A Question about Conservative Congregationalists

With no sermons this month, I am looking for cheap and easy blog posts.  This was my response to a question from a congregant about the CCCC (Conservative Congregationalist Christian Convention).  I wrote a thoughtful answer so I figured I would post it.  And as it turns out, the question was coming from a different place than I assumed.  So someone else may find it more helpful than its intended recipient!

Thanks for this question.  I had heard about the Congregationalist churches who did not accept the 1957 merger that resulted in the UCC (from four existing bodies, including the Congregationalist Church).  It was helpful to do a little research on them, even if I only looked briefly at their web site.

The CCCC is the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.  http://www.ccccusa.com/.  (Notice they are a “conference” because they do not believe that there is any real “church” beyond the individual congregation.)

Those who are attracted to their strongly Congregationalist views might want to be aware of their other beliefs, listed on their website as:

  • We believe the Bible consisting of the Old and New Testament, to be the only inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God written.
  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for salvation of lost and sinful man regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by Whose indwelling power and fullness the Christian is enabled to live a godly life in this present evil world.
  • We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
  • We believe in the spiritual unity of all believers in Christ.

Some of these articles, taken individually, I have no problem with.  The first, however, is a statement of inerrancy of Scripture that is typical of evangelical Protestants.  Also the assertion of eternal punishment.  To me these are deeply problematic beliefs, and I’ve tried to make that case in some sermons.

Their extreme congregationalism was rejected by the founders of the UCC, although we maintain an essentially congregationalist structure.  (I have a book arguing that we are still too congregationalist, if you are interested in that argument; it’s a well-done book.)  Instead the UCC represents the more ecumenical vision of the church that is shared by mainline Protestant denominations, Eastern Orthodox churches, and since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church.  Essential here is that Christ called his disciples to be one (John 17:21).  While we are nowhere near being actually one in practice and structure, these ecumenical churches have come incredibly far in the last 100 years.  I regularly attend the Granby/So Hadley Ecumenical Pastors breakfasts, and they are truly inspiring and really helpful.  Even if this ecumenical commitment is not obvious in the day-to-day operations of our church, it is a strong element of who we are.

You and I might share some concerns about the UCC.  The leadership is dominated by a progressive liberal cadre.  I do not reject their ideology, but I object to any attempt to replace the gospel with ideology, whether liberal or conservative.  I am a bold, vocal critic of this tendency in our denomination, whenever I have an appropriate audience.  I’ll leave you with some excerpts from my final reflection essay, written for the UCC History and Polity course I took this winter.  This was written to my instructor, who was trying to celebrate the UCC to the students.  I respect her for doing so, but as you’ll see, this is not my way of affirming the UCC identity.  You’ll see in the final paragraph my luke-warm affirmation of congregationalism, done in the highfalutin language of academics.

  • ••

Rel 691 UCC Polity etc.

Reflection Paper #2

Bill Wright

I understand myself to be called, in this context, to define the UCC critically rather than in a celebratory way.   I think all theological leaders in the church, when attempting to reflect on the church as a whole in order to guide it, should adopt an essentially self-critical stance.  In any event, I see my role as holding up what the UCC says and does to critique by the Word of God.[1] Once one acknowledges a particular social body as “my church,” one should seek nothing more than to reform this powers or social forces of this church to build it up into what God is calling it to be.  It is this spirit that we see in the unsparing self-criticism of Israel in the OT as well as of the church by Paul in his letters.  We who have been entrusted with power should above all criticize ourselves before God (1 Cor 4:4), and be mindful of our duty, according to the wonderful recent phrase, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  The emphasis then does not fall on celebrating what makes the UCC distinctive relative to other denominations, something for which there is a place, and which our readings have done from time to time.[2]   Leaders should especially be wary of the allure of marketing—a worldly (capitalist) strategy of identifying and beating the competition.  Instead, we should primarily think about what the church lacks, how it has missed or violated God’s intentions, how it remains impotent and lacking in gifts of the Spirit, etc.

[…]

My congregation stands in stark contrast to another picture I have of the UCC, strongly echoed in our readings, that features a leadership elite that is progressively activist and often theologically liberal or non-traditional.  I can now better see and appreciate some commonalities holding among both my congregation and the leadership: a general embrace of science and critical thinking, or at least a disinterest in Biblicism (sometime accompanied by a marked ignorance about the Bible and gravitation to other dubious sources of authority), an orientation to sanctified life here and now and not so much to otherworldly salvation.[4]  But there remains a strong disjuncture between church leadership and the laity (with the exception, I suspect, of some well-educated, urbane, and progressive congregations).  Our readings have identified the manifestation of the shift toward progressive multiculturalism in the GCs following the late 1960s.[5]  But otherwise I do not feel I have a good empirical and theoretical grasp on whence this arose.  I am suspicious of attempts to read the progressive multiculturalism as a natural outgrowth of our particular UCC tradition, since (a) a similar leadership profile exists in other denominations , and (b) I know I did not become a progressive multiculturalist because of my PC (USA) upbringing.  Lots of progressives are opting to join the UCC—are they (we) doing so because of something deep and distinctive in UCC tradition, or is the UCC being shaped by the self-segregation of American culture along ideological lines?  I do not feel I am in the position to address this important question.

[…]

But I can only affirm our congregational polity in the same way I came to affirm the similar polity of the CC(DOC): as a tragic necessity.  In light of all the cross means for renouncing power and coercion, in light of Paul’s repudiation of the Law in favor of the Spirit working both communally and in conscience, and in light of Jesus’ remarkable words against the “authority of the gentiles” (which the Church has been terrifically quick to re-baptize), I think the devolved authority of the congregational model is called for.  I strongly suspect that it has regrettably been shaped without sufficient theological reflection by the dubious modern political anthropology of John Locke.[6]  But for congregationalism to really have borne fruit would have required a tremendous effort of popular theological education.  But this has eluded the UCC and every other denomination, perhaps because an effective theological education of the laity would require a powerful theological consensus among theological experts, which is not be found within the discipline of modern theology.  All of this can be seen to stem from the tragedy of modern freedom, as it nurtures a diversity of views that erodes rather than enriching dialogue and fellowship.  At the level of congregations, what is nurtured is a democratic tyranny in which mutual submission to God is replaced by consumeristic entitlement.  I believe we can only strongly affirm our congregationalism in eschatological terms, according to the promise that points to a Time (and times that anticipate this Time) in which love and justice (read: freedom and transformation) will kiss.

[1] This is essentially Karl Barth’s position (CD I.1, p. 87).  I certainly don’t agree with Barth universally, nor with how he characterizes the “Word of God.”  But whatever that phrase means, it cannot be equated with whatever the church’s current self-understanding happens to be.

[2] Bendroth, pp. 5-6; Fackre, p. 55.

[3] He considers this problem and effectively sidelines it on p. 108.

[4] From the “UCC Style” slide in the week six lecture.

[5] Bendroth, 184f; Fackre, 59-60.

[6] See Walker, 143; Cambridge Platform, p. 16 (https://archive.org/stream/cambridgeplatfo00goog#page/n14/mode/2up).

 

 

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