WE NEED TO WALK IN THE OLD PATHS RESPECTING CHURCH AUTONOMY
Every local church of Christ is independent in government. This is implied in the division of the “one body” into separate and distinct local congregations. This is implied in the appointment of elders “in every church.” (Acts 14:23) This is implied in Paul’s instruction to the elders from Ephesus.
“Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28) This is implied in Peter’s exhortation to elders. “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.” (1 Peter 5:2) The New Testament is silent as to any other arrangement for local church government.
Someone has given this definition of autonomy in the local church. (1) Control its own resources. (2) Exercise oversight of its own work. (3) Manage its own affairs. (4) Discipline its own disorderly members. (5) Provide for its own worthy indigent to the limit of its ability. (6) Govern itself in all matters of judgment and expediency.
Robert Turner notes that "Autonomy" is a compound word, composed of autos, meaning "self," and nomos, meaning "law." An ordinary dictionary will tell us the word means "self-ruled," so that an autonomous church is "self-governed, without outside control." There are those who reject the concept of God and revelation, saying ultimate authority is in man. To them, there would be no limitations placed upon self-rule. Of course, most of our readers accept Christ as King and know that a church that wishes to exercise "self-rule" in all things is not the church of Christ. But our brethren are far from clear on the legitimate (scriptural) field of self-rule, and how this affects the relation of one church to another. Some seem to think "autonomy" means the right to devise organizational arrangements for which there is no New Testament authority; while others think calling attention to such error violates the "autonomy" of the erring brethren. The truth is that we need to stand upon the Word of God as our only standard. If all parties are equally interested in serving God, they will be happy to study God's word together so that God can rule supremely in all.
Whether or not New Testament Christianity is reproduced in this century depends entirely upon men and women walking in the old paths. When we become like the Athenians, who were ever craving something new, we will have left behind this divine injunction: “Ask for the old oaths… walk therein.” In Jeremiah’s day, the people became rebellious and said, “We will not walk therein.” One has but to study the history of this people’s woes to learn of the disastrous consequences of rejecting the old paths.
We will continue this discussion next week when we address the role of women. May the Lord bless you and keep you!
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