In the first century, when churches operated under the ultimate oversight of inspired apostles, congregations were independent.
There was no superstructure by which they were tied together. There was neither pope, bishop, nor council to regulate the affairs of local groups.
It was an abandonment of this pattern that eventually gave rise to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic system with all of its tyrannical dominance.
One aspect of New Testament church government is the concept known as “congregational autonomy.” The term “autonomy” derives from two roots. “Auto” means self. The second syllable reflects an anglicized form of the Greek word,
nomos, which denotes law or rule. The word thus suggests the idea of self-rule. Each local church, in some sense, is to be self-ruling. But in what sense is a congregation of the Lord’s people granted the right of self-rule? Is it not the case that Jesus Christ has all authority over his people (Mt. 28:18)?
There are two broad areas of activity in which a church may operate. There is that realm of the essentials, and there is a sphere of expedients. In areas of doctrine, the church is subject to the law of Christ. Contrary to the assertions of some, there is a system of divine law to which the church is obligated (cf. Rom. 8:2; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).
On the other hand, in matters that have not been specified, human judgment must be exercised. It is obvious, therefore, that the principle of self-rule does not apply in cases where doctrinal truth is at stake. Church autonomy prevails only in matters of expediency.
Autonomy and Expediency
Let us make application of the principles set forth. As suggested above, expediency involves the necessity of making decisions in areas where the Bible has imposed an obligation, but where the method for implementing the obligation has not been regulated.
For example, Christians have a responsibility to meet every Lord’s day for the purpose of worshiping God (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Heb. 10:25). We are not told, however, at what time of the day to assemble, or whether the church should rent or purchase a facility for these meetings. These are matters for the leadership of the congregation to decide. No other church has the right to dictate policy in these areas.
Suppose a congregation in a certain community sends a missionary to a foreign field. The elders of this church may invite another congregation to fellowship with them in the support of the preacher. They may invite, but not demand; demanding would be an infringement of congregational autonomy.
On the other hand, if the neighboring church decides to assist the missionary, they are free to do so. They have not surrendered their autonomy.
Autonomy and Law
By way of contrast, there are matters of church governance which are regulated by divine law.
For instance, entrance into the body of Christ is granted only to a penitent believer, and that by means of immersion in water (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 5:26). No church has the right to suspend this scriptural law and allow infant membership, or admission into congregational fellowship on the basis of the sprinkling of a few drops of “holy water.”
But what if a church alters the sacred plan of salvation and incorporates one or the other—or perhaps both of these practices? May they claim immunity from brotherhood rebuke on the ground of “congregational autonomy”?
The only musical form of corporate worship authorized by the New Testament is that of congregational acapella singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). The use of mechanical instruments is an innovation, first conceived in the Roman Catholic movement, and later borrowed by most Protestant churches.
What if a church of Christ decides to incorporate an instrument into its worship? Should it be free to do so? Do sister congregations have a right (indeed, an obligation) to publicly call attention to this digression and to withhold their association from the “progressive” group?
Of course they do. Would such be a violation of the liberal church’s autonomy? Never!
And what of church government? May a congregation innovate in the realm of authorized leadership with impunity? If a teacher begins to advocate that the church in the modern age must adapt to the culture and appoint unauthorized persons to an eldership, may sister congregations teach the biblical plan without being guilty of meddling in other church’s business?
More and more, left-leaning churches are protesting when others highlight their digressions. They complain that criticism of their innovations is a breach of their autonomy.
Is the complaint justified? It is not. Autonomy was never meant to be a shield for apostasy.
Let us thus respect the principle of church autonomy—but in the biblical way.