A Short Biblical Case for Congregational Autonomy

Congregationalism is the idea that Christ has established local assemblies of believers and that He is directly Head over each. The idea has both internal and external application. Externally, congregationalism means there are no layers of ecclesiastical authority outside the local church between it and Christ. Internally, it means there is no individual or board between the congregation and Christ. Leaders serve the congregation.

History has proven that layers of control outside the local church are no guarantee against corruption, either in doctrine or practice. Roman Catholicism comes to mind. That’s why we had the Reformation.

But congregational government virtually guarantees that there will be sick congregations. Corinth and Laodicea come to mind. That’s why we have the epistles.

If both congregational and non-congregational structures are subject to error and failure, does it even matter what structure churches use? If we rely solely on results arguments — as we’re so fond of doing — maybe not.

But for Bible-believers, “What works best?” isn’t really the question, is it? The right question is “What do the Scriptures instruct us to do?” The results are God’s concern, not ours.

This understanding of where results fit in is so important in our times. The general public feels increasingly entitled to demand information from, and issue orders to, private organizations. Christians seem to also feel increasingly entitled to demand information from, and issue orders to, local churches that aren’t their own. In the early centuries A.D., churches were threatened by the authority coming down from the top of society. Today, churches are threatened both by the authority coming down and the authority rising up from the grass roots (also known as “the ignorant masses”)! And it’s all fueled by a thirst for what we think are better results.

So the ideological weather out there these days requires that we regularly re-fortify our thinking with unchanging, rock-solid, revealed truth (see Eph. 4:14).

The biblical evidence

There isn’t any verse that says “local congregations are in charge of themselves under Christ.” Rather, the case is inductive: we grasp it by understanding many passages that point to a single conclusion. (The lines of evidence that follow are adapted mostly from A. H. Strong, and Roland McCune.)

1. Congregations are called to seek internal unity.

In the NT, local churches are called to strive for unity of belief and practice — to agree together about what should be done and how.

  • Rom. 12:16 — “Live in harmony with one another”
  • 1 Cor. 1:10 — “I appeal to you … that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but you be united in the same mind the same judgment.”
  • 2 Cor. 13:11 “agree with one another”
  • Eph. 4:3 — “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”
  • Phil.1:27 — “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”

Not only do the many NT calls to pursue unity always have the same focus — the local congregation — but there is also no command to seek the approval or agreement of other congregations or anyone else outside the local fellowship. (See comments on the “Jerusalem Council” below.)

2. Congregations are called to maintain pure doctrine

Each congregation is tasked with preserving sound teaching within its own fellowship. Though 1 Timothy 3:15 may sound like a mandate for all believers everywhere (what some of the confessions of faith call the “invisible church” or “universal” church, or small-c “catholic” church), the context is Timothy’s work with a particular congregation.

I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth

The same pattern is evident in Jude 3, 1 John 4:1, and the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3. Strong, once again, observes:

In all these passages, pastoral charges are given, not by a so-called bishop to his subordinate priests, but by an apostle to the whole church and to all its members. (905)

In reference to the calls to repentance in Revelation 2 and 3, McCune explains how this works:

Corporate bodies as such cannot repent or maintain true doctrine except as the constituent individuals do so. This is done corporately through the personal soul liberty of each member, comprising the corporate conscience, so to speak, of the local church. (233)

3. Congregation are called to safeguard the ordinances.

Oversight of the ordinances is also assigned to local churches. McCune’s summary is succinct:

Paul, for example, did not commit the Lord’s Table to ecclesiastical officials or clergymen, but to the membership (1 Cor 11:2, 23–24). The ordinances are the property of the whole church. They are to be administered only by the authority of the local church, not by individuals acting in their own behalf or in behalf of any institution other than the local church. (233)

Given the importance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Christian living and church life, the fact that God has assigned the responsibility of administering these activities to local congregations points, once again, to His intention that local churches be independent and self-governing.

