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Autonomy of the Local Church


This article is part of our current article and Text-Driven Podcast series, "Distinctly Baptist."


Does your church have business meetings? If so, who is in charge? Does your church have a budget? If so, who decides if the budget is too high or too low? Does your church have a calendar of events? If so, who makes the decision as to what should be scheduled and what should not be scheduled? The answers to all of these questions and so many more that are related help to define church governance.


Every church has a governing structure. Your church, my church, every church is governed in a particular manner. The differences in governance among churches are what has created denominational structures. For instance, catholic churches have a governance structure that is very different from Methodist churches. Baptist churches have a different governance structure than Presbyterian churches. Related to governance is cooperation. How churches relate to one another will be a direct correlation to what they believe about church governance.


The goal of this article is to outline the biblical position that autonomy is God’s design for local church governance. This goal will be accomplished by answering several questions: 1) What are other views of church governance? 2) What is the Baptist view of church governance? and 3) Why is autonomy essential for local churches?


What are other views of church governance?

The technical term for our discussion of church governance is the term “church polity.” When talking about church polity or governance, we are really having a conversation about authority and structure. When thinking about the different types of governance practiced in churches, a good resource was published by Zondervan in their Counterpoints Series entitled, Who Runs the Church?


The four views of church governance are discussed and each contributing author provides their critique of the various positions. Here are the four main views of church governance: 1) Episcopalianism, 2) Presbyterianism, 3) Single-Elder Congregationalism, and 4) Plural-Elder Congregationalism. Time limits us from a full discussion of each view on church governance; therefore, I will provide a short overview of two of the different positions.


Episcopalianism

The first differing view of local church autonomy is Episcopalianism. Denominations under this category would be those who view that there is a specific episcopate that descended throughout centuries by virtue of apostolic succession. This would include groups like the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, and Anglican Churches.


Because of apostolic succession, local congregations are under a hierarchical structure. The hierarchical structure particularly relates to those having authority over the congregation. The highest authority, in terms of holiness and divine order, would be the bishop who comes from apostolic succession. Therefore, each local congregation is not “free” to decide her own practices. Instead, those practices are decided by another of greater holiness.


Presbyterianism

Very closely related to Episcopalianism is Presbyterianism. The congregations following a Presbyterian form of church governance would be Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Those subscribing to a Presbyterian form of church governance would maintain a hierarchical structure, also. However, the distinguishing mark of the Presbyterian hierarchy would be the absence of apostolic succession. Those practicing a Presbyterian government would not see leadership as holding a greater amount of holiness.


The hierarchy within the Presbyterian governance structure views clergy leadership as being ontologically different from the congregation due to their teleological responsibilities. Because the clergy has leadership responsibilities, they are fundamentally different from the rest of the congregation. Therefore, the congregation sits below the clergy.


Both Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, invoke a hierarchical structure for church governance. The congregation is ontologically lower than the clergy. The clergy is the chief authority in those two governance structure. Therefore, each congregation is not able to exercise autonomy. Instead, they are bound to the direction of the hierarchical clergy.


What is the Baptist View of Church Governance?

As we discussed in our previous article, the highest authority for the church is God. Every church is God’s church. God has distinctly made Himself known by revelation. This particular revelation is Scripture. Any church that has God as its highest authority would at the same time have Scripture as the highest authority. Having Scripture as the highest authority in a church demonstrates one of the central tenets of being a Baptist. Baptist churches put Scripture at the top because Scripture is God’s Word.


Thinking through the question, what is the Baptist view of church governance, is a question that seeks to know what Scripture says about church governance. We must not forget that to be a Baptist church means that you are a church that follows the authority of God revealed in Scripture. Scripture is not unclear when it comes to church governance. The Bible teaches that churches are independent, autonomous congregations that seek to accomplish the work of the Great Commission through going, baptizing, and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, and Acts 2:41-47).

In the previous section, we saw that the differing views of local autonomy were because of the hierarchical structure–the clergy was higher than the congregation. Therefore, in order to defend the position of local church autonomy (i.e. congregationalism), we must see clearly in Scripture two truths: 1) The congregation and clergy are on equal footing and 2) The congregation is responsible for the church governance of officers and members.


