The Autonomy of the local church

Precious Seed

This is an expression that is used a lot by Christians, especially when they are justifying the rights of a local church to make and be responsible for their own actions and decision-making processes.  The challenge of this article is to seek to describe the way God means a local church to function and to make decisions. 

Autonomy - a definition

This definition is from general dictionary sources, as the actual term and a specific definition is not given in the word of God.  The New Collins Dictionary states that the word ‘autonomy’ means, ‘the right or state of self-government’, or ‘freedom to determine one’s own actions, behaviour, etc’. The actual word ‘autonomy’ is not used in the New Testament but the general concept is clearly seen in the teaching of the Epistles and the practices of churches in the book of Acts. However, this definition falls short of what the New Testament teaches as it does not teach that a local assembly has an independent right to self-government. 

What is expected of a New Testament assembly is that:

  1. it acknowledges the Lord Jesus Christ as its Head, 1 Cor. 11. 3; Eph. 1. 22; Eph. 4. 15; Eph. 5. 23; Col. 1. 18;
  2. itseeks to obey the teaching of scripture in all matters of teaching and practice, 1 Tim. 3. 15;
  3. it is not controlled by other local congregations of believers but should behave in line with truth that is common to all churches, 1 Cor. 11. 16.

We have no scriptural authority for saying that each church just ‘does its own thing’. We do, however, have authority to state that a local church should act responsibly in the light of scripture. Every church is answerable to the Lord in all matters of doctrine and practice, with the ultimate aim of bringing glory to God. The aim of this article is to establish these facts from scripture. 

The power of influence

It is almost impossible to go through life without being influenced by other people. This can be a good thing or, at times, it can be a bad thing. This is equally true in spiritual matters. Most congregations of Christians will be influenced by other congregations, especially where there are friends and relatives involved. This is to be expected. However, this article is seeking to emphasize that the ultimate responsibility lies with the local congregation of believers and their leaders (elders and teachers).  

Local assemblies working together from time to time

Another issue that we should mention is this. Local churches will, from time to time, work together. This is a good thing and we have scriptural authority for this. This will often increase the influence between New Testament churches and we should be aware of that. In 2 Corinthians chapter 8 Paul describes the way the churches of Macedonia had responded to the poverty of other Christians in other lands. Paul is using the example of the Macedonians to motivate (influence) the Corinthian believers, i.e., he is using influence as a force for good. In this scenario we also see local assemblies in a region working together, v. 19. The assemblies in the area all respected a particular brother and jointly chose him to travel with Paul to administer aid. In verse 23 a group of men are described as ‘messengers of the churches, and the glory of Christ’. All of these assemblies in this one area had confidence in these men, they had a common desire to meet the practical needs of impoverished saints and they organized themselves to meet the need. This is fellowship – doing work for God without the formal structure that the ecclesiastical world sees as so essential. Each local church still operates as directed by the word of God and the Spirit of God. 

What about church unity?

When the New Testament talks about the church being united as one it always describes it in terms of the church which is composed of every believer in the Lord Jesus. We have a common bond of salvation, we have one faith, are one body, one Spirit, have one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Eph. 4. 4-6. Ephesians chapter 3 verse 15 speaks about ‘the whole family in heaven and in earth’. This is a wonderful truth. Every believer is ‘in Christ’, we are family and we are all part of the church, which is His body, 1. 22, 23. Local churches are never spoken of as merged together and creating a ‘church of’, rather they are described as being the ‘churches of’ indicating the locality in which they are found. We should always seek to adhere to the New Testament church principles, as obedience is a reflection of our love for our Lord. 

Are there individuals who are have authority among churches?

The Lord has given gifts to the church for the wellbeing of His people, 4. 11. I believe that the gifts in this passage are for the benefit of the whole church. The apostles and prophets are gifts to the early church and the other gifts of evangelist, pastor and teacher are for now, and will remain with us until the Lord returns. Local congregations will benefit from these gifts but they are not restricted to one local church. What this does is maintain the standard of the teaching of scripture across all local churches so that we should be able to say when problems crop up, as Paul did in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 16, ‘We have no such custom, neither the churches of God’.

The elder is distinct from the pastor/teacher of Ephesians chapter 4 and is attached to, and in fellowship in one local church. He serves the Lord and His people in that setting, cf. 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1; Phil. 1. 1. All elders must have the ability to teach scripture, cf. 1 Tim. 3. 2; 5. 17. I take it that the Lord maintains order in the churches through the work of the Spirit of God, the leadership and shepherding of elders and the teaching of scripture. If this were so there would be no need for the ecclesiastical structures that are so divisive and unscriptural.  

Case Study from Acts chapter 15 - Did Antioch look to the Jerusalem church for direction?

This chapter describes a problem of false teaching that arose in the church in Antioch. As a result, the local assembly made a decision to send Paul and Barnabus, and certain other believers, up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about the question that had been raised, see Acts chapter 15 verse 1 for a more detailed description of the problem. This is the main example that is usually used to prove that one church reported to or was controlled by another.  

To be fair, at a first reading the situation outlined there might lead some to believe that there is a responsibility for some churches to report to a more established ‘mother church’ such as Jerusalem. To come to this conclusion there are a number of factors that need to be ignored!

  1. The apostles were still alive and had a major role in establishing doctrine in the early church and so it was wise to consult them, Acts 2. 42;
  2. The rest of the New Testament teaches that church government and leadership is locally based. It clearly indicates local men were responsible for the welfare and development of God’s people and the teaching that they receive and adhere to, Phil. 1. 1; 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1;
  3. The third major factor that would need to be ignored is how the risen Lord handles the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. In these passages the Lord, described as the Son of Man, is seen as communicating directly to these churches. The churches are held in His right hand and He has the sole authority to commend and rebuke them. Truth is communicated through the apostle John, but he is not involved in the control or censure of these local assemblies. The point is that the Lord speaks directly to each local company of God’s people and not through any central body, regional eldership, synod or church board. It is the Head of the church speaking to each individual church. As you think this particular point through, be aware that all the seven churches mentioned are in the same region. If God intended churches to form a coalition of churches this would have been an ideal situation to make this clear.  

In closing, there are two other helpful points to note in this regard. The first, the false teaching that came to Antioch originated in Judea. Secondly, Barnabus had come from Jerusalem and it was appropriate for their advice to be sought.

My conclusion is that each local gathering of believers should be taught the same truths but is responsible through local leadership for their obedience to the word of God. What a blessing it would be if we could operate in this way for the glory of God!