Church Autonomy

By Mike Willis

The word “autonomy” is defined as “the quality or condition of being autonomous; self-government; any state that governs itself.” The word “autonomy” does not appear in the English Bible. How-ever, the concept of church autonomy certainly does.

The Biblical Concept of Autonomous Churches

In the Bible revelation of the government of the church, there is no revelation of an organization of churches tied together under any kind of ecclesiastical government. The modern denominational concept, of all of the Presbyterian churches (or Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) being organized into a body with elected officials overseeing the various congregations as a single unit, is not found in the Bible.

1. There is no formal, earthly organization of the universal church. The concept of a universal church is not a group of churches, but all of the saved in the world (cf. Eph. 5:23f). The only officer in the universal church is Christ as the head of the church; the inspired writings of the apostles and prophets are the governing law of the body of Christ. This does not mean the universal church is in a state of disorganization and disarray, but it is organized directly under Christ without earthly offices, intermediaries or headquarters. There are no earthly officers in the universal church.

The Scriptures give considerable discussion to the qualifications of the officers in the local church. There is no mention of an earthly office in the universal church and no list of qualifications for such an officer. Why would God so carefully direct the local church in its appointment of officers but say nothing about officers in the universal church? That does not make sense. The very silence of the Scriptures precludes universal church offices and officers.

2. Local churches are independent from each other. The authority of the elders in a local church is limited to the “flock of God which is among you” (I Pet. 5:1) and the flock “over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Elders have no authority to rule over anything larger than the local church.

The sponsoring church is a violation of church autonomy because it makes elders of the local church oversee the funds of thousands of churches. The elders have authority to oversee the members, discipline, teaching, and funds of the local church and it only.

No Substitutes For Universal Officers

There are no provisions for universal officers under Christ in the church on earth. Brethren need to guard themselves from thinking of anything or anybody as such. Editors of papers are not creed writers. Colleges and publishing houses are not dictators of doctrinal positions. I do not know of a college president or editor of a paper among us who believes otherwise.

There is nothing wrong with a person teaching the word of God, whether he be a college president or an editor. The power of what he writes or says is only in the moral persuasion of the word of God. Hence, the authority resides not in the office he holds as college president, editor, preacher, etc., but in the God of heaven who wrote the Bible. Consequently, in reading after or listening to any speaker, we should give attention to what the Bible says, not who says it. Let us “search the Scriptures daily” to see if the things taught are so (Acts 17:11). This is our best safeguard against intrusions on the autonomy of churches.

Misunderstanding of Church Autonomy

During the institutional controversies, the liberal churches that violated church autonomy by the sponsoring church arrangement frequently manifested a misunderstanding of church autonomy which was reflected in their protestations of teaching being sent to their members. This misconception was reflected also in protests against naming specific churches and their digressive practices. Many faithful congregations used church bulletins to teach those who were in liberalism, exposing and documenting the digression with specific cases. On several occasions the elders in the liberal churches charged that their autonomy was violated because a faithful church sent bulletins to their members and exposed their practices.

The autonomy of a local church is not violated by teaching being sent to its members. Did Paul violate the autonomy of the churches of Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, Colossae, or Thessalonica when he sent his epistles to them? Would a preacher sin if he followed an apostolic example of sending teaching directed to the problems in a local church?

Did Peter and John violate the autonomy of the church at Samaria when they were sent to see how things were going in Philip’s work (Acts 8:14)7 Did Bamabas violate the autonomy of the church at Antioch when he was sent there by the church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:22)?

Did John violate the autonomy of the seven churches of Asia Minor when he included both positive and negative points about their practices in a single letter and circulated this same letter to all seven churches (Rev. 2-3)?

Those who protest the receiving of teaching, whether done through a man (such as Peter, John, or Bamabas), a bulletin, or a paper, as a violation of church autonomy show a misunderstanding of church autonomy. Those who protest exposing the digression of specific churches reflect the same misconception.

Autonomy Does Not Mean Immunity

From Scriptural Examination

On more than one occasion, brethren have written articles in subscription journals to teach that articles in subscription journals violate the autonomy of the local church! Editors and preachers who write for subscription journals are condemned for violating church autonomy by a preacher writing an article in a subscription journal. Now if that makes sense to you, perhaps you can enlighten me! “Therefore thou art inexcusable, 0 man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things” (Rom. 2:1). Is it right to write an article in a subscription journal condemning those who write articles in subscription journals? Brethren, this is just plain silly!

