What Is "Autonomy"?

Ray Ferris
Racine, Wis.

There is much being said in these troubled times in the church about autonomy. It is therefore in order that we study this word to determine its cor rect usage in regard to congregational relationships.

Etymology And Definition

The word autonomy comes from a combination of two Greek words autos and nomos or nemo. These two words are defined, by Thayer as follows: Au,tos - "self, as used (in all persons, genders, numbers) to distinguish a person or thing from or contrast it with another, or to give him (it) emphatic prominence." Nomos -- "anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, usage, law; In the N. T. a command, law . . . The verb form of nomos is nemo, meaning to divide, distribute, apportion, dispense. Thus we see that the combination of these two words would mean self-usage, self-custom, self-division, self-distribution, etc., and finally self-law.

Both of these words -- autos and nomos -- are used many times in the scriptures but not one time are they ever, combined to form the word autonomy. Autonomy is then, not a term found in the scriptures, but a term coined by men to express a scriptural idea if properly understood. There is no harm in using a term that is not found in scripture, if it does not in itself violate the principles established by the Scriptures, or if it is not used in such a way as to violate scriptural principles. Notice that Thayer's definition brings out the thought that nomos is not necessarily something established by legislation, but often by usage and custom.

Cannot Be Used In Legislative Sense

There is no place for this term in any discussion of congregational relationships except in the non-legislative sense. The head of the entire church is Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:18; and Eph. 5:23), and He is the head of every congregation of His people. He makes the laws, or rather He has made them. There is no church, no group of churches. nor group within any church that has legislative powers The word autonomy must never be used to mean self-law f rom the standpoint of legislation in matters of faith. It must rather express the idea of self-division, self-apportionment, and self-distribution in lawful ways of teaching and administering Christ's laws; self-custom, self-usage, and self-law only in matters where God has not given us His law, custom, usage, etc. As the word is so often used by brethren it expresses the right of self rule and self- ad ministration by a congregation of God's people with the understanding that Jesus Christ is our head and lawgiver. Our self-rule is to be with Him directing and with no outside interference. Our self-administration must be in harmony with His laws; not over someone else's affairs, nor allowing others to administer, manage, and rule our affairs.

Relation Of Decision To Autonomy

Sometimes we hear people say that autonomy simply means the right to decide. When properly understood and used, autonomy carries with it the idea of administering the decisions made. This thought is inherent in the background of the word. It is true that decision is an essential element of autonomy. It is not correct to speak of decision as the essential element of autonomy. Even after decisions are made there yet remains as a part of our autonomy the administrative, or executive functions before congregational autonomy is complete; the apportioning, distributing, dispensing, etc., of nomos. No congregation has completely lost its autonomy as long, as it has opportunity to decide on anything. But, any congregation that gives to another congregation, organization, or individual the right to make any decision for it, or to administer any decision it has made, has surrendered a portion of its autonomy.

A Clearer Term

Another word that is often used in connection with these thoughts is independence. To most people in the church congregational independence expresses the idea involved more clearly. All can see the idea of complete self-dependence and operation separate and apart from any outside source. Just as our own nation once made a declaration of independence from one other nation in particular, and all countries in general, and we thus became completely responsible for ourselves, even so we can understand the principle of congregational independence and autonomy.

Even though we are independent as a nation we are not prohibited from cooperating with other nations. However, our independence demands that no other nation has the right to plan projects which they know to be impossible for them, and then expect us, and other nations, to support such projects. Likewise, independence demands that we do not make such plans ourselves and expect others to support them. However, two nations, or more, may resolve to help a nation that is in need. Let us suppose that we as a nation decide to help Hungary. Would it be likely that we would send our money and supplies to Russia? Why not? Human wisdom, and independence, demand that we keep control of our funds until they arrive at the place we have decided they should be used! The uproar that exists in the church now about autonomy, cooperation, independence, etc., is nothing to compare with the commotion that would result if our nation should embark upon such a course. If you do not like the illustration using Russia and Hungary, we could change it to helping Canada through England. The principle is identical, but the thought is not quite so horrible to us because these two countries are "friendly nations" to us and to each other. We can all remember when the Soviet Republic was an ally too!

However, there is a vast difference in these comparisons of nations and congregations. A nation has the right to make whatever laws would be necessary to make such a program legal (no law would ever make it wise); no congregation has legislative power to make any law. Therefore since God's pattern sets forth congregational autonomy and independence, men can never change this pattern with divine sanction! Just as reason demands that nations be free to help a nation in need (if two nations help a third nation they are cooperating), even so God has given congregations that privilege, but the pattern is for each congregation to remain independent and autonomous. Study the examples given in the scriptures and note the absence of any centralized control, distribution, division, etc. Every congregation remained independent.

Wisdom Of Autonomy

God's word is reasonable, and His wisdom is far superior to ours. His ways may at times seem to some to be unwise or inexpedient, but "the foolishness of God is wiser than men: and the weakness of God is stronger than men." 1 Cor. 1:25. See also Isa. 55:8-9. God's wisdom and man's foolishness were made manifest in the great apostasies of the past. When men tied many congregations together, whether by diocesan elderships or by ecclesiasticisms of centralized cooperative arrangements, the result was the same. When one congregation went into other departures of error the others nearly always followed. When God's pattern of congregational independence is followed there will be no reason or tendency for a whole group of churches to go astray just because one does. When God's plan is not followed there is great likelihood of mass digression. The closer the ties between the churches the greater the probability.

However, autonomy and independence are terms expressing the relationship between or among churches. They have no reference whatsoever to a congregation's or an individual's relationships to God and Christ. There is no autonomy or independence involved there. We belong to Christ if we are Christians; He is our head and our lawgiver. Neither do these terms apply to the associations of members of a congregation with their elders. Those who worship and work in a congregation are to be in subjection to the elders, but sometimes people get autonomy and submission to elders somewhat mixed together. In a future article we will study this problem also, the Lord willing.

Truth Magazine I:5, pp. 6-7, 19
February 1957