4. Congregations are called to choose their own leadership and representatives.

  • Acts 6:1-6 — Deacons are chosen as “it pleased the whole gathering,” and “they” choose the seven men.
  • Acts 13:1-3 — The congregation at Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey. The will of the congregation is identified as the will of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:4). Later, the team sent by the local church reports back to the local church (Acts 14:27).
  • 1 Corinthians 16:3 — Paul plans to send a group to Jerusalem with the Corinthians’ offering, but the church is to select those who will go. He identifies them as “those whom you accredit by letter” (ESV).
  • 2 Cor. 8:19, Acts 4:23, Titus 1:5 — Elders are appointed in the churches. Though apostles and their representatives are involved in the process, the wording doesn’t specify that these men acted unilaterally, and there is some evidence that the congregations themselves participated in the choosing as in Acts 6 (Strong, 906; McCune, 234, Grudem, 921).
  • Acts 15 — Local congregations send messengers to join in voluntary cooperation at the Jerusalem Council (perhaps better dubbed the “Jerusalem Conversation”). McCune boils it down:

The so-called “Jerusalem Council” (Acts 15:1–30) was really no more than a meeting of the members and messengers of two local churches, each sovereign in its own affairs. The church at Antioch designated Paul and Barnabas to go to the church at Jerusalem (v. 2). The Jerusalem church answered through its messengers (v. 22). (236)

Taken together, these passages reveal that the apostles — even with their unique authority (2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10) — had a profound respect for local churches’ responsibility over their own affairs.

5. Congregations are called to exercise discipline over their members.

Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 establish the principle that government authority is instituted by God “for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). However, Scripture also reveals that government’s power is not all-encompassing. When the commands of men in authority directly contradicted the commands of Christ, Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

In God’s design, “the powers that be” are also categorically limited: “sin” and “repentance” are not their concern. Matters of individual relationship to God are not their concern.

In practical terms, this means government authority and church authority operate separately from one another in response to wrongdoing. Congregations must cooperate with the governing authorities, but must also pursue their own responsibilities in dealing with the sin and repentance of their members. Neither institution is a substitute for the other, and when sinful conduct is also illegal conduct, offenders must answer to both law and their local church. When sinful conduct is not illegal, the responsibility is assigned to the congregation alone.

  • Matthew 18:17-18 — The outlined process reaches its final audience when the victim “tell[s] it to the church [ekkelsia].” Verse 18 is clear that there is no higher authority on earth: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Any appeal to another authority would be an appeal to a lower authority!
  • 1 Corinthians 5:4-13 — The congregation is to assemble, and “deliver” the offender “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.”
  • 2 Cor. 2:6, 7 — The apostle declares that the punishment “inflicted by the majority [polus]” in the congregation is “enough.”

These passage exclude two sometimes-attractive alternatives: externally, taking misconduct to some authority other than the law and congregation; internally, handling misconduct exclusively by the pastor or a team of elders. It’s the work of the congregation.

McCune observes:

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). (236)

Strong clarifies the role of the church leadership:

It should be the ambition of the pastor not “to run the church,” but to teach the church intelligently and Scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word “minister” means, not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but he does not drive. He is like the trusty mountain guide, who carries a load thrice as heavy as that of the man he serves, who leads in safe paths and points out dangers, but who neither shouts nor compels obedience. (908)

Conclusion

The NT assigns clear responsibilities to local congregations and recognizes no higher authority for carrying out those responsibilities. So, what if churches fail to act as they should? In the area of discipline in particular, what about churches that fail to pronounce guilt and exclude the unrepentant?

We know that any process God instructs us to follow works exactly as God intends it to work. “His way is perfect” (Psalm 18:30). That doesn’t mean churches have an excuse when they fail to exercise their autonomy (i.e., responsibility) properly. What it means is that God has already thought of that. He has already prepared His own solutions. At times, it may be a challenge to our faith to believe that His solutions are sufficient, but when our faith becomes sight we’ll have no doubt that He knew best all along.

References

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004. Print.

McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things. Vol. 3. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010. Print.

Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907. Print.

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There are 27 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Aaron, thanks for an excellent treatment of this important, though often neglected subject.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Every one of those passages you cite is an outsider telling the church what to do.  Every.Last.One.

Let's be blunt here;  I would agree that Scripture does not clearly set up an episcopacy.   However, pretty much the entire New Testament is outsiders telling the church what to do.  That has to factor into our ecclesiology somehow.  The very setting of the New Testament does not give any aid and comfort to your notion of radical church autonomy. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

josh p's picture

Bert,

I would be interested in your position since so far it seems to only be disagreement with the standard one. What exactly do you believe about church polity? 

