Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 16, 1953

Church Government And Institutionalism

Robert C. Welch, Louisville, Kentucky

Institutions for doing church work in education, evangelization and charity make the argument that churches working through such agencies do not have their autonomy destroyed. Congregations which are developing into centralized agencies through which other churches attempt to carry on a "brotherhood" work are making the same argument. Such institutions and centralized congregations have many proponents who seem not to have given due consideration to the term autonomy. The word is not to be found in the scripture translations. All agree, however, that the principle of congregational autonomy is taught in the scriptures. Those in favor of outside agencies and centralization of work in one congregation, as well as those opposed to such practice, insist that congregations are to be autonomous.

There are three phases of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. Autonomy is a characteristic of government. If a body is autonomous all three phases of government must belong to that body alone. If each congregation is autonomous it must function independently in the judicial and executive capacities as well as in the legislative. In some governments these three phases are combined, in others each has its three phases separated into three particular branches. This paper is not concerned with telling how the autonomous congregation has the phases separated; but with the fact that, if autonomous, all three phases must be included.

Proponents of church supported schools, missionary societies, and homes for aged and orphans insist that autonomy is not lost when these institutions do the work of the churches to be supported by them. They say that the schools, missionary societies, and homes do not make laws for the churches, nor tell them that they have to support the institutions; hence, the congregations are still autonomous. Such proponents fail to see that their explanation deals with only one phase of government, the legislative. Where is the autonomy of the congregation with respect to the widows and orphans if that congregation allows some other body to decide what widows and orphans shall be cared for, and of what that care shall consist? Where is the autonomy of the congregation with respect to its youth when it permits a school to decide what training in the scriptures they shall have, when all the congregation does is contribute? Where is the autonomy of the congregation which contributes to the missionary society and allows it to decide what evangelist shall be supported, where he shall go, and what his work shall be? Such congregations have shifted the judiciary to other societies or bodies; they have lost their autonomy in the judicial phase of government.

The executive phase of government has the task of carrying out, or enforcing, the laws and decisions of the legislative and judicial branches. A congregation must do some evangelization, it decides how much it can do, and turns the work over to the missionary society; it is not autonomous in execution of its laws, it has committed that phase of its government to another body. A church has the obligation of edifying its members, it contributes to a school, permitting the school to do the edifying; it is not autonomous because it does not execute its obligations. A congregation determines that its widows and orphans shall be cared for, it contributes to an institution, consenting to the institution's providing the care and training; that congregation may be autonomous in the legislative function, but not in the executive function, for it has permitted the transfer of that function to another body with its own government. Congregations which allow other institutions to do their work are not autonomous, because the executive phase of government is not exercised by them.

Many have thought that the problem is solved by having one congregation to take over these functions for the rest of the congregations. We have congregations who advertise that they will oversee the "mission work," or will "sponsor" an orphanage, for the churches of a given area. When a congregation submits to this centralized supervision by one of these high-pressure congregations, it has then and there lost its autonomy. It was not forced to submit, thus in the legislative function it is still autonomous; but in the judicial and executive functions it has lost its autonomy. That congregation has given to another congregation the right to make its decisions in evangelism and charity; it has given to another congregation the exercising of its duty. Does someone say that it is better to give these functions to a sister congregation than to some completely independent body? Maybe so; but autonomy of the congregation is destroyed in either case.

Proponents of these church supported institutions and centralized church programs contend that such procedure is necessary in order to have cooperation among congregations. That is not true, for the churches, whose histories are found in the New Testament, cooperated; and they had neither the institutions to do their work, nor the centralized church through which to function.

Brethren, will you continue to contend that the congregation is autonomous where institutions and centralized church programs are promoted? Surely we need to contemplate the full significance of the word autonomy. With an understanding of the word, we must either cease saying that congregations implicated with these institutions are autonomous, or cease contending that the scriptures teach congregational autonomy. Let it be emphasized; the scriptures teach that congregations are to be autonomous, that autonomy must be in the judicial and executive branches as well as in the legislative capacity. A congregation allowing another body of people, whether an independent society or another congregation, to make its decisions or do its work is not autonomous. It is failing to exercise the judicial and executive functions of government, which are requisites of autonomy.