Congregational Autonomy – and Isolation

They go together. Maybe not at the beginning of an autonomous congregation’s history, but eventually. When a gathering of believers becomes so convinced of their own righteousness – and of the unrighteousness of other believers in other churches – their circle of friendly fellowship churches shrinks until its diameter becomes a noose around their own necks.

Because – sooner or later – their membership dies off and their conviction with them.

(Example? My home church, I’m told, is listed on the bulletin board in the lobby of a small rural congregation in eastern Arkansas under the heading of “scripturally unsound.”)

Churches with such a spirit cannot have the Spirit of God.

They display the traits of the man described in Proverbs 18:1:

“He who separates himself seeks his own desire; he quarrels against all sound wisdom.”

You can tell them by their fruits: condemnation of others, revoking of fellowship, isolation, a conviction that they are the “only true church.” There are other fruits, described in the middle of Galatians 5:20-21:

“… hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy ….”

You can see it in their Web sites, when they have them. There will be pages and pages devoted to doctrinal soundness on issues like congregational autonomy, and only a few scattered acknowledgments of the saving grace of Jesus Christ revealed in the gospel story … if any.

Compare those displays of heart to the ones in the next verse:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” ~ Galatians 5:22-23

These are not just characteristics of individuals anymore, but have become the culture of entire churches. They survive through the stubborn spectre of fear: each member terrified of a just but merciless God whose wrath might be called down upon them for the slightest infraction (or questioning!) of doctrine by one of their own brothers or sisters!

These churches shrink because most people do not find a life of fear to be attractive, nor something they are willing to sign up for.

Yet they persist because a culture has been established. It has been reinforced through publications and lectures and, now, the Internet.

The overwhelming irony of the “congregational autonomy” they espouse is that it does not restrict them in any way from telling other congregations exactly where they are “wrong” and why they are going to hell!

Some will not cooperate with other congregations – even of their own set of beliefs – because the established culture has declared that to violate congregational autonomy. Better that widows go un-cared for and orphans go hungry and nations go un-taught than to cooperate with other churches in bringing good news to the poor.

This is the sort of behavior that Amos (chapter 5) prophesied about in quoting the Lord as saying:

“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies ….” ~ Amos 5:21

The people had denied justice to the righteous and trampled on the poor.

Where do you draw the line on congregational autonomy? Where does your congregation draw it? Because once you invent a term like that, and weave it out of whole cloth, you have to decide how far you will go with it. Will you loom enough to cover yourself completely, a whole suit with hooded veil, so that you are completely cut off from everyone else? Or just enough to cover your butt?

I’m speaking plainly because I believe the time to dance around the subject with polite terms has long since gone.

The Bible talks about kingdom. The apostles talk about kingdom. Jesus talks about kingdom.

That means churches – as outposts of the inbreaking kingdom – need to start seizing territory forcefully, and together, and under the direct operation of the Holy Spirit as revealed in the scripture He inspired.

It cannot be a kingdom if all of the outposts refuse to talk to each other, won’t cooperate with each other, won’t show respect and love for each other, won’t even communicate with each other. Or, worst of all, won’t stop biting and devouring each other.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” ~ Mark 3:24

What Jesus said is just as true of God’s inbreaking kingdom as it is of the one Satan is trying to establish – and might, if we’re just willing to give him a toehold on our hearts.

So I believe it’s time for more people to speak boldly and prophetically, like Amos did.

Time to weep like Jeremiah over the lost and the clueless and the rebellious and the isolated-from-God.

Time to speak like Isaiah; with authority about the Messiah who is to come again, and the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace which must prevail until He does.

Time to proclaim the onrushing day of the Lord, like Joel did.

Time to repent of soft words and soft concepts and soft-heartedness toward the isolationistic and the exclusive and the divisive.

They do not speak softly, and they do not hear soft words over the sound of their own shouting.

Still, there might yet be a few listening who will turn away from the self-centered congregational concept which turns away so many others from Christ.

What Does A Kingdom Church Look Like?

Early Restoration Movement founders and leaders often began looking for the answer to that question in the second chapter of Acts, right at the end:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. ~ Acts 2:42-47

That’s a fine place to begin … but to ignore the rest of the chapter (except, perhaps, a few verses to prove a point about baptism) is to excise the reason why this new church – at least for a time – worked to God’s glory:

The Holy Spirit.

He is present in a powerful way throughout Acts 2.

I believe it is impossible to have a vibrant, growing, scripturally-founded, God-praising, unbelieving people-pleasing, kingdom-representing church without the Holy Spirit.

And, in large measure, many churches and individuals have tried. Some actively rebel against the idea of a present, powerful Spirit doing God’s work within and among them. Others downplay the possibility, or fear that abuses of the Spirit’s gifts (more likely, the pretension of them) would cause too much trouble. Others simply don’t seem to be aware of the full measure of the promise of Jesus regarding Him.

