The Ancient Faith
Most of us have always believed in congregational autonomy. Some of us may not know why. except in a general sense, but we have believed in it and generally have practiced it over the years. In my research, | have found that some have misunderstood the subject of autonomy and others have abused it.
Question #1. Does it violate church autonomy when a congregation supports an evangelist who is working at a different congregation and he answers for the supporting congregation instead of the one where he is working?
I believe the Scriptures teach that when a congregation sends an evangelist and supports him in another area to start a congregation or to set in order an existing congregation, the evangelist should answer to the sending and supporting congregation. He also has a responsibility to the congregation where he is working to keep their autonomy intact and separate from the autonomy of the sending and supporting congregation. If the sending congregation, the receiving congregation, and the evangelist all keep their work in a proper and scriptural atmosphere. the autonomy of the second congregation is not violated. In Acts 11:22-26, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to work with them. There is no indication that the autonomy of Antioch was violated in any way. If Barnabas had preached doctrine contrary to the laws of Christ or was guilty of misconduct, the church at Antioch could have tried to convince him of his errors. If that had failed, they then could have notified the church in Jerusalem that the man they had sent was in error. Then the Jerusalem church could deal with him. not because Jerusalem was “the mother church.” but because Barnabas had come from this church, his home church. We know this from what happened in Acts 15.
And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ve be circumcised after the manner of Moses. Ye cannot be saved, When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question (Acts 15:1-2),
These teachers from Judea (of which Jerusalem was a part) had come to Antioch and had taught doctrine contrary to the doctrine Barnabas and Paul had been teaching. Paul knew he had been teaching the truth on the subject of circumcision, it was like his statement in Galatians 1:16 when he said ‘immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood…” Back at his conversion, he began to preach Jesus. not because some man told him what to believe and preach, but because he had received his message by revelation. He wrote in Galatians 1:12. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but y the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In fact, this was so true that he could write in Galatians 2:6, “,,. for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me.” Therefore. Paul did not need to go up to Jerusalem to learn whether he was right or wrong in disputing the doctrine the false teachers from Jerusalem brought. He knew he was right, He did not go to Jerusalem thinking that they comprised “the mother church.” If they had not handled it in a scriptural way, he would have disputed with them, as he did with the false teachers who came from there. He did not go there to learn additional truths. If he did, he went away disappointed because they added nothing to him. The Holy Spirit was guiding Paul into all truth just as He was guiding the other apostles (Jn. 16:13). Why did the church in Antioch send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to see about this question? In effect. Paul was saying to the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem, “These men came to Antioch and taught false doctrine. We withstood them to their face. They would not listen to the truths we taught them. They came from you. They are members here in Jerusalem. What are you going to do about your members teaching these things?”
We know these statements are at least a part of what they said because when Jerusalem wrote a letter to straighten out the matter, they began it by saying, “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting vour souls. saying, Ye must be circumcised and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24). In this way, they corrected the errors that some of their members were teaching in other places. Paul already had the truth before he went to Jerusalem.
From this example in Acts 15, we only can begin to establish a principle in this context, for it is not exactly parallel! 1o the question asked. It is not exactly parallel because Jerusalem did not send the false teachers to Antioch.
They evidently had gone out on their own, However, it is not unlike the situation in the question because we do have teachers or preachers going from one congregation (Jerusalem) to another congregation (Antioch) where they taught false doctrine.
1. The first step Antioch took was to have Paul and Barnabas initiate “no small dissension and disputation” with them. Dissension meant they took a stand for the truth and entered into discussions with the false teachers. Disputation meant they questioned these men evidently to the point they debated with them. In other words, they were not going to let these false teachers bring their false doctrine to Antioch and get by with it. This was their first step in preserving the autonomy of the church in Antioch.
2. The second step was to send men to the home congregation of these false teachers and report to them about their false teaching. In other words, they turned the problem over to the church from which these false teachers had come because it was their responsibility to stop their mouths (Tit. 1:11).
