The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines autonomy as (1) the possession or right of self-government, (2) freedom of action. In other words, autonomy is the freedom to make choices according to the individual or group’s own principles and values. It’s freedom of conscience.
For Christians and New Testament local churches, autonomy is 100% conditioned by obedience to our Lord. In that sense, we have no autonomy. But in relation to those other than ourselves and Christ, we do have autonomy: the freedom to act according to what we believe to be the will of Christ.
We should view that kind of autonomy as precious, fragile, and a sacred trust.
We may better understand and value it if we consider it through a historical and theological lens. That consideration may also help us better understand how allegations of misconduct among members (including staff) ought to be handled.
Some Historical Light
During the Reformation, as churches were recovering biblical views of Christ, faith, and grace, they were also recovering a more biblical understanding of church structure and order. All reforming churches rejected the authority of the Pope and the traditions of Rome. Congregationalists went a step further, rejecting episcopal and presbyterian forms of church government.
(”Congregationalism” is used two, somewhat overlapping senses: (1) in reference to local church autonomy vs. the authority of some body outside it, and (2) in reference to the authority of the congregation vs. that of church leaders within it, such as elders or a single authoritarian pastor. My focus here is on the first sense.)
In England, seven congregationalist Baptist churches published what came to be known as the First London Confession (1644, revised in 1646: Theopedia). Article XLVII reveals a bit of their thinking on on autonomy (emphasis added):
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. (Reformed Reader)
Though reforming churches everywhere drew heavily from England’s Westminster Confession of Faith after 1646, congregational churches objected to its presbyterian model of church governance and discipline.
Accordingly, Congregationalists in England published the document now commonly known as the Savoy Declaration, in 1658. This confession adopts nearly all of the Westminster (more on that), but includes an extended section focused on church discipline and local church autonomy. Some of the same language appears in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Philadelpha Confession of Faith of 1742.
A few excerpts might convey the essence of their belief and practice (emphasis added):
4. To each of these churches thus gathered, according to his mind declared in his Word, he hath given all that power and authority, which is any way needful for their carrying on that order in worship and discipline, which he hath instituted for them to observe, with commands and rules for the due and right exerting and executing of that power.
6. Besides these particular churches, there is not instituted by Christ any church more extensive or catholic entrusted with power for the administration of his ordinances, or the execution of any authority in his name.
22. The power of censures being seated by Christ in a particular church, is to be exercised only towards particular members of each church respectively as such; and there is no power given by him unto any synods or ecclesiastical assemblies to excommunicate, or by their public edicts to threaten excommunication, or other church-censures against churches, magistrates, or their people upon any account, no man being obnoxious to that censure, but upon his personal miscarriage, as a member of a particular church.
Paragraph 26 endorses voluntary formation of a special purpose “synod or council” as needed, but adds that
these synods so assembled are not entrusted with any church-power, properly so called, or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures, either over any churches or persons, or to impose their determinations on the churches or officers.
The word “autonomy” does not appear in the Declaration, but the authority of local churches to govern themselves, answering only to Christ, is unmistakable – especially in response to wrongdoing by members.
Several theologians of note also offer helpful summaries of the congregationalist understanding of local church autonomy.
Martin Lloyd-Jones seems to have been more Presbyterian than anything else, but spoke well of congregationalism.
The Congregationalists—those who believe in the congregational system—affirm that every local church is an entity in itself, that it has supreme power to decide everything itself. It is a gathering of Christians who believe that the Lord is present and is the Head of the Church, and who believe that, as they look to Him and wait upon Him, He, by the Spirit, will guide them and give them the wisdom they need to decide about doctrine and discipline, and so on. The local church is autonomous, it governs itself, and does not look to any higher body, be it a bench of bishops, a presbytery, a general assembly or anything else. (Great Doctrines of the Bible, Vol. 3, 22)
After complaining that there seemed to be no congregationalist churches left, he gave the idea a hearty endorsement.