“Autonomy” is not a concept to hide behind to avoid scriptural examination, the necessity of giving Bible authority, and exposing specific cases of digression and apostasy to the light of truth. That process does not make any local church subservient to the oversight of any paper’s editor, any college president, any preacher or even any single Christian any-where. Any Christian with a Bible in his hand can ask where the Bible authorizes a specific practice of any given church. Members of that church can choose to give a Bible answer or to declare themselves immune from giving a Bible answer on the mistaken notion that giving a Bible answer to “every man that asketh you a reason” violates church autonomy (1 Pet. 3:15; 4:11).

If a church uses mechanical instruments in worship, the concept of autonomy does not shelter it from preaching that condemns innovations in worship. If a church builds a fellowship hall and perverts its mission to provide recreation for its members under the guise of “felt needs” preaching, the concept of autonomy does not condemn brethren calling attention to these apostasies. If a church accepts into its membership those who have divorced for reasons other than fornication and subsequently remarried or bids Godspeed to this error by using and supporting preachers who teach this doctrine, the concept of church autonomy does not forbid preaching which calls this apostasy to light. The issue is not autonomy but open investigation of truth and departures from it. Those who love the truth have nothing to fear from the process of open study on any subject. Those who have a practice that is not authorized by the Scriptures may hide behind the false claims of violated autonomy.

The same is true of the concept of fellowship. 2 John 9-11 says, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” If a church violates 2 John 9-11 by fellowshipping those who have departed from the doctrine of Christ (whether the area of departure be receiving one who teaches that instrumental music in worship is acceptable, the sponsoring church, church sponsored recreation, or unscriptural doctrines on divorce and remarriage), the concept of church autonomy does not preclude their practice being examined in the light of Scripture. And, whether that review of their practice be published in a church bulletin, a subscription paper, or preached from a pulpit does not affect whether or not it violates church autonomy. If so, will someone please send me the Scripture for making such a distinction.

Violations of Church Autonomy Are Wrong

But Motive Judging is Right?

In some of the articles in subscription papers which charge that church autonomy is violated by those who write articles in subscription papers, there is considerable motive judging. The writers under review are charged with having an ulterior motive of trying to attain power and control the brotherhood. They are self-important and lust for power and prestige. Of course, the author of the article in a subscription journal who is condemning others who write in subscription journals does not lust for power and prestige, think himself self-important, or have an ulterior motive of attaining power! Those attributes are in others, but not in himself! Violations in church autonomy are severely condemned but no attention is paid to sinful judging of anothers motives. This kind of censorious judging is what Jesus condemned in Matthew 7:1-5 when he said,

Judge not, that ye he not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again, And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam Out of thine own eye: and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brothers eye (Matt, 7:1-5).

There is no defense for sinful attitudes and conduct for individuals, churches, papers., colleges, or anyone else. Wherein a brother is guilty of lusting for power, thinks himself self-important, and has an ulterior motive of trying to attain power, he is guilty of sin and should repent. However, we should be careful not to attribute these sinful attitudes to a brother ,just because he calls attention to a person or a churchs departure from the revealed word of God! He may just be a God-fearing brother doing his best to serve the God of heaven. If that be the case, how unfortunate would be the scathing articles which condemn him for ulterior motives. Jesus warned,” But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! (Matt. 18:6-7)


Let us avoid violations of church autonomy. There is no eldership which has authority over anything larger than a local church. No outside individual has the right to intrude into the affairs of a local church to make decisions for that church. However, there is no sin committed in preaching the truth to anyone, whether or not he is a member of the same local church as I am, Church autonomy is not a concept to hide behind to escape open investigation of any Bible subject or principle, or the necessity of giving Bible authority for the actions and decisions made in a local church!

Furthermore, let us be wary of any teaching that discourages obedience to the Bible command to search the Scriptures daily, whether these things taught were so (Acts 17:11) and to try the Spirits whether they are of God” (I John 4:1). This attitude is essential to prevent the growth of apostasy among us. When brethren destroy this attitude, they prepare the soil for the seeds of apostasy to be planted or for those which already have been planted to grow. In my judgment, some articles on church autonomy have denigrated the open study of truth and the obligation to give book, chapter, and verse authority for their practices under the guise that church autonomy is violated by the very request for Bible authority cite is nobodys business what is done in the local church of which are a member”). This undermines the need forgiving Bible authority for our practices and is itself a danger to be guarded against.

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 18, p. 2
September 16, 1993