The Responsibility of Freedom: Congregationalism, Part 2

Beth A. Faeth  February 11, 2018

Scripture Galatians 5:13–18, 25–26

Congregationalism is in my genes. I was born in the same town my father was raised, and his family had long been pillars in their small but steadfast Congregational church. My grandmother was the church organist, and, now that I have worked in churches for over 25 years, that christens her a saint in my book. Grandma Mabelle was also the one to organize and orchestrate the annual boiled peanut fundraiser. I am not sure how Congregational peanuts are, but that fundraiser became an epic part of that church’s legacy. I was born after the merger of the Congregational Church with the Evangelical and Reformed Church—when most of the Congregational churches in the country became United Church of Christ. And so much of my reference and understanding of Congregationalism comes from a UCC perspective. The interesting thing after that merger is that Congregational churches were determined not to lose their identity in the course of becoming something new, so most of them kept Congregational in their titles. The church of my birth in Fort Atkinson, Wis., is First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. When I was 7 years old, my family moved to Sheboygan, Wis., a German-centric town on the shores of Lake Michigan known, of course, for its infamous bratwurst. In the mid-1970s, Sheboygan had a population of about 40,000. In Sheboygan, there were five UCC churches; in the county, thirteen. That is like the Lutheran church in Minnesota . . . one on every corner. I grew up truly believing that one was either UCC or Catholic. There didn’t seem to be any other choice. Of those five UCC churches, only one was Congregational in heritage. (Those good Germans had founded mostly Evangelical and Reformed Churches.) The Congregational church is where my family attended, and it became the formative church of my childhood and young adulthood. It was through that covenanted community that I learned about the power of faith and the possibilities of calling. And since being ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1994, I have only served churches with a Congregational heritage. You see, it’s in my blood!

I developed an even deeper understanding and appreciation for Congregationalism, moreover, when I served for nine years as the Senior Minister of People’s Congregational Church, Plymouth’s sister church in Bayport, Minn. Like Plymouth, People’s is a part of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Like Plymouth, People’s voted not to join the merger of the Congregational Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957. I understand that now as a bold decision, because in not joining the merger there was much at stake: ministers’ pensions, church resources and a loss of community and network that really is the foundation of congregational polity. Interestingly, “the idea of merging with another denomination was not, in and of itself, offensive. Congregationalists had effected two successful mergers already—with the German Evangelical Protestant Church in 1925 and with the Christian Convention in 1931. But with this particular merger in the 1950s with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches, the fear was that the Congregational Church would lose its independence and ability to self-govern, and that a church hierarchy would be established.”[1] This would be contrary to the great tenet of freedom upon which the Congregational Church was established.

It was during my time at People’s Congregational Church that I first heard the triad phrase that has become the focus of our Congregational sermon series: Faith, Freedom and Fellowship. While these principles were certainly discussed in theory in my seminary classes on United Church of Christ polity, using these three words to define life in the Congregational Church has been adopted by the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. The alliteration became an easy way for Congregational Churches to build publicity and to explain their polity in a memorable way. Last week, Paula invited you into an understanding of faith for Congregationalists, while also giving you a brief outline of our collective Congregational historic journey. Next week, Seth will explore with you the essential aspect of fellowship in our life together, for after all there can be no church—regardless of denomination or affiliation—without relationship. And I am sandwiched in between to bring awareness to the uncomplicated, little concept we call freedom. Oh, boy.

Historically, of course freedom would be a tenet of Congregationalism. Our Congregational ancestors were English Pilgrims and Puritans of the 1500s. At that time, what church a person attended depended on geography. Areas were divided into sections called parishes. Each parish had a church that all people in that area were required to attend. The Puritans and Pilgrims rejected this model of church. Each believed the Church of England was corrupt and needed to be changed. The Pilgrims believed the Church of England could not change fast enough, so they separated from the Church to form their own congregations. These Congregationalists were called “separatists,” and, as Paula told you last week, some of these folks first re-settled in the little village of Scrooby but, following persecution, fled to Holland before then making the arduous journey to this land and establishing Plimoth Plantation in New England. The Puritans tried to reform the Church of England from within, without separating from it. This is the group that came to America and established the Massachusetts Bay colony we now call Boston. These two groups left their homeland feeling oppressed by the church and government, longing to create a new church that celebrated autonomy and freedom from the king’s rule. This quest for freedom led the Congregationalists to form community and identity around covenant and autonomy, which is truly the core of Congregational faith and practice.

