Congregational Autonomy: What Have You Done For Us?

Hold on to your seats.

Though I disagree with most of Wayne Jackson’s article “Congregational Autonomy – Not A Shield For Error” in the Christian Courier, I do agree with the title.

In fact, of the two reasons that I’ve called into question the scriptural basis for what’s called “congregational autonomy” (because it’s certainly not found in scripture), this one is the stronger.

People can, and have, dug into scripture and found what they wanted to find and given a label to it for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years. The label seems to legitimize it in their minds, especially if it differentiates the brand of faith they wish to feel superior in their minds.

“Congregational autonomy” is one of those labels. It differentiates fellowships of churches who do not want to be told what to do by an overarching organizational authority from those who do.

And while proponents of congregational autonomy will argue loud and long about the genius of their view and the abuses which the opposite view has, in their minds, engendered … not many would be willing to admit that it has led to abuses which are just as divisive to the body of Christ and heart-breaking to the Father in heaven.

I don’t need to cite examples. You know of them. They’re not secret. They’re right out in the open – often proclaimed proudly as the obvious separation of the sheep (us) from the goats (them) – where all the unbelieving world can see, and shake their heads, and snicker, and move on with their lives.

You see, the problem with congregational autonomy is that it just creates a smaller, local hierarchy of order-givers who have decreed authority and order-takers who must obey them. It’s only a matter of scale, you see. The abuses may hurt fewer people within a congregation, but they are vastly more personal and individually hurtful.

Left unchecked, the abuses of human authority within a small system lead to tragedy just as surely as a large one. Do I need to remind you of Jonestown, Guyana? Or the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas?

This isn’t an either-or question: congregational autonomy or overarching hierarchical structure. As many of the proponents of both schools of thought would have to agree, Christ has all authority.

So to me – and perhaps to me alone – it makes every kind of sense to stop talking about congregational autonomy and overarching hierarchical structure and start talking about kingdom. We need to start examining what Christ’s authority in this world really means – not only to ministers, elders, deacons and any other leaders and labels – but also to the rest of us trying to slug out a meaningful existence in a sinful and fallen world.

It pretty much levels the playing field, doesn’t it

We are all under the headship of Christ.

We still have elders who shepherd / oversee / see to the needs of the flock. We still have ministers called out to preach and teach. But they don’t, per se, rule. Christ rules. (You can’t find any other arrangement than that in scripture. Keep looking. Convince me!)

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” ~ Ephesians 4:15

This is exactly the context of the passage – living a worthy life and how God has equipped the Body to do so – and the inevitable conclusion is: There are no other heads. A Body needs only one Head.

This Body shares one Spirit. That is how the Head communicates what needs to be done with the rest of the Body. It is a silent, invisible, fluid, electric communication.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:12-21

That, you see, is what I fear happens far too many times when believers become enamored with their own little fiefdoms protected by “congregational autonomy.”

They cut off Christ’s nose, or fingers – or perhaps the rest of His whole Body – to spite their own faces.

9 thoughts on “Congregational Autonomy: What Have You Done For Us?

  1. I can't find any place where God gives autonomy to any group of people, nor the right to claim truth for themselves. I do see where God gave the right of autonomy to the individual, and depend on him for the truth.Jer 31:33 But this [shall be] the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jer 31:34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.Jer 31:35 Thus saith the LORD, which giveth the sun for a light by day, [and] the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The LORD of hosts [is] his name: Jer 31:36 If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the LORD, [then] the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever. In other words, this covenant will stay in place, as long as the sun and moon do.

  2. I think it's a matter of sematics. Just because we speak of congregational autonomy doesn't mean that Christ doesn't rule. It seems to me that it's a given that Christ is the Authority.If we said "kingdom" how would congregations look differently? Would there be a difference in church structure?

  3. What if the titular head of a huge Christian hierarchy called for a Jamestownian killing spree?Oh wait, he did, and they cut a murderous swath across Europe and Asia and into Palestine.That's the pragmatic usefulness of the doctrine called, for better or worse, congregational autonomy. Humans will abuse authority. Congregational autonomy takes the reality that the kingdom is inaugurated, but not yet realized, into account and limits the scope across which such abuses will reign.

  4. But is that the best we can do, Nick? Limit the scope of abuses?Anonymous, I don't have all your answers. What I'm proposing is a change of perspective and a change of terminology to kingdom – something which has the advantage over autonomy and hierarchy in that it has not been tried (or has rarely been tried) for maybe 1,700 years or more.