Based on the actions of the church in Antioch, we can answer the part of the question that asks. “Does it violate church autonomy if an evangelist answers to the supporting congregation instead of the one where he is working?”
The answer has to be “perhaps,” along with an explanation. It does not have to violate church autonomy, and will not, if the sending congregation, the receiving congregation, and the evangelist all do their respective work scripturally. It is wise and scriptural for the evangelist to report to the sending congregation as Paul and Barnabas did when they returned from their evangelistic journeys (Acts 14:26-28). It would be unscriptural and unwise for the sending congregation to try to dictate to the receiving congregation through the evangelist.
The receiving congregation needs to understand their autonomy and not let this happen. Like Antioch, they could send a message back to the sending congregation if there was a problem with the evangelist.
We practice this many times each year in the brotherhood without violating the principles of autonomy. A congregation may be supporting a preacher full time. In addition to this, the preacher may conduct several gospel meetings each year in other congregations across the brotherhood. When he conducts a meeting at another congregation, their autonomy is not violated (at least, it should not be). If the evangelist does something wrong, the host congregation can admonish him or send him back home at any point in the meeting. Further, they have the right to reveal (o the supporting congregation the preacher’s errors and expect an appropriate response back from them. The autonomy of each congregation may be protected in this way.
In Titus 1:5, we have information that will help us to establish the principle that an evangelist can work with more than one congregation and not destroy the autonomy of any one of them. Paul wrote, ‘For this cause left [thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as | had appointed thee.” It is said that Crete was noted for having one hundred cities. | do not know about that. The map in one of my Bibles lists four, so we will work with four: Fair Haven, Goreyna, Lasea, and Phoenice. The island of Crete is about 140 miles long from east to west. Titus was assigned the unenviable task of working with all the churches on this island. He was to set them in order and ordain elders in each city.
This example is also similar to the situation contemplated in the question in that a single evangelist is sent to work with more than one congregation. (It is unlike that situation in that Paul, rather than a congregation, sent Titus there.) In this apostolic example, it is indicated that an evangelist can work with and set in order more than one congregation at a time without eroding the autonomy of any of them. The congregation in Fair Haven operated under its own umbrella of autonomy. Lasea eight miles into the interior, had its own umbrella of autonomy, as did Goreyna and Phoenice. Any responsibility that Titus had in Fair Haven, he left there when he went to Lasea. In other words, when he left one congregation to go to another, he left behind one autonomous situation and entered into another. In doing this, he avoided building his own diocese and ruling over it and avoided the temptation of one church becoming a “mother church.”
Question #2: When one congregation helps start a second congregation, is there any accountability of the second congregation to the first congregation? (Mother church?)
The examples presented above help answer this question. Roy H. Lanier Jr. in an article called “Congregational Autonomy” published in Spiritual Sword (July 1996, Vol. 27, No. 4) wrote:
The structure is not vertical with hierarchical ascendancy. but horizontal with congregations existing side-by-side cooperating assisting, and encouraging one another, yet where no congregation controls or dominates another.
Jerusalem helped Antioch by sending Barnabas there (Acts 11). Earlier. They had helped Samaria where Phillip had established the cause (Acts 8). But they did not dominate them. They cooperated, assisted and encouraged them. But they did not exercise control over them. The second congregation is the church universal in miniature, just as the congregation is that helped to establish or assist it.
Question #3: Do we as individuals (or as evangelists) have the right or responsibility to make suggestions to a congregation where we are neither attending nor supporting, when we feel their actions are not the best?
We have to understand that providing teaching and instruction to another congregation docs not violate its autonomy. In Colossians 2:1-8, Paul warned them of false teachers, even though he was not in their presence except in spirit. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:16-17:
“Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ as I teach everywhere in every church.”