The Congregation and Clergy are Equal

To help us think about how the congregation and clergy are equal in position, we will need to look at a case study from the Jerusalem Church in Acts 6. This passage is familiar. The growth of the church had produced a problem among the members of the church. The number of widows that needed to be cared for through the weekly distribution led to a group of widows being neglected. The leaders of the church identified the problem and provided leadership recommendations (Acts 6:2-4). The congregation heard the leadership proposal and responded favorably (Acts 6:5). It is important to note that the congregation’s response was not done by coercion from the church leaders; instead, the congregation was “pleased” with the recommendation and gave subsequent approval. Then, we are told that the congregation chose the men who would be responsible for managing the daily distribution of goods to the widows (Acts 6:5b).


From Acts 6, we can deduce that the congregation and the church leadership were equal in their positions. Each group was dependent upon the other. Neither group exercised their role in a manner that would be misconstrued as being hierarchical.


Congregations of Members and Officers

A simple way to see local autonomy is to look at the responsibility of the church for the record-keeping of church membership. Acts 2:41 says, “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them.” This begs the question, who is them? The “them” that is being referred to in Acts 2:41 were those first followers of Jesus who were in the upper room in Jerusalem awaiting the Holy Spirit. The new believers are being counted alongside the apostles (i.e. church leaders) as being part of the same group.


Along this same line of thinking is in the instructions of Paul to Timothy. In 1 Timothy, Paul helps Timothy set the church in order (1 Timothy 3:15). Within the same chapter, Paul instructs Timothy concerning the qualifications for a pastor and deacon. The setting in order of the church involved the pastors and deacons. Therefore, the congregation included both members and leadership. All are seen as part of the church.


The reason Acts 2 and 1 Timothy 3 are important for this discussion is because it provides evidence for the claim that local churches are responsible for their members and leadership. If local churches are responsible for their members and leaders then there is no ecclesiastical governing authority over them. Each congregation is responsible for itself.


Why is autonomy essential for local churches?

You might be thinking what is the point? Why does it matter that local churches be autonomous? As with each article in this series, the first answer to those questions remains the same. Autonomy is important for local churches because that is what Scripture teaches. If Scripture is important, then following Scripture must also be important. Therefore, for a church to be biblical it needs to be autonomous.


On a practical side, local church autonomy guards God’s people from bad doctrine. Think through this with me for a moment. If churches are not autonomous, then doctrine is not guarded at the local level, but rather it is guarded at the top of the hierarchy. For instance, the members of the Roman Catholic Church have no recourse for correcting bad doctrine that is taught by the Vatican. This is true not only for the Roman Catholic Church; this is true for those subscribing to the Episcopalian or Presbyterian model of church governance. Truly the only members who have authority to reject false teaching are those who are members of Baptist churches.


Scripture teaches that doctrine is held and protected by the church. Paul instructed Timothy, “But if I should be delayed, I have written so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Every church has an obligation before God to guard the Sacred Scriptures and to teach what is in accordance with the Scriptures. If a pastor teaches what is not in agreement with Scripture, then the church has the authority to correct the pastor. God gave each local church body the responsibility to protect doctrine.


What should you do as a church member to make sure that you are guarding doctrine? Let me give you some practical things you can do:

  1. Read your Bible. Make it a habit to read through the Bible every year. You can not protect that which you are not familiar with yourself.

  2. Study your Bible. Learn how to interpret Scripture correctly.

  3. Go to church. How can you protect the church from swerving doctrinally when you are not involved yourself?

  4. Pray for your pastor. God has assigned him the responsibility to preach the Word. Pray that God’s Spirit guides him as he studies each week to preach on the Lord’s Day.

  5. Disciple others in the church. What you learn personally through the sermons and your personal study should be taught to others. Matthew 28 tells us to teach all that God has commanded us.

These five practical actions will help you guard your church from false doctrine and demonstrate local church autonomy.



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The "Distinctly Baptist" series will also be on the Text-Driven Podcast. You can listen to the Text-Driven Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or at www.textdriven.org/podcasts.


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