The autonomy of the local church is an aspect of the division in Christianity over which is the best form of church government. (See Church Government for more). I am addressing it in particular because this element, while it was used to keep all churches united by a carnally minded, hierarchial Catholic Church that insisted it ruled every church and believer in the middle ages, to this day it actually fuels division within the church as much or more than any other element.
How Congregationalists Integrate Local Church Autonomy with the Biblical Teaching that the Church is One Body
There are a number of places in the Bible that the body of Christ is discussed. In Mark chapter 14, in an account of the last supper, Jesus tells the disciples to eat of his body, represented by the bread. First Corinthians chapter 12 is an in depth discussion of some elements of the body of Christ. Paul writes,
For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13 ASV)
Paul writes later in the chapter that there should be no division in the body, that we are all members one of another, and that there are many gifts given to build up the body like apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, helps, and others. Because of the way that the body is constructed he emphasizes that we are all to care for each other in the body, each and every one of us doing our part.
In Ephesians chapter 4 Paul writes further on this topic.
And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: (Ephesians 4:11-12 ASV)
Here Paul talks about how the purpose of these gift ministries is to perfect the Saints, and build up the body of Christ.
From these verses we get a wonderful picture of an assembly of believers working together as a unit, supplying one another’s needs, building one another up.
In these sections we see numerous talents in the body: apostles, prophets pastors, evangelists, teachers, helps, administrators, healers, and more. We see verses that say that everyone is put into the body to play their role, and that every part of the body is crucial to the functioning of the whole body. We see that Christ is the head and overseeing all. So this looks like a picture of how the whole body of Christ functions on earth under Christ. There is an emphasis on ONE body of all believers with no divisions.
Then, you may ask, how does this topic fit in with “the autonomy of the local church”?
A proponent of local church autonomy is Henry Blackaby. Blackaby is a powerful Bible teacher and a strong Baptist. He put together a course called Experiencing God, which is a wonderful course if you want to gain some good insight into exactly what the name of the course, and accompanying book, implies: experiencing God.
But just because I have recommended the book does not mean that I believe that everything in it is true. On the contrary, Blackaby, in discussing the above points, says some things that are quite surprising to me:
“A church is a body. It is the body of Christ (1Cor. 12:27)…A local church is the body of Christ. It is not part of a body. It is a body. ”[i]
In his book Blackaby does not teach that all believers everywhere on earth are the body of Christ. He focuses on the local church. He says that the local church is not part of a body. He makes the local church the body of Christ.
Somewhere Blackaby has determined the body of Christ does not refer to all believers on earth under Christ. To Blackaby and other congregationalists each and every local church is a body under Christ. Blackaby is following congregational teaching which emphasizes the autonomy of the local church.
Now in his book, Blackaby makes these distinctions in a section where he is talking about how God speaks to people. In this particular content he’s talking about how God speaks through the church. He wants people to trust the other people in their church, and he uses these verses to reinforce the concept that they will be led to God through the other people in their local church. Those are admirable exhortations.
But in the process, Blackaby is rewriting what Paul wrote. Paul didn’t write that the local church is the body of Christ. Paul never talks about the local church in this context. Paul talks about all believers, all of us, being the body of Christ.
When you look at it, in spite of Blackaby’s motive to exhort church members to work within their church, Blackaby’s analogy doesn’t really line up with what Paul wrote. Now, of course, if you are in a church that is populated with people who have the spirit, and are given gifts, you should be edified there. But to limit where you should be edified to just the local church subverts the greatness of what Christ has accomplished.
What’s amazing to me is that, as far as I can see, Blackaby doesn’t even acknowledge a lot of the gifts that he implies are available within the local church, namely, apostles, prophets, and other like gift ministries, as available in the church today as he is a cessationist and believes those gifts died with the appostles (See The Argument that Tongues and other Gifts and Manifestations have Ceased). But, in Blackaby’s model every local church has all of the apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, teachers, helps, administrators, healers, and so forth, that is needed for the people in that church.
All of this is part of the concept of the autonomy of local church. To be autonomous means to be self regulating. The concept of the autonomous local church means that it rejects outside authority and influence in the way that it operates.
The local church, according to this model, is self-sufficient. It doesn’t need outside teachers, administrators, or help in any way.
The autonomy of the local church concept is important in history, because it enabled churches to break away from the dominating rule of Catholicism, where, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church holds that its hierarchy of bishops holds absolute role in the running of each and every church and believer. In order for churches to justify that they had the right to not be subject to the Roman Catholic Church, they had to put forth the right of self-determination in order to reject orders coming down from the Vatican.
