I’m currently in the process of seeking to have my ordination recognized by the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC). As of a letter in the mail today, my application has been approved and I’ve now entered into the required one year waiting period before obtaining full ordained ministerial standing in the denomination. To learn more about CCCC, I’ve been reading Modern Day Pilgrims: The First Fifty Years of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (Saint Paul, MN: CCCC, 2000). Its been a fascinating read, and I’ve really resonated with much of what I’m learning about CCCC. Here are several things that I have particularly appreciated.
1) A huge part of the CCCC ethos, perhaps the most central and defining part, is the balanced emphasis on unity in essentials and liberty in non-essentials. In some settings, I have seen this kind of distinction function to downplay the importance of secondary doctrines, as though they didn’t matter. But in CCCC, this balance of closedness and openness functions in a much more healthy way. Its obvious that leaders in the denomination feel strongly convicted about many secondary issues, and their willingness to partner amidst differences on such issues stems from a spirit of cooperation, not compromise. Moreover, the denomination seems to be aware of the danger of doctrinal minimalism. For instance, the book’s last chapter features a conversation among CCCC presidents, and a recurrent issue there is whether CCCC has enough of a theological identity. One person references David Wells’ critiques about the diminishing of theology in evangelicalism, and the danger this poses to CCCC (315). Several others note that there is a spirit of unity and encouragement in CCCC that transcends theological particularities, but there is a danger that this unity be kept in future generations.
There are many denominations in which I could not serve because of what are really tertiary, relatively unimportant issues. Some denominations, for instance, they take a stand on a particular millennial view in their statement of faith, which ordinands are required to affirm. I am glad CCCC has a principled openness on these kinds of issues. At the same time, CCCC is clear on issues directly related to having a robust gospel witness. For instance, they have a strong position paper on the issue of homosexuality. I appreciate this balanced theological identity, especially for the purposes of ministry in a post-Christian setting. The challenge is how to approach secondary issues that are more important, issues that stand somewhere between homosexuality and the millennium on a spectrum of importance. One such issue, for example, is the biblical view of gender roles. But at least I know that I have the freedom to follow my conscience on those issues, and that when I’m dialoging with others in the denomination on them, we are both coming from within the boundaries of orthodoxy.
2) The two fundamental issues that led to the formation of the CCCC in 1948 were (1) opposition to the liberal drift in the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches (CCC) and (2) belief in the autonomy of local churches. Hence the terms Conservative and Congregational in the name CCCC. (The term Christian in CCCC does not refer to the religion, but to a specific denomination that merged with the CCC in 1931, the General Convention of Christian Churches). Congregationalism was once a major Protestant denomination in America. In Puritan New England, much of Protestant Christianity was Congregational. But Congregationalism did not expand Westward as effectively as other denominations, and in later centuries, the slide into liberalism was arguably more drastic in Congregationalism than in other denominations, leading to an overall decline of Congregationalism in the U.S.
The landscape of Congregationalism in the U.S. today can be viewed in four groups. When the CCC merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957, most churches remained and became the United Church of Christ (UCC). This is a large but shrinking mainline denomination. In the years leading up the merger, two groups of Congregationalist churches split off from CCC, the CCCC in 1948 and the National Association of Congregationalist Christian Churches (NACCC) in 1955. The latter group was more concerned about the threat to their polity that the impending merger represented than the liberal drift of CCC, and one can find a diversity of liberal and conservative congregations in the NACCC today. Beyond the UCC, CCCC, and NACCC, there are a number of independent Congregational churches that exist today (like my own church). So that makes roughly four kinds of Congregationalism in the U.S. today.
Because the vast majority of Congregational churches are very liberal (such as most those associated with the UCC), for many people today the terms “Congregational” and “liberal” simply go hand in hand. Part of the motivation of the founding and continuance of the CCCC (especially in those difficult early years) was to show that not all Congregationalist churches are liberal.
I think this is a worthy goal, and I resonate with it. Many people in our day are abandoning denominations in order to reach the postmodern generation. But since many younger people feel historically rootless and disconnected, I wonder if severing our historical ties and terminologies is for many people a hindrance as much as a help. I often wonder if we abandon terms too quickly when we should put greater effort into redeeming them.
Congregationalism is such a word. Congregationalism has a rich heritage in our country, embracing figures from Jonathan Edwards to Harold John Ockenga, and playing a key role in the founding of institutions from Harvard University to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). And its history in our country is an outgrowth of the Puritan struggle in the Church of England, specifically among “independents” like John Owen. There are two great historic standards for Congregationalism, the Savoy Declaration and the Cambridge Platform, both of which were an extension of Calvinistic Puritanism. Moreover, from the beginning, Congregationalism positioned itself as part of the historic church, as did the other major branches of Protestantism, contra some Anabaptists. So Congregationalism is one way of placing yourself in the larger stream of church history. It is one of the little rivulets in the river of orthodox Christianity.
Why not harness this history? Why not reclaim it? I like being part of a denomination, being historically tied down. When you the see the word “Congregational” in a church’s name, it means something. It might mean that its liberal. But it must mean that, for instance, its Protestant, it has Puritan roots, etc. Conversely, when a church has no denominational markers in its name, you have to work to find out what it is. I think its healthy to be historically defined, to identify your roots. And I think a lot of postmoderns like that, too.
3) It was interesting to see the role that my Grandfather (Ray Ortlund Sr.) played in the CCCC. He served as its President for a while in the 1970’s, and Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena came into the CCCC in 1963 when he was pastor there. The book observes the significant role that LAC has played in CCCC, along with Park Street Church in Boston, which joined CCCC in 1960. These two churches alone more than doubled the membership of CCCC when they joined (236), and had a formative role in the shaping the denomination in those early decades. Since I think so highly of my Grandad’s ministry, its very interesting to me to learn about his role, and that of LAC, in the denomination’s history.
4) I appreciate the humility and sincerity of CCCC. They seem to be unconcerned with flashiness and trendiness, wanting to simply serve the Lord. One of the presidents says of CCCC, “lets be satisfied with being a valuable part of the body even though we’re not the largest or most influential” (311). I like that. The book observes that CCCC is not a place for empire building, and those of that mold don’t really fit in. There seems to be less fighting and politics in CCCC, and more of a spirit of encouragement. Often the books admits weaknesses and shortcomings in CCCC, which I also greatly appreciated. One of the encouraging signs is the emphasis the congregation is starting to put on church-planting and more of an urban presence. CCCC has grown steadily since its foundation, but much of its growth has been from churches leaving liberal denominations such as UCC, and CCCC recognizes the need to grow through evangelism and outreach. Its encouraging to see this desire, as I have a passion for reaching my postmodern generation as well.