Interested as our churches are in the movement looking toward a closer affiliation with other denominations, it is even more interested in the trend of thought and action in favor of a more centralized government. There has been much discussion of late of some one or more phases of this question.
Congregationalists "to the manner born" and those who have drunk deep of the historic spirit of the denomination will hardly surrender their freedom for a centralized government, acting with authority and assuming legislative functions. It is the independence of the local church to conduct and manage its own affairs, subject only to the laws of fellowship, which makes pulpits in our churches so attractive to ministers in other denominations. We rejoice in our independence, but we are not Independents; we are Congregationalists, because we are bound together by the law of fellowship. We shall see how the application of this principle may work out the unification of the churches, without surrendering our first constitutive principle, the independence of the local church. It is also historically shown that our freedom has been as valuable a safeguard to the orthodox faith of the churches, colleges, and theological seminaries as the more centralized government of other denominations.
On the other hand, it is felt that if, as a body of churches, we can work in closer touch with one another, we may largely increase our efficiency in the Kingdom of God.
It was to secure this that Congregational Nebraska at its Geneva meeting, 1903, appointed a State Advisory
Board, which has been widely commented upon in the religious press. The board is an experiment in Nebraska Congregationalism, and will be continued only as it proves that it has a mission for good, a mission in harmony with the genius of our polity, in the development of a vigorous, healthful church life dominated by the democratic spirit in fellowship with the best thought and life of the churches.
After a year's trial the churches at the Lincoln meeting, October, 1904, with only one dissenting vote, gave their most hearty approval of the work of the board, and enlarged its membership from three to five members. It has done much in helping pastorless churches to secure ministers; in planning for fellowship meetings, evangelistic services, and in other ways promoting Congregational interests. The board is the child of the fertile brain of the large-hearted pastor of the First Church in Omaha, Rev. H. C. Herring, D.D.
The following resolutions and explanatory statement, adopted by the association, were prepared and introduced by him, and are here given in full because of their historic value:
"Resolved, 1, That there he appointed by this association two of its number who, with the State Superintendent of Missions, shall constitute a body to be known as the State Advisory Board; one of the two named to be chosen for one year and one for two years, and hereafter one to he chosen each year for a term of two years.
"2, That this board be instructed to associate with itself at its discretion, and as may be arranged with the Home Mission Board, the General Missionary of the state in order that his work may be coordinated with its own.
"3, That this board be charged with the duty of aiding the churches of the state in their work in all ways within its power, so far as they are willing to accept such aid.
Especially is it charged to seek to be helpful to the churches in the following particulars
"a. The promotion of evangelistic effort through the services of the general missionary, through the introduction of other evangelists in whom it has confidence, and through the cultivation of the evangelistic spirit.
"b. The settlement of pastors by placing at the disposal of vacant churches the information it may possess or may obtain concerning applicants, by seeking to bring good men into the state, and by endeavoring through personal conference to guide the churches in wise methods of seeking pastors.
"c. The strengthening of weak fields through the concentration of workers in them for brief periods.
"d. The investigation of eligible localities and the development of Congregational churches there when feasible.
"e. The cultivation of systematic and effective methods of missionary giving among the churches.
"f. The promotion of the circulation of our denominational literature among the churches.
"g. The furthering of union locally between our churches and the Methodist Protestant and United Brethren churches wherever it may seem desirable.
"4, The members of this board shall be chosen by ballot from six names to be submitted by the nominating committee. In subsequent years the number submitted shall be three, from whom one shall be chosen.
"The aim of the accompanying resolutions is five-fold
"1. To secure for the State Association a continuous executive agency, speaking with such authority as is compatible with our independent polity. There would thus come to be in time a consciousness among the churches that our
work has a unity and coherence of which they are largely unconscious now.
"2. To secure a definite instrumentality for furthering the lines of effort mentioned in the resolution, such furtherance being made possible by the fact that two of the board give their whole time to the work and the other two constant oversight and counsel and it is expected some measure of personal activity.
"3. To reinforce the home mission superintendent in all the relations which he now sustains to the home missionary churches, and to extend the same relationship of advisory helpfulness to the self-supporting churches.
"4. To protect the churches against unworthy ministers and evangelists and to attract worthy men to the state.
"5. To promote the organizations of Congregational churches in the many promising fields now open to us throughout the state.
"The reasons for the existence of such a board are threefold:
"1. The acknowledged weakness of our churches in all enterprises calling for united effort and the frequent laxness with which the affairs of the local church are managed.
"2. The fact that in our whole state system there is but one common and continuous meeting point for the churches, viz., the home mission superintendent, and he, of course, is unrelated to the self-supporting churches and can not possibly compass much beyond the routine duties which demand attention in connection with the churches under his care.
"3. The fact that the value of an advisory or executive agency is in proportion to its permanence and prominence before the eyes of the churches.
"For this reason the resolutions suggest that the functions of the Evangelistic and the Benevolence Committee be con-
centrated in this committee in connection with its other duties. It. is hoped that an agency such as this might in process of time exercise an important influence in bringing our state to self support."1
In adopting this measure the General Association appointed as members of the Advisory Board: Rev. H. C. Herring, D.D., Rev. J. W. Cowan, D.D., and Supt. H. Bross, D.D. The following year Rev. G. W. Mitchell and Rev. V. F. Clark were elected additional members. The work of the board will be watched with growing interest by the churches. There are those who think that in this board, or some development of it, we have the happy solution of the more "centralized government" which some believe is necessary to the vigorous prosecution of our church work. It is the "Nebraska Idea." How far it may enter into the life of the churches in other states remains to be seen.
It will be noted that this is an effort to unify the churches and secure greater efficiency along the line of a commanding fellowship, and not through a legislative body with authority over the churches. It is doubtful if we ever go beyond this. And whatever centralization the churches may sanction will be along Congregational, not Presbyterial nor Episcopal lines.
The development of the constitutive principle of fellowship has placed an emphasis on the ecclesiastical standing of churches and ministers in the association of churches. This is thoroughly Congregational.
A church can not organize itself, call whomsoever it will as pastor regardless of moral and doctrinal fitness, and then say "We are a Congregational church, and our pastor. is a
Congregational pastor and must be received as such." It may be an Independent church and its pastor an Independent minister, but neither church nor minister can lay claim to the name Congregational until recognized by a Congregational council, or received into a Congregational association which is responsible for the standing of both church and minister.
The old idea of ministerial standing in the local church is a relic of independency without fellowship. Modern Congregationalism has long since repudiated it, and the western churches have been among the foremost in pushing forward this development of Congregationalism, holding in even balance its two constitutive principles, the independence of the local church in the management of its own affairs, and the fellowship of the churches in a united body--the denomination. Any future centralization in government of the denomination must continue to hold in even balance these two constitutive principles if our churches remain Congregational. There is no indication that Congregational Nebraska is ready to renounce its birthright and disown its inheritance.
But there are tokens of a vigorous denominational life, a truly Congregational life. The action of the recent National Council at Des Moines in creating a Committee on Evangelism, representative in every way, earnest and devoted, a committee who mean business, is already sending a purer blood through our denominational veins, and with the development of a new spiritual life there is coming also into our churches a strong Congregational consciousness, which indicates a more rapid growth in churches and a commanding influence in the management and life of our great missionary societies and institutions of learning the congregational academies, colleges, and theological seminaries.