Current Misunderstandings of Autonomy

Steve Wallace
The Bible teaches local church autonomy. However, it seems that some brethren do not understand this subject as well as one would hope. This is seen from their condemning or refusing that which the Bible allows with regards to autonomy. Let us notice some examples.

With Regards to Advising Other Churches
About a Given Preacher
Please notice the following two quotes from brethren on this subject:

Now may I say to you, brethren, that when brethren go throughout this land, not only informing and fighting error, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with opposing error, in fact I don’t know how to teach truth without putting it in bold relief against error. If you want to be plain you have to do that. But when men go across the country with the view to influencing churches who to preach for them or not, they are in violation of the New Testament scripture. Have we not heard long and loud for years of the local autonomy of a congregation? Let us not confuse the responsibility of teaching with our limited responsibility of fellowship  (Harry Pickup, “The Holiness of God as Revealed in Unity and Diversity” [sermon], Lexington, Kentucky, July 14, 1998, my emph, sw).
No individual has the right to meddle in the affairs of an autonomous congregation. Period. When men begin phoning local church members attempting to gain information about a third party, or in an effort to sway a congregational decision in which they have no lawful involvement, it’s plain sinful. When calls come from ‘concerned brethren’ across the country about which preacher should/should not be hired, or who should conduct a gospel meeting, such brethren have jumped from propriety to politics” (Steve Dewhirst, “Church Autonomy,” Sentry Magazine, June, 1993, 3, my emph, sw).
Brethren Pickup and Dewhirst speak their thoughts clearly. It is sad to note that, in their zeal to condemn actions some would take today to limit the effects of error in other churches, they condemn the actions of New Testament Christians. Please note what the brethren in Ephesus did:

And when he (Apollos) was disposed to pass into Achaia, the brethren (at the church in Ephesus) wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him: who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed through grace (Acts 18:27).

    It goes without saying that, had Apollos been unworthy, the evident concern of the brethren at Ephesus for the brethren at Achaia would have been shown in warning them about him. Please compare this verse with the italicized parts of the quotes above. These two brethren are clearly teaching contrary to the Bible. It is sad to see preachers with such influence as these two men so clearly misleading brethren.

In Mission Work
There has been concern expressed with regards to churches in the U.S. sending preachers to a given place in the mission field where a church already exists. I, as well as others, have expressed concern for local church autonomy in such actions. The Bible allows this. Please notice the following account from Acts 11:

Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord. Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch (vv. 19-26).
On its own initiative, one church sent a preacher to another church! There was a “church” in Antioch (v. 26). The “church . . . in Jerusalem” decided to send Barnabas there (v. 22). Some brethren make arguments (wrongly) in our day to the effect that we cannot do today what the apostles did. (See Mike Willis’ recent series on this.) However, we do not have to stop to consider such arguments here because it says the “church” sent Barnabas. Hence, we can see that it is scriptural for one church to send forth a preacher to another church to preach the Gospel. It goes without saying that Antioch could have decided, in harmony with their autonomy, that they did not need Barnabas. However, Jerusalem did not violate Antioch’s autonomy by sending Barnabas.

As it Pertains to Churches Sending Out
Announcements and Bulletins
In recent months a church mailed out an announcement to other churches of an upcoming effort it was planning which, being kind, deserved some attention. A brother from another church wrote, questioning that church about the announcement he had received from it. A brother from that church answered saying he firmly believed in local church autonomy and did not believe it was necessary to discuss decisions that the elders had made. Contrast this attitude with the actions of the church in Jerusalem in Acts 15. When they learned that brethren which went out from them had gone to Antioch teaching error (v. 24) they were willing to discuss this matter with the brethren from Antioch. If the church at Antioch had wanted to discuss truth which had gone forth from Jerusalem, it naturally follows that the brethren in Jerusalem would have been willing to do so. Local church autonomy allows for such questions and discussion as found in Acts 15. Yet, some brethren are acting as if church autonomy was violated in Acts 15!

Clearly, statements have been made on the subject of local church autonomy that have not been in harmony with Scripture. Brethren can be misled by them. Indeed, the “church autonomy” charge exemplified by brethren Dewhirst and Pickup is oft heard. Let us not heed such clearly erroneous words. Let us hear the Bible. It tells us what is and what is not in harmony with its teaching on local church autonomy.

2103 Rexford Rd., Montgomery, Alabama 36116
Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 23  p8  December 7, 2000