Kevin Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Every one of those passages you cite is an outsider telling the church what to do.  Every.Last.One.

Let's be blunt here;  I would agree that Scripture does not clearly set up an episcopacy.   However, pretty much the entire New Testament is outsiders telling the church what to do.  That has to factor into our ecclesiology somehow.  The very setting of the New Testament does not give any aid and comfort to your notion of radical church autonomy. 

It would factor into my ecclesiology in that i would obey whatever an inspired outsider tells the church to do. Wouldn't the fact that the authors of Scripture were inspired make them different from any outsiders we would encounter today?

TylerR's picture

Bert:

Aaron isn't advocating a "radical autonomy." His position reflects the standard view of congregational government you'd find in any standard Baptist systematic. Read Strong, for example. To be sure, there are good arguments against congregational government. Millard Erickson, for example, concludes the evidence for any single form of governmental structure (episcopal, presbyterian or congregational) is lacking in the NT, but he tepidly endorses congregational government.

There's nothing controversial about congregational church government. Read Strong for a more dogmatic take, then take a look at Erickson for a more tentative analysis. I think you'd like what Erickson has to say.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

 

Bert Perry wrote:

 

Every one of those passages you cite is an outsider telling the church what to do.  Every.Last.One.

Let's be blunt here;  I would agree that Scripture does not clearly set up an episcopacy.   However, pretty much the entire New Testament is outsiders telling the church what to do.  That has to factor into our ecclesiology somehow.  The very setting of the New Testament does not give any aid and comfort to your notion of radical church autonomy. 

 

It would factor into my ecclesiology in that i would obey whatever an inspired outsider tells the church to do. Wouldn't the fact that the authors of Scripture were inspired make them different from any outsiders we would encounter today?

 

The question is whether the New Testament reader/listener knew that he was dealing with someone writing ex cathedra.  Given that the Bereans were of "more noble character" than others inasmuch as they tested Paul's words with Scripture (presumably the entirety of the Tanach/ OT), I would have to presume that the ancients did exactly the same thing as we can do today.  They would test the complaints against Scripture.  So it's not so different as you suggest--and really, exactly how are we to claim that our path to holiness in these matters is to do things differently from the writers of Scripture?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Rob Fall's picture

the secular meaning of the word ekklesia in the 1st Century. Congregational government fits it the best. As for "outside" criticism. anybody can make an observation. The question is the outside comment binding on an individual congregation?

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

T Howard's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

It would factor into my ecclesiology in that i would obey whatever an inspired outsider tells the church to do. Wouldn't the fact that the authors of Scripture were inspired make them different from any outsiders we would encounter today?

Just to clarify two points on the phrase, "inspired outsider":

First, Paul was not inspired. The Scriptures he wrote were.

Second, Paul was not an outsider. He planted the churches.

Bert Perry's picture

josh p wrote:

Bert,

I would be interested in your position since so far it seems to only be disagreement with the standard one. What exactly do you believe about church polity? 

My position is fairly simple; I do not believe that the Scriptures empower bishops in the Catholic or Anglican sense.  I am open to both presbyterian and congregational structures, though with the caveat that each church has a congregational vote every Sunday; whose rear ends show up in pews.  (part of why I'm open to presbyterian church government....it is kinda congregational at its root)  That noted, the congregationalism and presbyterian polity with which I am comfortable also contains a strong notion of the universal church finding guidance from the most unexpected places--though tested with a Berean-like model.  Given that God's people got guidance from unelected prophets, at least one donkey, slave girls, and a group of non-apostles--Luke, Mark, James, Jude, and the author of Hebrews--it's really the only conclusion we can come to.

Put differently, we can do our proof-texting to suggest congregational polity, but the origins of that guidance--outsiders to local churches--ought to matter to us as well.  We ought to have a high, positive view of it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

When the instruction is "govern yourself," whether the origin of the instruction is "outside" or not has no relevance.

When a judge instructs a jury to render a verdict, for example, he is telling them it is their decision to make without him. 

In the case of the NT, the instructions are actually from Christ. Does His 'insideness' or 'outsideness' in any way reduce His authority to assign these responsibilities to the church?

Of course not. 

Kevin Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

So it's not so different as you suggest--and really, exactly how are we to claim that our path to holiness in these matters is to do things differently from the writers of Scripture?

