Congregational Autonomy

I just commented at Mike Cope’s blog a little while ago:

I have two problems with the concept of congregational autonomy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me:

1. It’s not a concept found anywhere in scripture that I’ve found so far, and

2. I think that may be so because congregations are not autonomous. Neither are we autonomous as individual believers. We are subject to the King, and citizens of the kingdom. What each church and each believer says and does reflects on the entire kingdom, and we really need to start recognizing this.

I know this has unpopular ramifications. It means that we actually are responsible for teaching believers and churches which have fallen away from the doctrine of Christ (which is to love each other deeply) and that is exactly how we need to be doing it.

Am I just blowing bubbles through my snotty nose? Can someone point me to the book, chapter and verse where congregational autonomy is commanded, authorized, exemplified or reasonably inferred? Can someone give me a passage which even hints that it is what Jesus has in mind for us? That we are to be governed or ruled by anyone but Him?

Because the picture I get from “kingdom” is that He is in charge (Matthew 28:18) until He returns and hands the kingdom back over to God for judgment (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).

We answer to Christ.

We have elders/shepherds/bishops to help us know how to answer to Christ; to care for us, feed, teach, pray over us, and help direct the affairs of the church. I’m willing to give pretty wide latitude to the interpretation of that last phrase, but I find nothing in scripture which insinuates in any way that elders/shepherds/bishops are to be a ruling body or a board of directors over a single congregation.

The way we do church these days makes that almost a requirement, but that is not the way believers met together in the early days of Christianity. You’ve read the last verses of Acts 2; I don’t need to explain this to you. They didn’t own buildings, for instance (borrowed a lecture hall once, in Ephesus), but continued to meet in homes. That’s not to say there’s necessarily anything wrong with the way we do church now, but you have to admit, it’s certainly not explicitly authorized by scripture. At least some ministers worked part-time to support their own ministry (Acts 18:2-3), and there’s no indication anywhere in scripture that individual congregations supported their own minister (who was likely a traveling missionary, there for a few months or years only).

But when you have a building and a staff now, there are costs of maintenance, insurance, supply, policy and a thousand other items – and our very American way of doing church has virtually necessitated a board of directors, and somehow elders have ended up with the job, whether they wanted it or not.

And with that power and responsibility, even more has been taken.

Still, I can’t tell you that there is necessarily anything wrong with that; serving in that way has just – in many cases – prevented men still working full-time from spending the time their church families need them to spend as shepherds, pastors, teachers and preachers (1 Timothy 5:17) – especially those latter two when there is no traveling evangelist available to do them (1 Timothy 4:13). I fear that it has sometimes led to levels of power and authority which tempt the lust for more – and the misapprehension that those levels of power and authority are innately theirs.

The idea that elders have some sort of absolute authority in their given congregation is simply unfounded. Of course, other believers are to respect them and they are to be men worthy of respect (1 Timothy 3:2-4). So are their wives (3:11) and deacons (3:8). We are to show respect to each other (1 Peter 2:17); husbands to wives (1 Peter 3:7); wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:33).

And they should be obeyed (Hebrews 13:17), as the context of the passage is more likely referring to spiritual leaders than earthly ones – whereas the context of 1 Peter 2:13-14 lists earthly leaders, yet leaves out any mention of spiritual leaders.

Why obey? Because “… they keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17, above). Of all people – elders need to recognize the authority of Christ, rather than to think it is innately theirs to wield over a church.

Remember what Jesus pulled his disciples over to the curb and told them after the sons of Zebedee used their mother in an aborted power-play?

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~ Matthew 20:25-28 (parallel passages, Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27)

If I’m right about this – if elders are not really elders in order to wield their own local authority, but to teach Christ’s universal authority, and to serve/care for His flock – then what is the basis for congregational autonomy? Doesn’t “autonomy” mean:

“independence,” noun of quality from autonomos “independent, living by one’s own laws,” … Self-government or the right of self-government; self-determination … Self-government with respect to local or internal affairs … ? (~ various dictionary entries)

Dear ones in Christ – we are not self-governing. Not as individuals. Not as churches. We are subjects of the King, as I said in my comment above, obedient to His authority. We are the ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) in the frontier outposts of the kingdom of heaven, still breaking through from eternity to the earth right now (Matthew 11:12).