None of this violated church autonomy in Colosse or Corinth. John received the revelation of Jesus Christ in which there were messages from Jesus to the seven churches in Asia, Though John was not with them, he delivered to them the letters from Jesus. To Ephesus, he commended them for trying false apostles and finding them to be liars (2:2). He also warned them of the consequences of leaving their first love (2:4 5). He rebuked the church in Thyatira for tolerating a false-teaching woman who was calling herself a prophetess (2.20 -23), and this rebuke contained a severe warning. In the next chapter. he let the church in Sardis know that so far as the Lord was concerned, she was dead (3:1). Furthermore, in verse 2, he included a warning that her works were not perfect before God. In providing this information to these churches, John did not violate their autonomy.
The elders in Jerusalem took part in sending to other churches a letter containing teaching regarding circumcision (Acts 15). In verse 24, they warned the brethren about false teachers. They sent men with the written letter who would explain its contents orally to them (v.27). In verses 28-29, we find that letter declared the principles of truth. While it is true that the Spirit inspired the content of the message, it does not change the fact that these actions were taken. God does not use a wrong means to declare a right message. Everything about the context suggests the action was approved. (The preceding thoughts and examples were taken from a quote from an article written by Harry Osborne, Watchman Magazine, “Protecting the Local Church,” November 1997.)
Thus, we see that the Scriptures recognize no legitimate or scriptural autonomy for a congregation to do what it has no authority to do. You can throw a rock into a pack of dogs; the hit dog is the one that howls and yelps.
When brethren desire to practice something contrary to the Word of God and an interested member, a gospel preacher, or a journal preaches the truth to them about their error, they begin to howl and yelp. Translated, the sound that comes from them is, “You violated our congregational autonomy!” When they do this, you know they have been hit by the rock of offense (f Pet. 2:8).
In fact, in thinking about the times the subject of autonomy has come up, it seems that when someone cries “autonomy” as their defense for what they are doing, they are doing (or want to do) something that is wrong. Brethren, we must respect the autonomy of each local congregation, but autonomy is not an excuse to practice or preach false doctrine. Autonomy is not the basis for unity and fellowship. Doctrine and unity must be based on the revelation given to the apostles and prophets. [f doctrine and unity are not based on the Word of God, then we are headed toward denominationalism As t see it, so far as this subject is concerned, there are two ways of becoming like denominations.
First, we could actually organize extra-congregational institutions where one church or institution dominates another. Second, we could teach false doctrine and practice it while hiding under the concept of autonomy. Brethren, autonomy is not a hiding place that God has given to protect congregations from the truth. It is not designed to protect congregations from warnings against error It is designed to protect congregations from being dominated by other congregations, a district superintendent, a mother church, a bishop over many congregations, or an earthly universal head, An autonomous church can preach and practice innovations—all the others can do is warn and provide information about the error. The offending congregation does not have to listen to them. However, remember that autonomy is a two-edged sword –while it permits congregations to practice and preach whatever they desire, the other congregations, because they too are autonomous, have the right to exclude congregations from their fellowship on the basis of unscriptural practices.
Question #4: What happens to church autonomy when a brother who has been disfellowshipped at one congregation goes to another congregation and is fellowshipped?
When someone comes to a congregation and places membership there, those who direct the affairs of that congregation need to know what the circumstances were in the previous congregation. If he is trying to escape being disciplined or to get out from under discipline that has been scripturally administered, the leaders in the receiving congregation need to know that. If he is honest, he will be up front and tell the new congregation about it. The leaders of the new congregation should get information about the matter from the previous congregation. When false teachers came from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 15), Antioch tried to teach them the truth. They would not listen. Therefore, Antioch had no recourse but to go to Jerusalem to see about the matter
The congregation that disfellowshipped the brother who has now gone to another congregation needs to provide the receiving congregation with information about the situation, Each should protect and respect the other’s autonomy in this matter. Remember this: the local congregation is the highest court on earth in the kingdom of God. For this reason, Jesus said “. . . tell it unto the church…” in Matthew 8:17. After being told to the church, there is no appeal beyond that the unrepentant offender is to be treated as a heathen and a publican. This is a part of the entire picture of an autonomous church.