And that is why I suggest the local independent view: it seems to me to approximate most closely to the New Testament pattern. Each local church should be autonomous and independent, but ready always to meet in fellowship with those who are like-minded and of a like spirit. (23)
Turning to Baptist theologians, Roland McCune is concise:
The Local Church Has the Authority to Settle Its Internal Affairs
Concerning saints going to law against other saints (1 Cor 6:1–5), Paul directs the local church at Corinth to care for its difficulties. No committee was formed and no pressure was brought to bear either by other churches, apostles, or ministerial executives. The decision of the local church on the matter was final. There is no higher court of appeal or body of jurisdiction; the local church’s judgment is final (Matt 18:15). (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Vol. 3, 236)
Local Church Government Is Biblical in Constitution
The authority, principles and rules of organization are to be found in the Bible alone: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ … he is conceited and understands nothing” (1 Tim 6:3–5).
Local Church Government Is Congregational in Form
Each local church has supreme authority in its own affairs. It cannot be dominated, coerced or interfered with by any power outside itself. This does not preclude cooperation with other local churches, but such cooperation or association has no authority over the local church. (236)
Augustus H. Strong wrote of local church authority in matters of discipline, also noting what should happen when the church leadership botches their part of the job (emphasis added):
As the Prudential Committee, or Committee on Discipline, is simply the church itself preparing its own business, the church may well require all complaints to be made to it through the committee. In this way it may be made certain that the preliminary steps of labor have been taken, and the disquieting of the church by premature charges may be avoided. Where the committee, after proper representations made to it, fails to do its duty, the individual member may appeal directly to the assembled church; and the difference between the New Testament order and that of a hierarchy is this, that according to the former all final action and responsibility is taken by the church itself in its collective capacity, whereas on the latter the minister, the session, or the bishop, so far as the individual church is concerned, determines the result. (Systematic Theology, 926)
The goal here has been to clarify what the idea of local church autonomy is, and, along the way, also demonstrate that it wasn’t cooked up by a few fundamentalists in the 1980s. The idea is verifiably as old as the Reformation. The biblical support – which I’ve made no attempt to cover here – points to its origin under the leadership of the Apostles.
For the biblical case for congregationalism, I recommend the systematic theologies by Strong (904-908), Millard J. Erickson (1079-1080) and McCune (232-237) as well as Larry Oats’ article at Proclaim and Defend, Andy Naselli’s post at Thoughts on Theology, and Fred Mortiz’s “Congregational Government: a Response to James McDonald” here at SI.
How should belief in local church autonomy shape our response when members of a congregation have accused other members of unethical conduct? We should understand the following:
- The moral and ethical standards come from the congregation itself as it strives to obey Scripture.
- Since the congregation has established its own ethics standards, it alone has the authority to enforce them.
- Where civil and criminal law is relevant, law enforcement operates separately and in addition to the local church’s discipline process, though law enforcement action may have to precede church action chronologically.
- Churches following New Testament order (autonomous, congregational) should ensure that informed consent is built into the membership process, so that everyone who joins is fully aware of the church’s ethical standards, consequences for violation, and how investigations will be conducted (when necessary). Typically, when lawsuits have resulted over church handling of ethics scandals, it’s been the result of alleged defamation, emotional distress, etc., by individuals who have been disciplined.
For more on discipline and legal matters, see Jay A. Quine, “Court Involvement in Church Discipline, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Issue 593; and “Court Involvement in Church Discipline, Part 2,” by the same author in issue 594. The following are also helpful, and more current:
- When Church Discipline Goes Really Public — The Gospel Coalition)
- How to Do Church Discipline (Without Getting Sued) — Also TGC, and from a Canadian law perspective, but still helpful.
- 22 Mistakes Pastors Make in Practicing Church Discipline — Andy Naselli
- Informed Consent: Biblical and Legal Protection for Church Discipline — from 9 Marks
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.