  5. Congregational autonomy has given us the ability for a local congregation to fill the need of the local community tailoring it to fit that specific need without the unwanted interference from other congregations that might have made other choices in their path in The Kingdom.Would it have been right for the Gentile Church to have been ordered by the Church in Jerusalem to send money for their upkeep because they had chosen a communal way of life?Could you see a church that was steeped in judaism and all of the trappings of The Law explaining all that was necessary to a new gentile group just beginning their walk with Christ? Oh Yeah, they did that! Weren't they called judaizing teachers?The reason for elders in the church is to protect the congregation from false teachings, and to teach all under their protection the Truth of the Way of Christ Jesus. They do not legislate or lord over the flock. That position is already filled.Unfortunatly there are a good many teachers that do not realize their role. They begin to find law in the strangest places, in alleys where Jesus never even walked. It is from these and for these that the autonomy is necessary.The phrase congregational autonomy was use by restoration teachers for lack of a better phrase to mean that the Church should have no governing board. Never was the meaning to be that the Church is free to rule itself. Jesus is Lord! King of all kings. He is the Truth that rukes the Church and it is all we need.

  6. Keith, of course it isn't the best we can do. I'm not trying to discourage your investigation – and I appreciate the idea of kingdom autonomy.Anon, how congregations would look different is that they'd function in closer connection. Right now, we act like each congregation is only connected to each other through Christ. That's just not how Paul's metaphor of the body works. All parts of the body are interconnected and should be working together as the Spirit guides them. Each congregation does not have the right to ignore other congregations in "tailoring to fit the needs of the community." Individual congregations cannot see the whole community; only the Spirit can do that, and His wisdom is revealed in conversation between brethren who share the Spirit.Laymond, unless each brother and sister constitutes an Israel unto themselves, that passage doesn't prove individual autonomy – God's covenant is with the children of Abraham.

  7. "And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me"What does the New covenant have to do with gentiles Nick, if it were only meant for the children of Abraham.?Strange when Jesus was talking directly to his apostles in John, we apply what was said to all his followers. but when God made a covenant with his children, most were left out.Have you stumbled on to something here, is that the explanation why all Jews will be saved.Jer 31:36 If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the LORD, [then] the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever.Does this mean, nothing can seperate God from Abraham's children? ever again. nothing?" for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."

  8. Falantedios… I do not understand your statement that congregations connected only through Christ is dispelled by Paul's members of the body statement. The body is controlled only by the brain, which is Christ. Each does as it is told by the brain and all work well. When a body part stops listening to the directions from the brain it causes the body distress. If the leg quits, the body is lame and can not walk normally. If the eye stops then the body becomes blind. The only way to remedy this is to get the body part to begin to recognize the instruction from the brain again. The body might use other members to assist the disengaged member until it is back into the fold, but that is meant as a temporary measure. What would happen though if the eye and the tongue decided that the ear was not functioning properly, from their perspectives as an eye and a tongue? Do you feel that they should have the authority to bypass the brain and correct the ear "as they see fit"? What does the eye and tongue have that qualifies them to judge the work of the ear? Is not the ear responsible to the brain and it alone? Does he have a duty to the other members past that which the brain authorizes? I do not believe so. I cannot think of a time where one congregation was sent to correct another in scripture, can you? I do remember though one time that The Spirit said write this to the Seven Churches in Asia. I do not recall Him saying send the Church at Rome to correct these problems.If the eldership of a congregation is doing it's job properly then there will be no failure to understand the messages sent by the Brain to the congregation. If there is a problem that enters there is nothing worng with allowing the other congregations to write or speak in assistance to the congregation. However, no one may assume to have a place of authority over a congregation of God's Church except He Himself.

  9. If the eye sees a train coming, but the ear doesn't report that the train is coming, I think the eye has some expertise in train-spotting that might give it the ability to rebuke to ear for failing to report, or to warn other parts of the body that the ear isn't doing its job, so someone might want to check on it. Of course the eye can't assume authority over the ear – but the eye might suggest to the hand: "Hey, Hand, why don't you mosey up to Ear and see if something is stuck in it?"I think you understand what I wrote very well – the problem I'm describing is each congregation acting like a head unto itself – deciding for itself (with no conversation with other congregations in the area) what the Lord's will is for that place.

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