In discussing this subject, I can only attest to my own experiences in the Mainline Church of Christ. Although the Christian Church shares a common ancestry in the Restoration Movement, I don’t know exactly what their beliefs and practices are regarding congregational autonomy. However, I do know historically that the early restoration movement held this teaching as one of their major foundational tenets. In arguing for local church autonomy, the early Restoration leaders were more mistaken than evil in intent. They were coming out of religious denominations where complex hierarchies had developed who lorded it over the members and, in their view, forced upon them compliance to unbiblical traditions. They saw their teaching about local church autonomy as a return to a more biblical pattern where there would be “liberty” to follow the Scriptures as they read them, and not as they were interpreted by some cleric caught up in ecclesiastical politics.
But what started out of sincere motivation ended up becoming one of the most damaging, unbiblical traditions of the Mainline Church of Christ. This doctrine has received much emphasis, most often with a spirit of certainty and even smugness. It has been a part of the Church of Christ creed for so long that few in their group bothers to question it. I can remember personally preaching about how congregational autonomy was God’s plan to keep one bad apple from spoiling the whole bunch! Even if one church went liberal, that departure would not hurt the entire brotherhood, we argued. In this way, we could supposedly never become like the Catholics! However, looking more closely, the fact of universal unity in the Catholic Church is not their problem. It is their means of gaining and keeping that unity. They do it through positional only authority, and with edicts passed down by the Pope and his Cardinals. The unity in the NT was based on leader relationships, as the Book of Acts demonstrates.
Even if the kind of congregational autonomy practiced by the mainline group kept at least some of them away from doctrinal heresy, much more is at stake. Sound doctrine in and of itself is not the point. Evangelizing the world is the point, and that cannot be done under the stifling umbrella of congregational autonomy! The mainline church has surely proved that one. But God desperately wants the world to be reached with the gospel of his Son. All of leading is either directly or indirectly related to evangelism. In order for the world to be reached, brotherhood unity is an absolute must. John 17:20-23, along with other similar passages, makes this necessity unmistakably clear. Unity based on agape love (John 13:34-35) demonstrates to the world that we are genuine disciples. The great mystery of the gospel is that God can unite all kinds of people into one loving group, all over the world (Ephesians 3:1-11). Not only does true unity demonstrate that we are of God, hence attracting people to him, it also is necessary on a practical level to accomplish God’s purpose. Unless we are “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10), we cannot work together in the evangelization of the world. But with this kind of unity, nothing is impossible within God’s will.
Although each congregation obviously has responsibilities on a local level, we are still one body. The idea of a non-cooperative, and often prideful, separation from each other as congregations is absolutely non-biblical. It guarantees that the world will never be evangelized. It is therefore contrary to the very purpose of God and is sinful. The early church knew nothing of such isolation. Each member was a part of one body on a brotherhood basis. They worked together with an amazing lack of sinful competitiveness. They cooperated in the prime mission which God has given the church, and as a result, they reached the entire world as they knew it with the message of Christ in about 30 years (Colossians 1:23)! Such marvelous unity was based on a united leadership, brotherhood-wide. Leaders are the ones who produce unity and they are the ones who promote disunity.
After Paul wrote that there was one body (Ephesians 4:4, a universal church), he went on to describe the leaders whom God has placed within that one church (Ephesians 4:11-16). Notice that these leaders were given by God to build up, unite and mature the body. This “body” is no different in verse 12 than the “body” in verse 4—it is the church as a whole rather than one congregation. In other words, the church in the first century considered leaders to be brotherhood leaders rather than simply congregational leaders. A careful study of Acts will demonstrate that key leaders had a striking non-attachment to any one congregation. They went where they were most needed at any one time. They were sent to the places where they could best serve. The example of congregational independence, produced by leadership independence, is absent from the pages of Scripture. The “church autonomy” of the Mainline Churches of Christ, no matter how sincerely conceived, is a most harmful tradition.
