The Fallacy of Autonomy

“And [Jesus] is the head of the body,

the church,

he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead,

so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

(Colossians 1:18)

Like many documents, decrees and legislations, the meaning and interpretation can sometimes be forgotten over time, or misinterpreted to mean something different. Even within our own governmental documents—separation of church and state, or the gun control in the second amendment—have varying interpretations, and we are now in a place where the root of the problem understanding what the intent of the original author was. I believe we are facing the same erroneous situation when speaking of the autonomy of the Lord’s church. We have carefully maintained the core values of what the authors intended, and in that we have not strayed one bit; However, I believe we have added much nuance to the Scriptures that God never intended to be there, and in fact, Scripture is insistent that we fix it. Let me explain.

            I believe as any other member of the church that autonomy, although not a biblical word, is the practice that we see in the early church. To put it simply, the congregations in the Lord’s church have no hierarchal government that they answer to other than the elders within there own congregation, and they and the rest of the congregation all answered to Christ, the head of the church (Eph 1:20–23; Matt 28:18). The earliest departure from this pattern was about 150 A.D. when we see the first monarchal bishop. This title was given to a high ranking elder in the city who the other elders would answer to. It began that these men were simply representatives, but they soon became overseeing authorities to dictate the churches. This departure from the pattern laid out is Scripture “was the beginning of an organizational system which eventually evolved into the hierarchal form of government we see in Catholicism today.”[1]Scripture is clear, the leadership of the church is to be a plurality of godly men called elders (1 Tim 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). The elders and the rest of the congregation answer to Christ. This the very core of autonomy and what it was meant to be.

            One passage of Scripture that is often misunderstood and wrongly applied is the meeting in Acts 15. The apostles and Paul met in Jerusalem to discuss matters of doctrinal importance; more specifically, matters pertaining to the Gentile converts. Upon the agreement of the ones attending, there were letters sent out to the churches to inform what the decision was. Everett Ferguson answers this concern adequately when writing: “The meeting in Acts 15 is often termed the first council. It does establish the precedent of meetings between representatives of churches to discuss problems and plan a common course of action, but this ad hoc meeting set no precedent for continuing or permanent conciliar or synodal bodies. No continuing organization was created.”[2] What we do see is the apostles, in their special ministry of getting the church started, working with multiple congregations in sometimes a leading role (Acts 8:24; 11:19); However, this seems to be part of the unique role of the apostles and does not seem to have been passed down to any.[3] Furthermore, we must remember that the New Testament was far from complete at this time. Each congregation today answers to the Word of God. If the early church did not have this luxury, it seems to be with good reason they would meet to discuss matters of doctrine. Nonetheless, the pattern was the same: individual congregations were established and encouraged to set up qualifying elders to lead with the entire congregation under the leadership of Christ, and the verbal truth handed down, now we have the written Word.

            The Churches of Christ have not swayed from all that has been written thus far. We have remained as close to scriptural example as we know best—never-the-less, we have faltered. In the name of autonomy, we have become divided. This division is ever so present and is not only harmful to the church, but is unbiblical—this is not what Christ intended for his church. For many, maybe most, I am speaking to the choir, and that is pleasant to know, yet there are many who will remain isolated from all other congregations. Some will not visit other congregations because they are a member of, and then they mention their church, such and such Church of Christ. Right away, we realize that we have even lost focus of what the church is and what you are a member of when you become a Christian. There are some who, as a congregation, will not participate with any other congregational activities—all in the name of autonomy. I could go on with many more case scenarios, but I believe the point has been made. A misunderstanding of autonomy has created unbiblical and divisive behavior in the Lord’s church.         

            When one reads through the New Testament, it is very clear that what many have made autonomy today is not what was practiced in the early church. In the early church, you read about the sharing of resources, you read about Paul’s letters being shared amongst them, you see the churches helping each other monetarily, and so on. Ferguson puts it well when writing: “Autonomy is not isolation. The early churches practiced a fullness of fellowship, cooperation, mutual assistance, and communication. There was a sense of being one body under one Lord.”[4]

The church was strong when they stood together. The church was a force that pushed through pagan persecution and very dark days—because they stood as one. The message of unity and oneness is forward in the New Testament, and with good reason. Yes, each congregation should have its own elders and answer only to Christ. But beyond that, there must be a unity. We should be working together; we should know one another’s needs. We should know when another is struggling. We should be there to help in struggles. When a surrounding congregation rejoices, we should rejoice, when they suffer, we suffer as well—one body.

[1] John Waddey, ed., Introducing the Church of Christ (Forth Worth, TX: Star Bible, 1981), 73-4.

[2] Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ; A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 345.

[3] Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 345.

[4] Ferguson, The Church of Christ, 345.