The Parameters of Church Autonomy
In Matthew 16 the inspired historian revealed a promise made by Jesus to Peter and his other disciples. The promise concerned a significant aspect of God's plan of redemption for mankind. In verse 18 Jesus said, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." The church of Christ is a divine institution, formed by Christ, and governed by principles established by Him and His ambassadors, "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19).
Unfortunately men have continually shown themselves unwilling to acquiesce to Christ's will regarding His church, and have altered the divine plan. Departures have been seen with regard to the worship of the church. Men have promoted innovations such as instruments of music to accompany the singing which is commanded in scripture, and have altered acts of worship such as the Lord's Supper to the point where they are almost unrecognizable distortions of the divine plan. Men have distorted the work of the church as well, a common example of this is the present emphasis on the church as an agent of social change. This social emphasis is a far cry from the work of evangelism and edification indicated by Paul when he declared the church to be "the pillar and ground of the truth" (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15). Men have changed at their whim the organization of the church. There has been the activation of the "universal" church, the centralization and consolidation of authority; and the alliance of the church with human institutions, councils and societies. Among the distortions of God's blueprint for the church, and the focus of this article, is an assault on the concept of church autonomy as revealed in scripture.
In order to be able to recognize and expose the error that has and is being propagated regarding the autonomy of local congregations of Christians, we must examine what the scriptures teach on the matter. The term "autonomy" is not found in either the Old or New Testament, but the concept is clearly there. The term "autonomy" is defined by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as "the quality or state of being self-governing." This definition is decidedly accurate when describing the design of the local church. While Christ is the head, and all authority is given to Him (cf. Matthew 28:18), the individual congregations have been given the right by God to obey His will apart from any outside influence, direction, or governance. Commensurate with this right is the responsibility of each congregation to maintain autonomy. In other words, God not only allows churches to be autonomous, He requires it.
There are a number of safeguards that God designed into the organization of the church which ensure the principle of autonomy will be well protected. For example, there is no scriptural activation of the universal body of Christ. While some have thought it beneficial to in some way organize all believers on earth into a common work or organization, God designed the church differently. Men, unwilling to acquiesce to God's will, have time and again violated this aspect of God's will. The primary and most ancient example of this is the formation of the apostate church in the centuries following the death of our Lord and His apostles. Men desired to mimic the Roman government, and many sought out positions of honor. This led to the exaltation of men as "Chief Elders" or Bishops, the consolidation of power as men were placed over multiple churches, and finally the appointment of one man as the head or Vicar over the Catholic (universal) church. In the Pope's name false doctrine has proliferated, the organization and the work of the church of God has been distorted beyond recognition, and all matter of ungodliness, war, and strife has taken place. While many believe it is good to "activate" the universal church, right minded Christians need only to look to Catholicism to see such a plan is untenable and unwise.
Consider any apostasy. Due to the tendencies of carnal man, they will always be present among us. Paul warned of this when he wrote, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Now, imagine a central authority, with the right to determine "what brethren will believe." If that central authority, be it a synod, council, creed, or college be taken into error, the whole church would be led into apostasy.
In contrast we have God's plan. It can be illustrated by pointing out that the congregation where I preach, as an autonomous group of Christians, is not compelled to follow any organization's or individual's dictates as to what we will believe or practice. Also, if we are to drift into apostasy, we have no authority to compel others to follow. This shows the wisdom of God's design.
When you have elders overseeing the work of a congregation that is not their own, you have a violation of scripture (cf. Acts 20:28), and a violation of autonomy. When you have churches bonding together in a sponsoring church arrangement, you have a violation of the scriptural pattern of work, and you have a violation of autonomy. When you have "delegates" voting on a "creed" or "statement of faith" intended to bind conformity on the beliefs and practices of the Lord's church, you have a violation of scripture, and a violation of autonomy. Men need to curb their desire to centralize the government and doctrine of the local church, and submit to the central authority, (our Lord) and His plan for the church.
While some disregard the concept of autonomy, and engage in the practices mentioned here, others hide behind the principle as a way of avoiding criticism as they depart from truth.
For example, when error is exposed some claim that it is a "violation of autonomy." This is not a new cry, as it has been heard through the ages when false teachers have been refuted. But, it has recently been raised again. Those who advocate this do not understand a very simple principle. The preaching of truth never violates the autonomy of the local church. While I have no right to go to another congregation and force them to believe as I believe, I have every right to expose error wherever it is found. We have abundant examples in scripture where this is done, regardless of whether the one exposing the error happens to be a "member" of that congregation. Paul's letters to the Corinthians and Galatians expose their error, despite the fact that he was not among them. Paul also encouraged Timothy to do the same. In fact he encouraged Timothy to "wage the good warfare", in the context of his public admonition of "Hymenaeus and Alexander", who he said he "delivered to Satan that hey may learn not to blaspheme" (cf. 1 Timothy 1:18-20).
One brother, in response to public questioning of an aspect of the work his congregation was engaged in, wrote the following:
Giving a defense of your practices can not possibly violate the principles of church autonomy, nor does the criticism of false practices and teaching. To utilize the principle as a smokescreen is obviously without merit. In effect, some want to say, "We can do what we want, and you have no right to say anything because we are autonomous." God has never given error such an advantage. Can you imagine the Corinthians or the Galatians using the same tactic against Paul? "Leave us alone, we have the right to do as we please!"
A final sentiment sometimes heard is the idea that since the elders are the overseers of the congregation, they are the ones who determine the teaching and practice of the flock they oversee. In effect, "That's the elders decision. If they want to do that, I have no right to question them." Shades of the Catholic distinction between clergy and laity. While respect must be given to those who are pastors of the flock, they are not to be followed blindly. Their place is to "convict the gainsayer", not become a gainsayer. We should be careful to establish their sin at the mouth of "two or three witnesses" (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19), but we must not follow them in evil.
A proper understanding of the principle of autonomy will aid Christians in standing for truth, and avoiding the error that has caused so many to lose their souls.
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