Autonomy Of The Local Church

By Don Martin

Our English word autonomy is composed of two Greek words, auto, meaning self (auto is translated “itself” in Romans 8:16); and nomos, meaning law (nomos is translated “law” in John 1:17). Thus, autonomy denotes “self-law, self-rule, or self-governing”. The Random House College Dictionary defines autonomy as, “Independence . . ., The right of self-government . . ., a self governing community” (p.92). The expression “local church” in our title has reference to a local functioning entity of God’s people (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph.5:19; Heb. 10:25; Phil. 1: 1, etc.). The universal church – the totality of the saved in all parts of the world – has no earthly organization and, therefore, no mission to meet or duty to perform as a functional entity. However, the local church has organization (Phil. 1: 1) and work to perform (I Tim.3:15); hence, the local church is a functioning organization.

Establishing the type of government of the local church. Did the church of the apostolic period (first century) consist of human boards, synods, conclaves, and modern denominational machinery? Were there superstructures and auxiliary organizations separate and apart from the local church which had control over the individual local churches? We can determine the kind of government characteristic of the early church by a number of considerations.

Direct statements. “Feed the flock of God,” Peter enjoined elders, “which is among you, taking the oversight thereof . . . ” (1 Pet. 5:2). Ideally, elders are to be appointed in every church (Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5). They however, have the oversight and are to shepherd the flock “among” them or wherein they serve.

Apostolic example. In examining the duty of the local church, we find activity and performance of responsibility which only autonomy can satisfy (cf. Rev.2-3; Phil.4:15,16; Acts 11:27-30 [explain later]).

Necessary inference. Local churches were independently organized (Acts 14:23); independently directed (1 Pet.5:2); and independently functioned (Acts 11:27-30, Phil. 4:15,16). We, therefore, necessarily infer that autonomy was the kind of government which characterized the first century churches.

“These churches, whenever formed, became separate and independent bodies,” wrote church historian Lyman Coleman, “competent to appoint their own officers, and to administer their own government without reference to subordination to any central authority or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of these primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded, so that the discussion of it need not be renewed at this place” (Ancient Christianity Exemplified, p.95).

Law of exclusion. Beloved, if the early church was autonomous in government, then all other types of government are sinful (2 Jn.9).

Autonomy exemplified. Intelligent reader, autonomy is seen in the evangelism executed by the New Testament local churches. Jerusalem was the “center” of Jewish efforts to preach the gospel; however, there is no example, direct statement, or room for necessary inference to indicate the church in Jerusalem exercised any control over other churches in the matter of evangelism (Acts 2). Antioch became the 64 center” for Gentile efforts; yet, there is no intimation of any control (cf. Acts 13:1-3; 14:27-28). Jerusalem and Antioch would have made perfect sponsoring or overseeing churches, if God had wanted such an arrangement! While Paul labored at Thessalonica, Philippi sent support directly to Paul, not to Thessalonica (Phil. 4:15,16). Philippi, Thessalonica, and probably Berea sent to Paul to assist him in his work with the church at Corinth but notice they did not send to Corinth (2 Cor. 11:8,9).

Self-government is also seen in doctrine and conduct. When five out of the seven churches of Asia erred or developed problems, it did not destroy or influence the other two faithful churches in the region (Rev.2;3). Autonomy is also seen in benevolence (Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1,2; Rom. 15:26).

How to maintain the autonomy of the local church. Conservative churches, churches seeking to abide in the doctrine of Christ, are constantly tempted to depart from congregational independence. Here are some suggestions and rules to help us remain faithful in church government:

Respect God’s word. Respect for Bible authority is a requisite. It is totally inconsistent to maintain respect for Acts 2:38 and reject 1 Peter 5:2!

Each local church needs to manage its own business. There is often too much meddling between churches. I observed the violation of autonomy a few years ago when the church where I was preaching withdrew from some factious members. The withdrawn members started attending at another local church. The other local church took the members in (this was their decision to make – right or wrong). The real problems involving autonomy began when the “elders” of the receiving church began to tell me what to preach on and what not to preach on (they did not want any teaching which might make them look guilty of anything, they said). Efforts were begun by different members at the other church to make us rescind the withdrawal action through “plants,” threats, kindred, and political maneuvers to dominate and control. The disciplining church maintained letting the receiving church alone; but the receiving church continued causing division and discard (admittedly, we also had some who violated the autonomy of the receiving church by trying to force them not to receive the disciplined members). Because of this violation of self-government, there arose a stench from California to Florida (the bossing church felt they had to protect their reputation by circulating their “defense”).

Each church plans and executes its own work. Church A needs to take care of the work of church A. Sometimes, however, church A becomes interested in the work of church B. Church A innocently invites church B to tell them how to do the work. The next thing you have is a violation of self-rule by church B, in their enthusiasm, assigning and overseeing the work of church A!

There are a number of actions to shun in practicing congregational independence. Individual churches should first take care of their own needy members (Acts 2;4); each church should independently spend its own resources; and elders oversee only the flock in which they serve. Let us ever continue to practice congregational autonomy and completely avoid any semblance of a threat to self-rule.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 17, pp. 525-526
September 6, 1984