No subject has provoked so much thought over the years of testimony, as the one that we are considering in this article. To ask the question, “Is the local assembly autonomous?” will in these days draw forth a variety of answers. Not everyone accepts that an affirmative answer complies with New Testament teaching. Some may concede to a relative form of autonomy. It is therefore essential that we come to the Word of God and make a fresh inquiry into its teaching on this vital issue.
Christendom will not aid our inquiry, except to veer us away to the variable forms of centralized control, which have multiplied under its pretext of unity. Nor will a review of early “brethren” practices offer acceptable guidance. Sadly, it was on this very subject that those blessed early days of recovered testimony and truth were quickly overcast with division and discord. Central control appeared, for it attracts and offers a ready answer to issues not easily settled. Any form of centralized government among assemblies of the saints is but a reflection of the identifiable features of Babylon. Much of this obtains in assembly testimony today, sad to say. Under the label of protecting property, organizing funds, distributing of gifts, huge enterprises have developed, something which in effect, ultimately leads to central control, if not held in proper restraint.
An assembly, having its own responsible brethren who are capable of attending to the spiritual needs of the flock, should surely be wholly responsible for its property. The control of the material ought to be in the hands of the spiritual. With this in view, local trusts, conforming as they do to the principle of assembly autonomy, are both acceptable and practical rather than either central or regional foundations.
Some servants working in foreign lands, where their desire has been to control the work of the Lord, have left a tragic legacy. Many beloved saints were not brought to appreciate the precious liberty they have in the Lord, or even to understand that this liberty extends to the spiritual and practical independency of the assembly. Hence they were deprived of exercising their responsibilities to the full, due to imposed schemes which were contrived to control both their actions and their thinking. Missionary men were arbitrarily accorded power of attorney by foundations that actually were handed ownership of assembly property. They could speak of “holding the key,” which acted as a threat to any action of which they did not approve even though such an action was the united decision of the assembly concerned. As result of this, the concept of assembly autonomy was obliterated, if indeed, it ever existed in the regions concerned. There is no point in decrying the unprincipled actions and unscriptural practices of Christendom, while among us as assemblies of the Lords people such practices are prevalent.
THE TRUTH OF INDEPENDENCY.
By “independency” we simply mean, “self-government,” a truth which is vital to assembly testimony. The opposite of this is what we have been discussing above: confederation, which involves the government of others. As a principle it derives its basis from the scriptural concept of what is generally termed, the local church, or if it be more preferable, the church in a locality, such as the “church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2). Most are aware that in the NT there are two aspects of the use of the word “church” which relate to the subject. There is the Dispensational aspect (Matt 16: 18) which is confirmed by the use the apostle makes of the same word in his Epistle to the Ephesians where he uses the word nine times. Then there is the Local aspect (Matt 18: 15 – 20) which is clearly discernible in the writings of Paul to the Corinthians, for example. The concept of a universal church, or a national or a regional church, composed of member churches, does not enter into the framework of divine revelation. Nothing in the epistles conveys the idea that the church is made up of a plurality of churches. Therefore the Scriptures know nothing of a “unity” maintained by ecclesiastical measures that establish an inter-church organization. The truth of independency is recognized in an assembly that stands wholly responsible to the Lord for the exercise of its gift and government, its services and its sanctions. It acts corporately as being responsive to Heaven ( Matt 18:18 See Mr. Newberrys tense signs, indicating that it is not heaven acknowledging what earth has done, but rather, earth conforming to what heaven has already done).
The Proof of Independency is to be found in Revelation chapters 1 to 3. Here the churches, which were located throughout the area as testimonies to the risen Lord, are viewed as lampstands. The character of the testimony in Israels day is reflected in the seven-branched lampstand of the Tabernacle, ten of which, too, were in the Temple later. The lampstands in Revelation, however, are individual and independent assemblies, each wholly and directly responsible to the One who is described as “walking among the seven golden lampstands.” It is contributory to a proper assessment of the subject to observe that the word “church” is in the plural throughout these three chapters. Had there been a confederation, the singular form would have obtained, but it is “churches,” else the message would have been as one, but again it is “messages.” Had centralization existed, the respective churches would have been responsible to a representative body legislating for the region, which obtains in practically every form of Christendom today. Again, the removal of a church would have been the action of the controlling body, with centralized power to act. It is true that an individual believer can be “put out” of an assembly, but an assembly is part of no visible body from which it can be expelled under the welcome terms of the truth of God in the New Testament. Obviously, had the opposite existed, then the term “church of Asia” would be appropriate under such provisions, but this is not the language of the Spirit of God. It is the “churches of Asia.”