I'm NOT suggesting we do things differently from the writers. Aaron's article used the words of the writers to show autonomy of the church. You admit that those proof texts "suggest congregational polity," but since the writers were outsiders, you said the origin of the guidance "ought to matter to us as well." Are you suggesting the church ought to operate differently from what the Scriptures SAY because the outsider status of the authors show they themselves were doing things differently from the guidance they were giving? Do you believe they were acting differently than their own guidance, or do you see some guidance in Scripture that gives church authority to outsiders other than just the example of people writing inspired Scripture. I know you've mentioned I Timothy 3:7, but that is just describing the church getting a report from outsiders. It's not saying that the outsiders are having any authority over the church.

Kevin Miller's picture

T Howard wrote:

 

Kevin Miller wrote:

 

It would factor into my ecclesiology in that i would obey whatever an inspired outsider tells the church to do. Wouldn't the fact that the authors of Scripture were inspired make them different from any outsiders we would encounter today?

 

 

Just to clarify two points on the phrase, "inspired outsider":

First, Paul was not inspired. The Scriptures he wrote were.

Second, Paul was not an outsider. He planted the churches.

Yes, the Scriptures were the inspired things, but wouldn't Paul have been "carried along" or "moved" by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21)? That is the sense I meant when I used the imprecise wording of "inspired outsider." I totally agree with your second point. I was just using the word in the sense that Bert was for the sake of the discussion.

T Howard's picture

Kevin Miller wrote:

Yes, the Scriptures were the inspired things, but wouldn't Paul have been "carried along" or "moved" by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21)? That is the sense I meant when I used the imprecise wording of "inspired outsider." I totally agree with your second point. I was just using the word in the sense that Bert was for the sake of the discussion.

Yes, the inspiration of Scripture was a concursive process. Inspiration was not inherent with Paul or his other writings.

Regarding Bert's argument, it's not convincing to me to say that because the church recognized and followed apostolic teaching / inspired Scripture that the church allowed "outsiders" to rule the church.

Think about it. The apostolic church was a "mystery" that was birthed on Pentecost and had nothing really on which to base its polity, its ordinances, and its leadership other than the OT and a synagogue model. Many of the churches were planted by the apostles (or, at least, by the apostle Paul). To say that the apostles are "outsiders" to these apostolic era churches is a bit misguided given that Christ himself gave them direct authority over the churches. Doesn't Scripture tells us that the apostles and the prophets were the foundation of the church, with Christ being the chief cornerstone? Thus, to refer to the apostles and their delegates as "outsiders" is a bit convoluted.

That being said, I agree that the apostles and their delegates served a unique role in the founding of the church. But, to take their unique role as a reason to reject congregational polity is again convoluted.

Aaron Blumer's picture

This might be a good time to point out that there is no violation or even compromise of autonomy if a congregation chooses to consult with other congregations about problems it's facing, or even chooses to enlist the aid of an expert or team of experts of like faith and practice.

I have seen cases where this might have been a good option to pursue.

And, by the same token, there are ways believers outside the congregation, and other congregations as well, can seek to influence goings on in other congregations. I'm all for that, when the situation calls for it. But they have to do this in ways that recognize the congregation is in charge of itself and its members. If they really want to be effective (as in, "the test of time"), they have to do it in ways that respect the congregation's responsibility and ability to govern itself under Christ.

The apostles modeled this, focusing on teaching and persuasion and trying to avoid a coercive approach (even though, as Paul pointed out several times, they had that option).

Fred Moritz's picture

Biblical evidence for congregational government.  We cover this in my Baptist Polity course at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.  Years ago Doug McLachlan published an outline titled "The Polity Issue."  It is brief, and insightful.  I'll be glad to furnish my polity notes on the government of the local church if anyone wants them.  The evidence for congregational government is clear and convincing.

The congregation disciplines its own membership.

When personal offences occur and brethren cannot resolve them, the local church, not the elders or pastors, is to resolve the issue (Mt. 18:15-17).

When public sins plague the church, the church, when it comes together, is to discipline the sinning member (1 Cor. 5:1-5).

The congregation elects its own officers.

When the infant church in Jerusalem needed an apostle to replace Judas, the whole group of disciples met and elected Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).

