Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 5, 1956
NUMBER 47, PAGE 14,15b

Congregational Autonomy

Robert W. Lawrence, Madison, Wisconsin

One of the salient qualities of pristine Christianity is congregational autonomy. The term 'autonomy' is a combination of two Greek words, autos, meaning 'self', and nomos, meaning `law'. Congregational autonomy, then, is the God-given prerogative of local church government.

The importance of congregational autonomy can be seen in many ways. For example, the absurdities and mal-practices of the Roman hierarchy have arisen from the abandonment of congregational autonomy. Or again, our own experiences reveal its importance: Not many months ago a preacher remarked to me that he thought the most vulnerable point in the plea made by churches of Christ was that involving congregational autonomy. He has since left the church. Autonomy is important!

The term, 'congregational autonomy', conveys certain implications:

In the first place, it is analogous to the laws of liberty and expediency. A thing must first be lawful before we may exercise the laws of liberty and expediency relative to it. Just so in autonomy. A congregation is not self-governing in the sense that it may change or nullify the law of Christ. As the head of the church, Christ Jesus has given the laws of the church. Congregations are autonomous only in the unspecified ways and means of accomplishing the objectives of the Head. Examples illustrative of this principle might be: 1) the assembly for worship is a command (Hebrews 10:25); the place is discretionary. 2) spreading the glad tidings is a command (Mark 16:15,16); the means are unspecified.

Congregational autonomy also implies the forbiddance of ecclesiasticism. It prohibits any voluntary or coerced relationship between congregations resulting in the relinquishment of self-rule. The same reason the inspired Peter cautioned the elders about "lording it over the charge allotted" to them (1 Peter 5:3), is also reason for caution in inter-congregational matters. While local self-rule does forbid any form of ecclesiasticism, it does not forbid cooperation. It is obvious from the New Testament instances that congregations may co-operate without surrendering their autonomy, (Acts 11: II Cor. 8). Some congregations may have such a fear of losing their autonomy that they may stay totally removed from any co-operative effort. But when we consider the word 'autonomy' in its strict sense it is evident that autonomy is lost only when a congregation loses the right to decide. If a congregation reaches the decision to assist another congregation in a work of the Lord it has not forfeited autonomy. Even if a congregation decides to send money to another congregation for an unspecified purpose it has not lost its autonomy. It might be accused of irresponsibility and indiscretion but such action does not relinquish autonomy because decision — the essential element of autonomy — was self-exercised. We feel that this point is too often overlooked in charges of autonomy forfeiture.

Congregational autonomy means freedom from outside control. Each congregation selects its own servants — elders, deacons, evangelists, teachers, messengers, etc., without outside jurisdiction. It prosecutes its congregational mission as appointed by Christ in the ways it deems proper and best, in view of its own problems, opportunities, abilities, etc. It uses its building, other physical facilities, servants, and money without any foreign legislation or control. It is subject to Christ and to no other. It is accountable to Christ and to no other.

The missionary society concept of spreading the gospel is inherently wrong because it is in basic violation of congregational autonomy. The society concept precludes local decision. Congregations err when they willingly give up their right to decide their local matters. Proponents of the society concept err in suggesting another body apart from the local church which will either surreptitiously or openly arrogate to itself the right which God has vouchsafed to local churches. Society abuses are but outgrowths of the basic, inherent defect — the arrogant assumption of rights belonging to local churches. It is on this ground that we primarily discount the society concept and not just on the abuses. One of the major differences between the society and private enterprises such as the Gospel Advocate, Voice of Freedom, et al, is this: the society is an inter-congregational entity presumptuously annexing to itself the rights of local churches; the private publishing firms attempt no such activity.

Finally, local autonomy must not depreciate the value of counsel and suggestions often sought by one congregation of another. These can be invaluable to a new congregation or to a congregation facing serious problems. But experience has shown that rebellion is readily displayed at the very semblance of outside domination.