preaching responsibility. The entire ministerial body of this group met quarterly and regulated almost everything in the life of the congregation including the discipline of individual members. The Mennonite Brethren Conference in Russia (organized 1872) did not have quite such complete control but was actually a supervening authority, in that local congregational self-government was limited to minor matters. The Hutterian Brotherhood of course had very little autonomy for its individual Bruderhofs.

In America the autonomy of the local congregation has been maintained completely only among the Old Order Amish, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and certain very conservative groups in Manitoba. Elsewhere the development of the conference or synodical system has resulted in varying degrees of control by the conference (either general or district) over the local church. In the Lancaster Conference (MC) in the 1950s, for instance, there was no local autonomy except in the election of ministers. In the other district conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC) a small and variable amount of congregational autonomy still existed. An interesting development in Manitoba was the retention of the unified congregational organization for an entire large settlement. Thus in the 1950s the Bergthal Church, with over 3,200 baptized members, 15 meetinghouses, and 20 ministers, larger than all the national or regional Mennonite conferences in Europe except that of the Netherlands, still considered itself to be one congregation with a single ministerial body and one elder, only in the mid-20th century assisted by a co-elder. This actually meant no autonomy for any of the local groups. The same was true of the somewhat smaller Rudnerweide and Sommerfeld groups in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Local autonomy was however always been in practice limited by (1) powerful overriding common traditions, confessions of faith, and other declarations of principles and practices adopted by special general meetings, the occasional meetings of elders or ministers such as those of Goch (1545), Wismar (1553), Strasbourg (1556), Amsterdam (Waterlanders) (1581), Hofingen (1630), Essingen (1779), Ibersheim (1803), etc., (2) the action of powerful leaders such as Menno Simons, in forcing the discipline or unfrocking of dissident ministers (Adam Pastor, 1550), (3) the withholding of communion fellowship from ministers or members of diverging congregations.

An illustration of how a seemingly complete autonomy can be partially undermined is the actual situation in Holland, where autonomy is a deeply rooted and carefully nourished principle. Here it is in practice (though not legally impossible) almost impossible for a congregation to choose as its minister one who is not a graduate of the Amsterdam Theological Seminary or its equivalent since smaller congregations are dependent upon general conference or church agency sources for necessary subsidies to ministerial salaries, which subsidies are withheld from a lay or insufficiently trained minister, who then is also not welcomed into the ministerial fellowship. For further discussion see Polity. -- HSB

1989 Article

Historically, there have been three major governing patterns in the Christian church: episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational. Each of these can claim some rootage in the New Testament church and each has a tendency to claim that it best represents the original New Testament pattern.

The earliest churches in Jerusalem and environs were governed primarily by the apostles. Several persons emerged as leaders among "the Twelve," notably Peter and John. In due time, James, the brother of the Lord, also became a recognized leader, though he was not one of the Twelve. The episcopal tradition holds that the successors of these original leaders were the bishops (episkopoi). This line of development tends to emphasize the offices of the church to which leaders were appointed or elected. The doctrine of apostolic succession, so central to the episcopal tradition, refers to an unbroken line of ordination by the bishops who succeeded the bishops (etc.) who succeeded the apostles.

A second line of development emphasizes the gifts of the Holy Spirit (charismata) rather than the offices of the institutional church. This would be more characteristic of the Gentile churches, largely established by the missionary outreach of Paul. Paul certainly did not depreciate apostleship and appointed offices. Indeed, he went to great pains to establish his own apostolic credentials, and everywhere he went among the emerging churches he appointed elders (Titus 1:5). However, the major emphasis of Paul's teaching about leadership fell on the gifts of the Spirit rather than on fixed offices (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4). Paul recognized the need for order and authority at the same time that he was advocating the exercise of the variety and diversity of the spiritual gifts among all the members.

The fact that Paul uses two different terms in the first chapter of Titus -- elders (presbyterous) and bishop (episkopon) -- creates some confusion. Were these in fact synonyms for the same office, or were they two distinct offices, one plural (elders) and one singular (bishop)? One possibility is that the pattern he was advocating was one in which one of the elders served as the presiding elder, i.e., as the bishop. In any case, there developed in the history of the Christian church two distinct patterns of church polity known as episcopal (governed by the bishop) and presbyterian (governed by a council of elders).

The episcopal pattern as it developed in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches involved a hierarchy of bishops and other clergy who governed the church in a given region. The bishop of Rome claimed apostolic succession to Peter and as such a role of supremacy over the other bishops as first among equals. The Anglican Church has maintained a similar pattern of church governance.

The presbyterian pattern of church government was developed primarily by the Reformed church under the direction of John Calvin. A major feature of the presbyterian pattern is the eldership, which consists of ruling elders and teaching elders. The former are lay persons; the latter are the preaching ministers. The ministers are not members of the local congregation but of the presbytery, which is composed of representatives of the local congregations in a oven district.

A third pattern of church polity, congregationalism, has its roots in the Reformation of England. Congregationalism is a type of church government in which each local congregation is self-governing. In its purest form, it insists on the full autonomy of the local congregation in matters of faith and doctrine as well as in all other matters of governance, including the selection of the pastor. It acknowledges no authority outside the local congregation, neither bishop nor presbytery. It is clear that this form of polity emerged in the struggle with the monarchical episcopacy of the Anglican Church but it is rooted as well in the developing democratic idealism of the 17th century. Congregationalists also claim New Testament support for their views on how the church should be governed. They stress the gifts of the Spirit and the priesthood of all believers.

One of the important issues in the search for the most authentic pattern of church government is whether there is a fixed and normative pattern in the New Testament, or whether the church in every age has the freedom to determine its forms and structures in flexible ways. Congregationalists, while looking to the New Testament as normative, exercise considerable freedom and flexibility in working out the details of the pattern. Since the basic principle of congregationalism is local autonomy, it should not be surprising to discover considerable diversity in the governing patterns of local congregations because there is no central coordinating body to impose a common pattern.

A second issue is the relationship between the ministers and the lay people. It is only in the episcopal tradition that a sacramental distinction is made between the clergy and the laity. It is the clergy who have the primary (in some cases the sole) authority to govern the church. In the presbyterian and congregational patterns, the laity share governance with the ordained ministers.

These traditions also differ when it comes to the question of the primary unit of the church. in the episcopal tradition it is the diocese, that is, the district or the churches under the jurisdiction of a bishop. It is the presence of the duly ordained and appointed bishop which guarantees the apostolicity of the church. In the presbyterian tradition, the primary unit is the presbytery. The presbytery is composed of ruling and teaching elders, with the ruling elders (lay men and women) constituting a majority. The presbytery has among its functions a judicial one, somewhat akin to that of a lower court. The general assembly as one of its functions convenes as a higher court.

In the congregational tradition, all matters of faith and life, of doctrine and practice, are determined locally, since by definition there is no authority outside the local congregation higher than that of the congregation itself. Nowhere is this more evident than in worship. Each congregation is free to determine the form and content of its order of worship. There is no fixed liturgy determined by central authorities, such as the bishop or the prayer book. The same is true when it comes to doctrine.

Congregationalists also tend by conviction to insist on separation of church and state. This insistence is inherent in their refusal to accept any outside authority, whether bishop or prince. For Mennonite practices in regard to congregationalism, see polity and autonomy of the congregation. -- RTB

See also Conference; Polity

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Ross T. Bender
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Ross T. Bender. "Congregationalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Jun 2024.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Ross T. Bender. (1989). Congregationalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 199-200, v. 5, pp. 185-186. All rights reserved.

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