The Autonomy of Local Churches1 -- By: John A. Spender

Journal: Emmaus Journal
Volume: EMJ 006:2 (Winter 1997)
Article: The Autonomy of Local Churches1
Author: John A. Spender

The Autonomy of Local Churches1

John A. Spender2


Foundations are important, and they must be looked for in the right place. As the old hymn says:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word.

In speaking of this foundation, Paul the apostle cautions every man to “take heed how he buildeth upon it”(1 Cor. 3:10). Whatever is built at the local level will be tested by constant encounters with the forces of darkness, “the gates of hell,” as our Lord put it. Therefore the way a congregation conducts its own internal affairs will affect its ability to stand firm over time, to relate to other congregations, and to represent the mystical church before the world.3

Much has been written about church polity, but a large part of it either ignores the subject of local church autonomy altogether or else treats it within a given denomination. More thought needs to be given to the biblical idea of autonomy as providing a perfect balance for that healthy intercommunion of local churches which is pleasing to God and which saints rightly desire.

The goal of this paper is to encourage an understanding of and appreciation for a truly biblical autonomy in local church government. It is one in which the churches are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. At the same time they sustain a happy, working relationship with one another, so that

individual saints are edified and the mission of the church to reach the lost world for Christ is stimulated. The overall result is that God is glorified.

Local Church Autonomy: Biblical and Vital

Definitions: Autonomy and Independence

The word autonomous comes from the Greek words αὐτος (autos, self) and νόμος (nomos, law or rule) and refers to the power and right of self-government. At first glance the word independent appears to be a synonym of autonomous meaning “not subject to the authority of another.” However, there is an alternate meaning, “not affected or influenced in action or opinion by others.” This has come to be the primary sense in popular usage. An independent person thinks for himself and does his own thing regardless of what other people think. When applied to the government of local churches, autonomous is more...

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