Puritans and Pilgrims: Robert Browne & the Congregationalist Tradition
Revelation 2:14-22

While walking down the street one day, a senator was tragically hit by a truck and killed. St. Peter met him at the pearly gates, and said, “Welcome to Heaven! But before you settle in, it seems there’s a problem. We seldom see politicians around these parts, so we’re not sure what to do with you. Therefore, we’ve decided that you should spend one day in Hell and one in Heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”
And with that, St. Peter escorted him to the elevator and sent him down to Hell. When the doors opened, the Senator found himself on the clubhouse veranda of a beautiful green golf course. He immediately noticed all his friends and a host of other politicians. They all ran to greet him and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. Then they played a pleasant game of golf and dined on lobster, caviar, and fine scotch.

            The Devil was also present there. He was the life of the party, dancing and telling jokes. They were all having such a good time that, before the senator realized it, it was time to go. Everyone gave him a big hug and raised a toast in his honor, then the elevator returned him to heaven.

            When the door opened, St. Peter said: “Now it’s time to visit Heaven”. So, 24 hours passed, with the senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing their harps and singing. They had a good time and, before he realized it, the time was up.
“Well, you’ve spent a day in Hell and another in Heaven. Now, you must choose where you want to spend eternity.” The senator reflected for a minute, then answered: “Well, I would never have thought I would say this: I mean Heaven is delightful, but I think I would be better satisfied in Hell.”
So, St. Peter escorted him to the elevator, and down he went to Hell. The doors open, and the senator is in a barren wasteland covered with garbage and debris. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags and picking up trash. It is sweltering hot and the odor is just horrible.

            The Devil comes over to him and lays his arm around the senator’s shoulder. “I-I-I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “The day before yesterday I was here, and there was a beautiful golf course, and we ate lobster and caviar, and danced and had a great time. Now all there is a wasteland full of garbage, and my friends look miserable.”

            The Devil looked at the senator, smiled, and said, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted for us!”

The relationship between religion and politics has always been unpredictable! Church and state relations have endured many twists and turns through the ages. During the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, church and state were completely separate. Then, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 312, church and state were wed in an unholy union of political power. This relationship became even more complicated during the days of the Protestant Reformation. Some branches of Protestantism, like the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians, stayed closely aligned with the state, but the Anabaptists and especially the Congregationalists believed the state had a corrupting influence on the church; they wanted to make a clean break from political and ecclesiastical authority and worship God according to their own consciences.  

The Congregationalist Tradition: A Brief History

            The Congregationalist tradition grew out of church and state tensions in 16th century England. We have already learned the history of the Anglican Church, the church that King Henry VIII established after he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because the pope refused to grant him an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Since the Church of England was conceived in partisan discord and was birthed in overt political rebellion, it is no surprise that the Anglican Church never grew into its fullest spiritual potential. As England bounced back and forth between Anglican and Catholic partialities under Henry’s children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, a movement arose to decontaminate the church. These people became known as “Puritans” because they wanted to “purify” the church from political bondage.

There were two types of Puritans: those who wanted to reform the church from the inside and those who wanted to break away from the Church of England altogether. The later group took on the name “separatists” because they separated from the mother church and formed what they called a “Privyes” or private churches, ones that would not answer to English bishops, Rome, or any other religious authority. In short, they would be governed by their own pastors and members.

Although the separatist movement was already well under way, Robert Browne is regarded as the founder of Congregationalism. He was educated at Cambridge University and was influenced by the Puritan theological Thomas Cartwright. Browne became Lecturer at St Mary’s Church, where his dissident preaching against the doctrines and disciplines of the Church of England began to attract attention. He believed that every local church should be independent and autonomous. He advocated for a form of church government where local churches would dictate its own decisions, appoint clergy of their own choice, and be directly accountable to Jesus Christ. According to his democratic ideals, he believed that neither the Queen, bishops, nor other religious authorities should have power over local congregations.

Browne was the first to establish a church of his own on Congregational principles. Throughout his life, he was incarcerated 32 times for his separatist beliefs and died in jail at Northampton, after he was imprisoned for hitting a constable. Despite the ironic fact that he abandoned the Congregational movement he founded and returned to the Anglican Church late in life, he is still considered the founder of “The Congregational Way” and “The Father of the Pilgrims” due to his followers crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620.