We like to quote Acts 2:38a: “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

But we don’t know what to do with Acts 2:38b-39: “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

An Acts 2 church has no such confusion or fear or rebellion. An Acts 2 church believes what Jesus said, what Peter repeated through the Holy Spirit. An Acts 2 church lives their Christ-life in full view of others, lovingly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sticking together, at the religious meeting-house/temple and at home, breaks bread and fellowships others, adheres to the apostles’ teachings, has everything in common, sells possessions and goods and gives to the poor.

What was their structure?

Jesus was their living King. He spoke to and through them in empowering ways via His promised Holy Spirit. The apostles – those closest to Him in the years that His mortal heart beat for them – shared His teachings.

“Yes,” you might say, “… but who was in charge?”

Well, the answer is above.

“Yes,” you might respond, “… but somebody has to be in control. Someone has to have authority.

Someone did: Jesus.

The apostles recognized that, acting with His authority through His Spirit, just as He had promised them, doing exactly what He had said they would do:

`Given to me was all authority in heaven and on earth; having gone, then, disciple all the nations, (baptizing them – to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all, whatever I did command you,) and lo, I am with you all the days – till the full end of the age.’ ~ Matthew 28:18-20, Young’s Literal Translation

Forgive me for not being a student of biblical languages nor a divinity-school graduate. I use YLT here to communicate the original grammar, structure and intent of the Greek text since I can’t read it. What Jesus says here is not so much command as it is prophecy; acknowledgement in advance of what His followers will do with the authority He is sharing with them.

They knew He was in charge. It wasn’t just a “given,” it was the uncontested reality of the situation. There were no alternatives.

Our contemporary requirements to exercise local church autonomy or to submit to an overarching hierarchical human authority; to have church leaders – those are a comfort to us in the absence of our recognition of the reality of the century-one church.

Jesus’ authority – given by God – is present in apostolic teachings and through the presence of His Holy Spirit. It’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and.

We have the necessary teachings preserved in scripture.

But if that’s all we have, we’re trying to do a two-handed job with one arm.

God wants to help us help Him, whether in daily living or church governance or any other matter. He offers Jesus’ teachings and example and life and resurrection.

He also offers His Holy Spirit to assist, if we ask and are willing to receive Him.

An Acts 2 church knows that, and asks, and lives it.

One more time:

“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”~ Jesus, Luke 11:13

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.

What God’s Authority Is Used For Among Believers

By Jesus:

  • To teach:” … because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” ~ Matthew 7:29 (see also Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32
  • To heal and forgive sins: ” ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….’ Then he said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.'” ~ Matthew 9:6 (see also Mark 2:10)
  • To exorcise evil spirits: “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.’ ” ~ Mark 1:27
  • To be hailed as a delivering king; to cleanse God’s house, to heal, and to demonstrate the power of faith ~ Matthew 21:12-27; Mark 11:12-33; Luke 20:1-8; John 2:13-25
  • To judge: “And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.” ~ John 5:27
  • To lay down and take up His own life again: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” ~ John 10:18
  • To give eternal life: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” ~ John 17:2

As given through His disciples:

  • To heal and exorcise: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” ~ Matthew 10:1 (see also Mark 6:7; 3:15; Luke 9:1)
  • To overcome the enemy: “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.” ~ Luke 10:19
  • To build up the saints: “For even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than pulling you down, I will not be ashamed of it.” ~ 2 Corinthians 10:8 (see also 13:10)
  • To give instructions: “For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” ~1 Thessalonians 4:2
  • To encourage and rebuke: “These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you.” ~ Titus 2:15

For others, in short. For their benefit – and God’s glory.

What Authority Is NOT To Be Used For

  • To lord it over others: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” ~ Matthew 20:20-28 (see also Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25)
  • To claim it as one’s own: The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.‘” ~ Luke 4:5-8 (see also Romans 13:1)
  • To denigrate, humiliate or otherwise tear down other believers: “This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.” ~ 2 Corinthians 10:8, again (and also see again 13:10)

For one’s self, in short. For one’s self-justification and self-aggrandizement. Hebrews 13:17 does indeed instruct: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. 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.” And there is certainly a strong implication that these leaders are leaders within the church, who should expect their work to be a joy and not a burden. (But it is not explicit. There is no word here equivalent to elders, shepherds, pastors, bishops, deacons, ministers. Just “those leading you.”) Also, the good reputation of believers is in view where 1 Peter 2:13-15 teaches us to submit to all authorities instituted among men. Yet, sometimes, a choice must be made – and Peter, along with his companions, clearly and quickly saw there was no question about it when religious leaders ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus:

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men!” ~ Acts 5:29

When authority is misused, misrepresented as God’s, insisted upon without question, enforced with humiliation and threat, it is wrong no matter what commands or teachings that claimed authority defends. And there is every reason to suspect those commands and teachings, too – if the manner in which authority is handled (rather, mishandled) can be demonstrated to run counter to the instructions of scriptures like those cited above.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” ~ Luke 16:10

That is as true of authority as it is of anything else with which God entrusts us.

