Within some evangelical movements, specifically the Southern Baptist Convention, the idea of “church autonomy” tend to be a central aspect. The idea is that there isn’t a central board of leaders assigning pastors to different churches, holding the ability to hire or fire them. Likewise, there isn’t a real doctrinal statement of faith, merely a set of beliefs the denomination affirms, but no individual church is obligated to agree with those beliefs. The idea of the autonomous church developed after years of abuses from the higher church authorities in the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Protestant splits. In other words, it was a reaction to corrupt church authorities, not necessarily an idea garnished from Scripture.
That being said, I do think there are some problems with the autonomous church; not practical problems (though those do exist), but problems with the entire concept. None of this is said to put down the belief or lambast it, but merely to note some observations that I think proponents of the autonomous church need to deal with.
First, there really is no Scriptural backing. Many proponents will point to 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul instructs Timothy to behave correctly in the house of God should Paul be unable to return. But this is hardly a passage in support of the autonomous church, rather it works against the idea of autonomy! Here we have Paul writing an authoritarian letter to an individual church, just as he did with other churches (some of which he didn’t help start). In other words, none of the churches were autonomous from the authority of the Apostles. In other words, there’s a distinct lack of Scripture in support of churches working independently from each other.
Second, the idea of an autonomous church was foreign to the early Christians, almost bordering on heresy. We first look to the Council of Jerusalem where the church leaders convened to determine what to do with the Gentiles. Notice that it wasn’t left up to the individual churches throughout the area, but instead it was dependent upon a Council’s Edict. For those who want to attempt to reinterpret that passage or write it off, we can easily see that Clement of Rome, who was the Bishop of Rome, wrote with authority to the church in Corinth. Both Ignatius and Polycarp, disciples of the Apostle John, wrote about the importance of following the authority of a Bishop. The Didache, a very early Christian document (so early one of the debates concerning it is whether or not some of the disciples helped write it, as it’s distinctly Jewish in character), talks about how people within a district are to elect a Bishop and the Bishop would, in turn, appoint the priests. In other words, we don’t see the idea of an autonomous church anywhere in early Christianity unless it’s accompanied by another heresy (such as denying the Divinity or humanity of Christ).
Third, we worship a Trinitarian God. Christ commands us to be one with each other as He is one with the Father and Spirit. So we must ask, which member of the Trinity is autonomous? If none of the members of the Trinity are autonomous from each other, then how is it that two churches can be autonomous? It simply doesn’t follow that in worshiping a Trinitarian God and being in His image that we would somehow be called to be autonomous.
Fourth, we are a body and no part of the body is autonomous from the other part, unless it has been cut off and is dead. Paul uses the description that we are all part of the body, but no part of the body is autonomous from another part. All parts work together and to function properly all parts are needed. If my finger were independent from my body, this would mean that my finger was cut off or had a problem and was functioning incorrectly. The same must be true of the Church; if any local church is autonomous from the body, then how is it truly a part of the body?
For those four reasons, I think proponents of the autonomous church need to rethink their position. Certainly it doesn’t mean we should all rush out and become Roman Catholics – because that’s another extreme – but instead that we should reconsider the validity of church autonomy.