The autonomy of the local church has been a central tenet of Baptists since before the foundation of the SBC in 1845. Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message states, in part, A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth (emphasis added). But is church autonomy really an essential issue for us to embrace? A review of the relevance, historical roots, biblical foundations, and implications of church autonomy demonstrates why SBC LIFE would include it in its focus on doctrine.
A Relevant Issue
Consider the following: A local Baptist association withdraws fellowship from an affiliating church for installing a female pastor. A Baptist state convention removes a church for endorsing homosexuality. Yet, at the same time, both the association and state convention willingly endorse the doctrine of local church autonomy. A young pastor leads his new church plant, which receives Cooperative Program funding, to designate all missions giving to causes dear to his heart and none back to the Cooperative Program or Baptist causes. He justifies this with the principle of local church autonomy.
Church autonomy is an important, biblical doctrine, yet it can be misinterpreted and controversial. So, what does “autonomy” actually mean? Is there really a strong rationale, and what are the implications of autonomy in church and denominational life?
A Baptist Distinctive
While not exclusive to Baptists, the autonomy of the local church is certainly a Baptist distinctive. Most mainline denominations do not recognize church autonomy to the level that Baptist or other “free” churches do. Historically, “free” churches or “congregational” churches have not tolerated control by a denominational conference or council. They have refuted the practice of a denominational body assigning pastors, mandating a percentage of the offerings, dictating matters of church practice, or setting worship liturgies. Baptists have rejected all such infringements on church competence and autonomy.
So, what does it mean for a local church to be “autonomous?” “Autonomy” is from the Greek, autonomia, a compound of autos, “self,” and nomos, “law.” Thus, it means “self-governing.” Webster’s describes an autonomy as “a self-governing community.” The SBC Report from the Presidential Theological Study Committee (1994) describes an autonomous church: “A New Testament church is a gathered congregation of baptized believers who have entered into covenant with Christ and with one another to fulfill, according to the Scriptures, their mutual obligations. Under the Lordship of Christ, such a body is free to order its own internal life without interference from any external group.”
Local church autonomy goes hand-in-hand with another important doctrine, the priesthood of the believer. Just as each believer is competent under the guidance of the indwelling Holy Spirit to interpret Scripture, approach God directly, and follow the leadership of the Spirit in daily affairs, so the local church is competent to carry out church life under the headship of Jesus Christ and guidance of His Spirit.
This, then, is the all-important caveat: A local church is autonomous only under the Lordship of its head, Jesus Christ. As Ephesians 1:22 points out: And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church (NIV).
Notice that the Baptist Faith and Message appropriately qualifies autonomy through such statements as: “governed by His laws� and �exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word� (emphasis added).
The Biblical Rationale
We see a biblical rationale for autonomy in many instances throughout the New Testament:
INSTITUTION OF THE CHURCH:
On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (ESV).
Notice that the church was established by Christ and founded upon Himself (petra = a large rock), not Peter (petros = a small stone). Furthermore, Christ gave the church, not some ecclesiastical governing body, the keys of the Kingdom and the authority to release the Gospel.
APPOINTING OF ELDERS AND LEADERS:
Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1-4
There is no biblical evidence of the appointment of elders over districts, synods, or cities. Elders were to be appointed in each local church (Acts 14:23). Furthermore, these elders had authority to rule only in the church in which they served—not to direct the affairs of other churches in a region (1 Peter 5:2).
Likewise, there was no provision for a “regional council” to be created for the purpose of ruling all the churches in an area. The model of an elder having authority only in his church speaks to the equality of elders and the equality of churches.
Lyman Coleman explains:
�These churches, whenever formed, became separate and independent bodies, competent to appoint their own officers and to administer their own government without reference to subordination to any central authority or foreign power. No fact connected with the history of these primitive churches is more fully established or more generally conceded, so that the discussion of it need not be renewed at this place� (Lyman Coleman, Ancient Christianity Exemplified, p 95).
Paul and Barnabas initially appointed the elders of their personal church plants in Asia Minor; however, it was each local church that continued the practice from that time on.
Peter reflected this when he wrote: So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4 ESV).
Jesus gave the local church the authority to handle its own cases of discipline. In this well-known passage, reconciliation and repentance is sought initially in a private, one-on-one setting. The circle of those involved grows larger only when the offender refuses to repent. Taking a wayward, unrepentant member before the whole church is seen as the last step in the redemptive process. However, in this passage, the responsibility rests with the local church. Jesus did not specify any higher council or organization.
The same is true in 1 Corinthians 5: 1-13, where the church was assigned the responsibility of excercising discipline. In both passages, the local church is the final authority.
SENDING MISSIONARIES/SHARING THE GOSPEL:
The local church at Antioch used its authority in obedience to the Holy Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the first missionary tour. In the days of the early church, it was the local church that commissioned individuals to take the Gospel to unchurched regions.
Even in today’s age of missionary sending organizations, it is the local church that gives primary authentication of an individual’s qualification to serve as a missionary. Missionaries must first be endorsed by a local church before being considered for service.
In the end, it is the local church that is given the marching orders and authority to share the good news of the Gospel. Throughout the Gospels and the Epistles, it is individual believers gathered in local churches who are given the responsibility to share the Gospel. This is the primary calling of the church—not to be relegated to parachurch organizations (Matthew 28; Acts 1).
Revelation 3:8 records that the church at Philadelphia was given an “open door” to take the Gospel into a dark world: I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut (ESV). Nothing could usurp that responsibility and authority.