The Spirit and the Churches of the Kingdom

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ~ Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13

John was given visionary instruction while he was in the Spirit by the One (introduced in chapter 1 as “like a Son of Man”) to write to the angels of seven churches.

Did the Spirit have the same message for all of the churches? Not precisely the same, though some elements are consistent through all.

Did the Spirit want each of the seven churches to know what His message was for the others? One must assume so, or there would have been seven separate epistles.

Would the Spirit today have different message for individual congregations, depending on what their strengths, struggles, challenges and spiritual temperature (hot or cold or lukewarm) might be?

Would He reveal the message(s) to one evangelist acquainted with all of them, to be delivered by him to all of them?

I don’t have a specific answer to those last two questions. He might. He might not. But to totally discount His work in this way as impossible, based on no scriptural conclusions, is foolhardy at best. It could be blasphemous at worst.

By that, I mean that it could be seen as men trying to tell God what He can or can’t or should or shouldn’t or must or must not do through His own Holy Spirit.

And once again, I come back to the doubt that very many church leaders would be open to the possibility of the Spirit operating as He did in the scriptures – through an individual or group of individuals not currently among the membership of their own church.

Is it possible that we don’t have the Holy Spirit because we don’t ask for Him? Is James 4:1-3 as true about asking for the Holy Spirit as it is about other things we want? Do we want those things more? Do we ask for His wisdom, but while failing to believe God will deliver?

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. ~ James 1:5-6

How would the leaders and members of your church react if sent a letter by a former evangelist, or another neighboring church or group of churches, expressing concern over something happening or a teaching shared at your church that might be wrong?

How did Corinth react when Paul wrote them about a man bedding his father’s second wife; about their competitive spirit in worship and regarding who baptized them and who was the better teacher; about lawsuits among them? Did they send back a nasty letter that said, “Congregational autonomy! Mind your own blankety-blank business, Paul!”?

I don’t think so, or Paul couldn’t have said what he did about them after Titus’ visit (2 Corinthians 7:8-16).

The problems and challenges of individual churches, if not resolved within themselves by the leaders appointed by the Spirit (Acts 1:12-26; 13:2; 1 Corinthians 12:28), are kingdom business. They witness more than just the shortcomings of individuals or congregations.

They reflect on the Kingdom. They reflect on the King.

Congregational Autonomy vs. Kingdom

I still haven’t seen any good, scriptural bases cited for the concept of congregational autonomy.

If you Google the term or its cousin local church autonomy, you’ll come up with results that are about half-and-half Baptist and Church of Christ in origin.

And while the links that I’ve pursued usually give at least some note to the idea of being under the Lordship of Christ, virtually all of them that I’ve seen define the terms exactly the way that any dictionary would: these terms mean that individual congregations govern themselves.

Yet the terms themselves do not appear in scripture.

They are not commanded. They are not exemplified. They cannot even be necessarily inferred. (Go ahead. Convince me.)

However, the terms “kingdom of God” (65 instances), “kingdom of heaven” (31 instances – all in Matthew!), and even “kingdom of Christ” (1 instance, Ephesians 5:5) are all over the New Testament.

Clearly, the history and prophecy of the Old Testament points to God establishing His kingdom in a powerfully redemptive way. He was to be Israel’s king, but was rejected; nevertheless, He promised to establish an everlasting kingdom through men who were lineage markers in it for thousands of years.

He made good on the promise through His Son, Jesus, the Christ. The King.

How does that work with the governance of churches within His kingdom? We’re a little fuzzy on that concept, aren’t we?

I did a series of posts years ago touching lightly on what scripture says about living as a kingdom Christian:

Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Acts | Ethic | King | Subjects

But what does it mean to be a kingdom church, governed by God and His Regent, Jesus Christ?

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. ~ Isaiah 9:6-7

Nothing in scripture gives me any indication that God expects His people as a nation nor as a church to fully govern themselves.

He gave instructions to Moses to have the people appoint judges (Deuteronomy 16:18), but He also gave Israel the Urim and Thummim so they could ask Him (Exodus 28:30).

He gave Israel the kingship they craved (1 Samuel 8:22) after having warning them about the way in which such a king should lead, many years before that (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) – and the future kings were to respect God’s law; His instructions.

He gave the church of century one apostles and elders and evangelists and prophets to instruct Jesus’ new followers after the ascension of their Example to the throne in heaven. They were to teach, instruct, and – among other things – resolve questions (Acts 15:2). But He also gave that church His own Holy Spirit, to guide them into all truth (John 16:13). In resolving the question of Gentile Christianity, the Holy Spirit was regarded as indispensible (Acts 15:28).

This is the same Holy Spirit about whom Jesus said we need to ask the Father in heaven in order to receive (Luke 11:13).

So when it comes down to the issue of church governance, there’s a really important question that I fear is too often left unanswered, ignored, and sometimes even mocked in this century twenty-one:

Do the leaders – and members – of the church ask for Him?

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.