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Congregational Autonomy

by Tim O'Hearn

One of the principal differences between the churches of Christ of the Restoration Movement and the Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, and the Protestant groups coming from those traditions is the question of congregational autonomy. This is the concept that each congregation of the church is independent of all others, with no higher authority other than the scriptures themselves, autonomy being from two words meaning self rule. The opposite concept usually involves a person or group who have authority to make rules for several congregations or the church worldwide. (The Orthodox churches do grant autonomous status to some congregations, but even that status is granted by the hierarchy of the church.) Do those who follow a hierarchical government in the church have any support for their way, or is it simply based on tradition.

Many preachers would have us believe that the development of the Papacy, for instance, can be directly traced to one man or a group of men selfishly wanting the preeminence in the church. In truth, however, the practice likely developed more honestly. In an area where there were a number of new congregations, one older congregation would be looked to for guidance. Over time, an elder in that congregation would, for the good of the congregations, assume (perhaps in spite of his own objections) a leadership role over all the congregations. As this occurs in several areas, a group of these men would meet together to discuss problems. Thus a board of elders comes to make rules for a larger area or country. Naturally, these men would look to the scriptures to find out if what they are doing can be found there. So we need to look at some of the possible scriptural justifications they may have used.

Arguments Against Autonomy

One does not need to look far in the book of Acts to find a scriptural example of churches seeking advice from another, older area congregation. Chapter 15 is an account of Paul and Barnabas travelling from Antioch to Jerusalem to consult with the "Apostles and elders" about the question of requiring Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Some might argue that this is a case of appealing only to the apostles, who obviously had special authority. Verses 2, 4, 6, 22, and 23 clearly include the Apostles and the elders, and in one of those verses "the whole church." It would seem, then, that this would be a precedent for the rulers of one congregation to exercise authority over another congregation.

On closer analysis however, this fails to qualify as such a justification. Why were Paul (himself an Apostle) and Barnabas sent to Jerusalem? It wasn't because the Jerusalem church was considered to have authority over the church in the third largest city of the Roman Empire. The explanation can be found in the Jerusalem church's response. In verse 24, their letter to the Antioch church begins: "Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds." The Antioch church sent an embassage to Jerusalem to find out whether certain individuals were preaching what that congregation really believed. As it turned out, they were not. The "conference of Jerusalem" was not to determine doctrine for the whole church, but rather to clarify what they themselves believed.

The second argument for a hierarchy would be "apostolic succession," the idea that the Apostles passed their special authority on to others so they could continue to make decisions for the church throughout time. In the Roman church this authority is passed down specifically to the spiritual heir of Peter. The justification for this is found in Acts 1. In verses 21-22, Peter argues that someone must be named to take the place of Judas as "a witness with us to his resurrection." If Judas was replaced after Jesus' death, then would not also the other Apostles be replaced when they died? If these successors moved to different parts of the world, as tradition says they did, then would they not exercise authority over certain regions, as do the Metropolitans of the Orthodox church?

That would possibly be true if: (1) the qualifications for Judas' replacement related to the exercise of authority; and (2) the authority and power of the Apostles was capable of being passed on. Let us see if either or both of these conditions exist.

What were the qualifications of a replacement for Judas? "So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." (Acts 1:21-22) The qualifications, and the reason for them, specifically related to being able to serve as a witness to the resurrection. The man had to have accompanied them throughout their time with the Lord Jesus. This had nothing to do with passing on any special authority to make laws for the church, but the fulfilling of scripture. In fact, these qualifications would disqualify anyone from apostolic succession past the latter part of the first century. No one in the past 1900 years can meet the qualifications.

Were the Apostles even able to pass on any special authority or power? With the exception of this possible instance, there is nothing in scripture that would indicate anything, affirmative or negative, about the ability of the Apostles to pass on special authority. Lacking that evidence, we must look at whether they could pass on even one special aspect of being an apostle. The most obvious special power they had was the ability to impart the gifts of the Holy Spirit to others. If they could pass this along, it could be argued that they could pass along other authority as well. If they could not pass along this ability, it is questionable whether they could pass on any other special authority.

The scripture that tells us that the apostles could give others the ability to perform miraculous spiritual gifts can also be used to show that they could not pass on that special gift. In Acts 8:3, we see that Philip had the power to perform "signs and great miracles." Obviously he could not give that power to others, because Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem and imparted the power. Verses 18 and 19 read: "Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money," saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit."" He did not ask Philip to sell him this power, because Philip showed he could not pass on even what power he had. Only the Apostles (and presumably Cornelius and his household later) could lay their hands on someone and give them the gifts. If they could not pass that ability on to Philip, we may also presume that they could not pass on their authority as apostles. So we see that apostolic succession never existed (and coincidentally that the ability to perform miraculous gifts could not have existed beyond the next generation after the death of the Apostles themselves).

Congregational Autonomy

Simply showing that the scriptures do not justify a church government in which certain individuals or congregations have authority over several congregations does not, in itself, mean that that form of government is unscriptural, just that it is non-scriptural. Can we show that each congregation was self-ruling, autonomous? I think we can.

The obvious plan of government was for each mature congregation to have elders (also called bishops, pastors, or presbyters). Acts 14:23 states that Paul appointed elders in "each church." Titus was to appoint elders in every town of Crete (Titus 1:5). These elders were given authority only in the towns (congregations) where they were appointed. That they did not have authority over several congregations is obvious from the phrases "each church" and "every town." In fact, we know that some congregations (Jerusalem, Ephesus), if not all, had a plurality of elders. This alone would argue against one bishop being over several congregations.

It has been a tradition eighteen hundred years in the making that someone outside the local congregation should rule the church. But God ordained otherwise. Congregational autonomy guarantees that one group falling away from the truth doesn't take everyone with them. As one Rabbi from Poland said after his whole village got electric lights: "Before this, when one kerosene lamp was empty, everyone else had light. Now when the power goes out in my house, everyone else is in the dark, too."