No, I don’t think so. I think there are degrees of autonomy and that we have defined it in a completely untenable way, a way that diminishes our ability to enjoy community, to fellowship, to partner in the gospel, perhaps even to extend grace to the whole Body of Christ.
Restoration Movement churches, all branches, practice congregational autonomy, meaning that each congregation is self-governing. Restoration churches are not the only autonomous churches. Baptist churches are also autonomous, as are some Lutheran churches, Presbyterian churches, and many in the independent church movement from the evangelical world.
While the more biblically conservative of these groups would base their doctrine of congregational autonomy on Scripture texts, these arguments are based primarily on the silence of the New Testament about church organization and on assumptions that instructions given to one set of church leaders like those in Acts 20:28 to “keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” were restricted to one congregation—even though these instructions were given to elders of the church for the city of Ephesus.
To make this apostolic directive work in our modern practice, we have to assume a single, autonomous “congregation” of the church in Ephesus where Paul spent two years preaching and teaching, and where it was said he had converted “large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia” (Acts 19:26). I think it is difficult to imagine one autonomous congregation for all of Ephesus, a city with perhaps as many as 200,000 people, as well as the whole province of Asia, at least as we practice congregational autonomy in 2014.
Honestly, those among us who argue for one “church” with the potential for many gatherings in a single city seem to me to have more biblical examples to which to appeal. Do we really think that each “house church” of the first century (Romans 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15) was organized autonomously?
Speaking of “house churches,” one of my favorite litmus tests to apply when I’m trying to figure out if something is really truth or tradition is to ask whether it works for missionaries in different cultures. For instance, take the situation with the current flourish of New Testament Christianity in China, a place where Christians gather mostly in groups of 30 or less in small apartments throughout their cities. Are each of these small gatherings a “congregation” or what? Does each house need elders and deacons to be a true church? If you are having trouble answering that question at all, then wouldn’t you agree that their situation is more similar to the first century church than our current American organizational structure?
Another phenomenon that is going to challenge the belief that autonomous congregations is the only biblical model is the rapid expansion of multi-site churches here in the United States.
Leadership Network recently reported more than 8,000 multi-site churches in the United States. A multi-site church has either planted new outpost congregations or has agreed to assume the oversight of a struggling or failing congregation but leaves them in their own building. In every case, the leadership of the original congregation continues to operate as the leaders of all of the new campuses (a newer word than congregation but it means the same thing!). If you are inclined to fear slippery slopes, you have already imagined one set of church leaders over a “diocese” of city churches or regional churches or who knows where that could lead…..if you are inclined to slippery slopes.
To these people I would ask, what makes one group of people part of another group of people? Is it proximity? Is it what building they meet in? (That can’t be right because many of our autonomous congregations have other autonomous congregations meeting in their building—often just because they are of another language!) Do groups vote on it? What about that group of college students that meets out in the campus ministry building instead of with the regular congregation? What about that new church plant that won’t have mature leaders for five years? Are they autonomous?
Autonomy is getting harder and harder to really define, isn’t it!
You may not have this impression from what I’ve said so far, but I personally really think that congregational autonomy is really a wonderful form of church polity, but perhaps we have fallen into the same trap that the Jews fell into in trying to define working on the Sabbath. How many steps could one take? Can you get your sheep out of the ditch? Can you pick ears of corn on the Sabbath? Can you eat the holy bread in the tabernacle like David did?
Jesus answered this question for the Jews in Mark 2:27: Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
What do you think this response means in light of dealing with issues of church autonomy? Jesus did not demean or diminish the command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but He did not let the Jews define it in particular. He is the Lord of the Sabbath—and of autonomy.