It was pastor John Robinson and elder William Brewster, who led the congregational congregation in the village of Scrooby, England, that established the first Congregational church in America at the Plymouth Colony. This was the context for the story of the First Thanksgiving told by Governor William Bradford in his landmark work “Of Plimoth Plantation,” where the pilgrims gathered their first fall harvest and celebrated a meal with their Indian friends.

As more English Congregationalists fled religious persecution and showed up on the American shore, the church began to flourish. In subsequent decades, Congregational churches sprang up all over the New England landscape. Harvard College was founded in 1636 for the training of Congregational ministers. And “The Cambridge Platform” (New England) and “Savoy Declaration” (England), the two defining documents of Congregationalism were composed in 1646 and 1658 respectively. Their theology was almost identical to their Presbyterian counterparts, but their tenants of church government insisted on the ideals of independence and autonomy.

Over the past few centuries, Congregationalism has spread across America and to almost every country around the world.  Modern Congregationalism in the United States is expressed primarily through three denominations: The United Church of Christ, The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, and The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference, of which our church is a member.

 

The Congregationalist Tradition: A Brief Theology (Revelation 2-3)

Well, now that we have a better understanding of the Congregational tradition, we have to ask the all-important question: Is it biblical? The early Congregationalists pointed to many biblical passages passages to support their views, but I think the most compelling case is found in Revelation 2-3, where our Lord Jesus himself sends letters of spiritual accountability to seven independent and autonomous churches across Asia Minor. Notice how Jesus addresses each letter “To the angel of the church in” Ephesus…Smyrna…Pergamum…Thyatira…Sardis… Philadelphia…and Laodicea. There is a debate about whether these angels were actual supernatural beings assigned to watch over their respective churches or simply human messengers who were commissioned to deliver Jesus’ specific message to each specific church. Either way, we see Jesus directly holding each local church accountable for its faith and practice.

Reflect on this for a moment! We already know that Jesus holds us accountable as individuals; one day we will all stand before his judgment seat! But he also holds each local church corporately accountable for what it believes and how it lives out the gospel together. If Jesus addressed a letter specifically to the East Franklin Union Church or the Franklin United Church, I wonder what he would say? I wonder how he would praise us? I wonder how he would rebuke us?

 

Lukewarm in Laodicea (Romans 3:14-22)

Allow me to address our church today by looking at Jesus’ message to the lukewarm church in Laodicea. Jesus begins his letters to the other six churches in the Book of Revelation by commending them for what they were doing well, but he starts this letter with a sharp rebuke of their spiritual complacency. The Laodicean church was so pathetic that he couldn’t find anything to commend.

The source of the Laodiceans complacency was their self-sufficiency—relying on their own strength and resources rather than the power of God. The city of Laodicea was extremely wealthy; it was a booming banking center and had a woolen mill that was famous for producing beautiful black wool that they wove into carpets and clothing. This attitude of self-sufficiency pervaded the church as well. Most of the members of the church were wealthy and affluent, and this gave them a sense of security. Their economic prosperity made them arrogant and spiritually complacent; Jesus accuses them of being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. He is telling the church to forsake its false sense of security in material wealth, and find true peace in him.

            The Laodicean attitude is alive and well in American today! Our money says, “In God We Trust” but if we are honest, our souls often say, “In Mammon We Trust.” But no amount of money in the world can buy back time. Currency cannot buy comfort when you are on your death bed!

            But remember, Jesus is primarily speaking to Christians in this passage. Christians ought to know better, but how many of us have ever been deceived by the false securities of wealth? Are we apt to trust in our own self-sufficiency? The only one who can offer us true and eternal security is Jesus Christ!

Jesus wants a renewed relationship with his church, which is why he portrays himself as knocking on their door, desiring to enter their homes, and eating with them. Jesus is saying, “By your arrogance and self-sufficiency you have shut me out of your life, but here I am knocking. Let me back into your life!”

            So, who will enjoy this restoration meal with Jesus? Who will sit down with him on his throne? Those who open the door and let him back in! Those who are earnest and repent from their sins! Those who take Jesus’ rebuke seriously and change their ways. If you have locked Jesus out of your life, let him back in!

            Instead of us knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door, Jesus is knock, knock, knocking on the door of our hearts today. If you want to join him for the Great Thanksgiving Feast in heaven, you have to RSVP now, before it is too late.

 

Yes, as an independent autonomous Congregational church, we don’t answer to the pope, a bishop, or even a denominational superintendent! We do not answer to a king, a duke, or even the President! But we do answer to Jesus Christ!

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