The Practice of Independency is an open condemnation of every form of confederacy. To explain: Confederation is a permanent union for the purpose of common external action. What is the Basis of Confederation? It finds its origin in the concept that the Church is to have a visible unity on earth. If this is to be realized and maintained, local churches must unite and those failing to comply will be expelled or will no longer be recognized. G. V. Wigram on seeing the first print of a list of assemblies, said, “It sounds the death knell of the truth.” The work with which the writer has been happily associated in the country of labor for forty-five years does not appear on any existent list of assembly address books nationally. Are we then non-existent? The comforting factor must surely be, He knows our location. What is the Bane of Confederation? It has brought into existence organized Christendom. It did not commence yesterday. Its historical beginnings reach back into the sub-apostolic period. That the reader may have recourse into valued evidence of this intrusion in primitive church life, the writer recommends, if he may, a book by Edwin Hatch (1889) called The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, which was boycotted by the Anglican System. The late Mr. Frank Holmes, who was a cleric in the aforementioned system, spoke of the invaluable help this book offered him at a time when he was exercised about gathering to the Lords name outside the camp. The Banishment of Confederation is sure. The day will come when heaven will ring with the triumphant cry, “Babylon the Great is fallen.”
The Preservative Power of Independency is manifest in an assemblys maintenance of that scriptural path of testimony. It preserves remarkably from political interference. Once something huge appears, it attracts the eye of those that are hostile to the truth of God. What has outlived the massive organized systems in countries where open opposition to the testimony is rife, has been the simple local church approach.
THE TESTS OF INDEPENDENCY
There are at least three issues that test the practice of Independency.
1. The Matter of Disagreement
The only link that exists between assemblies is a spiritual fellowship because of kindred thought, teaching, and practice. Often some measure of disagreement arises, which can test the relationship between assemblies, especially those in a particular area. Naturally, a tendency to swift action urges some form of arbitrary excision. Remember, though, that there is nothing from which an assembly can be excised. On the other hand, no principle should be compromised just so that links can be maintained. Love would seek at all costs, except that of principle, to promote and to preserve relations with such as are gathered to the Lords name.
2. The Matter of Discipline
Discipline is the prerogative of each independent assembly (Matt 18:18; 1 Cor 5:4 – 5) and must be exercised according to the Word of God. Whether it be so, or not, the particular assembly involved stands wholly responsible to the Lord for its action. If, however, discipline is carried out without regard to Scriptural principles, after a thorough and careful evaluation, other assemblies may feel that such action is unworthy of recognition, and refuse to honor it. They are also acting in responsibility to the Lord. It is just at this point that the whole framework of independency rests and is often tested. To resort to excision is both unjust and unscriptural and without precedent in the New Testament. When John the apostle and his followers were ostracized by the despotic Diotrephes, were they left high and dry without the sympathetic fellowship of other assemblies? The wise judge otherwise.
3. The Matter of Doctrine
Even were an assembly to go beyond the bounds of truth, there is no ground for excision. Such an assembly stands responsible to the Lord. If, however, the conscience of another assembly feels there can no longer be inter-assembly activity or fellowship, then it acts according to its responsibility before the Lord. But, to form a group or circle of fellowship of assemblies and cut off another assembly is neither scriptural nor spiritual. Admittedly, the tests of independency are great.
THE TESTIMONY OF INDEPENDENCY
It reveals Gods purpose for testimony. Seven is a symbolic number; it stands for completeness. Certainly it has to be acknowledged that God saw the nations could be fully evangelized by local churches. Hence the “seven churches of Asia,” for surely there were more than this in the area mentioned. The number symbolizes the sufficiency of assembly testimony if only it were recognized. Therefore, independent companies of Gods People act as light-bearers to a dark world around them.
It restricts mans power in the testimony. The existence of a confederate grouping provides prestige, power, and peril to men and ultimately produces a Pope.
It refutes the worlds scorn of the testimony. Its judgment is that the body is divided. Never! It is “bodies” that are divided. Our mutual responsibility, beloved reader, is to the unity of the local assembly and to the upholding of an already existing unity no power will ever destroy, that being, the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3).
It retains Christs Sovereignty. He is Lord. No one else dare displace Him. As He moves amongst the seven golden lampstands, the respective assembly is totally responsible to Him. Beloved, let us Regard His Position, Receive His Proposals, Rejoice in His Promise, and Respond to His Pledge.
The spiritual relationship that exists between assemblies is clearly demonstrated in several passages of the New Testament. The “churches of Macedonia” found a unity in Action (2 Cor 8:1). There was a mutual experience of the grace of God of which their liberal effusion was characteristic of each of the churches. Their common spiritual exercise was preceded by a similar devotional adherence to the will of God in corporate surrender both to the Lord and to the apostles. When such a spiritual oneness prevails there is proper inter-assembly fellowship. The “churches of God” are viewed as being united in Agreement. They had but one standard of practice in the matter of headship which was revealed not only in the uncovered head of the man, which breeds no option surely, but also in the covering of the woman, which in many places has become strangely optional, if practiced at all. Paul would have real difficulty today in refuting his disclaimer that not one church would dissent from his judgment (1 Cor 11:16). Paul affirms the Affection of “churches of Asia” in their salutation, while in 11 Thess 2:1 – 4 there is unity in Affliction. By his address to the “churches in Galatia,” Paul indicates there is a unity in Admonition and finally, with Revelation chapters 1 – 3 in mind, the seven churches of Asia are united in Appraisal. These Scriptures provide us with clear evidence that oneness is a reality to be experienced while never contradicting the truth of assembly autonomy.