The early church was united because leaders viewed themselves as belonging to the body as a whole. They were in fact the key “supporting ligaments” which joined the “whole body” together, making growth a reality rather than an unreachable dream (Ephesians 4:16). One of the most significant ways that these leaders became united was in their training. From the inception of Christ’s discipling of leaders, he never left any impression that they would be limited in influence or presence to one location on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. They were taught to be “movers and shakers!” This approach of Jesus in his personal ministry was predictably followed by the apostles in their training of leaders. The importance of building this mindset in our training cannot be overestimated! It produced a brotherhood unity which in turn produced an evangelized world. We must return to the approach used by the early church. Nothing else has worked!
Jesus called men to be with him and then to be sent out to preach (Mark 3:14). The apostles followed the pattern. After Philip had been with them, he was sent out to preach (Acts 8). After Barnabas had been with them, he was sent to Antioch (Acts 11:22). He, in turn, went for Saul, a man of great potential, in order to disciple him in practical ministry; and jointly, Barnabas and Saul discipled many other leaders in Antioch (Acts 13:1; 15:35). Then they were once more sent out to preach in other places. Paul continually called men to be with him for further training. Sometimes, these disciples were simply called his “companions” (Acts 13:13). Sometimes, their names were mentioned. Timothy, a young leader who had influence in two cities, was called to be with Paul for further training (Acts l6:13). Later, he and Erastus would be sent out to preach in Macedonia (Acts 19:22). Still later, he would be sent out to preach in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). Paul was always looking for leaders and potential leaders to be with him and then be sent out. He pulled in Gaius and Aristarchus from Macedonia (Acts 19:30), perhaps leaving Timothy and Erastus in their place. Acts 20:4 mentions a number of other such “companions” (disciples): Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus and Trophimus. A united approach to training this mindset into disciples produced a united brotherhood!
These men were leaders for the brotherhood of believers. They were world Christians, not simply Philippian Christians or Ephesian Christians! Leaders with less training were “pulled out” and later “plugged in” by more fully-trained leaders as the need dictated. Additionally, the world-Christian concept was not reserved for full-time supported ministry people; other leaders espoused the same view. They, too, were discipled to think just like the apostles (Matthew 28:19-20). We are first introduced to Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. They are later sent to Ephesus, then to Rome, and then back to Ephesus (Acts 18:2, 18-19; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). Leaders in the early church were indeed movement leaders—they moved and led a movement! Their main focus in life was the mission of Jesus to seek and save the lost. These principles were once practiced widely within the discipling movement, and still are, but on a more limited basis than in the past. This is one point where the ICOC needs some reexamination, in my opinion.
It must be stated that our own early form of unity in the ICOC, while it has produced some wonderful results in world evangelism, has also produced some very damaging results. In earlier days, we had a type of forced or dictated unity through using too much of a military style leadership model. Now that we have repented of that, we are in the process of developing a forged unity—which implies that some tensions will be produced and demand resolution. I think we are doing well with that process at this juncture in our history. While we recognize that congregations should not be independent from one another (the wrong kind of autonomy), neither should we be dependent in wrong ways. Interdependence is the better word to describe biblical unity between congregations. New churches planted will require much more direction from the planting church than when they are older and more mature, after having developed their own leadership group. But regardless of maturity level, all congregations need close connections to sister churches for input and help, in order to avoid inbreeding and closed circles of thinking.
Just as individuals need others in their lives to help them continue growing, congregations need similar relationships with other congregations for similar reasons. My favorite analogy to illustrate how this should work is with the family. Children become less and less dependent on their parents as they mature, but they never become independent to the point of not needing the relationship. The nature of the relationship changes, but the need for it will always continue. It moves from dependence to interdependence, but never independence.
I have often told leaders of churches planted by the church I was in that, as they matured, I viewed them in much the same way that I view my grown children. I want a close relationship with them; I want to be able to give input as an older person with more life experience; but their decisions are their decisions. There are going to be differences in the relationships between different congregations, depending on maturity and resources, but there should never be a time when we don’t seek input and help from one another. The writer of Proverbs stated this principle in many ways and in many verses—one of which is this classic: “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). The concept of an independent, congregational autonomy simply will not stand up under biblical or practical examination. Let us continue to seek interdependence as congregations within a united movement, for the continued evangelization of the world for Christ!