The Blessing of Autonomy

Church building in the trees

One characteristic of the Lord’s church that makes it different from most churches of men is autonomy. Autonomous local churches are not linked together in or through some larger organizational structure.

Why did the Lord design the church to be this way? Obviously, we cannot always know every reason behind instructions that have been given in the Scriptures. Our responsibility is simply to follow the Lord’s instructions whether we understand the reason behind them or not. However, we can look to the Bible to see what has been revealed that would indicate certain blessings of autonomy.

What Is Autonomy?

The word autonomy is not used in the New Testament, but the concept is certainly discussed. Autonomy simply means self-governance. In the case of the local church, autonomy means that a congregation is not overseen or governed by a denominational body, human institution, or larger congregation.

However, in the case of the local church, autonomy does not mean that churches have legislative authority. In other words, making or enforcing man-made commands is wrong, regardless of the fact that the rules may have been made by an autonomous congregation. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:9). We can be condemned for the same thing today. The fact that a whole congregation may endorse a man-made command does not change this.

Local church autonomy simply means that a congregation governs itself according to the instructions revealed in the New Testament.

Local Churches Are to Be Autonomous

There are several indications given in the New Testament that show that the Lord’s design for the church is that congregations are to be autonomous:

  1. There is no organization in the New Testament larger than the local church – Nothing is said in the history recorded in the book of Acts or the instructions given in the epistles that reveal anything about a larger structure or hierarchy beyond what was revealed about the local church.
  2. Elders were appointed in local churches – As they returned from their first preaching tour, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). This indicates that these were churches before and after having elders. Having elders does not make a congregation autonomous. It is inherently autonomous by design.
  3. Elders would oversee the flock among them – Peter instructed elders, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God” (1 Peter 5:2). The elders would not oversee the flocks (churches) in other places.
  4. Churches made their own decisions – When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about their contribution for the needy saints in Jerusalem, he said, “When I arrive whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (1 Corinthians 16:3). The church in Corinth would decide for themselves who would take the funds they collected to Jerusalem. They had control of those resources and would decide where they would go. Even an apostle (like Paul) did not have the authority to rule over another church. The local church would determine this themselves.

Blessings of Autonomy

Why would the Lord design His church so that local congregations would be autonomous? Again, we cannot know every possible reason if they have not been revealed in His word; but there are certain blessings that we can see in this arrangement.

First, autonomy helps prevent the spread of error – Paul warned the brethren in Corinth, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Corinthians 5:6). He was simply talking about a local church in that verse and the influence of sin within a congregation. However, we know that sin and error are progressive (2 Timothy 3:13) and could infect the church from within or from the outside (Acts 20:29-30). Without autonomy, these two avenues may be merged, allowing error to spread more efficiently. Autonomy is a buffer to protect a local church from others that have gone into apostasy. When the Lord addressed the seven churches in Asia (Revelation 2-3), five of them had issues that needed to be corrected; but no issue affected all of them. They were all local problems.

Second, autonomy allows churches to work more effectively – In many spheres in life, there is a temptation to think that a bigger program is necessarily a better program. In this country, we have seen power shift from local and state governments to the federal government with the hope that the programs operated by these authorities will be carried out more effectively. Yet a larger bureaucracy does not always mean that work will be done better. In fact, the opposite is often true. The wise man wrote about this: “If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). Regardless of the intentions, large bureaucracies become bloated and ineffective. Autonomous churches are not dependent upon the decisions or approval of others or upon the organizations that others have created. Congregations are only dependent upon the instructions given in the New Testament (cf. 2 Timothy 1:13). Provided that the work being done by a local church is lawful, brethren are free to do what is most expedient (1 Corinthians 10:23).

Third, autonomy encourages local work – There is a way for churches to be involved in works in other locations. They may engage in evangelism by supporting preachers elsewhere (2 Corinthians 11:8) or by sending men out to preach (Acts 13:1-3). They could be involved in benevolence by sending aid to elders in churches where brethren have been affected by severe hardship (Acts 11:29-30). Even in these circumstances, decisions to be involved and where funds will be directed are made by the local church providing the funds. With a “sponsoring church arrangement,” there is no involvement from a congregation besides funneling money. Besides the fact that this type of arrangement is unauthorized,* it can also give the impression that sending money to a “sponsoring church” exempts a congregation from working itself. The Lord expects for local churches to be working. The church in Thessalonica was commended because they were busy spreading the gospel (1 Thessalonians 1:8). The local church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and, therefore, must be a light and a positive influence locally.

Conclusion

Local church autonomy protects against error, lets work be done efficiently, and encourages local work. Autonomy means that no matter what other churches around us might do, we can stand for the truth and do the Lord’s work. Let us continue to do the Lord’s work, remembering that our allegiance is to Christ, not to other churches.

*For more on this topic, refer to these articles: “Now Concerning the Collection” (Part 4): Institutionalism and the Sponsoring Church Arrangement and Congregational Cooperation


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