MATTERS OF RELIGIOUS PRACTICE:
In Jerusalem, Christians who belonged to the party of the Pharisees demanded that Gentile believers be circumcised. They desired to make “Jewish” Christians out of them. An apostolic council was convened in Jerusalem and concluded that it was not right for the apostles or any other leaders to dictate to the Gentile churches conformity to the Jewish laws. Though they laid out a four-fold biblical platform for congregational life, they placed the responsibility for religious practice back on the churches and elders, stating in Acts 15:28, For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements (ESV).
ADMINISTRATION OF THE ORDINANCES:
1 Corinthians 11
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are distinctively local church ordinances. Each church determines how, when, and how often these ordinances are celebrated. Paul rebuked and instructed the Corinthians in some principles related to communion, but the specifics were left up to them. Once, when teaching a group of pastors in a remote area of Zambia, I was asked by the tribal elder of a new church plant to tell him when and how often they should observe the Lord’s Supper. I certainly gave him some guidelines but told him that the matter was within the autonomy of his church—they would have to decide. This is the biblical pattern.
USE AND GOVERNANCE OF SPIRITUAL GIFTS:
1 Corinthians 12,14; Romans 12; Ephesians 4
It is clear in Scripture that spiritual gifts are bestowed for one purpose only—the building up of the local church. It is within a local church that gifts are best identified, employed, and governed. Gifts were never intended for “Lone-Ranger” Christianity nor was ministry divorced from the accountability of the local church. Each church is responsible for the discovery, training, use, and governance of the spiritual gifts of its members.
1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Philippians 4:14-16
The New Testament pattern is that of each local church managing its own offerings, finances, and giving for relief. Each church collected offerings and then chose how to use those offerings, whether it be the support of a pastor, the care of widows, or the support of a missionary.
Some of Paul’s church plants chose to support him directly; others apparently did not. The church at Philippi made the decision to sacrificially, joyfully disperse funds to support Paul after he departed from them.
Yet, Paul indicates in Philippians 4:15 that they were alone in doing this. Even on the occasion when Paul specifically asked for a collection to be taken for the relief of the church in Jerusalem, each church was instructed to systematically receive offerings, manage them, and to appoint someone of their own choosing to take the offering to Jerusalem. In other words, they maintained control of the process (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).
Implications ~ Control vs. Lordship
Autonomy is not so much an issue of retaining control; instead, it is recognizing the Lordship of Christ over each congregation and its leaders. The buck has to stop somewhere. Biblically, it stops with the local church, not the association, state convention, or Southern Baptist Convention.
This truth is hugely important in light of the call for denominational renewal and refocus, as expressed in the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force report and affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2010. Though the report calls for change within SBC agencies, it acknowledges that the fulfillment of the Great Commission lies within the hands of the local church. With that being said, church autonomy is best understood by welcoming to the table two important friends: accountability and cooperation.
Autonomy gets complicated when a church voluntarily and formally commits to cooperate with an association, convention, or national fellowship of churches holding basic tenets of faith and practice as set forth in Scripture. This commits that church to certain standards.
That is why we have a confessional statement such as the Baptist Faith and Message. While never meant to be a creed or a legalistic code of conduct, it serves as a consensus statement of faith. It is the height of presumption for a local church to believe and practice false doctrine and to believe that no one has the right to challenge them. At whatever point a local church chooses to teach or act in ways outside of the generally-held standards of an association or convention, then that larger body has every right to confront the church. If there is an unwillingness to change practice, then disassociating the association or convention from the church is an appropriate option.
The clear teachings of Scripture govern the autonomy of a local church—especially if a church desires to remain in fellowship with a larger body. Why? Christ is the head of the church, and His Word must govern the belief and practice of His Body. In fact, self-governance for the church is an oxymoron. Self-governance begins and ends with willing submission to the governance of another: the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture. Indeed, autonomy can provide protection from the infection of false doctrine and apostasy coming from nearby churches, but it does not exempt a church from voluntary accountability to an association of other like-minded, Bible-believing churches.
Just as autonomy plus accountability produces integrity, so autonomy plus cooperation produces productivity. As autonomy without accountability promotes theological drift, autonomy without cooperation promotes self-centeredness.
Throughout Baptist history, congregational churches have affirmed voluntary cooperation for the common good. For example, the London Confession of 1644 describes autonomous, yet cooperating churches: And although the particular congregations be distinct, and several bodies, every one as a compact and knit city within itself; yet are they all to walk by one rule of truth; so also they (by all means convenient) are to have the counsel and help one of another, if necessity require it, as members of one body, in the common faith, under Christ their head (Article XLVII, emphasis added).
Indeed, in the New Testament we find the example of autonomous churches cooperating for both missions (2 Corinthians 11:8) and ministry (1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8-9).
Local church pastors and church planters alike champion local church autonomy; and they should. However, in the name of autonomy, some have chosen to withdraw from associational and denominational life. In effect, what they become is not merely an autonomous church but an independent church. There is a world of difference between the two.
The sad thing is that many pastors attended seminaries that were partially supported by the Cooperative Program. Failing to appreciate fully the connection between the benefits they received and the opportunities they have to contribute to something bigger than their own local church, they choose to reduce their church’s contributions to the Cooperative Program, opting instead for their own missions enterprises. While each local church is free to create its own menu for mission giving—completely bypassing the Cooperative Program, local association, or Baptist causes—there is so much more they could accomplish if they would choose to cooperate with other like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ.
The autonomy of the local church is a vibrant biblical doctrine. It is a Baptist distinctive worth defending, preserving, and practicing. But, it finds itself at its finest when it is practiced within the framework of both accountability and cooperation—accountability to one another in love and cooperation with one another in service—all under the Lordship of Christ.
Dr. Steve Holdaway is lead pastor of LifeSpring Church, SBC, in Omaha, Nebraska.