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Congregationalism is a form of church government in which every local congregation is independent. The Anabaptist movement, Baptists, and the Congregationalist churches operate according to this form of government. It is distinguished from Presbyterian government, and Episcopalian government.

See Congregationalist Church

Congregationalism as a theory of union It may seem ironic given its adamant emphasis on independence, but one of the most notable characteristics of the Congregationalist Church has been its consistent leadership role in the formation of "Unions" with other churches. In fact, the persistence of the Congregational Church is owing simply to the fact that these Unions tend (by the inherent nature of congregationalism) to be imperfect, because some congregations decide not to enter into them. The congregationalist theory of independence within a union has been a cornerstone of most ecumenical movements since the 18th century. An older, competing, but somewhat related theory, is sometimes called nationalism (in the Reformed churches tradition), or autocephaly (in the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition). Between these latter two there are further differences. In both, nationalism and autocephaly, one unifying doctrine is given local expression, according to differences in language and customs. Autocephaly is strictly episcopalian, and assures the self-government of distinct partiarchates[?] within a structure of common doctrine, comparable practices, with some degree of mutual accountability through which they remain in communion with one another. In nationalism (in recent times, more accurately called "culturalism"), there is no institutional accountability to churches with separate general assemblies, although churches with separate histories typically form voluntary confederations with one another. Congregationalism, in contrast, guarantees a completely independent government for all of the uniting parties, down to the level of every local congregation.

A conspiracy of historical factors guaranteed that Congregationalism would become the distinctively American idea, the very stamp of America on religion and secular government. In combination with Presbyterian theories of government, Congregationalism was essential to the construction of a constitutional republic that preserved guarantees of local autonomy to the states. It also contributed a theory of separation of church and state, which for a long time proved more protective of religious freedom than the French Revolution had done, although it has fallen out of favor in the United States, since Reconstruction following the American Civil War.

The congregationalist principles of complete autonomy and strictly voluntary union produces a practically indescribable diversity of beliefs within the congregational unions. The United Church of Christ[?] is the result of a series of Unions constructed on the most liberal congregationalist theory, between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches. These uniting congregations were the result of several previous unions. The Congregational Christian Churches were formed by congregations of the Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Campellites. The Evangelical and Reformed Church was the result of a partial union of the Reformed Church in the United States and the Evangelical Synod of North America (a union of Lutherans and Reformed). The UCC is by far the most diverse of the Reformed churches at the present time. In the United Kingdom, the United Reform Church is the merger of the Presbyterian churches and the Congregational churches, on congregational principles of union.


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