What is an autonomous, local church, and why is it so important?
by David R. Cox
DEFINITION OF AN AUTONOMOUS, LOCAL CHURCH: We may define a local church as a group of truly redeemed (saved) individuals which congregate and organize themselves in accordance with the biblical mandate to do the will and work of God. A local church is autonomous when they have made the decision and have a strongly held conviction that in order to be obedient, they must have the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority, as it teaches, guides, and directs them in the all important issue of what is God’s will and work, and how it is to be done. Likewise they believe that God has placed the Holy Spirit in each believer, and if that believer is obedient to the leading of God in his life, he can understand God’s will. This is a decision that the people of a local church will make for themselves. In this decision, they have ceased from “taking orders” or “following somebody else’s religion”. They hold that God’s Word is their guide and authority, and that God uses godly men in that particular fellowship to lead, guide and do the work of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit in their godly lives.
In being autonomous, they actively and aggressively refuse to allow any other influence in dominating their understanding of God’s will, or influencing, guiding, directing, or otherwise affecting their development and execution of God’s will and work. This especially means that they reject hierarchal structures such as dominations or other structures outside of their local church that has authority to dictate to that local church their affairs.
WHAT AUTHORITIES AND INFLUENCES WE REJECT:
(1) Specifically, we reject denominations, fellowships, religious organizations, religious social relationships, and any other kind of situation where people OUTSIDE of their own local church (not saved members of that particular church, and that church alone) put their orders, commands, influence, or suggestions in a light and power superior to what God teaches these Christians in this local church. In other words, others can speak, express opinions, and exposit God’s word on matters, but nobody has authority within the inner workings of this particular local church.
Church fellowships – Although church fellowships are not supposed to be organized for control, sometimes they eventually become controling structures. We reject this mentality of “follow the leader”, and comparison of churches to churches, following what others are doing because it is popular. We believe that brethern can be greatly benefitted by fellowship, but for encouragement purposes.
Unfortunately, modern Christianity has allowed itself to be moved, influenced and guided by factors other than legitimate God ordered factors (see below – How a church governs itself).
(2) Specifically, we reject traditions and past practices as an authority over us.
This includes civil authorities. In matters of civil law, the church complies in every way possible, but when civil law conflicts with what God tells them to do, then as obedient Christians they find it impossible to submit to these civil authorities on this point and will gladly suffer for their Christian faith.
(1) The Word of God, Holy Scriptures – Our first and greatest authority is the Word of God, properly understood and exegeted. By this, we must also understand and abide by the Harmony of Scriptures, which states that God in no place will contradict Himself in His word and His commands. This means God will not give a command to do something, and then command us not to do it. This also includes abiding by an understanding of the progress of Scripture, that God does not deal with all people in all times equally. What God demanded of the Old Testament Jew is not what God demands of a modern Christian, for example, yearly animal sacrifice of all men in the temple in Jerusalem. But although God’s particular dealing may change from age to age, and from culture to culture (Paul’s eating of meats okay for the Corinthians but not binding on other Christians or women wearing veils), God will make clear in the Word of God this change (the book of Hebrews deals with the setting aside of the Old Testament system for a different one, the New Testament). Moreover, we understand that God has eternal principles that never change (such as holiness, mercy, kindness, etc), and these principles are worked out in different forms in different ages and cultures.
(2) The conscience of a man of God – We understand that when a Christian is saved, and then dedicates his life to obeying God, that God will lead him into all truth. This is a valid way in which God speaks to us, and guides us, especially in the context of a local church.
KJV John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
KJV John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, thatshall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
KJV 1 John 2:27 But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.
KJV Jeremiah 31:33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
KJV Hebrews 8:10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: 11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
We understand that the clear statements and teachings of Scripture cannot be set aside by the “conscience” of a man of God, because the Scriptures will always hold a higher place of authority than any man’s conscience. But in the practical outworking of the principles of God, it is of great importance and utility that we respect the views and convictions of those holy men of God that God has placed among us to serve us.
But this is conditioned on a few important factors: (1) the man of God must be one of our particular church, not exterior and foreign to us. We must see his daily life and walk, his relationship with his spouse and family, and his personal testimony in the community first hand. In being a man of God, he should fulfill all the requirements laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 for a man in the position of oversight. (2) This man of God must truly be a man of God. In other words he must manifest a spiritual life over a period of time such that his testimony and life can be verified. (3) This man of God must have sound doctrine. This means that he must not walk in doctrinal errors.
KJV Colossians 4:6 Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.
Soul Liberty – This is simply the fact that God has placed every man solely responsible to God for his own actions, doctrine, and ultimately the disposition of his soul (salvation). No man is subject or to be submissive to another man’s conscience. Each person must understand FOR HIMSELF what God has said in His Word, and obey from personal knowledge and understanding, not because others understand it and command others to obey them.
QUESTIONING IS CORRECT – We also recognize that each and every individual within the local church has a valid right to question the doctrines and practices and methodologies of the church, and express their consent or disconsent with it. Those who can buttress their viewpoints with sound exposition of doctrine will be given greater weight. (We also understand that this is not to be done by the women of the church, but if they have a question, they are to ask or express that to their husbands, the spiritual leaders of their homes, and he is to take appropriate action. Obedient Christians hold that it is a shame for a woman to teach, direct, preach, or question in the church.)
Personal Convictions, and Tripping up a Brother – We fully understand that God provides different experiences and backgrounds for every Christian, and God has His purposes in doing this. We do not “discount” those who have different views on issues than our own. We respect them and give them the liberty to own their own convictions without them being wrong, nor our convictions being wrong. (Paul’s issue with the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 8 is that the meat offered to idols is not a valid Christian doctrine. Doctrinally they are not on biblical footing. But if they so desired to observe that custom because of their past involved with that false religion, it is perfectly alright, and while Paul will personally have the liberty to eat meat offered to idols, he will defer that liberty because he understands the exercise of his Christian liberty may cause others to be tripped up into sin.) Therefore, there is an obvious variation between brethren as to what may be right or not depending on their own personal background, life, and views, and neither is to lord over the other. We are to respect weaker brethren, and we are to hold to strong convictions ourselves as the outworking of our own understanding of the principles of God. (We note though that the brethren with the more restrictive standards in this case were the weaker brethren who did not have true biblical grounds for those convictions.)
KJV 1 Peter 3:16 Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.
(3) Godly leadership – Furthermore, they will follow the New Testament mandate and pattern of establishing men of God in leadership positions over their church, but they will refuse to allow any of these men, or any man or men in their church to fulfill their own individual will in the matters of the will and work of God when it adversely affects, is disobedient to, or manifests a disregard for what the Scriptures clearly indicate as God’s will and work. The congregation must be watchful of the activities and doctrines of their own church. This does not mean that they do not follow the leadership of the men of God that God has placed over them, but it does mean when these leaders break from God’s Scriptures, there are consequences. The leadership of the church must give an account to all men as to God (KJV 2 Corinthians 8:21 Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men.), and if improprieties exist, then questions are asked and if these answers do not satisfy the questions, then investigations are launched. Ultimately, an autonomous church has the right to remove those in leadership over them if there is just cause (disobedience to God’s commands, or error in doctrine).