OriginalChristianity.Net

Not Traditional, Original

Autonomy of the Local Church

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.

May 30th, 2012 Posted by | Divisions, Modern Christianity | one comment

1 Comment »

  1. […] Autonomy of the Local Church […]

    Pingback by Parachurch Ministries: Perhaps the Best Example of the One Body in Action | OriginalChristianity.Net | June 4, 2012

Leave a comment