Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 35 - Emphasis on structure in names (Video)

No. 35. >> One thing I notice from your answer is that some of these church bodies seem to put a great emphasis on structure in their names like Presbyterians and congregationalists. Is that a fair assessment? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Josh, you're right on the money. In fact, as I was alluding to just previously, this came more and more to the forefront with these particular church bodies. And part of the reason for that I think to be fair was the profound emphasis they all placed on the Scriptures. One point I haven't made sufficiently up to this point or at least not repeated enough was that one thing all of these groups held in common, whether Presbyterian, congregational, so forth within the Reformed tradition was that they it held to the same formal principle. The Scriptures are the Word of God and they are the basis for what they believed, taught and confessed. However, one thing they were convinced of was that the Scriptures taught a particular way of structuring the church. Now, this has been a characteristic of English Christianity from at least the 1530s. In fact, the Church of England, what we today call here in America, the Episcopal Church, had as its material principle the principle of Apostolic Succession centered in the office of bishop. When the Puritans came along and began to talk about purifying the Church of England, they intended to do so on a couple of bases. One was to purify the theological position of the Church of England. They wanted to make the English church more vigorously and specifically Reformed/Calvinistic. William Perkins was an English man. Grew up in the English church. Who wanted to make the theological position of the English church explicitly Calvinistic in terms of his supralapsarian predestination. Others believed that, as well, and worked very hard to make that a reality for their church body. Another matter in which the Puritans intended to purify the church was in it's liturgical practice. And we'll say a little bit more about that later, as well. But in brief now, they believed that any remnant of the older Roman Catholic practices had to be excised from the church's practice. Some went so far as to say if it is not specifically commanded in Scripture, then we must not do it. And if it is being done, we must remove it. Purify the church's practice. But a third component of Puritanism argued for a purification of polity or structure. And they argued that the office of bishop was, in fact, not a biblical office. Now, there was not agreement on this point among the Puritans themselves. Some argued that the office of overseer, as it was articulated in the Scriptures, meant Presbyters. You can hear the roots of the word Presbyterian in this particular statement. In fact, they would say in the Bible we find two kinds of Presbyters. Two kinds of elders you might say. We have ruling elders and teaching elders. Ruling elders would be laymen, well recognized in the congregation, members of the church who had leadership potential and were carrying it out. Who had long-term commitments to their particular local church. And we were recognized by their peers. These were set apart to rule. That is take care of the basic matters of the church to ensure that the building was functioning and usable. More importantly, to make sure that there was a teaching elder present to serve the congregation. Another way of describing teaching elders is to say pastors or preachers. It was basically synonomous. So ruling elders, laymen and background, who took care of the mundane matters of the church. And teaching elders who were there to explain the Scriptures and to teach. That was one significant component within the Puritan tradition. And in fact, that group later on was primarily responsible for the production of the Westminster Confession. They held that the Scriptures taught this as a specific form of polity that had to give Scripture to the church if we were to be faithful of the principle of sola scriptura. But not all agreed, as I mentioned. There were also congregationalist Puritans largely in America who began to argue that, in fact, the Scripture teaches specifically that it is the local congregation that is responsible for all matters. It's not a Presbytery or a small group of people who oversee the affairs of the church. But rather, simply the local church on its own as an autonomous unit. Back in England with the Presbyterians there was the question of how do we interrelate with one another? How do we function as one congregation over against another? And the way they handled this as Presbyterians was to say: Well, then on top of the local congregation we'll have another layer of bureaucracy, if you will. That is to say the classes. And then after that we'll have another level, the Presbytery. And beyond that we'll have the General Assembly. And finally, Synod as a whole. You will find the order different, depending upon the particular church body. But there was this from the many to the few. And the Presbytery, the final kind of meeting and large gathering of the total group, would have oversight for the whole. So say you had a conflict between two congregations. It would step its way up the pyramid until finally coming to the absolute adjudicatory group that would make a determination over who was right and who was wrong. None of that in congregationalism. The local congregation was an intact autonomous group that was not necessarily answerable to any other group. It could, if it so desired, enter into relationship with other congregations. But it was responsible for its