I’d like to suggest that neither model is absolutely true. When the hierarchical church is being run by non-spiritual, carnal administrators it is certainly true that there is no fit spiritual leadership there. But to reject the benefit of being ministered to by legitimate, spirit led and appointed ministers outside of the local church is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In practical terms, certainly, there are a lot of needs completely met within the confines of a local church.
But also in practical terms, some of the most adamant autonomous churches do not really practice complete autonomy. I mean, even in the example of Blackaby, Blackaby is a teacher outside of the local church that is edifying the local church. When the young people in this autonomous local church listen to Christian music on the radio, they are being edified by members of a body greater than their local church. When the married couples in this local church go to a marriage seminar they are being pastored by members of a body greater than their local church. When the pastor gets counseled by another pastor, he’s being ministered to by a member of church greater than the local church. Every person in that local autonomous church who read The Purpose Driven Life or any other Christian teaching material was being ministered to by the whole, all-encompassing, body of Christ.
In order for the church to have autonomy, someone, or some group within the church needs to have absolute rule over what is taught and practiced. This is can be accomplished through the use of the membership agreement. I have seen membership agreements where it is spelled out that the pastor (or in other cases, a church board) has absolute authority over biblical teaching. When you apply for membership you agree to always abide by whatever the pastor (or church board) teaches.
(It also needs to be noted that many churches do not take an adamant stand on every issue. For example, a church may promote tithing, but acknowledge that “abundant sharing” is a legitimate doctrine to many. But typically, in my experience, most churches, at least, promote one position over another, and usually are adamant about a number of issues. It is these issues over which churches are adamant where the divisions occur, and where many members acquiesce rather that challenge something they believe to be erroneous.)
But this agreement by members to agree to the complete doctrinal authority of the pastor or board allows for division in the church in the worst way. In this model each individual church has set itself up as autonomous meaning that there is no outside influence that can tell a church that is making a doctrinal or practical error. Within the church it only allows membership to those who agree not to question what they teach and practice. If every person really heard the spirit of God and taught it completely accurately, there would be no problem. But as we know, that is ridiculously untrue. There are tens of thousands of different “denominations”, meaning that there are that many disagreements over what is “true” or right doctrine.
Some “assemblies” teach that they allow for this because the pastor subjects himself to the direction of the greater assembly. The Vineyard, and Assemblies of God are two groups of churches that do this. But we have seen that, in practice, even within these groups of churches there is wide variation of beliefs.
What happens in practice is that in autonomous churches the pastor or the board, whoever has authority, becomes a doctrinal dictator(s) and acts as a doctrinal policeman. There is no questioning the churches’ doctrine. There is no outside authority that the church recognizes unless it is a member of some greater assembly or convention, and then that group’s only power is in deciding on whether to allow them to remain within their group.
It is important to say here also that most Christians believe that God works with each believer so that no matter what problems there are in churches or anywhere else, people do get saved, they get closer to God personally, and they experience to some degree the more abundant life that Christ came to make available. Still, this principle of the local autonomous church that Blackaby teaches and a lot of churches practice works to make for a lot of Yo-Yo Christianity where people go back and forth in their beliefs while shopping for and attending churches that they believe are most compatible with their needs and theologies.
In the next article we will look at some alternatives and ways of dealing with avoiding having to go back and forth on the principles of Christian theology in attending different churches.
[i] EXPERIENCING GOD: KNOWING AND DOING THE WILL OF GOD, Henry T. Blackaby, Claude V. King, Lifeway Press, Nashville, 1997, p 105-106
©copyright 2012 Mark W. Smith, all rights reserved.
Christians are divided on Jesus’ message regarding participation in war; joining the army, even self defense.
Many Christian denominations believe in the concept of a just war including the right of countries to maintain armies. The Roman Catholic Church has maintained this position for ages. They have specified conditions that are required for a war to be just:[i]
“The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”[ii]
Other Christian groups have issued statements against war without requiring all their member to abstain from participating. Here is a Methodist statement:
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.[iii]
The Methodists claim to speak only for the UMC, and in fact say in their website that within the UMC are groups that believe in a just war and those that reject it, with a variety of positions in between.
Mennonites and Amish are two Christian groups that totally reject war. Here is an excerpt from the Mennonite website:
“Rejection of the Sword
One of the foundational teachings of the Mennonites from the very beginning was rejection of war and use of the sword. Conservative Mennonites do not join peace marches or try to dictate to governments what they should with regards to war. Mennonites recognize that God has given human governments the right to use the sword in punishment and in defensive wars. But they believe there is a distinction between citizens of God’s kingdom and citizens of this world.
Jesus commanded His disciples: “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . .Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:39,44). From the very beginning, Christians understood Jesus’ commandment to rule out Christians going to war. The entire Church held to that position until the time of Constantine in the fourth century.”[iv]
As these groups must serve in some capacity rather than serve in armed services there are organizations that do Christian “peace” work. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is an organization that provides peace mission opportunities for pacifist Christians.