In I Corinthians 5, the church was instructed how to discipline an immoral man. They followed the plan, and the plan worked. We can do no less today. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, the church was to discipline one of their own who was acting in an indolent way. Each congregation has this right: the right to discipline should be respected by all. Congregations can make mistakes when they discipline someone, but until there is proof that a mistake has been made, let us not be a party to allowing someone to try to hide in another congregation.
One has the right to become a member of any local congregation. But if he leaves a congregation, whether he has been disciplined or not, if he cannot go back to the congregation he left and worship with them and help them out in gospel meetings and any other work they are doing, something is wrong. I would not want to face Jesus in the Day of Judgment with an attitude like that.
Just because you leave a congregation and are received by another does not relieve you of your responsibility. Each congregation should watch carefully those who come into their midst from other congregations. Remember, if they were trouble in the congregation from which they came, more than likely they will be trouble in their new surroundings. Therefore, even in discipline we should respect the autonomy of the congregation that scripturally administered the discipline. If you receive such into your fellowship, you become a partaker of his sins.
Our congregations believe in congregational autonomy or self-government. Our preachers do, too. You might wonder why we need to study this subject at this time. There is a good reason for studying it. History has shown that congregations easily give up self-government in certain areas. It also shows that many preachers go along with them without thinking much about it. In the early 1940s, churches in California started “The Systematic Mission Work Program.” Local congregations were to pool one-half of their contribution into a special, extra-congregational fund that was to be administered by selected brethren. Preachers were to be supported out of this fund.
The preachers who were to receive support from this fund were not chosen by local congregations but at the annual Labor Day meeting by a group of brethren representing the several congregations participating in the mission work program. This was a very successful program so far as results were concerned.
As new congregations were established, they were encouraged to become a part of this program. The results in California were so successful, congregations in Missouri and Oklahoma began to develop similar programs like the one on the west coast. One interesting thing about this fund was the preachers and church leaders participating in it could and did preach blistering sermons against the Missionary Society developed by the Christian Church. It seemed difficult for them to see that their fund was nothing more than a smaller version of the one developed by the Christian Church. We shall also see that churches of Christ were involved in that fund as well. I first came to California in 1948. There was still much talk about the fund, but for the most part, it had vanished and local congregations were sending support to the preachers directly. Most congregations, if not all, had abandoned the mission fund. How did this fund violate the autonomy of the local congregations participating in it? First of all, since the congregations were to give one-half of their contribution to the fund, which was to be administered by selected brethren, they lost control of one-half of their contribution before it was received by a preacher
Secondly, they did not have a say, except at the Labor Day meeting, about which preacher or preachers would be supported by the fund. They did not have a say at all if they did not send a representative to the Labor Day meeting. Thirdly, the representatives of local congregations at the Labor Day meeting constituted a group larger than a local congregation. It was extra-congregational in its nature, and it was setting policy for all of the congregations that were participating in it. Fourthly. the selected leaders who administered the fund were extra-congregational, and no example for their existence could be found in the New Testament. The funds, the administrators, the extra-congregational meeting on Labor Day, and that method of selecting preachers and paying them out of the fund, have passed into history. I remind you of these things because if we do not study mistakes in our past we will repeat them again.
In the area of benevolence, we had easily slipped into a similar extra-congregational organization without realizing what we were doing. In World War II, we were blessed with many young men who were conscientiously opposed to participation in carnal warfare in any form. When they refused to go into one of the branches of military service, they were placed in work camps in various places in the United States. They received very little money for this.
They did receive bed and board. To help them, funds were created. I know of one in California and another in Missouri. Congregations and individuals were encouraged to contribute to these funds. The conscientious objectors were paid $15.00 each month out of this fund: and if they had a family, they were given $30.00. The fund was administered by men who were chosen in some way for that task. It worked! The congregations and individuals felt good about being able to help someone in need. Few, if any thought anything about the fund being an extra-congregational organization. But it was, and this was not realized until several years later. I am giving you these examples to remind you how easily we can believe in autonomy and preach it, yet slip into a practice without realizing how we have given up at least a part of it.
