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.

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Ethics Scandals and Local Church Autonomy

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.

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