Autonomy of the Local Church
Autonomy does not mean autonomy from God’s authority and leadership, or indulgence in carnal or worldly living, or isolated from the world by neglecting to give the gospel to others and from other Christians of like faith. We are constrained by the love of God to evangelize the lost and fellowship with God’s people living in obedience to His commands. Autonomy does mean though that we are not part of any denomination. While it is true that denominations have some apparent advantages, they tend on the other hand to become man-centered and emphasize tradition. Often denominational loyalty replaced loyalty to Christ and His Word.
There are three key passages of Scripture that we can look at which informs our understanding of the autonomy of the local church.
Acts 6:5 gives a major example of the local church acting on their own accord without outside influence. It reads, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (ESV). This verse is found in the context of the selection of deacons to help with the temporal affairs of the local church. The apostles found that there was too much going on in the church and that the temporal affairs of the people were preventing them on focusing on their main responsibilities of prayer, and study of the Word for the purpose of preaching and teaching. Their recommendation was to have the church pick out some men who could accomplish these tasks. They gathered all the disciples (church) and told them this. It pleased the whole group and the group selected the 7 men to serve as the first deacons. It was the local congregation that made the decision in this and there was no outside influence that determined this decision. The authority resides within the local church, not in some larger hierarchical group.
1 Corinthians 16:1–3 gives further example of the local church’s autonomy. This passage reads, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” The circumstances revolved around Paul instructing the church in Corinth regarding how they could help support other local churches, in this case, the churches in Jerusalem. Paul tells them he will come by and give letters of introduction to the men the church at Corinth has chosen before they go to Jerusalem with their monetary gifts. The selection of these men was done “in-house.” The decisions are made within the local congregation. Again, there is no outside group determining how or what should occur within the local church. Each local congregation is technically independent from any other.
Acts 15:22–23 adds to our understanding of autonomy. The passage reads, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” The context of this passage is that some were trying to get Gentile converts to obey the Mosaic law along to be saved as well. The church at Jerusalem wanted to help to inform the other churches about what God’s Word said regarding the inclusion of Gentiles into Christianity. With this letter the church decided they wanted to send some men to travel with Paul and Barnabas with the letter. It was this local church that wrote the letter and sent it with men they chose. Again, there is no outside influence of some other hierarchical group. This whole work is the work of one local church. This church was independent from the others.
Ultimately, these examples serve to show us the autonomy of the local church. Each individual church determined their own processes and procedures. They elected their own officials. They were the source of their own authority. The authority of the church ultimately rests in Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone but authority is derived from that through the leaders of the church and the congregation as a whole. The Scriptures teach that each individual congregation as informed by the Word makes their decisions.