Thursday, May 01, 2008

Church Autonomy

I just finished an article for my column in reIGNITED (a quarterly magazine for Christian Churches in Canada. Beauty, eh?). I thought I would share it here:

Restoration Movement churches have been described as nondenominational or independent or locally autonomous. What do those terms mean? Occasionally I meet someone who is interested in learning more about the church I serve. He might say, “Tell me about your church.” I have discovered that using those descriptors usually leaves the person more confused than enlightened. Explaining the structure of locally independent churches that are part of a loosely-knit fellowship or brotherhood is not as easy as one might think.

Our Restoration Movement forefathers were not seeking to start another denomination. They saw the problems inherent with a hierarchical structure in which the average church member often had little influence. Their back-to-the-Bible philosophy prompted scores of congregations to sever their denominational ties and become independent Christian churches.

Locally autonomy brings several wonderful advantages to a congregation. First, the church is led by elders (pastors) who know the congregation and the community. The apostle Paul told Titus, “Appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). In the book of Acts and in some of the epistles we find references to local church leaders. These leaders prayerfully determine the direction and vision for the congregation. They also help ensure that the church stays on course doctrinally.

Another benefit comes in the area of missions support. Rather than sending missions funds to the denominational headquarters to be distributed to missionaries with whom the congregation has little relationship, the church decides at the local level whom it wishes wish to support. It develops a personal connection with the missionaries and parachurch organizations, sometimes sending church members on short-term mission trips. It can also respond directly to specific needs (as in Acts 11). There is also good stewardship to consider. Funds go to the specific mission, rather than also feeding the denominational “machine” (buildings, personnel, etc.).

Another important advantage is that the church is free to practice its faith without fear of outside interference. It is independent of any governing authority (other than the Lord and the Word of God) dictating what it will believe and practice. The congregation can allow the Bible alone to serve as its only rule of faith and practice. Its leaders can implement Restoration Movement principles as they lead people in to a growing relationship with the Lord.

With this emphasis on independence, perhaps a word of caution is in order. Restoration Movement churches have sometimes been guilty of being “too independent.” Local autonomy is wonderfully biblical. But the local church is part of the larger, universal body of Christ. New Testament churches frequently helped one another and partnered with each other in spreading the gospel. The Apostle Peter tell us to, “love the brotherhood of believers” (1 Peter 2:17). Even in our independence, let’s be the kind of people our fellow believers can depend on.


KEith Wood said...

Well said and worth saying.

David H. Willis said...

Worth saying and well said.

Jim said...

A saying of worth said well.