The first Congregational Churches are those of which we read in the New Testament —the first churches ever formed! They came into being in England when our people had the Bible before them in their own language. How we got our Bible is another story; what concerns us here is that when men read the Bible for the first time in their lives one of the things that struck them most was the difference between the church as they knew it, and the church as they read of it there.
Their immediate hope was that the church in England might be reformed after the New Testament pattern: but when they found that there was not going to be the radical change that they felt necessary, our forefathers formed churches of their own, based on that pattern.
We stand in their tradition. Some of us were born into it; some have come into it because a Congregational Church was the nearest Free Church to our homes. Congregationalism as our forebears understood it has a vital contribution to make to the whole Church of God, which those of us who belong to Congregational Churches ought to understand and appreciate.
They insisted first of all that God’s word in the Bible must be the guide for the Church and the Christian. Preaching had become a very minor part of the worship of the Established Church; few of the clergy knew Latin and could study the Bible, and the most that the majority did was to read a printed homily from the pulpit once a quarter. Our forefathers believed that as the Bible was God’s word, all men should be able to read it in their own tongue, that the reading of the Word must have a prominent place in the church service, and that preaching and teaching based on the Bible were vital to the Church’s life. It was because they viewed the Bible in this way that they built their pulpits in a central position. They believed that the Holy Spirit would give understanding of God’s truth to preacher, listener and reader, if they were seeking to know the truth; for, in .John Robinson’s famous words, they were ‘ very confident that the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy word’. They would deplore how little Christians today read their Bibles—in spite of modern translations, commentaries, and Bible Reading Notes, which are all easily available. The Bible can teach us about God, about ourselves, and about God’s ways with us; we neglect it at our peril.
From the Bible they learnt that a church is not a building, or an organisation, but a ‘gathered company of Christ’s people.’ To our Lord’s words, ‘Where two or three re gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew i8, v. 20) they added, ‘and where they so gather, there is a church’. You can imagine how precious that promise of Jesus was to the little groups of Christians meeting secretly together, in a home, attic or barn.
How different were their churches from the Established Church of their day, which had become a vast organisation, with the Pope or Monarch as its head; whose ministry depended upon the Apostolic Succession transmitted by the laying on of the bishop’s hands, not on the call of God, and whose ordinary worshippers had little or no part to play in the church, and little understanding of the Christian faith. Our forefathers believed that only Christ might be called the Head of the Church—one of their favourite phrases was ‘the Crown Rights of the Redeemer’; the gift of ministry depended on the call of God, confirmed by the members of the church. The bishops jeered at preachers who were by trade blacksmiths, tailors and (like John Bunyan) tinkers; but jeer as they might, these men felt God’s call, and could say with Paul, ‘Woe be unto me if I preach not the gospel’. They won souls for Christ by their preaching, and went to prison rather than be silent.
Memorial to the first minister of one of the oldest Congregational Churches.
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