Independent Autonomous Churches

By Robert F. Turner

Like “Instrumental Music in Worship,” this topic has become aged and worn, and many may turn the page to something more current. But experience tells us both problems continue, and “Independence” is by far the least understood. It is not unusual to hear lengthy discussions on the “sponsoring church arrangement” where congregational independence is only mentioned in passing instead of being treated as the basic issue. This is not to question the valid arguments that are made, and institutional brethren are usually charged with violating independence. But we may expect a greater understanding of the subject than really exists, so that our hurried charges fall on ears unable to appreciate our concern or make application of our argument to their practices.

With few if any exceptions our brethren preach that each local church is “independent and autonomous.” So did Alexander Campbell, first president of the American Christian Missionary Society. So do dozens, perhaps hundreds of various religious groups whose organizational structures (as regards a plurality of congregations) range from episcopacy to monarchy. Perhaps the following material from my Arlington Meeting script, can best express this thought.

The Handbook of Denominations in the United States, by Frank S. Mead (edition of 1951), lists 137 different religious groups in our country. A surprising number of these denominations claim to believe in “congregational independence”; but a wide eyed look at their practices reveals some startling contradictions. Here are a few samples. “Congregational in government, each local church is completely independent. The churches are grouped in five districts and five annual conferences; over them is a national general conference, which meets biennially.” Another: “Local churches are left quite independent in polity and in the conduct of local affairs. District officers have a pastoral ministry to all the churches and are responsible for the promotion of home missions. Work is divided into forty districts in the U.S., most of which follow state lines, each with a district Presbytery, which examines, licenses, and ordains “pastors” (pp. 18, 23). There are many other like examples. In each case, if we read only that portion I have emphasized we might think this was written about the Lord’s church. But those first lines do not tell the whole story. Is this the kind of “independent” congregations we believe the Scriptures authorize? Surely not!

We must do more than just say we believe in congregational independence. The “framework of the local church” is not some scheme for district, churchhood, or universal collective action. It is God’s limitation of collective action – the extent to which God authorizes organized church functions. If this is not the case our use of the words “local church government” is as meaningless and ambiguous as that of the denominations cited above. If we used a county frameword to run a national function – say, let the Burnet County sheriff serve as Commander in Chief of the nation’s armed forces, receiving operating funds from over the nation, and functioning in the national interest; would this mean we had no armed force on a national scale? To ask is to answer, even if we continued to call him “Sheriff.” And yet, many seem to think no brotherhood (churchhood) action is being taken although the elders of some local church have the additional control of a churchhood project.

We must come to a more accurate understanding of such matters; agreeing on scriptural “independent” church government, and giving particular attention to those things which violate this independence. In our own history, as in that of many other religious groups, independence has been given away, yes given away, under the name of “cooperation.” Bear with me for one more quotation from Mead’s Handbook of Denominations. “In 1814 the Baptists organized their own separate General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America. This convention, representing a national Baptist fellowship, marked the first real denominational consciousness of American Baptists.” This has a familiar ring to those who know our history well.

How do we prove this congregational independence we so freely claim? Most knowledgeable saints will cite Acts 14:23, “elders in every church” or 1 Peter 5:2, “Feed (shepherd, rft) the flock of God which is among you.” These Scriptures indicate (1) each congregation is on an equality with reference to oversight; and (2) oversight is on a local level, not on a district, churchhood, or universal scale. Does this limit organizational structure to the local church level? We usually agree that it does. Our reasoning, if we stop to analyze it, is that God has spoken on the subject, and there is no authority for organization on any other level. God must intend that each congregation be independent and self-ruled. I believe this is sound scriptural reasoning. Of course we understand that we speak of “rule” from the viewpoint of coordinating oversight in matters of judgment necessary for collective action of saints. Christ is the sole Ruler of his citizens in matters of faith, and in this sense the church has but one overseer.

Another proof of congregational independence has to do with the church treasury. Collective action requires not only the acceptance of a common oversight, but also the pooling of means and abilities, money being the usual medium through which a plurality act as one. As the scale or extent of oversight indicates the level of operation which God approves, so also does the scope of the pooled fund by which the joint operation is powered. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 reads: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come. And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” The funds were accumulated on a local scale, each church being instructed alike, each providing its own fund; and they were controlled on a local basis (“whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters . . . your liberality”).

An “independent church is “not dependent,” the “in” being a negative prefix on “dependent.” An independent church “has a competency” to function in all things essential to its existence (see Webster’s or any other standard dictionary). We believe God intended each congregation to function with its own oversight, selected from among the flock to be served; and that is regular means of funding its work should be contributions from its members according to their ability. We do not question some visitor’s right to drop something in the contribution plate, nor voluntary gifts from a friend; but the independent church, like an independent individal, should be expected to act commensurate with its own resources, and function according to its own ability (see 2 Cor. 8:11-12). An independent local church would fulfill its purpose before God, if there were not another congregation in existence.

We are aware that some first century churches became dependent, and other churches sent them alms. Our next article

will deal with these circumstances, and coordinate such scriptural information with our study on congregational independence.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 19, pp. 581-582
October 5, 1989