One of the most influential and far-reaching characteristics of the local church is its organizational structure. Central to the Bible teaching on this organization is question of church rule. The Bible answer is that the local church should be autonomous. There is to be no earthly organization, oversight, or treasury beyond the autonomous local church. However, before we study such an issue, we must first recognize that there is indeed a pattern for the church that God expects us to follow, and we must also understand some basic concepts about the church.
What Is Meant by “Autonomy” ?
The term “autonomy of the local church” refers to a method of determining the rule of church activities. It is but one answer to the question of how local congregations should be governed. Studying this issue will address questions of having a central board, convention, or any other body, to determine the beliefs and practices of a local church. This article sets the foundation for answering other questions about the organization of the church, which includes cooperation among churches and the use of outside institutions.
A church is said to be “autonomous” if it is self-ruling, which is the literal meaning of the word. This means that it does not answer to another church or organization for any of its decision. Obviously, the church is not entirely autonomous because it answers to Jesus Christ who is its head (Ephesians 1:20-23). So, the refined questions that we must study is, “What does the Bible teach about the earthly rule over a local church?” “Does it include and allow denominational boards, conventions, etc.?”
The Heart of the Matter
Fundamental to this study is the proper understanding of New Testament examples in establishing authority. Since most of the Bible commentary on church rule and organization are the examples of New Testament churches operating under the approval of God, it is imperative that we determine the authority that is inherent in these examples. This article will adopt the conclusion that was reached in the writings on “Examples and the Pattern“, which is that all examples are binding until sufficient reason is found for dismissal.
As we study the Bible to determine the nature of the church’s organization, we will find the following reoccurring theme that is at the heart of this matter: Organization of the church begins and ends with the local church, and it should be entirely autonomous of all other organizations, including other local churches.
Biblical Basis for Autonomy
When we read through the pages of the Bible in search of passages about the church and its relation to other organizations, we find no instance of the church answering to any other congregation or organization. There is no reference to any kind of committees, boards, or conventions – not one. Moreover, these type of organizations and structures become specifically excluded by the distinct organizational structure that we find in the Bible:
“The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” I Peter 5:1-3
“So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Acts 14:23
Although easy to overlook, these first two passages necessarily imply a specific structure and from which we can confidently draw definite conclusions. First, we can observe that elders, who “see over” the local church (symbolized here as the flock), were distributed or appointed per congregation. They were not appointed over a city, district, or diocea – but in every church. Consequently, each church is equal to the other. Moreover, these elders, or overseers, were instructed to tend “the flock of God which is among you”. Therefore, not only was each church on an equal basis with the others, but elders were to only tend over those whom they had been appointed (Acts 20:28), which was a single local church (Acts 14:23). From this we can conclude that elders could not then, and cannot today rule over the affairs of other churches, because elders should be appointed in “every church” where possible, and each set of elders is to oversee the affairs of those that are “among” them.
Any boards, conventions, or even outside elders to which a congregation submits, either willingly or otherwise, is a violation of these teachings. Such additions place the congregational rule under someone or something beside the elders “among” them, and it will violate the autonomy that is to be enjoyed by “every church.” Since each congregation should be under the oversight and rule of its own elders, then each church must consequently, be absolutely independent of any other church or organizations.
The Local Church Treasury
The idea of church autonomy and congregational independence can be observed in practice from passages about the church treasury. A congregation’s oversight and control would have to extend at least as far as their oversight and control over their own treasury. But before we continue with this line of reason, let us first examine a verse about the control of personal contributions that are donated to the local church:
“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.’ ” Acts 5:3-4
From this passage we learn that each person’s contribution is their own and under their own control until it is contributed to the church fund. However, a necessary implication from this verse is that once it is given, then this is no longer the case. The gift comes under the control of the church. When each member of a church makes their contribution, then he or she surrenders their control to the unified will and direction of the church who assumes control of the donated funds.
Similarly, if the church were to contribute to some kind of central collecting agency, church, or institution, the funds would also be under the local church’s control until given to the institution. At that point the institution would exert control and oversight and the local church’s oversight and rule would end. But, when we read through the scriptures, what do we actually find?
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem. But if it is fitting that I go also, they will go with me.” I Corinthians 16:1-4
Although the apostle Paul had the authority to order the Corinthian church to take up a collection, he did not exert control over their contribution. Please notice two of the phrases from this passage: “whomever you approve by your letters” and “to bear your gift to Jerusalem”. At no point did Paul overtake ownership or control of the Corinthians funds. The Corinthians had complete control over the choice of messengers to carry “their gift” to Jerusalem. At no point did it become absorbed into a greater collective whole, nor did the Corinthians give up control or oversight of their contribution. Even the great apostle Paul did not violate their autonomy, but he specifically recognized their authority in determining their own messenger to carry their gift to its destination.
