Congregationalist polity

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Congregationalist polity, often known as congregationalism, is a system of church governance in which every local church congregation is independent, ecclesiastically sovereign, or "autonomous". Among those major Protestant Christian traditions that employ congregationalism are those Congregational Churches known by the "Congregationalist" name that descended from the Anglo-American Puritan movement of the 17th century, the Baptist churches, and most of the groups brought about by the Anabaptist movement in Germany that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 18th century. More recent generations have witnessed also a growing number of non-denominational churches, which are most often congregationalist in their governance. In Christianity, congregationalism is distinguished most clearly from episcopal polity, which is governance by a hierarchy of bishops. But it is also distinct from presbyterian polity, in which higher assemblies of congregational representatives can exercise considerable authority over individual congregations.

Congregationalism is not limited only to organization of Christian congregations; the principles of congregationalism have been inherited by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Jewish synagogues and most Islamic mosques in the U.S. operate under congregational government as well, with no hierarchies.


Basic form

The term "congregationalist polity" describes a form of church governance that is based on the local congregation. Each local congregation is independent and self-supporting, governed by its own members.[1]:49 Some band into loose voluntary associations with other congregations that share similar beliefs (e.g., the Willow Creek Association).[1]:49 Others join "conventions", such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the American Baptist Churches USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention).[1]:49 These conventions generally provide stronger ties between congregations, including some doctrinal direction and pooling of financial resources.[1]:49 Congregations that belong to associations and conventions are still independently governed.[1]:49 Most non-denominational churches are organized along congregationalist lines.[1]:49 Many do not see these voluntary associations as "denominations", because they "believe that there is no church other than the local church, and denominations are in variance to Scripture."[1]:49

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