Each Congregational church is autonomous in its governance and polity. We are free from a national church or hierarchy within a denomination or association telling us what to do and what to believe. It is here that I believe we need to transcend our understanding of freedom in a civic way to more deeply understood concept of freedom in a Congregational, spiritual way. Freedom is a hot button topic. We become defensive when we perceive our freedom is under threat, when our civil liberties could possibly become compromised. We acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice of many so as to enjoy the freedoms we know today. As the parent of two teenagers, I have daily discussions about freedom—the ability to do things without parental supervision, the right to make decisions independent of my input, the longing to be an adult in the world as if that status will suddenly make life uninhibited and easy. This quest for “illusory independence,” as our poet this morning writes, is a part of human nature. We do not want to be restrained, and we can get pretty ornery—inside and outside of the church—if we feel something has been done to limit our freedom, to squash our understanding, to hold us back from something to which we feel entitled. Just like those early Congregationalists, it seems to be in our nature to push back against systems that oppress, that breach choice. No one wants to be told what to do. But to only understand Congregational freedom in this way limits us.

Freedom for Congregationalists is more than a freedom from something (a dictator king). It is a freedom to something. And that something is transformational. Members of Congregational churches choose to freely bind together through an acceptance of covenant. This covenant expresses promises to God and to one another. Every Congregational community, upon its formation as a church, develops a covenant, or a set of promises, to which each member commits. Puritan William Ames wrote, “Believers, simply as an assembly, do not constitute a church even though they may regularly meet together. Only unification through covenant, with its shared commitment to perform requisite duties towards God and toward one another, creates church estate.”[2]

The covenant of Plymouth Church was used as our unison prayer this morning. I think it important that it be front and central to us, especially as we talk about Congregationalism:

We covenant with you, O God, and one with another, and do bind ourselves in your presence to walk together in all your ways, according as you are pleased to reveal yourself to us in your blessed word of truth.

There is much freedom in our covenant: Freedom to understand God differently from one another, freedom to interpret individually God’s word, freedom to walk our own path in God’s way. There is also an invitation to suspend individual freedom so as to bind ourselves together in community, discerning together how God is asking us to walk, love and serve in a complicated world. Congregationalism professes that when we as individuals together “own” the covenant, we participate in the mystical act of creating the body of Christ on earth. This is a free participation, but requires both sacrifice and a fierce commitment. As the Apostle Paul reminds the Galatians, “the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.”

In our scripture lesson this morning, we find the church in Galatia in conflict as it struggled with professing a newly ordained faith in the midst of remaining obedient to Jewish law. Paul argued that the rigidity of these laws detracted from the freedom of God’s grace and compromised their covenant as a faith community. So Paul reminds these new believers that because of their faith, they are freed from the confines of the law. This is the kind of freedom our Congregational ancestors sought. Like the Galatians, our freedom in faith is framed by a covenant, by a love of God through the following of Jesus Christ. Freedom is not license. Instead freedom is an invitation to act within the context of a relationship with God, a relationship of love. Paul reminds the people of Galatia that we are called through our freedom to respond to a loving and graceful God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. We are free not simply to be at liberty, but we are free to be more freely loving; and if we are more freely loving, we will be a people who seek a more just and supportive world. Paul describes the freedom of the Christian in terms of love, a love defined by servanthood. Freedom is not a permit to live with abandon or to tear one another down because of differences of opinion. Rather, true freedom comes from the opportunity to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

So, what does all this talk about Congregationalism and the responsibility of freedom mean for us? The gift of Congregational freedom is in our autonomy. Our church’s authority is not found in denominational hierarchy, nor even in our own governance structure—for we are all on equal ground here. Our authority is found in God, through our covenant. It is important to remember that we all have a voice, and that one opinion does not matter more than another. And as people who have freely committed to bind together in covenant, “to walk together in God’s ways,” we must take seriously these promises—the freedom to love one another, to hold one another up and to treat tenderly this tie that binds. As people of covenant, we must not tear one another down in disagreement, but work together to discern how God is revealing Godself to us in this time—especially in this time of our life together. We must understand that we are free to love and to serve; not free from responsibility and care of our neighbor and fellow parishioner.

We would do well to heed Paul’s advice to the Galatians: “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.”

Indeed. Amen and Amen.

[1]“The Art and Practice of the Congregational Way: A Church Guide”, p. 1; accessed online via www.naccc.org.

[2]John Van Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism 1629–1957