What do we mean by the “autonomy” of a local assembly?
The word “autonomy” is not found in our New Testament. The Oxford Dictionary says: “The right of self-government; a self-governing country or region; freedom from external control or influence; independence.” The word is derived from early 17th century Greek, autonomia, meaning “having its own laws.” We see that the definition does leave something to be desired. An assembly is not “self-governed,” nor does it have “its own laws.” Perhaps the third section is more what believers have in mind when they use the word “autonomy” — being governed without external control or influence.
Although the word is not present in our Bible, the principle of autonomy is seen in Revelation 1-3. We find the seven churches of Asia in 1:11, and then we see the Lord Jesus Himself “in the midst of the seven candlesticks” (v13). In verse 20 the Lord Jesus speaks of the “seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks,” being the angels of the seven churches and the seven churches themselves. It is precious to see that He walks among them, and, at the same time, He holds them in His hand, illustrating both His communion with them and His control over them.
The most important link for a local church is with the Lord Jesus Himself. He is the Head of the Church (Eph 4:15), and each local assembly is responsible to Him. For this reason, the idea of “self-government” is not correct. He rules, and His Word reigns supreme. The only authority in the assembly is derived from His authority and that of His Word.
Due to their link with the risen Lord, they have a link with each other. All illustrations have limitations, but we could think about the spokes on a wheel, with the Lord Jesus being in the center and the local assemblies being the outside of the wheel, interconnected only due to their connection with the Lord Jesus Himself.
Overseers in each local church are responsible to the Lord alone for the decisions that they make in the fear of God. For this reason, assemblies do not have, nor do they require, a “board of elders” that makes decisions in a certain region. There are no committees or councils, but rather, Christ-like men in each assembly who guide their respective flocks. We find this in Paul’s calling together in Miletus the elders from Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38). Their responsibility was to “take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock … feed the church of God;” their responsibility was in their own local church.
There is fellowship between local churches that seek to follow the precepts and the principles of the Word of God. Luke writes of Paul and Barnabas taking relief from Antioch to the needy believers in Judea and handing it over to the elders (Acts 11:27-30). We see in Acts 14:27 that Paul and Barnabas return again to Antioch and “rehearsed all that God had done with them.” There did not exist the idea of a “mother church,” but there was a measure of fellowship between the assemblies.
There may be differences in the way that some principles are carried out due to culture or circumstances, but one assembly ought not to try to influence another assembly in these differences. We can be quick to judge another local church in their practices, but we do well to remember that they are responsible to the Lord, and not to another local assembly. We need to respect the autonomy of the other assembly. The oversight of each local assembly is accountable to the Lord Jesus for the direction the assembly takes.
Finally, with regard to letters of commendation from one assembly to another, let us remember that these are not an “automatic pass” to be received into the assembly. It is a “recommendation,” but the overseers will give an account to God, keeping watch over the flock.
We are not dependent on outside influence and control as a local assembly, but we are completely dependent on the influence and control of the Divine Godhead.