Congregational-Connectionalism

Congregational-Connectionalism

Fred D. Layman:

•”There is a rather general agreement amoung church historians and scriptural scholars that the New Testament does not prescribe one form of church government over another. The New Testament makes clear that Christ is Head over the church, but it also provides for the temporal government of the church by duly appointed leaders.”

Church Government In The New Testament and History

In it’s earliest stage, the church was governed by the Apostles at Jerusalem who exercised control over the church, not only in Jerusalem, but also over Palestine, Samaria, and as far as Antioch in Syria (Acts 2:42; 4:37; 6:1-6; 8:14-17; 9:27; 11:22; 15:2-4; 22-30; 16:4; Ephesians 2:20). Paul exercised apostleship authority over the churches which he founded and appointed local leaders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5, I Corinthians 11:2). But many other churches were not founded by Paul nor by the other Apostles, and seem to have established their own forms of government and rule. The New Testament itself provided only that there should be orderly behavior in the church under local leaders and those who “have the rule” (I Corinthians 14:40; I Timothy 3:15; 5:17; 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9), without specifying any particular form which church government should take.

Various kinds of church government have evolved historically out of the necessities of particular situations or out of personal preferences. Three main types have developed in the history of the church, each having several sub-types. These forms are the “episcopal,” the “congregational,” and the “presbyterian.” They differ essentially in their understanding of where the temporal authority for church government is vested. The “episcopal” type sees governmental power vested in the episcopacy, or council of clerical bishops, and is dispensed from them down through the various levels of the church. The “congregational” type takes just the opposite view: governmental authority is vested with the local churches and is dispensed from them to the various levels of the church-at-large. The “presbyterian” type stands between these two other forms: the local churches have the power to elect officers, or “presbyters,” but they then vest all governing authority in these officers.

The Evangelical Methodist Church

At the beginning of its history in 1946, the Evangelical Methodist Church decided in favor of a congregational form of denominational government. The Constitution of our church states in paragraph 61 of the Discipline that our form of church government is first of all congregational. Paragraphs 63 and 64 then indicate two specific areas of that congregationalism, that is, ownership of local property and call of a pastor. These two specifics do not exhaust our congregationalism, however, for the Discipline states further in paragraph 202 the basic principle of congregationalism:

•”The local church, acting in its Annual Church Conferences, constitutes the basic governmental body of the Evangelical Methodist Church. All other conferences and officers derive their administra-tive powers and duties from the local church acting through its delegates at the District and General Conference levels.”

•Kinds of Congregationalism

But not everything has been said when a particular church designates its form of government as “congregational,” because there are several different types of congregationalism. These are distinguished primarily by the kinds of relationship that a particular local church has with other local churches in the same denomination and with the total denomination. There are thus three kinds of congregationalism: independent-congregationalism, cooperative-congregationalism, and connectional-congregationalism.

Independent-congregationalism is found among many independent, community churches in America, and is also that form of church government held in the Church of Christ denomination. In independent-congregationalism each local church is an entity in itself and is beholden to no church authority beyond itself. The local church itself creates its own rules of order, elects its own officers, creates and carries out its own programs, and ordains and disciplines its own ministry. It may “fellowship” other churches of the same denomination, but no other church nor denominational agency has authority over it.

The Southern Baptist denomination is an example of cooperative-congregationalism. There is among Southern Baptists a strong insistence on local congregational government and on the freedom of the local church from denominational control. At the same time, however, there is a recognition that a group of local churches acting in cooperation can do much more than a single local church can do in the work of the Kingdom. Therefore, the Southern Baptists have created denominational “agencies” which help to create and administrate denominational cooperative programs. But the central agencies have no governmental authority over the local church, and the local congregation is free to decide whether it will or will not participate in the cooperative programs of the denomination.

Congregational-Connectionalism

Congregational-connectionalism goes beyond both of these forms of congregationalism in stating the relationship of local churches to each other and to the denomination as a whole. At the beginning of its history, the Evangelical Methodist Church elected a congregational form of church government, but it rejected the independent and cooperative forms in favor of the connectional form. In the Minutes of the preliminary organizational meeting held in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 9, 1946, it is stated:

•”J. H. Hamblen made a statement relative to the form of government and doctrines of the organization. Three things were emphasized: the need of a congregational form of government with sufficient supervision to make it connectional:the need of sound doctrine; and the need of evangelistic passion.”

