Assembly Autonomy

“Αutonomy” typically means “self-governing,” but I’ll be using the term to mean the governing of a local assembly from within, with no outside person or institution imposing decisions upon it. Strictly speaking, a New Testament local church is not “self-governing” because it submits to the authority of Scripture and is governed by the Lord. The expression “assembly autonomy” is not found in the NT, but the truth is found throughout. We’ll look at some of the passages that teach local church autonomy, and some of their implications for us today.

Autonomy and Church Discipline

This may seem an unusual place to start, but it is where our Lord began. When He introduced the concept of a local church in Matthew 18:15-20, it seems clear He intended it to be autonomous in matters of discipline. If you follow the steps explained in the passage, the final two involve an unrepentant brother’s sin being told “to the church,” and if the man still refuses to repent, the group applies discipline in keeping with heaven’s discipline. “The church” in this context must be a local gathering, as it would be impossible to tell “the Church,” in the sense of all Christians. The Lord Jesus also implied here that there would be no level of accountability above the local group of believers – there is nothing between the authority of the assembly and the authority of heaven.

Autonomy and Commended Workers

Paul and Barnabas were used mightily by God in the planting of assemblies, the appointing of elders, and the teaching of saints (Act 13-14). And as an apostle, Paul’s authority exceeded any found among believers today (2Co 10:8; Eph 2:20). All this makes Acts 13:1-3 particularly striking – the Spirit of God instructed the local church at Antioch to separate and send Paul and Barnabas. These gifted men, who had been instrumental in the teaching of this assembly (Act 11:25), came under its authority and were commended by it to the Lord. Accountability is also implied in their giving a report to the whole assembly when they returned (14:27). We find no basis in the NT for a regional body or a mission board holding authority – just individual, local churches, to whom all in their fellowship, including teachers and commended workers, are accountable.

Autonomy and Local Elders

Paul exhorted the elders from Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (20:28).[1] Again, assembly autonomy is apparent. The Holy Spirit made a group of men overseers over a single “church of God,” an assembly of believers viewed independently as having been distinctively purchased with precious blood. Shepherds are given the authority and responsibility to oversee one another and the rest of the flock under their care (also 1Pe 5:2). Part of this responsibility includes guarding against those who will try to gain influences by undermining the authority God established, resulting in the harm of the sheep (Act 20:29-30). While the whole assembly should recognize and respect autonomy, it is the elders who are ultimately called upon to maintain it.

Autonomy and Accountability

We’ve seen assembly autonomy in Matthew, Acts and the Epistles. Coming now to the Revelation, John addressed “the seven churches that are in Asia,” telling them how in the Spirit he saw them as “seven golden lampstands” (1:4,12,13,20). The Lord Jesus then revealed Himself as walking “among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1). Chapters 2 and 3 make plain that each of the seven churches was being assessed individually. It’s sobering to see that each assembly is being reviewed for their own works. None is accountable to, or for, the others. All are accountable to Him.

Autonomy and Other Assemblies

But autonomy does not mean assembly isolation. While the NT presents individual, local churches being governed from within, it also identifies assemblies collectively, ideally united in doctrine and exercise. For example, when it came to the doctrine of head coverings, Paul pointed to the unity among “the churches of God” (1Co 11:16). When it came to an exercise for the needy in Jerusalem, the “churches of Macedonia” were recognized for their collective generosity (2Co 8:1-2). But nowhere is unity between assemblies taught at the expense of autonomy. The pattern seems to be each assembly desiring to be in unity with every other assembly. But if doctrine or practice at local church B truly undermines the ability of local church A to function faithfully before the Lord, hampering assembly A from governing from within, in submission to His authority, then assembly A would lose autonomy through an association with assembly B. It would equally violate assembly autonomy if local churches A, C and D decided together, or exerted pressure on one another, to have nothing to do with assembly B. Each assembly is called upon to make its own decisions before the Lord regarding the associations it has with other assemblies.[2]

Autonomy: Encouraged or Undermined?

It’s clear the NT teaches local church autonomy. The question is now: Am I respecting it? I encourage autonomy in the assembly by submitting to the Word of God and to leadership of my own overseers (Heb 13:17). I undermine it by appealing to the authority of men outside of my local church. If I’m involved in the planting of assemblies, or if I’m teaching among assemblies, I encourage assembly autonomy when, like Paul, I clarify the limits of my authority and I support local decision-making (1Co 16:1-3). I will see mistakes made, but I will do greater damage by disregarding autonomy and undermining the local government of an assembly.

Finally, as elders we maintain autonomy by overseeing with accountability to each other and before the Lord, and by respecting the autonomy of all other assemblies. We undermine it by involving ourselves in issues that are not our own, or by allowing the decisions of other assemblies to override what we would have done before the Lord. May the Lord give us all a greater appreciation of the value He has placed on each local church and its autonomy before Him! (Act 20:28; Rev 2:1).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] Space doesn’t allow an adequate treatment of these issues here. Tom Bentley gives a more detailed consideration in his article “Assembly Autonomy,” Truth & Tidings, January 2002.