own affairs. Responsible for its own church property. Responsible for calling its own pastor. And responsible for discipline in its midst. Thus, if there was a conflict in the congregation, it would not be appealed beyond the congregational boundaries. But it had to be handled within the group. Now, some would say: How do you get to that -- how do you handle that kind of a polity? What if there is a terrific outbreak of controversy among the groups? The manner in which they addressed this was to covenant with one another. And each congregational church in New England had its own personal covenant. And when you became a member of that church, you signed the covenant. You owned the covenant for yourself saying that you recognized the principles upon which the church was based. You recognized that it was a biblical church and taught the truth of God's Word. And you submitted yourself to the congregation as a whole stating that this would be the community in which you lived, worshiped and worked. That worked to a point. Until you had too many congregational churches. And then the question became: How do we deal with say a town in which there's more than one congregational church? That is to say initially in New England it was to have the -- the typical practice was to have one congregational church in town to which all would at least attend and most would become members. But when towns became too large and there was more than one congregation in town, what if you had a bitter rivalry emerge between the two congregational groups? How then might you handle it? Here their congregationalism was stretched. And congregationalists also organized themselves into what were called Synods or gatherings of independent congregations. Though they didn't have a formal confessional statement that bound them together, they did have recognized practices among them. One of the most basic of which was one congregational church would not accept a member from another congregational church without the approval of the pastor and of the elders of the other church. That worked for a time within New England. In fact, it worked so well that many people called life in New England the New England Way. But as people began to move west, as folks made their way over the mountains into New York state and beyond, those bonds that tied the various congregational churches together began to loosen. Furthermore, there were theological changes on the horizon that would test congregational commitments in basic ways. And as the 1700s gave way to the 1800ss, it simply became more and more pressing for American Reformed to hold together as one. And in this respect, their lack of a single confessional text I think once again proved to be a particular weakness. On the other hand, their polities, their structures, continued or in fact, increased in terms of the way they defined them. Presbyterians became more Presbyterian. Congregationalists became more congregationalist. Very, very carefully safeguarding what they believed was biblical truth. As a result, stilled today the arguments go on. What is the biblical form of church polity? Now, here is a question for you: How would a Lutheran respond? For Lutherans there was a lot more freedom, shall we say, when it came to this matter. In fact, in the Church of Sweden, the official polity is an episcopacy. They have an archbishop and sola Sweden. You have bishops, as well, beyond that. In Germany during the 17th, 18th, 19th Centuries, it was typical for a consistory to run the churches. That is to say a consistory, which was a department of state, would take on the responsibility for organizing the mundane affairs of local congregations. In fact, owning church property, ensuring pastoring service and so forth. Then there were the American Lutherans. And when they got here to American soil, how did they respond? They found themselves in the midst of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, congregationalists. In fact, in many of the early cases, the independent congregations tried to keep a form of the polity they used back in Germany, most often a consistorial form. But as time went by, they increasingly became more autonomous units and became more congregationally oriented. In fact, two church bodies come to mind in this regard, who specifically made that part of their life. The Tennessee Synod, which was formed in 1820. And the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, formed in 1847. In both cases, however, these groups said: We're not doing this out of any sense of compulsion or necessity. We don't believe that there's a church structure that is defined by the Scriptures. But given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, a democratized independent America, an episcopacy will not work. A consistory is too tied to the state here in America where people are free. We will adopt a congregational form of church government. It shows that Lutheran freedom in the Gospel to respond to circumstances according to our human wisdom as we see best within our given place and within our given time. Whereas the Reformed would say Scripture mandates this, we as Lutherans have a certain freedom. As a result, still today the arguments regarding polity go on. Presbyterians and congregationalists still hold to their roots arguing that these things are derived from Scripture. Their arguments won't go away any time soon I'm quite sure. At the same time, it does show interesting responses on the part of Christian traditions to the unique circumstances of the American frontier where they actually had the freedom to develop these polities without interference from the state. And that I think is really rather interesting.