When the church in Jerusalem needed men to assist the apostles with the material needs of the widows, the whole multitude of believers elected them (Acts 6:1-7). 

“True, the apostles were going to ‘appoint’ these men to their office, but what procedure was this appointment to take?  ‘Look ye out among you seven men of honest report....  And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they (the whole multitude) chose...’” (6:3, 5).

Congregations apparently voted to elect their own pastors (Acts 14:23).

The congregation commissioned Barnabas and Saul as missionaries (Acts 13:1-3). Barnabas and Saul reported to the church, not just the pastoral staff, when they returned from their ministry (Acts 14:27).

The church at Antioch, not the leaders, sent men to Jerusalem to resolve a doctrinal dispute (Acts 15:1-3).

The whole church at Jerusalem responded with its advice (Acts 15:22, 23).

The Acts 15 passage should make it clear that no organizational ties existed between the local churches.  They enjoyed a spiritual kinship and fellowship.  They voluntarily looked to each other for advice in a time of need.  But no authority outside the local churches governed them.  No church dominated another.  “The local church always acted in absolute SELF-DETERMINATION of its relations with other local churches-Acts 15:1-30.” (R. V. Clearwaters)

The churches chose the messengers who took the offering to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:19, 23).  The churches gave the offering, and the churches chose their messengers to convey that offering to Jerusalem.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Though the biblical evidence is dispersed there is really is quite a bit of it.

Dan Miller's picture

4. 4th bulletpoint - I think you want Acts 14:23.

Bert Perry's picture

In my Bible, Titus 1:5 tells me that Titus was left in Crete to appoint elders, and in my Bible, Acts 14:23 tells me that Paul and Barnabas appointed the elders.  If you're reading in the KJV, follow the pronouns--"they" clearly refers to Paul and Barnabas. 

Those would be notable exceptions to the claim that the church uniformly elected its own leadership, no?  Moreover, John promises to intervene with Diotrephes' refusal to host itinerant teachers in 3 John, and both Timothy and Titus are told to silence wayward teachers.  Paul famously does the same thing in Galatians, most hilariously in chapter 5.  Presumably some of those would have had the approval of local church bodies.   So no, the authority of local churches to select and retain their own officers is not absolute.  The Bible tells me so.

Add to that the fact that the histories of the prophets, the epistle writers, and such are of outsiders influencing local bodies of believers, and you have to posit that church autonomy is limited somehow.  I'd argue it's limited by the interaction with the universal church, then as now.

And really, just like the FBFI is trying to do, just like T4G is trying to do, and the like.  You do not need bishops to do this.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

The key is understanding the office of the apostle and its unique relationship to founding the first churches. As men directly charged by Christ, who is the Head of the church (and each church), these men were not outsiders to any congregation... any more than Christ is.

Also, whatever one does with Titus 1:5 and Acts 14:23, it isn't enough to nullify the rest of the biblical case for autonomy.

Thirdly, as it turns out there are some good reasons to look at these passages more closely. Passages often don't mean what they seem to on a quick "first impressions" basis.There's a good bit of stuff in the notes I accumulated for this article but didn't use, due to length. Here's some relevant bits.

It is best to understand that the apostles made arrangement for a congregational vote. Grudem takes Acts 14:23 in a congregational sense. He says, “Yet even these verses [Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5] need not imply that the apostles alone made the selection, but would certainly include congregational consultation and even consent before an official appointment or installation was made (as with the appointment in Acts 6:3, 6).”

McCune, Rolland. A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things. Vol. 3. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010. (234)

What he's referring to in Grudem: Systematic Theology, p. 921. (Here Grudem also cites BDAG to the effect that the word appoint may also mean install.)

Here's Grudem...