There is one thing I can say for our brethren. When they have seen that they have created an organization that takes away a congregation’s autonomy, they have been willing to give up the organization. We are sometimes careless about what we get into blindly. This is illustrated by an example that happened in 1952 at the Sulphur Fourth of July meeting. A general business meeting was called with brethren from all across the country invited. Their agenda was to select two preachers to conduct the Sulphur meeting in 1953. Two preachers were selected. One preacher stood up and said, “Brethren, if there is no unit of organization revealed in the New Testament larger than the local church, then what is this today?” They immediately decided they had no business there.
The Sulphur meeting should belong to the Sulphur congregation with decisions made by them and no one else. The extra-congregational business meeting was dropped immediately.
Also, in the early 1950s, we sent an evangelist into foreign fields. He was sent to what is now called Malawi. At that time, the area was called Nyasaland. This was our first experience in foreign fields. Controversy immediately arose over how funds for that work should be handled. Articles were written against “The One Man Missionary Society” that seemed to have innocently been organized. Funds were being sent to the evangelist, and he would take the money and pay African preachers. One American evangelist refused to work in Africa and listed as one of his reasons the manner in which the work was being supported. To solve the problem, the evangelist in Africa provided a list of African preachers who needed support, and these were published. Congregations began sending their support directly to the African preachers, and that problem was solved. This history of the brotherhood goes back some sixty years from this time. Ronny Wade in his book, The Sun Will Shine Again, Someday, has given us a brief record of these examples beginning on page 152, and I have liberally borrowed much of this information about that period from his book.
This period of time does not represent the only time the church of Christ has had problems with the autonomy of local churches being usurped by extra-congregational institutions and organizations. What we call The Restoration Movement began in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth century. Earl West in his book. The Search for the Ancient Order, Vol. 1, beginning on page 149 under the heading, “Early Efforts At Organization,” gives us much insight into the development of organizations larger than a local congregation in the brotherhood. As early as 1831, Alexander Campbell was promoting the idea of an organization that would include a number of local congregations banding together in order that they might do the work of the church more effectively in converting the world. West observes about Campbell’s viewpoint:
He believed the New Testament Church was to preach the word to convert the world. But, he believed the New Testament was not a code of Laws, and therefore, while it was up to the church to preach the word, since the New Testament offered no plan, any plan within the bounds of reason was permissible on the ground of expediency.
On this ground Campbell was ever wont to defend organizations outside of the local congregations doing the work of the church. Just as soon as Campbell published his views on this matter, opposition immediately arose, saying, “There never was, and there never can be, any occasion for such a combination of the churches to build up the Redeemer’s kingdom.” The reason I bring this time period with some of its events into this study of “The Autonomy of the Church” is to show that after the Restoration Movement began, well-meaning brethren brought up the idea that the local congregations were not suitable by themselves to carry out the work of preaching the gospel to the world without some human organization expediting this work for them. When a congregation became a part of The American Missionary Society or any of the other societies that developed during that time, they gave up their right of self-government in many areas of their work, such as selecting a preacher to support, selecting an area in which to work, and how their money was to be used. We can easily fall into such traps today without realizing it. At the close of the apostolic age, when the last apostle had died, the church was known only by the individual congregations scattered over the world. The work of Christ to evangelize the world was carried on through the influence of the local church in its community. Even in apostolic times, the churches felt no need of an organization devised by human planning through which the church could cooperate to evangelize the world. They had fervency and zeal. The history of the church has well shown that the less zeal and devotion there is in the church, the more institutionalism and human organization are needed. On page 186, West quotes David Lipscomb who wrote in 1887, “Any society that takes from the churches of God the work committed to them, or that transfers the control from the earnest, devoted elders is sinful in all shapes, principles and works.” In that period, there were brethren who advocated the societies, but there were strong and dedicated men who stood up against them and fought them with the Word of God. I think this is sufficient to show that we must be on guard today to oppose anything that takes away any of the autonomy of any church in our brotherhood.
