The Local Church and its Autonomy


     The burden of this material is twofold, to concisely address the local church and its autonomy. The word "church" is derived from ekklesia. This Greek word consists of two words: "From, ek, out of, and kesis, a calling (kaleo, to call), " W. E. Vine wrote (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). Vine continues in his treatment and basic usage of "church" as follows:

     "It has two applications to companies of Christians, (a) to the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era, the company of which Christ said, "I will build My Church," Matt. 16:18, and which is further described as "the Church which is His Body," Eph. 1:22; 5:23, (b) in the singular number (e.g., Matt. 18:17, RV marg., "congregation"), to a company consisting of professed believers, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:5, and in the plural, with reference to churches in a district."

     The church universal has no organization and no function, as a unit. It is simply the saved of the entire world; it is a state and relationship. The Lord adds to his church (Acts 2: 47, KJV, 5: 14). Jesus said the church or kingdom does not come with observation but it is within you (Lk. 17: 20, 21).

     The local church, compared to the church universal, has many distinguishing characteristics. The local church must be joined and it has organization and function (Acts 9: 26, I Tim. 3: 1-16). The local church has geographic location, either unassembled or assembled (Acts 14: 27; I Cor. 14: 23). The local church when fully organized has elders and the members are to submit themselves to the rule of the elders (I Tim. 3; Heb. 13: 17). It is in the assembled local church that the Lord's Supper is observed, songs of praise and admonition are sung, Christians contribute into the treasury, and Christians are provoked unto love and good works (I Cor. 11: 18-34; Eph. 5: 19; I Cor. 16: 1, 2; Heb. 10: 24). The local church is presupposed in the command, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together….for if we sin willfully…there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins" (Heb. 10: 25, 26). The local church is not a denomination, as we shall see, but is simply a group of Christians who have banded themselves together for the purpose of worshipping God and collectively preaching the gospel to the lost and edifying the saved (I Tim. 3: 15; Eph. 4: 16).

     The autonomy of the local church. Autonomy is a compound word consisting of autos, self, and nomos, meaning law. Hence, self-law or self-governing. Autonomy is simply defined as, "Independence…the right of self-government…a self-governing community" (Random House College Dictionary, pg. 92). The autonomy of the First Century church clearly demonstrates the fact the early church was not a denomination (a group bound together in structure). The reality of autonomy in local churches is readily seen in the fact that elders were to be appointed in each local church (Acts 14: 23). Moreover, these elders only had rule and authority in the local church where they served (I Pet. 5: 2). To the converse, if God had not desired each local church to be a self-governing unit, he would have simply had a group of elders over all the churches (see later). Among scholars there is really no serious disputation regarding the fact of autonomy in the early churches. Historian Lyman Coleman wrote:

     "These churches, whenever formed, became separate and independent bodies, competent to appoint their own officers and to administer their own government without reference to subordination to any central authority or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of these primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded, so that the discussion of it need not be renewed at this place" -Lyman Coleman, Ancient Christianity Exemplified, pg. 95).

     God's people have but one head, Jesus Christ. Jesus is unquestionably presented as the head of the church (Eph. 1: 22, 23, universal and then, by consequence through individual submission, local churches). Jesus has all authority (Matt. 28: 18). Jesus has given us our creed, the Bible or his teaching (Jn. 12: 48). This one and only creed is authoritative and must be solely used to determine truth and practice (Gal. 2: 14, Jude 3). This creed also determines matters of fellowship that involve the individual Christian and the local church (2 Jn. 9-11).

     Autonomy seen in the proclamation of the gospel. If autonomy were indeed an essential feature of First Century local churches, we would expect to see it in the execution of the work assigned to the local church, would we not?

     As you carefully examine the scriptures regarding the preaching of the gospel by the local church (collective action), you clearly see autonomy practiced. When Paul was preaching in Thessalonica, the church at Philippi "sent once and again unto my necessity" (Phili. 4: 16, 15). Intelligent reader, please appreciate the fact that the local church at Philippi did not send to the church at Thessalonica, but to Paul himself. This was not an isolated practice. While preaching for the Corinthian church, Paul took wages from other local churches. Again, these funds were manifestly sent to Paul, not to the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 11: 8).

     The modern sponsoring church arrangement so common in denominationalism and in some churches of Christ was unheard of in the First Century. To have a receiving and distributing church is clearly in violation of autonomy. One set of local elders cannot scripturally oversee another local church(es), such a practice contradicts principles of autonomy (I Pet. 5: 2).

     The matter of benevolence. It is true that in the matter of benevolence, local churches sent to a local church(es) (Acts 11: 27-30; I Cor. 16: 1; 2 Cor. 8, 9, Rom. 15). Benevolence is not a permanent, ongoing work of the local church as is preaching the gospel to the lost and saved (in 60 years of inspired history we only read of three separate instances of church benevolence (Acts 4; 11; I Cor. 16: 1, 2). Even in the case of benevolence, the relief was sent to the elders of each local church for distribution (Acts 11: 29, 30).

     Autonomy, what it is and is not in practical terms and applications. Autonomy, local church independence and self-government, is each local church separately submitting (distributively speaking) to the headship of Jesus and doing the work that God has assigned to the local church, according to the ability and means available (preaching and edification, I Tim. 3: 15, Eph. 4: 16; Acts 13: 1 ff).

     Autonomy is not having a central, controlling board to maintain the doctrinal and moral purity of each local church within that union (typical denominationalism). Such a practice is emphatically in complete violation to the autonomy taught in the scriptures.

     A new erroneous belief has arisen among some churches of Christ regarding autonomy, which I now want to address. It is the strange but convenient view that a local church may believe and practice any desired false doctrine and no one has a right to reveal or challenge them. To do so, they say, is violating their autonomy! Beloved, it is obvious that God designed autonomy to be a safe guard. When one local church went astray, it did not automatically affect other local churches, even when in the same geographic area. For instance, Pergamos held the false doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, but this did not affect the other six churches within the same region as Pergamos (Rev. 2; 3). However, you will appreciate the fact that the false beliefs of Pergamos were revealed and challenged by John and Jesus to the knowledge of the local church at Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Sardis, Philiadelphia, and Laodicea. A violation of autonomy would have been for the local church at Ephesus to demand, as a church, that Pergamos repent and conform. Preachers are repeatedly seen exposing and challenging error in local churches where they were not a member (the Epistles). Autonomy is meant to be protection against group alliance contamination, but not exemption from challenge and/or exposure of sin and false doctrine!

     In conclusion, allow me to again quote the esteemed Lyman Coleman regarding the autonomy of local churches in the First Century: "No fact connected with the history of these primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded, so that the discussion of it need not be renewed at this place."   (A related article to read is, "Elders, their Work and Qualifications."