Verses that seem to reject the use of force and war
Pacifist groups like the Mennonites and the Amish focus only on verses that promote peace and there are many. Here are some of them:
Matt. 5:39,44 are included in the Mennonite discussion above. These verses specifically say to turn the other cheek and to not resist the evil person.
Jesus praised peacemakers:
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)
Jesus’ mission was to lead people in the way of peace:
Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, To shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
The golden rule says that we should do as we would want others to treat us. Does anyone really want to have war declared on them?
All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
Jesus admonished that you reap what you sow, ergo, if you sow war you will reap war:
Then saith Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
The OT admonishes against trusting in the army’s might:
Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, and trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek Jehovah! (Isaiah 31:1)
For the Christian, the warfare is spiritual, not physical:
(for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), (2 Corinthians 10:4)
We are warned not to seek revenge:
Finally, be ye all likeminded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tenderhearted, humbleminded: not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called, that ye should inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Verses that allow for the use of force and war
The problem for the pacifist is that there are also many verses that allow for the use of the sword and war. Here are some of them:
The Old Testament
First of all, the Old Testament is scripture also. When it says that all is scripture is profitable for doctrine, reproof , and correction, that not only includes the OT, at that time of the writing of the New Testament books only the OT was considered scripture. In the old Testament:
- God established the death penalty. The commandment translated “Thou shalt not kill.” actually should read “Thou shalt do no murder.” The commandment bans murder, not killing. God provided that those that murdered were to be killed:
And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it: and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:5-6)
- The prophet Abraham led a retaliatory attack to free Lot. After the raid he was blessed by the legendary Melchizadek, King of Salem and priest of God:
And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. And he divided himself against them by night, he and his servants, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people. And the king of Sodom went out to meet him, after his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, at the vale of Shaveh (the same is the King’s Vale). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be God Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him a tenth of all. (Genesis 14:14-20)
- The capture of the promised land was a war campaign
- Some of the greatest Old Testeament leaders and examples of believing were warriors; David, Gideon, Samson, etc.
- Ecclesiastes frankly says that there is a time to kill:
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; (Ecclesiastes 3:3)
- Peace was always the goal in both political and civil matters in Israel, but the use of force was regularly required to achieve it
The New Testament
Despite Jesus’ admonitions about turning the other cheek and pursuing peace, he said a number of things that are contrary to the idea that He always meant for us NOT to use force.
He proclaimed that he came to send the sword, the symbol for war and conflict:
Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)
He allowed for a standing army because he didn’t advise soldiers to leave the service, rather he advised the men to be content with their wages and act righteously:
And there came also publicans to be baptized, and they said unto him, Teacher, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort no more than that which is appointed you. And soldiers also asked him, saying, And we, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:12-14)
Jesus (and Peter for that matter) ministered to soldiers. Jesus praised the soldier’s faith:
And Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself; for I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, having under myself soldiers: and I say to this one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. And when Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned and said unto the multitude that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole. (Luke 7:6-10)
The first Gentile to be accepted into the faith was a soldier, Cornelius, in Acts chapter 8.
While Jesus at least one time told the disciples to get rid of their swords, at another place he tells them to get swords. In fact the verses speak to Jesus’ instruction that there was a time to not have a sword and there was a time to have one. There doesn’t seem to be any way that someone with a sword wouldn’t use it if necessary:
And he said unto them, When I sent you forth without purse, and wallet, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing. And he said unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet; and he that hath none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. (Luke 22:35-36)
This is a powerful and emotional issue. No church regards war as a desirable choice, but most churches leave the choice up to the conscience of the individual while a few make nonviolence a core belief.
The bible appears to allow for the use of force when necessary, but this is remains a divisive issue as there are groups on both sides of the issue and in places between.
[i] www.catholic.com/, the U.S. largest “lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics and evangelization”, this page located at http://www.catholic.com/library/Just_War_Doctrine_1.asp
[iii] The United Methodist Church, the Book of Discipline, seen at http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.1696621/k.8834/War_Overview.htm
[iv]The Mennonites website, http://themennonites.org/, this page at http://themennonites.org/mennonite-beliefs/
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.
Simply put, there is a debate over the name used in baptizing. It is an issue that divides Christians as some say the ‘in Jesus’ name” baptisms are invalid and vice versa.
The question is: does the Bible teach that Christians are to baptize in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Ghost? Or does it teach that baptism is to be done in the name of Jesus Christ? Is there a difference in these names?
For clarification, the expression “in the name of” has a biblical definition of “by the authority of,” or “by the power of:”
And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, By what power, or in what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders, if we this day are examined concerning a good deed done to an impotent man, by what means this man is made whole; be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even in him doth this man stand here before you whole. (Acts 4:7-10)
This meaning becomes important below as some say that “in the name of” does not meant that a wording should be used as much as it is just the authority that authorizes the practice.
