Congregational Autonomy: Preaching and Practice
Paden City, West Virginia
I am persuaded that, in many things, our practice comes perilously close to violating our preaching. The Pharisees and the scribes were good (or bad) examples in this respect (Mt. 23:3). None of us are immune to this tendency and our inconsistency can be seen by others-better than vie-can see it ourselves. Just because our practice does not keep pace with our preaching, this incongruity does not necessarily prove that our preaching wrong, but it surely does play havoc with the effectiveness of said preaching.
The Lord knew what kind of government was best for His church. Christ was to be the head of His church (Eph. 1:22, 23), each congregation was to be autonomous (Acts 14:23; 20:28), and the apostles not only introduced this type of government, but they observed and respected it after its introduction (Phil. 1:1; Acts 21:18). This system was so effective and efficient that the devil lost no time trying to undermine it and, in every departure from the faith, he has had effective assistance from brethren within the church. It would be difficult to stress these truths too much, and we should be suspicious of all efforts to the contrary.
After preaching in a certain county, the preacher returned home and printed a statement in his bulletin that he had just closed a meeting with the only local congregation in that county. There were twenty-five other congregations in that county, and there were several others who knew more about those congregations than did the preacher who made the statement. In fact, some of us knew more about the congregation where he had preached, than did he. By this time, he has probably learned as much, but this untimely assertion did not make it any easier for those who were trying to persuade some of those congregations to take a stand for the truth.
Another preacher located with a congregation which had previously been the center of much confusion and trouble. All preachers, elders, and congregations for miles around knew the history of that congregation, and that its problems had nothing to do with "institutionalism." Yet, this preacher immediately began to chide other congregations and preachers in the area by means of his bulletin. Maybe some needed chiding and maybe none of them would have taken a stand for truth on the institutional question anyway, but the preacher doing the provoking was in no favorable position to chide anyone.-After a few months, he realized his mistake and publicly acknowledged such in his bulletin. He also exited the congregation from whence he had been making his editorial sallies.
On another occasion, a new congregation had just been started in a certain town. Some of us were reasonably certain that it would eventually embrace liberal positions and practices, but could not prove it at the time. At a social gathering of preachers, one of the preachers asked the rest of the group what we were going to do about the new congregation. My reply was that I had turned over the announcements and information (which I had received), to the elders where I preached and that it would be up to them to make such a decision.
After a few years of supporting a radio program on the local station, the elders where I preached decided to discontinue the program. The program seemed to be doing little if any good, it was expensive, and the elders decided to use the money to help start a new congregation. After the elders made their decision, a former preacher for the congregation, who at this time was preaching for another congregation, complained to me about the decision to discontinue the program. When I told him that the elders had made the decision, he was very emphatic in stating that I should have used my influence to alter their decision. I told him that I not only preached that elders were to oversee the flock, but that I practiced it.
Now, maybe some of these instances to which I have referred do not constitute a violation of congregational autonomy, but I think they are sufficiently related to the subject for us to draw some profitable conclusions from them. First, preachers need to constantly remind themselves that they do not run the affairs of a congregation and, if necessary, the elders need to remind them. And, if elders try to delegate this authority to preachers, the elders need to be reminded that such cannot be done. The Lord has already delegated in this matter, and it cannot be changed.
Secondly, even when other congregations practice things contrary to apostolic doctrine, we still need to recognize the principle of congregational autonomy. This course does not preclude our making a solemn protest against anything that is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Sam. 8:9), nor does it require that we endorse and bid God speed to any false practice or teaching. But, if we violate the principle of congregational self-government, even for what we consider to be a "good cause," that action may turn to haunt us before too long.
Above all, before we rush into print or into the pulpit with utterances which may adversely affect the very cause we are trying to promote, let us ascertain the validity of those things we write and speak. There will be enough "confusion of face" when we are told to mind our own business, but even more so when our "facts" turn to fiction.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 37, p. 594