This is a post first published in 2012. I have added more about the difference between the benefit of legally having an autonomous local church principle versus some of the errors in the scriptural basis taught about this concept.
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 actually fuels division within the church as much as any other element. The hierarchical Catholic Church has insisted from near the beginning that it is ordained to rule every church and believer to this day. This same church has strayed far from the original apostle’s path and grew into a world power while saying a lot of what happened with the apostles was just for the apostles’ time and that it has been developing doctrines for what the church should be. Good men rose to challenge that with the Reformation and Restoration movements.
But there were legal problems involved. The integration of governments and the Catholic Church presented challenges to people wanting to back Luther and other reformers’ changes to the church. Governments or at least a leader of government had to endorse the change because other forms of Christianity were made illegal. Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517. Soon after legal challenges arose to the practical acceptance of the Reformation.
By 1540, Pope Paul III had sanctioned the first society pledged to extinguish Protestantism. Christian Protestantism was denounced as heresy, and those supporting these doctrines were excommunicated as heretics. (Wikipedia)
Unlike today, ex-communication in those times meant being cut off from society. It affected your life more than today although it still can have an impact today. People stopped talking to you. You could lose your friends, your job, and more. Remember the Waldenses, the Pope could send crusaders to wipe out heretics (See 11.76 The Waldenses, Why Believers Complied With Roman Catholic Doctrine, Bans on Reading the Bible, The Inquisition and other Repressive Measures).
Prince Frederick the Wise and other princes helped Luther with political protection. Thus Luther was able to set up a church with his beliefs because of that. But that still tied a government and a denomination together.
The Reformation was a beautiful thing. But it did not produce just one reformed church. As more and more people agreed on the necessity of a Reformation, there were more and more arguments on exactly what should be in that Reformation. This demonstrates how philosophy has crept into believers’ minds to allow people to speculate and reason in ways that Scripture doesn’t allow. The desire of the reformers to return to the truth was good but their philosophies didn’t agree. So we have Martin Luther, but we also have John Calvin and Zwingli, and the Anabaptists, and the Unitarians, and John Wesley, and on and on and on. Within even realms that had adopted one non-Catholic denomination, there were increasing numbers of churches developing that didn’t agree even with that reformed church.
We’ll talk more about it but in order to just have a church anywhere that didn’t necessarily agree with the doctrine of the state-sponsored church in the area there developed the concept of the autonomous local church. While a scriptural basis for this concept was rationalized, this was a legal move as much as anything else. Not just spiritually, but legally, people said they had the right to form their own church independent of what the government determined Christianity should look like.
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 where 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 of one 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, and 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 and Claude King 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 and King, in discussing the above points, say 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]
Above, in First Corinthians 12:13, we read that there is just one body. Somehow Experiencing God’s logic allows you to have each church to be one body yet when you add up all the churches it is not 45,000 bodies or however many churches there are.
This is the example of Henry Blackaby and Claude King making an a priori statement, that is, that a local autonomous church is the body of Christ. It is presented as an assumption. Blackaby and King show no reason for making the statement. They don’t show how the verses cited say what they are proclaiming. It is just stated as a fact. In the paragraph discussing this, they cite that Jesus Christ is the head of the church (Eph 4:15), and that the Holy Spirit manifests itself (1 Cor 12:7). They state valid scriptural reasoning that the body functions to build itself up along with each member growing in stature to the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13). Nowhere in there is any logic that shows that they got a conclusion that the local church is the body of Christ. Everything so far just shows that they are making the assumption that the local church is the body of Christ.
Continuing in the text we see this explanation from the same reference:
“All believers worldwide are united in the kingdom of God under the rule of the King! But the local churches to function like a body. It is not part of a body. It is a body.”
As I’ve said the authors haven’t shown where they can reasonably conclude this statement from verses. They present it as if it is obvious. That is what an a priori statement is, a statement of something that is obvious like one and one equals two or all the angles of a triangle equals 360.
Here’s the problem with this logic using this assumption:
One church (assembly of people) = one body
There are 45,000 (or however many) churches (assemblies of people)
This says logically that there are 45,000 bodies of Christ
Yet here is only one body in Christ.
