The principle of local church autonomy is one of the most cherished distinctives of ecclesiology among Southern Baptists today. Long ago, in response to ecclesiastical oppression, pioneers of Baptist thought adopted this identifying mark from Scripture.
One hundred years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention met in Chattanooga, Tenn., under a constitution that declared, "It shall be the design of this Convention to … fully respect the independence and equal rights of the churches."
In 1965, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted The Baptist Faith and Message, which reaffirmed local church autonomy by recognizing: "A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a local body of baptized believers who are associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel … This church is an autonomous body, operating through democratic processes under the Lordship of Jesus Christ."
Today, the Southern Baptist Convention functions under a constitution which states "… while independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention."
We are a people shaped and identified by our commitment to the autonomy of the local church. However, as with any biblical principle, there is the potential for distortion and misapplication. This principle, understood aright, gives no justification for church teaching or practice that is unorthodox and destructive.
When addressing matters of church polity and practice, we are obliged to search the Bible for clarity and direction. God, who instituted the church, has provided clear direction regarding its nature and function. If we proceed with any other compass, we may expect to go astray.
Autonomy and Independence
Consulting God's precious and perfect Book, we find both theological and historical evidence that local church ministry is independent of ecclesiastical hierarchy.
According to His Word, God views each local church as a separate entity that exists as a microcosm of the larger ("Universal") church. In I Corinthians 1:2, Paul refers to the Corinthian Church as " … the church of God in Corinth … ."
In their respective word studies on the "church", K.L. Schmidt (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) and L. Coenen (Dictionary of New Testament Theology) agree that this reference pictures each local church, not as a smaller piece which combines with other pieces to make a whole, but rather as an independent entity which represents the larger whole.
This portrays the church as functioning independently from ecclesiastical hierarchy and directly responsible to the Lord.
Also, when Paul referred to the churches, he used terms and pictures that suggest autonomous congregations. He regularly referred to the church as an individual "body" with Christ as the head (Rom.12:4-8; I Cor.12:12-27; Eph. 4:15,16).
Furthermore, he taught that local congregations are given spiritual gifts of leadership, suggesting a "complete package" under the direct authority of Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:4-8; I Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:11; I Tim. 3:1-13). When understood aright, one can see that the need for outside intrusion is unnecessary.
In addition, we find Paul occasionally addressing the leadership of those churches directly, suggesting autonomous, local entities (Phil 1:1). There is no mention of an ecclesiastical hierarchy over local churches. He addressed each as independent entities, responsible for their own actions and accountable directly to the Lord.
Finally, in Revelation 2-3, God addressed the seven churches individually. He referred to no hierarchies; rather, He held each church individually accountable for it's actions.
The nature of these passages suggests that God's design and intent for the local church was that it function under the direct authority of God and apart from any outside, authoritative ecclesiastical body.
In addition to theological implication, the Book of Acts provides numerous examples of autonomous church bodies which functioned under the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 8-13, Luke records the gospel's spread into Judea, Samaria, and beyond, and as a result, new churches were born. Yet there is no evidence that the church in Jerusalem had any organizational control or oversight over them.
When the Church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3), they received their direction directly from the Holy Spirit. There is no evidence of even a consultation with Jerusalem or any hierarchy.
Furthermore, as Paul and Barnabas spread the Gospel and established new churches (Acts 13-14), there is no mention of councils or boards over them. Each church's organization and ministries appeared independent and free from any authority except that of God and His Word.
The Book of Acts also reveals that Paul established churches and appointed local leaders for the oversight of the ministries (Acts 14:23). Any authority that Paul exercised appeared to be "apostolic", not ecclesiastical. He boldly proclaimed God's Word, but did not assume an ecclesiastical position of authority over them.
This does not mean, however, that they were indifferent to other Christians. When the question of circumcision arose in the Gentile congregations, they voluntarily sent Paul and Barnabas, along with others, to seek input from the Jerusalem Church (Acts 15:1-3). The findings from the council were not presented in the form of a binding edict. F.F. Bruce points out that there are no "strong verbs of commanding" used in the Jerusalem letter to the congregations, suggesting a respect for the independence of the church at Antioch (New International Commentary).
Both by theological implication and historical pattern, the Bible presents a pattern of local church autonomy in which local churches functioned independent of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. However, those local churches did not function in a vacuum, oblivious to input and accountability to sister congregations.
Autonomy and Interdependence
While the Bible depicts the local church as independent of outside, human authority, it also presents evidence that God designed His church to function as part of a larger fellowship. The biblical record reveals that it is consistent for a church to remain autonomous, and yet remain bound in close fellowship with other autonomous churches.
This organic bond exists because of the church's relationship to Jesus Christ. Paul, in Ephesians 1:22, proclaimed Jesus as head of the "whole" (or universal) church, linking local churches together as a body under His authority. He continued the imagery in 3:21, where he proclaimed, "… to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus. …" Finally, in 4:4, he combines all of the churches together as "one body."
While each church is indeed autonomous, it is also joined with every church in the bond of Jesus Christ. As such, each church has the opportunity and obligation to relate as partners on various levels.
An obvious example of this bond, and a particularly fitting one for Southern Baptists, is the practice of financial cooperation between autonomous churches.
Paul referred to this practice in his letters to the Church at Corinth. In II Corinthians 11:8, he expressed gratitude for the financial support of other congregations which made it possible for Paul's ministry in Corinth. This is a clear example of autonomous churches sharing the financial burden of missions.
He also points to combining resources for the ministry of material relief. Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to give to an offering which would ease the hardships of fellow believers in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 16:1-3; II Corinthians 8,9).
