Congregationalism and the Disciples of Christ
In a previous post I raised the question of the nature of the church and the polity of the Christian Church The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) chose to affirm what I would suggest is congregational priority. In that piece, published Saturday, I noted that Wm. Barnett Blakemore sought to challenge the idea that the congregation is the "fundamental unit" of the church. Instead, in some agreement with Thomas Campbell, he suggested that it is the church of Christ that exists globally is the fundamental unit, that is then expressed in various forms including congregations.
Note how The Design speaks of congregations, in section 8 of The Design.
8. Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.
Note that in The Design congregations are designated the "primary expression." While it is true that congregations are, for most people, the body in which they experience church on a regular basis, based on the earlier confession that the church has primary expression in its global experience, and if region and general church are equally church, should we define the congregation as the "primary expression"?
Now you might ask, why is this important? Why make a big deal about this? I think it's important because it raises the question of relationship with sisters and brothers beyond the congregation. In fact, it raises questions of our relationship beyond denominational boundaries.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and its predecessor expressions has made Christian unity a primary focus. It is, we say, following Barton Stone, our polar star. While we have made unity a primary concern we aren't the only faith community to do so. And we've not always been really good about experiencing unity within our movement. Depending on how you count, there are at least three if not many more different forms in which the Stone-Campbell Movement has been experienced -- for more on this simply read the newly published history of the movement: The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History.
So, how should we understand the congregation and its role within the broader church of Jesus Christ? As you consider this question, consider also Jesus' definition of the ekklesia or assembly -- "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matt. 18:20 NRSV). If we take this passage as defining the visible church, the key seems to be the presence of Christ in the assembly -- wherever it is found.