This is incoherent logic. This just doesn’t make sense. Blackaby and King’s philosophy is misleading. Their assumption is false. This is adding to Scripture. This is stating something as true that is not revealed in Scripture. (A priori statements are discussed in Philosophy in Christianity – Welcome Addition or Intrusion of Worldly Reasoning? – The Trinity’s Philosophical Basis.)
Nevertheless, the autonomous local church is part and parcel of the fabric of many a church system. As stated above, the autonomous local church needs to be recognized legally. If people want to start a church in their area but the national religion is Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Anglican church, or anything else, those people should have the right to start their church. But that’s a legal issue.
There is a scriptural precedent for churches to declare themselves independent of the local religious authority, but not independent of the rest of the true body of Christ.
In the Book of Acts, chapter 5, we read how the apostles were successfully ministering to the people but this angered the religious authorities.
But the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy, and laid hands on the apostles, and put them in public custody. (Act 5:17-18 WEB)
There it is, the nation of Israel is both a religious power and a political entity with power over the people as to what they believe and practice. This same concept was instituted in the Christian Church with Constantine making Christianity a national religion in the fourth century. In the centuries that followed after up until the Reformation Governments chose what religion was legal to practice. The vast majority of that time in the Christian world it was Roman Catholicism. Then there was a schism and soon different countries had different Orthodox churches. But it was this same principle of integrated church and state.
SO, at the time of the Reformation, this was still the practice, the government was in charge of what was legal to believe and practice.
So what was the godly solution back in the book of acts?
But an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors by night, and brought them out, and said, “Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.” (Act 5:19-20 WEB)
God sent a messenger, an angel, who opened the doors of the prison the apostles were in, and charge them to speak the truth, even though it was illegal by man’s standards.
This was divine intervention. This was not men choosing on their own to break away from the established religious authority. This was a man following the Lord’s guidance to break away from the established religious authority. So there is precedent for a church to break away from the established legally authorized church if the Lord directs it. But the new Christian Church was still a network of related assemblies under the same guidance and direction.
But Blackaby, in his idea of the local autonomous church, goes way beyond the above example. Somehow in his system, every local church is not related to each other in the one body of Christ.
Simply put, Blackaby and King have determined the body of Christ does not refer to all believers on earth under Christ. They define all the believers on earth as the kingdom, which is separate from the body. To Blackaby and other Congregationalists, each and every local church is a body under Christ. Blackaby and King are following congregational teaching which emphasizes the autonomy of the local church.
Now in his book, the authors make these distinctions in a section where they talk about how God speaks to people. And, we need to look at that so I’m going to take a little tangent. Amazingly, the authors, part of the Cessationist Southern Baptist Convention, teach that it is the Holy Spirit that speaks with people citing verses like Hebrews 1:1-2 and John 14:26 without teaching the manifestations of the spirit taught in 1 Corinthians 12-14.
God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds. (Heb 1:1-2 WEB)
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you. (Joh 14:26 WEB)
On page 37 of his book cited below, Blackaby emphasizes the importance of “knowing God’s voice”, a phrase he uses over and over. On the back cover of my edition is written: “Learn to hear when God is speaking to you”. On page 73 of my edition, the authors note that God spoke in the OT through angels, visions, dreams, the use of the Urim and Thummin, symbolic actions, a gentle whisper, and miraculous signs along with where they are documented in the Old Testament. All of these point to the author’s teaching people how to experience the manifestations of the holy spirit taught in 1 Corinthians 12-14 without getting into labeling them as such.
I have talked with some ardent Baptists who talked along similar lines. Now, though they were cessationists, they used phrases like being led by the Spirit and so forth indicating that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives communicating with them all the while proclaiming against modern-day charismatics using the gifts and manifestations of the spirit and even going as far to say that speaking in tongues is devilish.
So we have people who say that the manifestations of the spirit as documented in First Corinthians chapter 12, i.e., word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healings, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues are no longer around. At the same time, they’re saying that they get communications from the Lord, answers to prayer, guidance, and even miracles, including healings, while being spirit led. To me, it looks like they acknowledge all of the manifestations with the exception of speaking in tongues and interpretation.