(1) In the New Testament, there are several examples where church officers were apparently chosen by the whole congregation. In Acts 6:3, the apostles do not themselves pick out the seven early deacons (if we see them as deacons), but say to the whole church, “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty.” The initial selection of these men was done by the whole congregation. When a replacement was chosen for Judas to be numbered among the apostles, the whole congregation of 120 persons (see Acts 1:15) made the initial selection of two, from whom the Lord himself indicated which one he would appoint: “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (Acts 1:23). At the end of the Jerusalem council, the whole church had a part with the apostles and elders in choosing representatives to convey the decisions to the other churches, for the choosing and sending was done by “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:22; cf. “in assembly,” v. 25). Moreover, when some of the churches sent an offering with Paul to be taken to the Jerusalem church, the churches also sent a representative to accompany Paul, one who, according to Paul, “has been appointed by the churches to travel with us in this gracious work” (2 Cor. 8:19).
It may be objected that Paul and Barnabas “appointed” elders in every church (Acts 14:23), and Paul also told Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). Does this not seem more like the Roman Catholic or Anglican system than a system of congregational choice? Yet even those verses need not imply that the apostles alone made the selection, but could certainly include congregational consultation and even consent before an official appointment or installation was made (as with the appointment in Acts 6:3, 6). The word appoint may also mean “install.”

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004. (921)

So the gist is that the references to appointing could mean they acted unilaterally, but don't have to mean that, and given what we have in Acts 6 and other passages, it seems unlikely that this was done without congregational approval. In any case, the apostles are not like anybody we have around today, so even if they did depart from the pattern of other passages in these cases, there is really not a whole lot we can infer about how us non-apostles should do things today.

Whatever else congregational autonomy might be, it's not a notion cooked up by a few fundies in the 1970's. (As the congregationalist confessions and declarations of centuries ago abundantly show: https://sharperiron.org/article/ethics-scandals-and-local-church-autonomy)

Rob Fall's picture

Men like B. Myron Cedarholm (founder of MBU) were foursquare in favor of local church autonomy. The "A" in (MBBC Baptist polity expert) Richard Weeks' BRAPSIS2 acrostic of Baptist Distinictives stands for "Autonomy and Independence of the Local Church".  Going further back, I would point out Francis Wayland's treatment of the topic in his Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
SNIP

Whatever else congregational autonomy might be, it's not a notion cooked up by a few fundies in the 1970's. (As the congregationalist confessions and declarations of centuries ago abundantly show: https://sharperiron.org/article/ethics-scandals-and-local-church-autonomy)

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, if you've got a few verses suggesting the churches selected their elders, and another few verses suggesting that at times they did not, what you've got is ambiguity.  Period.  

And that's really the core of my objection to how you're presenting this.  There is ambiguity about whether churches always elected their own leaders.  There are clear examples of outsiders interfering with the process of church discipline and consistent examples of general outside interference with the affairs of the church.  

Is this really no matter to us?  Let's be honest; we make inferences from the practices of the ancients all the time, and really, that's a crucial test of whether we're analyzing our Scriptures correctly; does it make sense in light of how they actually did things?

So really, I don't care how "old" this is in fundamentalism, rather I care whether I can reconcile a hard doctrine of autonomy with the Scriptures--and the accompanying suspicion of outsiders.  And quite frankly, I can not.  It's simply not how things were done in the first century.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

You need to read Millard Erickson's discussion of church government.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

What if there is a little ambiguity about whether congregations *always* chose their own leaders?

What's not ambiguous:

* The only parties ever involved in choosing leaders were apostles, their associates, and congregations. (Which of these are still around today?) 

* All the other evidence of congregational autonomy.

(Edit: I'll see if I can post Erickson later. That I only have in hard copy.) 

Bert Perry's picture

It's really simple.  If there is doubt about whether something is uniformly true, you don't apply the principle dogmatically.  And that is the core of my objection.  I have no objection to a limited autonomy of the church, as that is compelled if I simply say that I don't believe Christ and the apostles set up bishops.  In many cases, that means many churches will indeed select their own leadership.  However, if we argue "always", we have a huge logical problem with the verses referenced.  Basic Aristotelian categories and the non sequitur.

Same thing with the discussion of how the early church treated outside influences.  If we are to follow Paul's example--he says to do exactly that no less than twice--I don't see how we get around the strong regard the early church had for the teaching/rebuke of outsiders. 

And along those lines, I'm not really persuaded that reading anyone's book is going to add to the discussion.   There are a couple of big sticking points, Scripturally speaking, that prevent me from accepting the hypothesis as presented here, and reading a bunch of circumlocutions "well this verse doesn't mean what it says" doesn't help.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

I suggested you read Erickson because you'd like what he says.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

Bert, your reply is vehement and tosses around some big words, but the following is still not ambiguous. 

