The Theology of the Local Congregation: A Primer for Church Planters

Written by Pastor Martin Horn

The Theology of the Local Congregation: A Primer for Church Planters


I have been asked to contribute a series of articles focusing on the theology of the local congregation. These articles will be written through the lens of Georg Sverdrup, a 19th century Lutheran theologian. Sverdrup’s ecclesiology and especially his theology of the congregation became the foundation for the Lutheran Free Church, and later, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. In this introductory article, I will address two fundamental questions for church planting: first, why is a theology of the local congregation necessary? And second, is there a theology of the congregation?

Why is a theology of the congregation necessary for church planters? The answer to this is simple: theology must precede practice.

In 1905, Georg Sverdrup was asked to address a number of practical questions related to establishing Lutheran congregations among the newly arrived Norwegian immigrants in the Upper Midwest. These questions are familiar to those involved in planting Lutheran congregations today today: When should a congregation be formally organized? Who should be accepted into membership? And how should the congregation be organized and governed?

Sverdrup answered that before questions of practice are addressed, those involved in planting congregations must have a firm grasp of what the New Testament teaches concerning the congregation. Sverdrup writes:

The correct organization of the congregation stands in such close and intimate relationship with the nature of the congregation that of necessity one must go back to the question of the congregation itself if one will gain an understanding of how a congregation or congregations are to be formed. [1]

What Sverdrup is saying is that the organization of the congregation (how the congregation is organized and governed) is intimately connected to the nature of the congregation. He understood that, even in church planting, theology is primary, and questions of practice can only be answered in light of the theology of the congregation.

This can be seen in the most basic theological question concerning the congregation: is the congregation a human or a divine organization? If the congregation is a human organization, then human activity is at the center, and the questions of practice will, in all likelihood, be answered according to human pragmatism. If, however, the congregation is divinely instituted where God Himself is at the center and His Spirit works according to His will through the Word and the Sacraments, then questions of organization are answered with one purpose in mind: to provide both structure and freedom for the Spirit to work.

Is there a theology of the congregation? At first, this seems to be an odd question, but it is necessary to ask this question because the nature of the congregation itself has been largely ignored in the American Church. John Strand, the first president of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations observed the following in 1965:

Very little is written or taught of the Christian congregation in our day. There is much concern of certain aspects of Christian fellowship, evangelism, doctrines of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, missions, ecumenism, denominations, the Word, history, eschatology, Christian education, youth work, liturgy, stewardship, etc., but little real concern for the congregation as such. [2]

The theology of the congregation has not only been neglected in Lutheranism, but also in American Protestant Evangelicalism. David Fisher writes:

American Protestant theology has for some time been more interested in matters of polity than fundamental ecclesiology. American ecclesiological thinking tends powerfully toward matters of organization, polity, offices, and officers. Definition is important but seldom gets beyond the nature of the universal church . . . Of what value is theology if it does not point in some way to the local church where faith and life occur? Does anyone remember that the New Testament is written to churches?[3]

The focus of much of Evangelical Christianity has been more on the polity of the congregation than on ecclesiology. Theology has taken a back seat to the practical issues of structure and organization. And when ecclesiology is addressed, ecclesiology is often truncated because it ends with the discussion of the Universal Church, and does not continue into the identity and meaning of the local congregation.

Is the Scripture silent on the congregation? Sverdrup would say no. In fact, he writes that much of the New Testament is congregational: that is, it is written to congregations and about the identity of the congregation and the congregation’s role in God’s plan of redemption.

Concerning the congregation, the New Testament gives clear and abundant information for all the revelation in the New Testament after Christ’s ascension speaks of the congregation, its nature and function . . .The book of Acts, the Epistles and John’s Revelation speak the whole time about the congregation or, what is the same thing, the activity of the Holy Spirit. [4]

Sverdrup goes on to remind us that Lutherans are people of the Word, and that Lutherans who would be involved in planting congregations should first go to the rich mine of Scripture to understand what a congregation is.

There is a profound need to recover the theology of the local congregation, not only in the American Evangelical church, but in the Lutheran church as well. It is fitting to conclude with this challenge by John Strand: “Should we not be more concerned with the congregation than we are? Truly much more attention needs to be given to this great subject.” [5] Please join me as we pay more attention to this “great subject,” the theology of the local congregation, in the articles to follow.



[1] Georg Sverdrup, “The Prerequisites for Forming a Congregation,” The Sverdrup Journal 1 (2004), 46.

[2] John Strand, “President’s Message,” in  Freedom In Christ: 1965 Annual Report (Minneapolis: Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, 1965), 8.

[3] David Fisher, The 21st Century Pastor, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 76-77.

[4] Sverdrup, “The Prerequisites for Forming a Congregation,” 46.

[5] Strand, “President’s Message,” 9.

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