Communications from the Lord are called word of knowledge and word of wisdom in 1 Corinthians 12.
for to one through the Spirit hath been given a word of wisdom, and to another a word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; and to another faith in the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healings in the same Spirit; and to another in-workings of mighty deeds; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; and to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another interpretation of tongues: and all these doth work the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each severally as he intendeth. (1Co 12:8-11 YLT)
Anytime someone hears from God, gets power from God, gets prayer answered, gets healed etc, that is a manifestation. And all believers are given the manifestation(s) of the spirit.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. (1Co 12:7 KJV)
I am just going to state that Experiencing God is a book that teaches a lot of what the Bible teaches on how the manifestations of the spirit work while never acknowledging that they are teaching a lot of what is in First Corinthians chapters 12 to 14!
Now back to how the authors talk about how the body of Christ is a local church. In this particular content, he’s talking about how God speaks through the church. Blackaby wants people to trust the other people in their church, and he uses the one body scriptures to reinforce the concept that they will be led to God through the other people in their local church. Those are admirable exhortations.
But 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 part of the cessationist Southern Baptist Convention which believes and teaches that those gifts died with the apostles (See The Argument that Tongues and other Gifts and Manifestations have Ceased). But, in Blackaby’s model, and following scriptural logic of what is included in the whole body of Christ, 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 the 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 so important in history because it no only enabled churches to break away from the dominating rule of Catholicism or other state-sponsored denominations, where, for example, the Roman Catholic Church holds that its hierarchy of bishops holds absolute rule in the running of each and every church and believer, it allowed believers to start their own churches anywhere. In order for churches to justify that they had the right not to 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 or leaders of the denomination that was the church-sponsored religion in that area.
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. His ministry, Blackaby Ministries International, is a para ministry, that is, an independent ministry that comes alongside believers and churches to augment what is going on in the local church and the believer’s life. 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 a 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. Thus, even Blackaby’s para ministry augmenting what is happening in the local church is a contradiction to the autonomous local church concept.
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 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 allow 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, or where many members acquiesce rather than 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 it 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 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 a wide variation of beliefs.
Dictatorship Versus Democracy in the Church
For many of us in the free world democracy is the best form of government. On the other side of the scheme are totalitarian governments that decide and rule independently of citizen input. Dictatorship is the name of a government where a dictator gets to decide the law of the land. A Google search reveals that a dictator is “a person who rules with total authority and often in a cruel or brutal manner” by one definition. But in its simplest form, a dictator is simply the person in charge who gets to rule independently of the input of the people underneath him or her.
Therefore, the term dictator has a very negative connotation to many. The “cruel or brutal manner” aspect of many dictatorships is what a lot of people think of when the word dictator is used.
On the other side of the coin is the concept of a “benevolent dictator”. Think of the parents of young kids or even infants. Your young baby wants to reach for an electrical outlet. Your kids throw a fit because you won’t let them eat candy as their lunch. You’re smart but resistant daughter refuses to do her homework. Your son would do nothing but play video games if you let him. In each of these cases, the parent acts as a benevolent dictator. The parent has the decision to decide, not the child. You as a parent are the benevolent dictator. Policing is a strong term, but it simply refers to an authority enforcing its laws. The parent is the policeman when he or she enforces that the child must eat real food and not candy for lunch.
In the church, we all are God’s children. Christ is given the authority as the head of the one body. He is the benevolent dictator. We hear from the Lord through the Holy Spirit who guides us.
Next, I want to relate the concept of the dictator to what happens in the autonomous local church.
What happens usually in practice is that in autonomous churches the pastor or the board, whoever has authority, becomes a doctrinal dictator and acts as a doctrinal policeman. Of course, there is probably discussion over these matters, and there probably is affection on both sides, but the decider is the decider. There is no questioning the churches’ doctrine which means the doctrine decider has absolute rule. 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 whether to allow them to remain within their group.