Three Main Views
1. There is no difference between the names
According to the CARM article “Should we baptize “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” or “in the name of Jesus?”” “Therefore, when they are properly baptized in the name of Jesus, they should say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” just as Jesus commanded us to do.”[i]
According to Gospelway, “in Jesus name is not a formula, it just is the authority by which it is done.[ii]
“Who within the Godhead gave instruction to baptize? Jesus is the one who told us to baptize. The Father under the Old Covenant did not command it; it is a command given by Jesus in the Great Commission. So the question then is “how” did He tell us to baptize? Clearly in Matthew 28:19 Jesus says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is the formula or manner of baptism. The formula or manner of baptism must come only from the One who authorized and commanded baptism—and that is Jesus. No one after Him can change the formula, and the book of Acts does not change the formula, but only clarifies Who authorized baptism.”[iii]
Notice the term “godhead” above, that is orthodox terminology that ties everything back to the trinity. This is seen in the author’s (of the above statement) clarification:
“Bear in mind the baptismal formula—Father, Son and Spirit—this describes who God really is more than any other description. Jesus wanted to make sure that the foundation of our faith is the acknowledgment of the blessed Trinity—one God revealed in three persons. To deny this is to deny the foundation of our faith, and this is why Christians have rightfully declared heretical any teachings that deny the Trinity.”
This points to the motive of the person using the trinitarian formula being to reinforce the importance of the trinity. This explanation is nowhere in scripture; it looks like purely self-serving speculation.
2. Baptism and everything else should be done in the name of Jesus [Christ]
Oneness Pentecostals are one group that teaches that baptism is to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus only. They cite the New Testemant records that never show the trinitarian formula being carried out while the “In Jesus Name: wording is all over the New Testament. [iv]
3. You Must Baptize In the Trinitarian Name as “In Jesus Name” Baptisms Are Invalid
This is the position of the Catholic Church.[v] Www.catholic.com cites evidence from Tatian and the Didache (170 A.D.) on that “The early Church Fathers, of course, agreed. [vi] They do not agree that there is no difference between the wordings. They say that only Trinitarian wording baptisms are valid. They say “in Jesus name” baptisms are invalid.
The basis for this debate is that in Matthew 28:19 the the trinitarian formula is used while the application of that command appears to be missing because in the book of Acts the latter name (Jesus Christ) is used.
First of all, while there are numerous verses that have alternative translations in the texts, Matthew 28:19 does not appear to be one of them. Furthermore, several early church fathers directly quote the trinitarian formula as being used in baptism. Ignatius and Tertullian among them.[vii] However, there is a contingent that gives evidence why Matthew 28:16 might be in error as some church fathers cite Matt 28:19 wording with “in my name” as opposed to the trinitarian formula. (See Matthew 28:19 – Legitimate Verse that was not Carried Out by the Apostles or Scribal Forgery?)
Justin Martyr in his First Apology talked about baptismal practice in his day:
«Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.»[viii]
While not directly saying so, this quote implies that in Justin’s day they baptized in the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Ghost as written about in Matthew 28:19:
Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: (Matthew 28:19)
The trinitarian formula in the verse above makes it appear to have been the practice for a all of the early years in the church. However, that contradicts the records in the book of Acts and other places in the New Testament:
And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
This and many other verses say that what was practiced was that baptism is done in the name of Jesus [Christ].
Problem with the “no difference” position
If “in Jesus Name” is not a formula, then “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is not a formula either. But it is used that way in practice. In fact, in Catholic churches, who are the churches that developed and perpetuated this practice, everything from baptism to the sign of the cross is done in the formula of “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” And Catholics especially reject doing things in the name of Jesus only.
Problem with “You Must Baptize In The Trinitarian Name, In Jesus Name Baptisms Are Invalid” position
The Catholic Church cites evidence back to the mid second century. However, scripture evidence is that “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (and similar forms of Jesus Christ’s name) is what was used in the first century.
Problem with “In Jesus Name” only Position
If Matthew 28:19 is a legitimate verse, then there is not only nothing wrong with the Trinitarian formula as it is the command of the Lord Jesus. That is why one must seriously consider whether Matthew 28:19 is legitimate. (See Matthew 28:19 – Legitimate Verse that was not Carried Out by the Apostles or Scribal Forgery?)
Again, this is a very divisive issue as some say that baptizing in the wrong “formula” makes the baptism is invalid.
[vii] Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Chapter IX.—The Old Testament is good: the New Testament is better; Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians, Chapter II.—Unity of the three divine persons;
[viii] Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, Chapter LXI.—Christian Baptism
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.