Applying the Bible’s Teaching on Church Autonomy

By Steve Wallace

For many years now there has been controversy over marriage, divorce and remarriage among those in the Lord’s church. Many debates, discussions, and studies have taken place over such propositions as, “The guilty party in a divorce may remarry,” “Alien sinners are not under God’s marriage laws,” and “The word ‘adultery’ refers to a legal rather than a physical, sexual act.” Through such studies it has been established that those who would affirm the previ- ous propositions are in error and that their doctrine leads to and defends people committing adultery. Also, many who believe and teach such error have been identified.

As time has passed, two different views have developed of brethren who teach and practice the above doctrines. Some believe that they are in error and need to repent of their false teaching or be treated in accordance with 2 John 9-11 and Romans 16:17-18. Others look at them in quite another way. This can be seen by looking at what they have taught. It has been taught that such differences as we have with these brethren are the kind Paul addresses in Romans 14. Also, it has been pointed out that we have had differences on the Christian’s participation in carnal warfare and the woman’s head covering, and have not divided over them or called one another false teacher because of such differences. From this fact it has been argued that we should likewise not divide with those who teach clear error on marriage, divorce and remarriage or call such brethren false teachers. Yet another argument on how we should view such brethren is currently being advanced. I am hearing it more and more. We address it in this article.

How does the Bible’s teaching on local church autonomy fit into this discussion? When asked about the errors we are facing on marriage, divorce and remarriage, some preachers will reply, “I believe in local church autonomy” as if that somehow answers the question. Brethren will state their convictions on unscriptural remarriage, speaking the truth of the Bible, and then say, “But I am not going to get into what (error) is being taught on this subject in another autonomous local church.” You can talk to brethren about a church hiring or using a known false teacher and they will say, “That was their decision as an autonomous local church.” Churches who teach error on divorce and remarriage have argued that their autonomy allows them to do so. If a brother in one church tries to warn another church about an errant preacher that church is considering using, some will cite the “restraining implications” of church autonomy as showing that no one is “to have authority beyond the local church.”

Such views of local church autonomy as those above hold some pretty serious consequences in the present cli- mate among us. This concept allows some brethren to say that they will not be a part of a church that accepts those in adulterous marriages, but then stop short of condemning those who are a part of such a church. It allows other brethren to say that their autonomy allows them to teach error. This view gives still other brethren a basis for hiring a preacher who is sound on these remarriage questions while refusing to condemn a church that hires someone who is unsound. The church autonomy argument muddies the waters in the current controversies on marriage, divorce and remarriage. It is leading many brethren to view those in error with indifference. It will cause churches to invite those who teach error to hold gospel meetings, in contradiction to the plain teaching of Christ (2 John 9-11). It will gradually lead to such brethren being accepted as if they were sound brethren. After all, if they are not viewed as being in error in the churches where they presently hold membership (and they are not according to this view), how can we view them as being in error when they come to preach or be members at the local church where we live and worship? Further, it seeks to stop the mouths of those who are teaching truth by answering a false teacher in another church, thereby al- lowing those “whose mouths must be stopped” to continue their erroneous teaching (Tit. 1:10-11).

In light of these very real consequences we must ask, Are the above mentioned arguments proper applications of the Bible’s teaching on church autonomy? We answer in the negative for the following reasons:

1. It says that one is limited as to whom he can teach the Bible. The Bible gives freedom in this area (Matt. 28:19-20).

2. The Bible allows the practice of identifying false teachers in another church. When Paul told the Philippians to “beware of dogs” (Phil. 3:2), he was clearly warning them of Judaizers in other churches. There is no mention of any such problem at Philippi and the Judaizers were clearly active in other churches (cf. epistle to the Galatians). The brethren at Philippi were to be aware of false teachers in other churches.

3. It allows each church to make its own laws on matters of faith. The Bible says there is one law for all churches (1 Cor. 4:17, cf. Matt. 28:18). No church can use its autonomy to do that for which there is no authority!

4. It implies that one does wrong in passing information of error in a local church to another party who might try to help that church. The Bible clearly allows this practice (1 Cor. 1:11; 5:1; 11:18).

5. It says that one cannot warn another church about a false teacher it may be thinking of using to work with it. Clearly, the brethren in Ephesus did no wrong when they wrote to the brethren in Achaia exhorting them to receive Apollos (Acts 18:27). In light of this, how could it be wrong if, in the event Apollos was a false teacher, the brethren in Ephesus wrote to the brethren in Achaia exhorting them not to receive him? Why would one be infringing on a local church’s autonomy and the other clearly authorized?

6. It implies that truth is relative and regional rather than objective and universal. The same Gospel that is to be preached to all men is also to be abided in by all and it will judge all (Mark 16:15; 2 John 9; John 12:48). If what is preached and believed by many on the West Coast with regards to MDR is wrong in the Midwest or South, it is also wrong to those on the West Coast! The fact that many autonomous local churches in this area of the U.S. have made the decision to teach and practice these errors does not somehow make it “right for them.”


Before closing, let us all recognize that, after all that can be done has been done in applying the above points, local churches will have to make their own decisions as to the course they will choose in the present controversy. Churches in the first century had to make their own choices between righteousness and sin (Rev. 2:16; Matt. 7:13-14). The regrettable choices of erring brethren in the divisions over instrumental music and institutionalism show us that, in the end, a local church will decide where it stands. If it decides to embrace error the faithful can keep trying to teach and reach those in such churches, but no organization exists to control them. We see herein a difference between trying to bring a church under Christ’s control (teaching) and trying to bring it under the control of some humanly devised hierarchy, such as exists in Roman Catholicism.

After all is said and done, Christ will judge all men. He will do so by his word (John 12:48; Rom. 2:16). Let us all encourage one another to obey and follow his word. Let there be no strife among us on this issue, for we be brethren. We are right to seek to teach and instruct those in other local churches to help them come out of error. This is as much an act of love as when we try to teach an alien sinner in another state or country. Let us not be cowed by those who refuse to help their brethren who are lost or erring!