Each local congregation in the New Testament was autonomous. This term is derived from two Greek words: auto meaning “self” and nomos meaning “law.” Therefore, autonomous means “self-law, self-rule or self-governing. According to Random House Dictionary it means “independence…, the right of self-government…, a self governing community.” Each local congregation is independent and self-governing without any outside controlling influence or authority. Although the term “autonomous” is not found in the pages of the New Testament, it does express the Biblical principle clearly taught by the scriptures.
Several denominations currently claim congregational independence or autonomy, however closer investigation reveals some startling contradictions. The Congregational Holiness Church “government is, as the name suggests, congregational. Local churches are grouped in annual associations from which delegates are elected to a general association” (Mead 101). The Conservative Congregational Christian Conference is said that its “local churches are completely autonomous; national officers include a president, two vice-presidents,…all elected for three years” (Mead 103). The Congregational Methodist Church has “district conferences…district, annual, and general conferences are all recognized as church courts, ruling on violations of church law…” (Mead 166). The early local churches of Christ of the first and second century were truly autonomous and independent. Mosheim wrote of them:
All the churches, in those primitive times, were independent bodies; or none of them subject to the jurisdiction of any other. For though the churches which were founded by the apostles themselves frequently had the honor shown them to be consulted in difficult and doubtful cases, yet they had no judicial authority, no control, no power or giving laws. On the contrary, it is as clear as the noon-day, that all Christian churches had equal rights, and were in all respects on a footing of equality Nor does there appear in this first century any vestige of that consociation of the churches of the same provinces, which gave rise to ecclesiastical councils, and to metropolitan. But, rather as is manifest, it was not till the second century that the custom of holding ecclesiastical councils first began in Greece, and thence extended into other provinces (Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, p. 72).
Reasons For Congregational Autonomy and Independence
It Is Scriptural
The universal church is not made up of local congregations or denominations. Christ is its only head. “And He is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18; cf. Eph. 5:23). Heaven its only headquarters. Because Heaven is where the Head is quartered (Col. 1:18). Christ’s church is described as a kingdom ruled by a monarchy. Christ is its King. He alone has all authority to legislate law (Matt. 28:18). Any man who has assumed the authority to change the government of the church or the laws has rebelled against the King. Christ’s will is law and rebellion against it is treason. Christ is the sole Ruler of his citizens in matters of faith. No group of His disciples has been given the responsibility of policing other congregations.
The organization God planned for Christ’s church was simple. They had nothing larger than the local church and nothing smaller than the local church. In contrast, a denomination is a religious organization larger than a local church and smaller than the universal church. In the New Testament there is not a single word about two or more congregations being bound together by any sort of an organization whatsoever. There’s nothing said about representatives appointed to attend any sort of a conference of the churches. The only kind of organization God has given is on a congregational level. All other forms of government are excluded.
It Is Effective
Since the local congregation is the only church organization God has given us, then whatever work God wants the church as an organization to do, can be done by the local congregation. It is self-sufficient to do its own work.
The local church is effective in carrying out evangelism. Thirty-four years after Pentecost, Paul declared in Colossians 1:23 that the Gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven. This remarkable success was achieved without any church organization except that of the local congregation. They had no cell phones, no internet, no computers! Our trouble today is not a lack of sufficient organization, but our failure to use the organization which the Lord has provided. When the church at Jerusalem was scattered abroad the Bible says they went everywhere preaching the Word (Acts 8:4). No worldwide organization was set up for the purpose of evangelism. When Paul went out to preach different churches sent directly to him (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:18). The local church sent out preachers (Acts 11:22). The early church had no centralized organization to send out preachers. Two congregations can co-operate in the finest and most effective way without either knowing that the other is in existence. The local church is efficient in benevolence. The Jerusalem congregation took care of its own needy (Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-37). Paul wrote letters and visited churches in Galatia, Achaia, and Macedonia telling them about the needs of the poor saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-27,31). The funds were collected locally and each congregation sending its own fund to the needed saints in another local congregation (1 Cor. 16:1-3).
The local church was effectual in edifying its saints (Eph. 4:11-16). It did not need a church college to develop future leaders.
It is a Safeguard
When local congregations submit to the authority of a centralized organization to govern any aspect of the local church, they have relinquished power or control to that group. It is harder for a local congregation to resist the momentum of the larger more powerful organization. When one church gives control of their treasury or preaching or teaching or eldership to another, they thereby relinquish control of these. If only a part of their means and work go to the jurisdiction of another church, it still results in a loss of autonomy and independence. When local congregations are allowed to maintain autonomy and are independent from each other it is comparatively easier for them remain faithful to Christ even when other churches fall away. If one church becomes corrupted by a false doctrine or immorality other churches are not as easily infected. Rebellion of some churches will not necessarily spread to others. The independence of the churches is a protection for each one. Even if there was only one faithful group of believers on earth, they could still function faithfully in fulfilling its mission.
– Daniel R. Vess
Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle?
Who may dwell in Your holy hill?
He who walks uprightly,
And works righteousness,
And speaks the truth in his heart;
He who does not backbite with his tongue,
Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honors those who fear the Lord;
He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
He who does not put out his money at usury,
Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.