The Inherent Failure of the Autonomous Church


Though I’ve written on many things controversial, this might be the one that ends up getting me in trouble. However, I simply cannot keep my beliefs a secret any longer.

Though I attended a Southern Baptist college – champions of an autonomous church model – I am not only against their idea of the autonomous church, I think such an idea dooms a church to failure. Whether Southern Baptists are willing to admit it or not, it seems they’re starting to agree (at least in action).

First, in explaining how an autonomous church is doomed to failure, let me first say that the argument, “Well of course it is, we’re all fallen” is not a legitimate response. While all churches will have problems due to the fallen wills of the congregates, not all are prone to failure.

By “failure,” I am referring to church splits, church politics, lack of depth in teaching, and so on. I am not referring to diminishing congregations or churches that aren’t growing. Numbers are not an indicator of the success of the church; whether or not the church is splitting or the overall spiritual depth of the congregation, however, speaks volumes on whether or not a church is successfully following Christ.

With the above in mind, the evangelical model for an autonomous church will always lead to failure as a whole. I could summarize multiple reasons, but it ultimately boils down to one reason: There is no accountability in the autonomous model. If a church has elders, this can help with the autonomy, but if those elders are unwise in the doctrines of the faith then they can be led astray to heresy. But most autonomous churches still hold to the “Pastor/CEO” model where the staff holds the authority, the deacons advise, and the ultimate say-so goes to the pastor (who acts as a miniature Pope). In such a situation, there is very little accountability for the pastor involved. Let me give a few examples:

Example 1 – I know of a pastor who began to preach out of some of the Gnostic Gospels in his sermons, telling his congregation that these were “suppressed” Gospels that the Roman Catholic Church tried to destroy. He taught that Jesus had “celestial flesh” and wasn’t human like we are human. Though this was an outright heresy, the denomination he belonged to could do nothing about it, short of stripping him of a vote come convention time. But that’s as far as they could go; they couldn’t remove him as pastor, they couldn’t warn the congregation, and they had to sit there passively while he continued to teach outright heresy.

Example 2 – There was a pastor who was having an inappropriate relationship with the wife of another man. While this pastor did this, his church still continued to grow. When the deacons finally ousted the pastor, they were condemned by many members in the congregation because it’s wrong to go against God’s anointed (which is a vast twisting of Scripture; just because you’re a pastor doesn’t mean you’re anointed). Regardless, the pastor was allowed to stay active within his denomination and was only removed from positions of leadership once it was discovered that the new church he founded wasn’t giving money to the denomination. Had they been, then the denomination would have been hard-pressed to remove the pastor from any leadership; and they still couldn’t remove him from his church.

Under an autonomous model, a pastor can get up in the pulpit and say that Jesus was just a man, was not God, and then go out and have an affair and unless the church has it in their by-laws that they can vote him out, he can remain the pastor. If he’s the shepherd of new Christians who are easily influenced, he can feed them heresy and there’s nothing the denomination can do about it.

This is because there is little to no accountability within the autonomous church model. Even within the Southern Baptist Convention, churches are moving away from the autonomous model. A church will reach a certain number of people and then open up a satellite church across town or even in another city. Some will create five or six satellite churches in the area. What then occurs is each church is accountable to one another. The irony is the senior pastor of the “Parent Church” in many ways acts like a Bishop, attempting to keep the other pastors accountable. If a pastor steps out of line at a satellite church, then he can be removed.

And that is how church government should operate. Granted, even under such a system corruption is still very possible (as is anything that involves humans), but it is less likely and easily handled once it does occur. We can even look to the Roman Catholic Church which, though flawed by having a Pope (essentially a senior pastor), they have it right by having bishops. Their failure in handling the sex scandals is not a failure of the system, but a failure of people to act appropriately within the system. The failure is with the people and not the system. The same cannot be said for the autonomous church model when a denomination fails to remove an unqualified pastor; the failure isn’t the people in the denomination, it’s the failure of the entire church model.

While I have my own beliefs on which Christian denomination does the best job at creating a church government system that works best and is the most Biblical, I will simply leave it at the belief that churches need more accountability. It is good for such churches to change their by-laws to allow for control of the church to, at the very least, go to a board of elders who all share power. This way, the pastor is not the final say on anything and the chance for corruption is lessened. While this may not be ideal, it is one of the more practical solutions for those who desire to stay in denominations that promote an autonomous church.

A final critique against the autonomous church is that the belief is found no where in Scripture. When Paul wanted to go to the Gentiles, he had to get permission from the Council at Jerusalem. He didn’t decide to just go plant a church; he met with the proper authorities. Paul was accountable to this council and had to appear before them. That goes against the idea of autonomy. The fact that we have a New Testament at all, letters written by Paul to churches telling them how to act (even though they already had pastors), should speak against the autonomy found in many denominations.

At the same time, the church is somewhat autonomous in how it reaches out to its local area. While the local church leaders should be kept accountable in their doctrine and actions, how they express that doctrine to the local community is subjective to that local church. The church is free in those aspects, but should never be completely autonomous.

After all, anytime the concept of autonomy is brought up in the Bible, it’s always a bad thing. Why would that change with churches?

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