When Does a Local Church Lose Its Autonomy?

John W. Hedge
Longview, Texas

When the Missionary Society was formed many years ago as "a method of church cooperation" in preaching the gospel of Christ, it was insisted by the promoters of this "method" that no local church would lose it's autonomy by sending funds to it to help in the work. The "anti-Missionary Society" group denied this and insisted that the work of each local church should be done at the congregational level and under the oversight of its own elders.

In later years some of these "anti-Missionary Society" preachers decided that it was scriptural for one local church to set up a plan of preaching whereby many churches by contributing funds into its treasury could cooperate in preaching the gospel on a larger and more effective scale than could be done by the churches at the local level. They then said that no local church in cooperating in this way would lose its autonomy. Those who opposed this "method of church cooperation" were referred to as "the non-cooperative brethren," and are still so referred to unto this day.

First, let it be observed that both the Missionary Society and the "sponsoring church" are referred to as "methods of church cooperation", and that in sending funds to either one to help in preaching the gospel of Christ it is claimed that no local church will lose its autonomy. If a local church sends money to the Missionary Society, which controls and directs the use of it in preaching the gospel of Christ and does, thereby, lose it's autonomy, why wouldn't a local church lose it's autonomy by ' reason of sending it's money to a "sponsoring church" which does the same thing?

When an individual gives that which he possesses to another to be used at his discretion, he thereby loses control of it. The one who receives the gift assumes complete control of it. Otherwise it is not a gift in the strict sense of the term. When one gives of his means into the treasury of the church, he thereby relinquishes control of it. When a local church contributes money into the treasury of either a Missionary Society or a so-called "sponsoring church" it loses complete control of it. Otherwise the autonomy of a local church extends into the precincts of both the Missionary Society and the "sponsoring church." A local church maintains its autonomy only when it does its own work at the congregational level and under the direction of its own elders. It has no scriptural right to employ an agent in the form of either a Missionary Society or a "sponsoring church" through which to do its work of preaching the gospel of Christ.

Each local church is referred to as a "candlestick" and is under obligation to "hold forth the light" as it may have means and opportunity to do so. There is no such idea advanced in the New Testament as combining all the candlesticks - local churches - into one big candlestick in the form of either a Missionary Society or a "sponsoring church." When each local church, like each individual Christian, does what it can with what it has, be it little or much, God is pleased. If the Lord had intended that the churches cooperate by combining their means through any agent or channel in the form of either a Missionary Society or a "sponsoring church," He would have made some kind of provision for such form of cooperation. Mr. Campbell realized this fact, when he wrote of the early churches which filled the world with the gospel in less than thirty years: "In their congregational capacity alone they moved." If that is the way "they moved" in preaching the gospel to all the world in the days of the apostles, may we move differently today? If they maintained their autonomy by reason of moving in "their congregational capacity alone," will the local churches today maintain their autonomy by moving otherwise? I am a strong believer in "state rights," each state running its own affairs, instead of a being, controlled by a centralized power in Washington, D.C. As certain as a state may lose its autonomy to a centralized form of government, so may local churches when they turn their work over to other agencies, even to another local church!

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 48, pp. 11-12
October 14, 1971