(It would be remiss at this point to leave out that there is another form of local autonomous church rule – congregational rule – whereby the congregants themselves decide the decisions making this more of a democracy. The verses cited to base this on are:
The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word.” These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. (Act 6:2-6 WEB)
There it is, a leadership team was chosen by the congregation. Notice, however, that the church congregation didn’t decide to make this decision on their own. The apostles decided that the congregation could make this decision and it is noted that it is not a doctrinal issue, rather it is related to serving tables.
This is more of an isolated incident that is not the rule for most decisions in the church. But it does allow that, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, there may be times when the congregation gets to decide.
Also, as in Acts 15:22, the whole Church acted in agreement on how different decisions were made and carried out.)
An Example of a Church Splitting Where the Pastor Has Doctrinal Authority
I personally witnessed a church completely change direction, with a lot of people going their separate ways because of this dynamic. The pastor in this case over a period of time became more and more convinced that the church needed to become more “inclusive”, and that the traditional teaching on sex, marriage, and other LGBTQ+ topics was in error, and decided that the church must change. He said he did have some influence from some of the younger people of the staff.
He presented his decision to the board. The board disagreed but the pastor was resolute. The complete board resigned with no effect on this pastor. They would just be replaced. Evidently, it was already in process.
After that, he announced to the congregation in services his decision. With it he strongly advised against using any kind of negative terms like the church is watering down the word, or compromising the word. He advised that all terminology needed to include being “inclusive” and “welcoming” to these important people who love God also.
In his announcement the pastor couched the decision as if it could be reversed but after how the board went how could anyone believe that was really true? Many left the church, I lost track of how many.
That is one example of congregational rule where the pastor has complete authority over doctrine in the church charter. That church did not teach or practice the manifestations of the holy spirit and I do not know what was said in that matter in other discussions. What was presented was a general social message of how all people are to be loved, valued, and allowed to be a part of, even as leaders, of a Christian church, even if they were LGBTQ+. The overriding general principles of love and inclusiveness were emphasized as more important than specifics in scripture. And also emphasized was how scripture had been misinterpreted before.
And, in the middle of this shift in this church was dialogue emphasizing the “scientific” basis of how some people are born LGBTQ+. There was a reference to the failure of sexual reparation therapy. These people were obviously convinced that the traditional church teaching against homosexuality and other forms of sexual expression was in error and they had sound scientific bases to say this (see H2 Born Gay: Scientific Fact or False Idol of Bad Science?) for more on the true scientific validity of these theories.
And, if the new doctrine of rewriting scriptural interpretation to accept LGBTQ+ as legitimate and acceptable is wrong, which is what is presented on this website, then you have churches teaching people error in this ever so personal and far-reaching area of our lives.
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 can get closer to God personally, and they can perhaps 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.
Regarding the autonomy of the local church, I say that it is an important legal right for a church to be autonomous from government intervention. Obeying God rather than men is a scriptural directive. However Scripture teaches us that there is one body, which consists of all the believers, and all these believers are under the headship of Jesus Christ who directs via the Holy Spirit. There are governments in the church that the Holy Spirit appoints as well as apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists that are set in the church for the building up of the church. No single church is the body of Christ by itself. And look at the example of the apostle Paul, he was an apostle, to all the churches:
But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. (1Co 7:17 KJV)
That verse says the apostle directed his command to all the churches. There is no local church autonomy there. The scriptural model in the NT is that the apostles were sent to churches when there was an issue, no matter where the local church was.
In practical reality, there is too much confusion on exactly what Scripture says in too many areas for there to be one ruling body on earth over all of the churches in the one body today. That simply emphasizes the need for all believers everywhere to stop saying that doctrine doesn’t matter, that all of the disagreements are on nonessential things, and to work towards letting the spirit speak and guide us to an understanding of what Scripture really says. That is the work of prophets, apostles, pastors, teachers, and evangelists. There is only one spirit. And that one spirit is going to be saying the same thing through all of the apostles, pastors, prophets, teachers, and evangelists under his guidance.
[i] EXPERIENCING GOD: KNOWING AND DOING THE WILL OF GOD, Henry T. Blackaby, Claude V. King, Lifeway Press, Nashville, 1997, p 105-106
©copyright 2012-23 Mark W. Smith, all rights reserved. last revised 6/12/2023