I want to devote the rest of my study to the teachings of the Scriptures so far as the autonomy of each local congregation is concerned. I must note that the word “autonomy” is not found in the Scriptures, nor is its literal meaning “self-government.” However, there are many examples showing this was the practice of the New Testament church.
Ephesians 3:10-11 states. “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Every missionary society. whether it be the American Missionary Society, a society composed of just two or more churches, or a one-man missionary society, that has been created to make known the wisdom of God is an insult to God’s eternal purpose, whether it is intentional or not.
Every congregation that is not actively engaged in going into the world and preaching the gospel is thwarting God’s eternal purpose of the church, whether they are doing it ignorantly or otherwise. One is the sin of commission and the other is the sin of omission. Using God’s eternal purpose for the church, the gospel was preached to the whole creation. Colossians 1:23, “If we continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister.”
In Acts 13:1–3, the Holy Spirit chose a local congregation as the entity that was to separate Paul and Barnabas for a work to which the Holy Spirit had called them. The congregation fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them and then sent them away. They traveled through Asia Minor and established several churches. On their way back to Antioch, they visited these congregations again and taught them and further set them in order. Acts 14:23 reads, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” They returned to Antioch in Acts 14:27, “And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles,” We have already seen that the gospel was preached to the whole creation through the church, and now we have the example of the Antioch church being able to establish the cause in Asia Minor. This was also true in reference to supporting the preachers who were carrying the gospel to the whole world. The local church could do that. Philippians 4:16, “For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.” They did not need a society through which to send the money. They did not send it through the Jerusalem church. They sent it directly to the apostle. That is our model today. The church in Thessalonica knew what to do about spreading the word without the aid of any other organization. 1 Thessalonians 1.8. “For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad, so that we need not to speak anything.” Even in Corinth where Paul used wages from other congregations to enable him to preach to them the gospel, Paul was directing them to grow and begin reaching beyond Corinth:
“For we stretch not ourselves beyond our measure. as though we reached not unto you: for we are come as far as to you also in preaching the gospel of Christ: Not boasting of things without our measure, that is, of other men’s labors: but having hope, when your faith is increased, that we shall be enlarged by you according to our rule abundantly, to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. and not to boast in another man’s line of things made ready to our hand (2 Cor. 10:14-16).
The church in Corinth was not doing anything to spread the gospel, perhaps, because of all the internal strife in which they were involved. Paul wanted their faith to grow so they could enable him and others to preach the gospel unto the parts “beyond you.” This is what we need to teach to strengthen congregations. No wonder the gospel was spread to all the known world in that generation. In 1 Timothy 3:14 15, Paul declared that the church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.”
The church is also the organization God designed and gave for the purpose of doing benevolent work. When someone. regardless of how far off they lived, had a need, the local congregation either supplied the need as Antioch did in Acts 11:29-30; or they cooperated with other congregations in a concurrent action to supply that need, as the churches did in supplying the wants of Jerusalem and Judea in | Corinthians 16:1 3 and other related passages. In a study of this example of benevolent work, you will immediately see how each congregation acted independently and yet acted concurrently with other congregations. You will find also that they kept control over their own contribution to this work until it reached its final destination. They chose their own messengers and sent them with the money. The money was given to the elders of the congregations in need. That is when the sending church lost control of its funds.
Through God’s blessings, we have grown so much as a brotherhood. We have grown so much in foreign fields. A lot of money is poured into the work of supporting preachers and benevolent work. Here we must be careful lest we repeat the history of the restoration pioneers and our own history of the last sixty years. We do not need any extra-congregational institutions or organizations to do this great work in which we are engaged today. Be proud of the autonomy you have, because it is God-given, and He expects you to use it according to His eternal purpose.