Since the Corinthian church had complete control of their funds through their own messenger all the way to its destination, then their rule extended at least that far. Each church had and has the authority, right, and organizational capacity to form their own contribution and have it delivered by the hands of their own selected messenger. The example of this organizational pattern and the absolute silence for authorizing any other type of church oversight excludes all other forms of church rule and oversight – conventions, boards, central church, etc.
The “Convention” of Acts 15 ?
Recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, a meeting, or convention of sorts, was held to determine a doctrinal matter. Some believe this to be a pattern for holding conventions today to also determine doctrines and creeds. However, there are many aspects of this “convention” that make it entirely unlike any conventions that are held today to vote upon creeds. Let’s first examine the background of this meeting:
“And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.”
“So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them.
“But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
“Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.” Acts 15:1-6
The issue of disagreement was whether the Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the other customs of the Old Testament. In regards to our question, we can learn at least two things from this passage: First and foremost, those attending this meeting were not representatives of many congregations who had come together to vote upon a creed or confession of belief, but it was made up the apostles, elders of the Jerusalem church, and Paul and Barnabas who had gone to learn why this false doctrine was coming out Jerusalem (vs. 4, 6). Secondly, the reason for this meeting was not to poll the church population and vote upon a creed or confession of belief, but it was to express God’s will and teaching for the matter. The apostles were representatives of God who had come to express God’s wishes. This was the nature of their office. The elders also had great need to be there, since it was their congregation that was at the heart of the trouble. Most if not all of these men were inspired which made it completely different from conventions today. Therefore, without having to progress further, we have already learned that this meeting is beyond application to us because of both its constituents and its mission.
If you continue to read the chapter, you will read of Peter’s account of God’s miraculous recognition of the Gentiles ability to be saved, and the numerous accounts of Paul and Barnabas working many miracles through them among the Gentiles, and finally of James’ recognition of the prophecies which had foretold of the salvation of Gentiles. Based upon these miraculous, inspired, and scriptural arguments, the apostles and elders decided a letter should be circulated to stop the spread and influence of the false doctrine. From this letter and its circulation, we learn three more things that substantiate the previous statements and further separate it from the conventions of today that oversee church activities and beliefs:
“They wrote this letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings.
“Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” — to whom we gave no such commandment — it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,” …
“We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:” …
“So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement.
“Now Judas and Silas, themselves being prophets also, exhorted and strengthened the brethren with many words.” Acts 15:22-32
First, substantiating the earlier point, the authority of this “convention” was the apostles and prophets who represented God. Uninspired congregational representatives voting upon a creed or course of action are in no way parallel to this meeting that was guided by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Second, as mentioned earlier, the elders needed to be there since it was from their church that these false teachers went out spreading their doctrine. Apparently, the false teachers used the Jerusalem church as some kind of reference or support, since the letter specifically clarifies that the false teachers had taught such without endorsement (15:24). Thirdly, we again notice that it was the Holy Spirit who had inspired and endorsed the decision of this meeting. This is evidenced by the following phrase from verse 28, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit” , and it is further supported by the prophets who traveled with the letter for first-hand miraculous endorsement of its teaching (Acts 15:32).
Therefore, modern conventions are entirely different from this “convention” of Acts 15. It was different in its constituents – it was made up of inspired apostles and prophets who represented God and not congregations. Second, it was different in its mission – they came together to determine God’s will and not to establish a creed. Consequently, Acts 15 is an example that should be dismissed and must not be considered as an authoritative example because of its limited application and the impossibility of its universal application. (There are no apostles or prophets alive today.)
The self-rule of each local congregation is one of the most important Bible teachings. The acceptance or rejection of this Bible doctrine will influence all other decisions that a congregation makes because rejection of this doctrine turns over decisions of a local congregation to the will of a higher, earthly body. This removes the congregations ability to pattern their local church after God’s will and instead subjects it to the will of man.
The examples of New Testament churches are clear: Each congregation was equivalent in rule and was to have elders, who were to oversee the affairs of their local church. Moreover, each set of elders was limited to the oversight of the “flock among them”. The Bible offers no other method of church oversight beyond that of the local church and its elders. Therefore, any form of governing body beside the authorized and approved autonomous local church constitutes an “adding to” God’s Word and is wrong by God’s condemnation of any form of “adding to” or “taking away” from God’s Word. (Please see Doing All Things According to the Pattern for scriptures on this point.)
Based upon this study, we will continue our study and examine how New Testament churches cooperated while maintaining their authority and God’s approval.
Online source: In Search of the Truth http://www.insearchoftruth.org/articles/autonomy.html