The concept of financial partnership embodied in the "Cooperative Program" has firm roots in the Bible. It is self-evident that the success of pooling resources for ministry depends on autonomous churches voluntarily sharing the burden.
In addition to shared resources, the Scripture also presents the image of local congregations bound together in suffering. The Church in Thessalonica had faced persecution for their faith, and Paul comforted them with the reminder that they were not alone in their suffering (I Thessalonians 2:14-16). He reminded them of churches in Judea which had also faced persecution for their faith.
Similarly, Peter reminded his readers that brothers throughout the world shared in the same sufferings (I Peter 5:9). Although the churches were independent, local, and autonomous, they were also bound to each other in a fellowship of suffering. The bond between the churches was made more firm by the shared suffering, which no doubt deepened the sense of interdependence among them.
In addition to being bound together in financial responsibility and suffering, autonomous congregations also share a level of accountability to sister congregations. As we saw earlier, when the church at Antioch wrestled with the issue of Gentile circumcision, they voluntarily appealed to the Church at Jerusalem for direction (Acts 15).
Here we find churches faced with problems of theology and fellowship (how could Jewish converts associate with "defiled" Gentile converts?). While they functioned autonomously, they voluntarily chose to put their question to a council made up of representatives from sister churches.
Caution is in order when considering this account as an exact model for today. Our situations and circumstances are not identical. There, factors of apostolic authority were involved, whereas today apostolic authority has been replaced with biblical authority. Too, Jerusalem was the "mother" church whose opinions were particularly desired. Today, we have no apostles nor a "mother" church, so there is no earthly authority to which all the churches look.
However, there are some transcending principles which impact our discussion. Consider the following:
1. The council was made up of appointed representatives from the respective autonomous churches. These individuals presented their respective cases in a larger forum designed for the occasion.
2. While these churches were autonomous, they recognized their relationship to and with the other churches. They did not attempt to function in an ecclesiastical vacuum, but chose instead to seek spiritual, functional and doctrinal consensus, willing to practice compliance and seeking unity on a larger scale.
3. They recognized and trusted the Holy Spirit's work in and through the representatives gathered for the purpose of reaching a godly decision (compare with Matthew 18: 15-20, especially 18,19).
4. While not all may have agreed with the conclusions and resulting directives, there was an apparent willingness to trust the decision of the larger group and a willingness to comply with the course of action.
As pointed out earlier, no binding edict was pronounced by an authoritative, ecclesiastical body. However, there was broad consent to what was accepted in matters of orthodoxy, policy, morality, and unity. The Church at Antioch remained autonomous and was not bound by the decision; yet, she exercised responsibility in recognizing God's hand on the gathering and voluntarily abiding by its recommendations. To this extent, while organizationally autonomous, she recognized and affirmed her spiritual accountability to the fellowship of her sister churches.
Similarly, when Paul addressed the numerous problems at the Corinthian Church, he referred to the standard practices and beliefs of sister congregations as confirmation of God's expectation of them (I Corinthians 11:16; 14:33). Paul demonstrated that while the Corinthian church was autonomous, she lived and functioned in a larger church community.
As part of the larger community, the church at Corinth was expected to see God's hand at work in sister congregations. God's work in the broader arena served as confirmation of acceptable limits in their local context. To this extent, the Corinthian church bore a measure of accountability to the larger church community.
In every generation, churches are called to be faithful in contending for the faith " … once for all delivered unto the saints," (Jude 3), to avoid the seductions of heretical departures. The threat of heresy is made even greater if appeals to autonomy are used to legitimize that heresy. The Scriptures, however, do not permit that option, for in the New Testament we find a call to shared orthodoxy.
In Acts 15, the issue was preeminently a theological one. Some were proclaiming circumcision a requisite to salvation. This was in direct opposition to the truth that justification flowed from grace rather than deeds. It had to be addressed! The theological findings of the council were expected to become normative for all the churches.
Paul addressed heresy in his letter to the Galatians. Their problem was similar to that addressed by the Jerusalem council. The entire letter refutes the concept of justification by any other means than by faith. Yet, the teaching was not reserved exclusively for one church. At the beginning of his letter (1:2), he directs the teaching to all the churches in Galatia.
In his letter to the church at Colosse, Paul addressed gnosticism, a heresy which challenged the person of Christ. After reminding the Colossians of the Christ's unique nature and preeminence, he instructed the church to circulate the letter to other churches (4:16). Paul did not deny the autonomy of the local churches in challenging heresy and insisting on doctrinal purity. Local church autonomy does not mean that a church can reject the truth of Scripture. It means that it is directly answerable to God for its stewardship of that truth.
In the Lord's address to the seven churches in Revelation, there is warning to turn from behavior and belief that defies God's Word. Those warnings apply to all the Lord's churches to this day.
When a church today departs from God's Word, it cannot appeal to autonomy as a refuge from scrutiny or accountability.
The Scriptures are clear. God designed the local church as an autonomous body with the Lord Jesus Christ as her head. In matters of organization and ministry, there is neither biblical precedent nor justification for an outside authoritative body over the church. The Bible does not support the concept of an ecclesiastical hierarchy to govern and determine the ministry and functions of the local congregation.
It is also biblically consistent for autonomous churches to function within the larger whole of the Kingdom. No church is an island and there is an obvious biblical pattern of churches being aware of their part in the larger whole and cooperating with others in light of that truth.
Organizationally, the churches in the New Testament were clearly independent of each other. But organically, they were directly and inseparably joined at the Head. This calls for local churches to respect the independence and interdependence they share with others. Recognizing the Lord's authority over each autonomous church is at the core of our Baptist heritage. Yet, readiness to cooperate with other churches in broad ventures, and accountability for biblical fidelity are essential, for they are the Baptist way!