THE AUTONOMY OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
1. Understanding and properly applying congregational autonomy continues to be an important topic for Gods people.
2. Questions about autonomy are being raised due to concerns over doctrinal and moral purity, fellowship and the unity of believers.
3. Questions about autonomy which the NT answers:
a. What is congregational autonomy?
b. What are the prerogatives (rights, privileges, freedom, license) & limits (boundaries) of congregational autonomy?
c. Does autonomy mean each congregation decides truth for itself?
d. Does autonomy mean that the teaching & work of a local church is the private concern of each congregation (nobody elses business)?
e. Can the same truth be preached to every church without violating autonomy?
I. CHURCHES IN THE NT WERE AUTONOMOUS.
-(Autonomy: "self-law", hence, self-governing...the right of self-government...a self-governing community.)
-Autonomy = Independence & self-government. NT evidence of congregational autonomy:
A. Each Local Church Is A Complete Organization Within Itself - Acts 14:23; 20:28; Phil. 1:1.
1. Not dependent upon any man, machinery or hierarchy to direct its function or handle its affairs -- Christ is authority over each - Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 3:17.
2. No denominational (interlinked) structure in NT (historian):
"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)
3. Example: Each church has the right to be fully organized -- to appoint its own elders & deacons as per 1 Tim. 3 & Titus 1.
B. Each Local Church Is Independent In Its Organization & Work.
a. Each has its own overseers (elders) - Acts 14:23.
b. Only local oversight - 1 Pet. 5:2-3.
2. Work (concurrent cooperation w/ other churches, but never relinquishing direct action (no sponsoring church / centralization):
a. Benevolence - 1 Cor. 16:1-3.
b. Preaching gospel - 2 Cor. 11:8.
c. Edification of its own members - Acts 13:1.
C. Each Local Church Has Its Own Rulers (Elders) To Whom Its Members Are Subject - Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2-3; 1 Ths. 5:12-14.
1. Elders are to rule by the authority of revealed truth - Acts 20:27-28.
2. Elders have no authority to violate revealed truth, or to lead their charge into error - 1 Tim. 5:19-20; Acts 20:29-32 (cf. Ezek. 34:8-10).
D. Congregational Autonomy Provides A Safeguard For The Spiritual Well-being Of The Saints - 1 Pet. 5:2-3; Heb. 13:17.
Summary to this point:
Prerogatives of autonomy: Each church is free from the control of any other church, centralized power, ruling hierarchy, denominational organization.
Limits of autonomy: The boundary of revealed truth (1 Cor. 4:17; 14:37).
II. AUTONOMY DOES NOT MEAN:
A. That Each Church Decides For Itself What Is True Doctrine.
-Illus: "Each church must decide for itself what it will teach & practice, nobody has the right to question it, review it or rebuke it."
1. The scriptures establish truth -- We must hear, believe & obey them! - 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 14:37.
a. There is a pattern of sound words to hold fast - 2 Tim. 1:13.
b. The apostolic traditions (handed down) - 2 Ths. 2:15.
c. Same truth to be taught & imitated in each church - 1 Cor. 4:16-17.
2. Through study we learn the truth - 2 Tim. 2:15; cf. Gal. 1:8-9 (Eph. 3:3-4).
3. Revelation establishes truth - not congregational autonomy!
a. The necessity of baptism? (Mk. 16:16)
b. Instrumental music in worship? (Eph. 5:19)
c. Divorce & remarriage for any cause? (Matt. 19:9)
d. Meals as the work of the local church? (1 Cor. 11:22, 34)
e. Who we fellowship? (2 Jno. 9-11)
4. The case of the Jerusalem church - Acts 15:22-29. (It did not make or bind a decision upon any other church, but it defended truth & communicated that defense of truth to other churches).....
a. Warned brethren in other places about teachers of error - v. 24.
b. Commended teachers of truth - v. 25-26.
c. Sent men with their letter to teach the same truth - v. 27.
d. Declared principles of truth which the Holy Spirit had revealed - v. 28-29.
-God did not use a wrong means to declare a right message!
5. Autonomy violated: Ephesian-Pergamos Alliance demanding that Smyrna conform to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15).
B. Each Church Is Immune From "Outside" Teaching, Reproof, Rebuke & Correction - 2 Tim. 3:16-4:5.
1. Some think each church is insulated from rebuke - isolated from exposure! This view rejects the very nature of gospel preaching!
2. If this is true, then what of such passages as Col. 4:16 & 1 Ths. 5:27?!
3. Truth is not bound by congregational independence or autonomy! Examples:
a. Rev. 2:14-16 - The false doctrines being taught at Pergamos were addressed by John (Jesus) to call them to repentance -- and its false beliefs were made known to the other 6 churches of Asia (which would help protect them by exposing the error & sin).
b. 1 Cor. 1:11; 5:1 - The error at Corinth was reported to Paul by someone who was competent & trustworthy. Did not violate Corinths autonomy, nor did Pauls rebuke of their sins.
c. Colosse - Col. 2:1-8. Paul was not a member of Colosse, but he defended truth to them - Did not violate their autonomy.
4. "But Paul was an apostle - he could do that. But we are not apostles, therefore, we cant."
a. 1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1 - We are to imitate Paul. We cannot imitate his place as an apostle, but we can imitate his message & his methods of delivering it!
b. Phil. 3:17 - He set a pattern we can & should follow.
5. So, we can teach the apostolic message (N.T.) regardless of congregational boundaries (autonomy).
a. Then, each church decides whether he (it) will abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 Jno. 9-11).
b. cf. Acts 15:30-31; 16:4-5 - Truth was delivered - churches accepted it.
c. By accepting & obeying the truth, the churches were in fellowship with God and His people.
d. If they had rejected it - they would come under the rebuke of truth (to try to save their souls) - Jude 3, 22-23; Gal. 6:1; Jas. 5:19-20.
C. That It Is Impossible To Have Unity In Teaching & Practice - Jno. 17:20-21; 1 Cor. 4:17.
-Same truth taught in every church will produce same fruit in every church! - Col. 4:16; 1 Ths. 5:27
1. Yes, there will be differences in areas of judgment / liberties (which are authorized).
2. But there should not be diversity of doctrine and morality! - Eph. 4:4-6
1. Congregational autonomy / independence was not given to churches to shield them from the reach & scrutiny of divine truth! Cannot appeal to "autonomy" to escape the power of truth! - 1 Cor. 4:14-21
2. Each church should be willing to receive instruction & rebuke to remain true to Christ. (cf. Rev. 2 & 3)