What Kind of Church Are We, Anyway?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 31, 2015

Matthew 18:15-20 GNT

Reading from We Would Be Free: The Congregational Way

Whenever I meet with new families who have an interest in church membership, I usually explain the kind of church—polity wise—the United Church is.  The word “polity” has to do with the type of church government peculiar to any particular congregation.  It is the way a church orders itself and conducts its affairs.  I often give a brief description of each type—and there are three—then focus on the type of polity that this United Church operates under.  But I rarely go into detail about the benefits and blessings of our type of polity.  I thought I would do that today.

When it comes to church polity—or form of government—the three are very different.  First, let us consider the Presbyterian, or representative, form of church government.  In this form, congregations are grouped into regional bodies, most often called “presbyteries,” or in some denominations they are called “classes.”  A presbytery or classis may have two, three, four dozen, or more congregations in a geographical area.  Each congregation sends its minister and at least one elected delegate to a presbytery meeting a couple or more times each year, where decisions are made about member congregations, joint mission projects, ordination of ministers, support for institutions of higher learning, and so on.  Three or more presbyteries comprise what is called a “synod,” and all the presbyteries together comprise what is called the “general assembly,” or “general synod.”  At each step of the way, Presbyterian polity is a representative form of church government, where delegates are elected by the congregation or the presbytery to represent the rest of the church.  Those representatives act on reports and resolutions that impact all member congregations.  This form of church government is most like our United States government and the way we elect senators and congressmen and congresswomen to represent us.  In some Presbyterian churches, the greatest seat of authority resides in the presbytery, which makes decisions regarding the ordination of ministers, the oversight of congregations, the approval of pastors for individual congregations, and so on.  Denominations that fall into this category, obviously, are the many branches of the Presbyterian Church, Reformed Church in America, and others.  To be noted is the fact that some of the several thousand 17th century Puritans that came to America were Presbyterian.

A second type of church polity is the “Episcopal” type.  In this type of church structure, congregations are also grouped into regional bodies, such as the district, and then on a larger scale the conference or diocese.  This form of church government is more of a hierarchy, since there are individual church leaders who are given oversight of all the churches in a district or a conference, such as a district superintendant and bishop.  In this form of church government, bishops make the decision as to which minister goes to which congregation.  This type of polity is more similar to a monarchy, in that there is a person, or select group of persons, at the top and decisions are filtered down through the structure to the smallest of congregations.  Denominations that operate under an Episcopal form of church government include, obviously, the Episcopal Church, Methodist Churches, Roman Catholic Church, and some others.

And then the third type of church polity, which is the type of our United Church, is the “congregational” polity.  In this form of church government, the congregation is independent and self-governing.  It makes all decisions regarding the selection of its minister, budget, missions, programs, and so on.  There is no higher body which dictates such matters.  Major decisions such as the selection of the minister, adoption of the annual budget, or a building program are made at a congregational meeting where all official members may vote.  Often, but not always, churches of the congregational order belong to regional groups of churches for fellowship and joint mission projects and the like.  But such larger bodies have no authority over them and cannot dictate beliefs, policy, revenue, or any other matter, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.  Congregations that operate under a congregational polity include Baptist churches, independent Churches of Christ, independent Christian churches, Congregational Churches (spelled with a capital C), many independent congregations like ours, and others.  Also to be noted, most of the New England Puritans, and the Plymouth Pilgrims as well, were Congregational.  Congregational churches take to heart Jesus’ words that even a small group of believers constitute a complete church.

Now, as I already stated, this United Church is of the congregational form of churches (spelled with a lower case c).  However, we use the Pilgrim Hymnal that was produced by the Congregational (spelled with a capital C) Churches, as well as the New Century Hymnal that was produced by the United Church of Christ.  Most, but not all, Congregational Churches went into the merger that brought together four different church strands that formed the United Church of Christ in 1957.  Hence, there is overlap between Congregational and United Church of Christ.  I happen to have standing in both the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches and the United Church of Christ.  But just to be clear, when I speak of congregational churches from here on out, I am not advocating that our United Church unite with any church body or change our identity in any way.

With all of that information as background, what are some of the peculiar benefits and blessings of the congregational (with a lower case c) form of church polity, since that is who we are?  That is the question of the day.

One obvious benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is freedom.  We are not bound by a set of beliefs that we must adhere to, as in the Presbyterian and Episcopal Churches.  We are not told where to send the offerings we collect.  We are free to hire the person we want to be minister or minister’s assistant.  We do not belong to a larger organization that might make a decision on some controversial social or political issue which might be in opposition to our personal beliefs or convictions.

A second characteristic and benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is fellowship.  Congregational churches are bound together by covenant and fellowship, rather than by creeds or confessions of faith.  And my experience here in this United Church is the sense of fellowship is greater than in other churches I have known, maybe because fellowship is the “glue” that binds members together.  And neither are we bound together because we all hold the same opinions politically or socially.  When it comes to hot-button social issues, I imagine we have members on all sides of the issues.  And politically, we have conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, and likely Libertarians, and maybe others.  But that is okay, because it is not thinking or believing alike that binds us together, but it is fellowship and a covenant to work, worship, learn and serve together in love.

A third benefit and blessing of the congregational way of church is diversity.  Because we are not bound together by being the same or believing the same way, there is a richness and diversity among us.  Indeed, wasn’t this the foundation upon which this congregation was built?  “Where people come together in their differences…”?

One of the challenges of the congregational way of doing church is we are totally on our own.  We do not have a presbytery, or district, or conference, or diocese, or national organization to lean on for financial support, or for Sunday school or other educational materials, or to send resumes of ministerial candidates, or to give us guidance on social issues stances.  It is up to us to raise funds for our annual budget, and to devise or seek out educational materials that fit who we are, and to come to our own conclusion about issues of the day.  In this way of doing church, it is vitally important for all the members to step up and give as they can give, serve where they can serve, and utilize whatever gift or talent they have been given for the good of the whole.

But in spite of the challenges, I have come to believe that the congregational way of doing church is the best way of doing church.  It suits who I am, and it has worked well for this congregation for almost 72 years.  It is who we are.  But it calls us all to give the best that we can give to assure our future strength and success.  May we rise to the challenge.  I think we will, because that is the kind of church we are.  Amen.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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