* The only parties ever involved in choosing leaders were apostles, their associates, and congregations. (Which of these are still around today?) 

* All the other evidence of congregational autonomy.

Aaron Blumer's picture

This is probably the part of Erickson's evaluation that Tyler referred to, though it continues for another page or two. (Disclaimer: this is automatic character recognition from a phone-photo of the page.... might be some wrong characters/linebreaks/paragraph breaks.)

The volume is Christian Theology, Millard J. Erickson, Baker Bookhouse, the 1 volume 1990 edition, p.1085.

Even if it were clear that there is one exclusive pattern of organization in the New Testament, that pattern would not necessarily be normative for us today. It would be merely the pattern which was, not the pattern which must be. But as matters stand, there is so much variation in the descriptions of the New Testament churches that we cannot discover an authoritative pattern. We must therefore turn to the principles which we find in the New Testament, and attempt to construct our governmental system upon them.

We must ask two questions if we are to construct our system in this fashion. First, in what direction was church government moving within the New Testament period? Is there anything which would indicate the ultimate outcome? We can discern in the New Testament the beginnings of a movement to ameliorate the situation of women and slaves. Is there a similar movement to improve church government? If so, we might be able to infer the ideal at which the movement was aiming, although we might have difficulty ascertaining just how far it was intended to progress. Here unfortunately we have little to go on. We know that the church originally took over the pattern of the Jewish synagogue: a group of elders served as rulers. We also know that while the church was in its infancy, the apostle Paul sometimes had to take a directive approach. Other than that we know little. There is no indication that the church was moving toward a specific form of church government. The second question we must ask is, What are the reasons for church government? What values is it intended to promote and preserve? As has been our approach all along, we will look to the Bible for authoritative answers. Once we have determined what Scripture has to say on the matter, we will be able, in accordance with our guidelines for contemporizing the biblical message," to construct a model of church government suitable for today.

One principle that is evident in the New Testament, and particularly in 1 Corinthians, is the value of order. The situation at Corinth, where total individuality tended to take over, was not very desirable. At its worst it was downright destructive. It was necessary, then, to have some control over the highly individualized ways in which spirituality was being expressed (1 Cor. 14:40). It was also desirable to have certain persons responsible for specific ministries. We are reminded here of the situation in Acts 6, where we are told that seven men were appointed to be in charge of the ministry to widows.

So the gist of Erickson's argument is that (a) what we have are descriptive passages of what they did in beginning and this isn't necessarily normative for us today, and (b) by implication, we might know better than they did. OK, the latter is my skeptical take creeping in.

I like a good debate, and a debate doesn't even start until you have two sides understanding each other's positions accurately, characterizing them accurately, and responding to each other's arguments with actual counterarguments.

So I'll credit Erickson with devoting several pages on which he fairly and mostly accurately summarizes congregational government and its supporting arguments.

I can also concede that the "not necessarily normative" argument can't just be dismissed. Us non-charismatics (and cessationists) use a similar line of reasoning to argue against the continuation of the apostolic sign gifts (tongues, prophecy--properly defined, etc.).

But I do say similar line of reasoning. Things that are similar are not the same. (I sure have felt like shouting that lately!). 

Here's what's different: in the case of the sign gifts continuing, there are strong reasons for believing the examples we see in Acts are not normative. We appeal to biblical evidence for drawing that conclusion.

In the case of setting aside the congregational pattern of the NT, we don't have very good biblical evidence for doing that. Specifically, even in the epistles, examples continue of apostles assigning responsibilities to congregations (discipline, delivery of gifts to other churches, etc.). In the case of sign gifts, they only occur a couple of times in Acts and in these cases, it's not hard to see special circumstances explaining why they occurred (including OT context).

As for 1 Corinthians

Erickson's appeal to 1 Cor. and other examples of church failures don't really help his case because what they are is examples of disobedience. Examples of disobedience can't really serve as evidence against doing things properly. The problem in Corinth (and variants in most other churches that have epistles directed to them) was not congregational government, but poor character and disobedience to Christ. There isn't any approach that can prevent that.

So, in short, Erickson isn't blowing smoke, but he doesn't provide adequate support for setting aside clear NT ecclesiastical precedent.(I'm sure others have argued against Erickson's ambivalence more extensively elsewhere. Maybe someone can point out where.)

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