The Nature of the Local Church: Its Autonomy
From the pages of the New Testament we can discern the existence of what we call “local” churches, spoken of as the ekklesia, church, in a given city (e.g. Corinth, 1 Corinthians 1:2; Thessalonica, 1 Thessalonians 1:1), or as the ekklesiai, churches, in a given area (e.g. churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2; churches of Asia, 1 Corinthians 16:19). Paul speaks of these as the “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16. Ideally they reflected the members of the “universal” church in their local areas at that time. Where present a plurality of qualified men shepherded an individual local church with deacons serving at their discretion (Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Functionally most of the work of encouragement and edification of the body of Christ would take place in the context of each “local” church (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).
The New Testament makes it clear that toward each other local churches were autonomous, or “self-governing.” Such did not mean they were not under authority; all members of local churches were still subject to Jesus as their Lord and head (Ephesians 5:22-33), were to follow the instructions of the Apostles (Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 4:17, Ephesians 2:20-22), and were subject to the elders of their individual local congregation when present (Hebrews 13:17). In the New Testament Christians remained accountable to one another as well (Galatians 6:1-5). Christians knew of Christians in other places; local churches would send benevolent relief to other churches; Christians would visit other churches and would be provided hospitality (Acts 11:28-30, Romans 16:1, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 1 Thessalonians 1:6-9, 3 John 1:5-8). Nevertheless the New Testament betrays no knowledge of any other authority, bureaucracy, institution, or organization empowered to adjudicate, mediate, or organize local congregations together.
But what of the Jerusalem conference as seen in Acts 15:1-30? While it is true that the church in Jerusalem hosted a conference, and its decision was made by its elders as well as the Apostles and the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:23, 28), it is important to keep in mind why the matter is being discussed in Jerusalem: the “Judaizing” teachers had gone out from the church in Jerusalem to these other local congregations. The Jerusalem church sends out the letter to clarify the will of God according to the Apostles and the Holy Spirit and to make it clear that they do not approve of the teachings of the “Judaizers” even if the latter claim to be authorized by the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:24). This example empowers a local congregation to write a letter to other congregations disavowing false teachings that might have sounded forth from Christians who were once members of that congregation, yet nothing in Acts 15:1-30 suggests that the elders of the church in Jerusalem exercised authority over any other congregation.
The letter known as 1 Clement is a first or early second century letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth; while the letter is full of exhortations to follow Apostolic instruction the elders of the church in Rome never claim authority over the church in Corinth. Soon after Ignatius imposed a bishop-over-elders system in many local churches, eventually leading to authority concentrated in the bishop of larger metropolitan areas; this structure is still seen in many denominations. Some other denominations may not invest ecclesiastical power in a person or even a group of persons but maintain bureaucratic, institutional, and organizational centralization in a headquarters and a board of officers. These days some “non-denominational” churches have created new “mini-denominations” with a multi-site church, maintaining different locations in one or more metropolitan areas but maintaining centralized control over finances, preaching, etc. Such supra-congregational authority or bureaucratic structures did not exist in the days of the New Testament, were not part of the faith delivered once for all the saints, and have no New Testament command, example, or inference to commend them (Jude 1:3).
Among those who wished to restore the teachings and practices of the New Testament many still do not fully respect the autonomy of local congregations. Many believe it acceptable for funds from many local congregations to be pooled together and administrated by one local church; others believe that local congregations can band together to accomplish evangelism, benevolence, or other works despite the fact that such arrangements come without any authority from New Testament commands, examples, or inferences. Many others give lip service to autonomy but prove quite willing to slander and gossip about the way other local churches have decided to accomplish the work God has given them to do. If we believe that Christians in other places are departing from the Lord’s will we ought to rebuke and exhort them as we have opportunity (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5), but we must recognize that we all ultimately stand or fall before Jesus our Lord, and we are only responsible for how we have behaved toward others and how we have worked to encourage the Christians with whom we have associated, and not for the decisions of others (Romans 14:4, 9-12).
For good reason the Lord expected local churches to be autonomous toward one another; necessary adaptations could exist in different environments, and while autonomy made it easier for some Christians and/or churches to be led astray by false teachers it preserved others from such a fate (Acts 20:28-32, Revelation 2:1-7). Let us respect the Lord’s will for autonomy among local churches and may we all seek to accomplish His will!
Ethan R. Longhenry