•The term “connectional” is thus not something added later to the word “congregational,” but was used at the very beginning of our church to designate the kind of congregationalism we would follow.

The meaning of this form of church government was made clear in the first formal Discipline of 1949. Paragraph 63 in that Discipline stated:

•”The local congregation is an integral part of the Conference of churches known as the ‘Evangelical Methodist Church.’ It cooperates with the Annual Conference**(District Conference) and the General Conference, and supports the work through all of its organizations as outlined in the Discipline. It is represented at and reports to the Annual Conference (District Conference), and accepts the Discipline as to general practice and ritual. The local church is congregational in government with property rights vested in the local church…the local church is also connectional.”

•This statement has remained essentially the same down to our present Discipline. Congregational-connectionalism means that:

•”…the entire church operates under the Constitution and By-Laws enacted by the General Conference in the Discipline of the Evangelical Methodist Church. All local churches…operate under the Discipline.” (Paragraph 62)

•This further involves the principle that:

•”The local churches act cooperatively at the District and General levels by carrying out the programs and following the Discipline adopted by their delegates at these conferences.” (Paragraph 202)

•In all this, our system of church government makes no provision for independent rejection of, nor faltering cooperation with our Discipline and denominational programs.

An important distinction should be noted at this point. Congregational-connectionalism differs from independent-congregationalism and cooperative-congregationalism in that governmental power and authority in the denomination are not established by a local church, but by local churches (plural) acting and voting through their delegates at the district and general conference levels. In our system, decisions made at the local church conference are binding only on the local congregation and do not obligate any other church or conference. But decisions made by the delegates from local churches at the district and general conference levels are binding on the local churches which make up these conferences. A local church is free to join or to leave the Evangelical Methodist Church as it wishes (Paragraph 204, 209), but the vows it signs in the Affiliation Resolution, by which it becomes a part of the denomination, commits the local congregation to follow the Discipline, support denominational programs, and abide by majority vote of the various conferences as a matter of Christian integrity. That is what congregational-connectionalism is all about—local congregations willing to band together in Christian commitment and take up a common cause of united service and witness for Christ.

Implications for the Ministry

A second important distinction has to do with the ministry. Unlike the independent and cooperative forms of congregationalism, our ministers are not ordained by the local church but by the denominational District Conference. It is thus a fundamental principle in congregational – connectionalism that an ordained minister is first of all a member of the District Conference and is responsible to it for the discharge of his ministry (Paragraphs 475-1; 405; 409; 426; 435-437; 621-623). To be ordained he must subscribe “to the form, polity, and doctrines of the Evangelical Methodist Church as contained in the Discipline” (Paragraphs 475-2; 775-12; 13; 776). He is responsible to administer the Discipline and to promote denominational programs in the local church, along with regular pastoral duties (Paragraphs 621-622; 643-6). In those unfortunate instances where a minister violates the trust placed in him by his District Conference, he becomes subject to discipline, trial, and loss of credentials (Paragraphs 801; 802-822).

Our Current Situation

The intent of this article is two-fold. First, it is written with the intent of encouraging study and understanding of the nature of our church government, clarifying what it is and is not. The Evangelical Methodist Church has never had forms of independent or cooperationalism as its governmental structure. Yet, a few churches and ministers have never seen the distinction between these and our form of government, even though our form of congregational-connectionalism has had a consistent expression and definition since the beginning of our church. More often than not, this lack of understanding has not been intentional nor out of malice, but has been due to a lack of study of our Discipline and a lack of clarifying statements. This article attempts to be helpful at this point.

But the total effect of a lack of understanding of our system of government has been to retard the orderly growth and development of our church and outreach programs. Therefore, this article is written secondly out of the conviction that the Evangelical Methodist Church has come on a crisis point in its historical development—a crisis which comes to focus on a right understanding of the nature and function of our governmental organization and structure. How we resolve this crisis may well determine whether we begin to renew our growth and eventually reach the stature and effectiveness of the larger sister holiness denominations, or become an increasingly fragmented, obscure, and reactionary little group with little witness, such as has been the fate of a few other holiness denominations. 

Written prior to recent revisions of the Book of Discipline 2010 of the Evangelcial Methodist Church.