January 22, 2017

Autonomy, Another Umbrella For Error

By Larry Ray Hafley

Error and its advocates seek shelter from attacks of truth. Numberless ways have been manufactured to protect the practice and practitioners of error. In the last decade or so of the last century, we had Romans 14 thrust in our faces as a shield. “You can’t chasten me; you can’t challenge my doctrines, for they fall under Romans 14.” This was an old ruse which worked its leaven on the simple and ensnared the gullible (Rom. 16:17, 18).

Another umbrella for error has been opened. It is the cry of “church autonomy.” It is ever so effective, for it is used against those who are, because of the institutional conflict, super-sensitive to anything that would violate the self governing status of a local church! We have fought too hard and labored too long to transgress the principle which many struggled to maintain. 

This tactic is not a new one. (That is one thing about error. Its proponents are not original. They add a few new words to their song, but it is always the same old tune.) From an article by J.W. McGarvey, first published in 1864, we extract the following strategy (Brother McGarvey was addressing the issue of “Instrumental Music In Churches.” He tells how some instrumental innovators were seeking to avoid having their practice questioned.):

But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not unanimous in favor of instruments, and upon the principle of church independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the wishes of other congregations. 

Note the excuse, the justifying qualification, “upon the principle of congregational independence.” In other words, “Since we are all independent churches, none may justly protest our pianos or oppose our organs.” Change “independence” to “autonomy,” and we have the same thread- bare argument in modern garb. Then, as now, it is argued that congregations may avoid opposition to their innovations by appealing to “the principle of congregational (autonomy).” 

Regarding the use of man-made instruments in worship, brother McGarvey acknowledged, “If the practice is in itself innocent, then these congregations act upon a correct principle and others have no right to interfere or complain.” However, as he correctly observed, if the question is not one of congregational judgment but of scriptural authority, then, said he, “We must discuss it upon its merits . . . renew the original investigation, lay aside all feeling pro and con, and start anew the inquiry: Ought we to make use of musical instruments in public worship?”

Some Modern Examples

Let us use other items of work and worship to God and apply them to the problem and principle cited by McGarvey. 

  1. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of a monthly or weekday communion, and upon the principle of church independence they have assumed the right to practice it without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Will that work? Does congregational autonomy allow a church the freedom to break bread upon the first day of the month (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:2, 23; Phil. 3:16, 17; 4:9)? 
  2. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of fund raising sales and suppers, and upon the principle of congregational independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Is congregational autonomy a sufficient smokescreen for pancake breakfasts, pie suppers, and rummage sales (1 Cor. 4:6, 17; 7:17; 11:2; 16:1-3; 2 Thess. 3:4)? 
  3. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of women leading the church in prayers and public preaching and teaching over the man, and upon the principle of congregational independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Does the autonomy of each local church permit it to appoint women to act contrary to Scripture (1 Cor. 14:34, 35; 1 Tim. 2:11, 12)?   
  4. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of building cafeterias and physical fitness centers, and upon the principle of congregational independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Will any argue that a church’s self governing status gives it the right to build such facilities for the social and recreational pursuits of its members (Eph. 4:11-16)? 
  5. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of observing Christmas and Easter (some, like Rubel Shelly and Max Lucado, do so in cooperation with denominational churches), and upon the principle of congregational independence they have assumed the right to observe them without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Does a congregation’s independence free it from the injunction of the word of Christ on the incorporation of human traditions in worship (Matt. 15:8, 9; Col. 2:8; 2 John 9)? 
  6. “But more recently, congregations have been found who are almost, if not altogether, unanimous in favor of giving “the right hands of fellowship” to those whose teaching encourages people to continue in adulterous marriages, and upon the principle of congregational independence they have assumed the right to make use of them without regard to the scriptural objections of others.” Does a local church have the sovereignty to allow “that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce my servants to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:20)? 

Was brother McGarvey wrong when he denied independent churches the right to decide what they would do with respect to the use of mechanical instruments of music in worship?  Brethren, if congregational autonomy forbids one of the above scenarios, it prohibits them all. If it tolerates one, it authorizes them all. They stand or fall together. 

4626 Osage, Baytown, Texas 77521

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 7 p6  April 6, 2000
Share