Local Church Autonomy and Exposing Error
When speaking of the church, we refer to it in either the local or universal sense. From looking at the biblical record, we find that local churches were organized to be independent from each other (1 Peter 5:1-3), answering only to Jesus, the Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). In passages where the universal church is under discussion (Ephesians 5:23-27), scripture is silent concerning any formal organization. The Lord’s church has been organized without earthly headquarters and bureaucracies. Jesus is the head of the church and elders in local congregations answer directly to Him.
While “autonomy” is not mentioned in either testament, the principle is understood. Autonomy is defined as the power or right of self-government. In writing on the concept of autonomy Robert L. McDonald has written: “when the word autonomy is used with reference to the church of our Lord, it should be understood that each church has the divine right to govern itself.” In the New Testament we find:
Autonomous congregations supporting the preaching of the gospel. Philippi, (Philippians 4:15-18), Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:8), and Jerusalem (Acts 11:22) are good examples.
Autonomous congregations providing benevolence for its needy. The Jerusalem church is an example. See Acts 2 and 4.
Autonomous congregations selecting their own elders, deacons, servants, and messengers. For example, in Acts 14:23 Luke says they appointed elders in every church. Epaphroditus was a servant of the church in Philippi ministering to Paul. (Philippians 2:25-30)
We may properly conclude that each local church did its own work, under the oversight of local elders, without outside interference or control.
Over the last decade and a half, there has been much written on the subject of autonomy and exposing error. Some believe that since congregations are autonomous, the only criticism they receive should be from members within. Others maintain that preachers should have full reign in exposing error whereever and whenever they see it. Can preachers expose error in congregations in which they are not a member? Within scripture, we find Paul warning the Colossians of false teachers in general (Colossians 2:4, 8). We know he was not a member of the church of Colosse when writing these words. We also observe Paul rebuking the Galatians for allowing Judaizing teachers to advance their error within the congregations of Galatia, even though not a member in any of these congregations (Galatians 1:6-9; 5:4). The conduct of the false teachers was well documented and they had publicly slandered the motives, character, and teaching of Paul. He had the right to directly respond to their charges, and did so effectively. Those who teach publicly may expect to be criticized publicly if their teaching does not align itself with truth.
These passages prove that church autonomy is not violated by teaching the truth whenever and whereever the opportunity presents itself. Truth should not be harnessed. But, while preachers have the right to expose error, it does not give them the right to make blanket assumptions and accusations, judging motives and creating suspicion and fear about brethren they do not know. I recently read about an article where a preacher referred to “churches of Christ” that decided to abolish the evening service. In his writing, the preacher asked what reason would justify such a decision? And by the usage of quotation marks around “churches of Christ” he questioned the faithfulness of churches who made that decision. He then concluded his remarks with the short sentence, Brethren, we are drifting. Nevermind the fact that each local, independent, autonomous congregation can be presented with unique reasons and circumstances for determining the number of times they meet on the Lord’s Day. (A good example would be a congregation in a remote area where brethren are forced to drive many miles to worship.) Meeting more than once on Sunday is a matter of judgment. And, the congregation who decided to meet only once on the Lord’s day should not be forced to justify to the entire brotherhood as to the reasons behind their decision. Remember, we are autonomous!
Preaching the truth does not excuse a person from common courtesy. Jesus said, So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12 ESV). Later Jesus would teach that brotherly love is an identifying mark of the Christian. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 ESV). Paul wrote that we should let our love be genuine and to love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:9-10 ESV). If one reads something, or hears someone speculating about another preacher or congregation do not Christian principles teach that we assume the best and not the worst out of our brethren? Is that not the honorable thing to do? Do not Christian principles teach that we attempt communication with the other party before we address an issue publicly? There can always be misunderstandings. Things may not be as they seem. But yet in case after case we hear of those who launch out in accusing others of error, when no direct communication has been made to find out otherwise. When godly principles are ignored and accusations are made it amounts to little more than evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4). Having evil suspicions involves the impugning of motives. This person wants nothing good to come out of the other person, and only expects and hopes for the worst. In his comments on this verse Hendrickson says, all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye. In this case, brethren are turned into adversaries and every action is suspect. It is imagined that there is something behind every move of the person and/or congregation. Such an attitude is dangerous because it is contagious. This is why it is forthrightly condemned. When motives and intentions are judged without investigation, reputations of good brethren and churches are damaged. These attitudes may be more prevalent than we’d like to admit. We must always apply Romans 12:9-10 in our attitude.
How can we correct the problem? Here are four simple suggestions:
1. Open up the lines of communication. Are there not principles we can apply from Matthew 18:15-17? Giving the benefit of the doubt involves talking about the situation and not assuming anything. When these situations arise we must remember we are working with Christians! They are brethren!
2. Once communication has taken place, accept what they say. Our word is to be our bond (Matthew 5:37). If others are relating false information – tell the truth and exhort them to correct their story. It is not our place to judge motives! (Matthew 7:1-2) Judgment can be made on deeds and attitudes expressed (John 7:24).
3. We must learn to keep our mouths shut. Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (James 1:19 ESV). The temptation to talk negatively about someone else can be great. It is easier to be negative than positive. And yes, it can take effort to see positive, but it is absolutely necessary if we wish to glorify God. The last thing we need to do is to be the talebearer of something that is fabricated, exaggerated, or embellished.
4. Put forgiveness into action. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV.) I am convinced that this passage is not practiced as much as it should, and it is to our detriment. Imagine how much more vibrant, joyful, and unified the church would be if we fully embraced and practiced what is contained in these verses.
We are reaching a critical point within the church today. Great damage is being done, young Christians are being discouraged, and souls are in danger. We need to take the microscope off of each other and once again turn our focus onto the lost. We must slow down and stand down on the desire to ramp up the suspicion about good men and congregations who work in their respective areas. We need to once again renew our commitment to work together with one another when opportunities present themselves. We be brethren!
By Matthew Allen
From Expository Files 12.9; September, 2005