I know that the term “congregational autonomy” is used by many church fellowships to describe their independence from other fellowships’ synods and bishoprics and regimenting hierarchies of church government – none of which are a part of the instruction of scripture, to be sure. But “congregational autonomy” is not a Biblical term.

And it is not a Biblical concept.

15 thoughts on “Congregational Autonomy

  1. No, brian; that's why I said in that next-to-last paragraph "… none of which are a part of the instruction of scripture, to be sure."What I'm advocating is a greater awareness of the kingdom (a term used in the New Testament over 150 times, in addition to just the church (used over 100 times).What I fear will result from continuing to ignore kingdom in scripture is the apostasy of Israel recorded in the book of Judges (17:6; 21:25): "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit."

  2. Of course we are all subject to the King, including elders. By autonomy I believe it means that a congregation in California, for example, should not tell a congregation in Arkansas how to rule their congregation. There should not be a group of men or one man that directs the affairs of several congregations in one area or different areas for that matter. Autonomy does not mean we are ruled by anyone but Him. Perhaps you can come up with a better word. I think most people know how the word is used. You are straining at a gnat. What word would you use?

  3. "Kingdom," brian. That's the word I'd use.And it might mean an evangelist in California letting a congregation in Arkansas know – in a loving and thoroughly scriptural way – that they may well be in error.Paul often did this – when there were disruptive teachers of circumcision, or a member living with his father's wife, for instance. John did this, with seven churches at once. Peter did this. Jude did this.Elders were appointed to care for the flock and protect them from wolves.It's not straining at a gnat to say that some congregations need help not always available within them. Congregational autonomy has more to do with the constitutional doctrine of states' rights than the Biblical doctrine of the kingdom.

  4. "And it might mean an evangelist in California letting a congregation in Arkansas know – in a loving and thoroughly scriptural way – that they may well be in error."And there within lies the problem how do you do that without sounding condecending, or holier than thou.The progressives in the church have the same problen that progressives in politics have with conservatives " don't call me stupid, smart alec"I don't know anyone who has mastered that technique, do you.

  5. I know I haven't, bro – but am convinced that it simetimes needs to be done.Frankly, I think disciples like Peter ["God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!"] and Paul ["I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"] got pretty close to the edge of Christ-like charity sometimes, when encountering His detractors. On the other hand, Jesus never shied away from calling a snake "a snake," either.

  6. I appreciated this. I did not grow up in a CoC, but was converted (in college) in an ICoC congregation.It seems that the CoC's tend to look at the idea that we are to follow no one but Jesus and stretch that into autonomy. After all, if we are to only follow Jesus, we don't need to don't need to listen to anyone outside our congregation either.On the other hand, the ICoC saw the pattern of traveling ministers and evangelists and the examples of one church leader challenging and instructing another and stretched that into a hierarchy of churches over one another (ironically similar to the Catholic church).But the truth as you've told it is that it's a little bit of both. We as disciples and churches have a responsibility to watch over each other and to help and encourage. But, we don't direct other churches, we encourage and challenge.Each side took something inferred in scripture and turned it into a command that wasn't there. The truth is far more nuanced and takes a lot more discernment to live out.

  7. I think you make some great points, Keith…we have this idea of congregational autonomy that is just a reaction to Catholicism and Presbyterianism. What about the idea that has been advanced that multiple congregations in a city were overseen by one group of elders?Also, I've found David Lipscomb's ideas on the eldership to be very helpful. A congregation recognizes elders as people already fulfilling the function, instead of "appointing" someone with authority.I hope all is well with you.Josh J.

  8. Josh, I'm doing fine – haven't been fired yet!I would have gone into a discussion of Titus 1:5, but it probably merits a separate post and I am ill-equipped to discuss it. The NIV rendering is: "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." (And "appoint" could mean "ordain.")Translators are pretty evenly split between "town" and "city." But not "church."And that is what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox fellowships did.

  9. I should add – and hereby do – that Acts 14:21-23 says that "Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust." But that verse (23) is immediately preceded by the mention of three cities – "Lystra, Iconium and Antioch," leaving the possibilities that elders were installed for each city after all. And that may have been because there was only one church in each of those cities. (Wouldn't that be ideal? A taste of the throngs of heaven?)But to insist that only this passage and "elders only in churches, not in cities except where there is only one church in each city" requires ignoring or explaining away the Titus 1:5 passage.And it is intellectually dishonest to accept the words "in each church" from the Acts passage without at least discussing the means by which they were appointed – through missionary evangelists.

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