What is meant by the phrase ‘the autonomy of an assembly’?
I am sure the questioner is well aware that the word ‘autonomy’ does not occur in the scriptures; although that, of itself, does not necessarily mean that the concept is not scriptural. However, in this particular instance what is meant by the phrase ‘the autonomy of an assembly’ might vary from one person to the next depending on their understanding of what ‘autonomy’ means.
The Cambridge Dictionary definition of the word is ‘the right of an organization, country, or region to be independent and govern itself’. On the basis of that explanation, we would need to be very guarded, for no assembly can exist independent of God, nor has it the right to govern itself in the sense of establishing its own doctrines.
In general terms, when believers refer to an assembly being autonomous they mean that it has no formal affiliations with other churches. In addition, each assembly is accountable to no one other than God and the Lord Jesus, and, therefore, they are not answerable to any type of centralized oversight. Used in this way, I believe it accords fully with the New Testament teaching to think of local churches as being autonomous, but I will add some qualifying comments to that belief.
To function scripturally in an autonomous way does not afford any church the right to do whatever it wishes. Each one needs to be led and fed by men that are overseers and one of the principle duties of these brethren is to teach God’s word. Although there is no code of instructions formulated by a committee of men that has to be adhered to, there should be a uniformity of teaching in every assembly, no matter where they are located. This harmony of doctrine derives from the acceptance of and submission to the teaching of the scriptures and the overseers should give the lead in carrying this out.
Whilst there are no formal affiliations with other churches, we need to guard against taking this situation to an extreme. Being ‘independent’ does not mean that assemblies should be isolationist. Within the book of Acts, and in the epistles, there are several examples of the fellowship that existed between various churches. Timothy was ‘well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium’, Acts 16. 2. These two churches were about eighteen miles apart yet it is quite evident that Timothy was well known in both, thereby indicating that there must have been a degree of inter-church fellowship between them.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 8 Paul writes to exhort the church at Corinth to fulfil their intention of sending relief to the saints at Jerusalem. Thus, we see that there was a link between the church at Corinth and church at Jerusalem. He also refers to the churches of Macedonia; this was a region that included at least three churches, Berea, Philippi and Thessalonica. Some, or all, of these must have agreed amongst themselves to arrange a collection of aid for the deprived saints in Jerusalem; therefore, there was spiritual unity that existed, even though there was no central governance imposed on them.
In these days of fast communication there is a real danger that the autonomy of an assembly can be undermined. The establishment of assembly magazines, an assembly address book, various forums on the internet, etc., must not be allowed to erode autonomy or independence. However, on a more positive level, as many assemblies get smaller and congregations get older, what a joy it is to go to a meeting and see the place filled with likeminded saints, who have come from a number of assemblies to share in the fellowship of the teaching or preaching.
One way we can express inter-church fellowship is by supporting one another and avoiding unnecessary clashes of meetings. How many times have two small assemblies in the same area held simultaneous meetings? It should not be difficult to liaise with others and, with a little bit of forethought, we could avoid these ‘clashes’ more than what we do. If we know of an assembly nearby conducting a series of meetings, there is no reason why we shouldn’t curtail or cancel our own meetings in order to support the neighbouring work.
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