The Autonomy of the Local Church

(William MacDonald, from Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 1631)

The council at Jerusalem might appear at first sight to be a sort of denominational supreme court. But the facts are otherwise.

Every local assembly in the early days of Christianity was autonomous – that is, self-governing. There was no federation of churches with a centralized authority over them. There was no denominations and therefore no denominational headquarters. Each local church was directly responsible to the Lord. This is pictured in Revelation 1:13 where the Lord I seen standing in the middle of the seven golden lampstands. These represent the seven churches of Asia. The point is that there is no governing agency between the individual churches and the great Head of the church Himself. Each one was governed directly by Him.

Why is this so important? First, it hinders the spread of error. When churches are linked together under a common control, the forces of liberalism, rationalism, and apostasy can capture the entire ground simply by seizing the central headquarters and denominational schools. Where churches are independent, the struggle must be waged by the enemy against a host of separate units.

Second, the autonomy of the local church is an important protection when a hostile government is in power. When churches are federated, a totalitarian government can control them all by controlling a few leaders at headquarters. When churches refuse to recognize any centralized authority, they can more readily go underground at times of oppression.

Many governments today, whether democratic or dictatorial, try to bring about the union of small, independent churches. They say they do not want to deal with a large number of local units but with a central committee representing them all. Free governments try to bring about this union by the offer of certain favors and benefits. Other governments try to force the union by edict, as Hitler did during the Third Reich. In either case, the churches which yield to the pressure lose their scriptural character as well as their ability to resist modernism and to carry on secretly in time of persecution.

Some may object that the churches in Acts did have a central authority, namely the council in Jerusalem which we have just considered. However, a careful study of the passage will show that this was not an official body with regulatory powers. It was simply a gathering of apostles and elders acting in an advisory capacity.

The councl did not summon the men to come from Antioch; the latter decided to consult the men in Jerusalem. The decision of the council was not binding on the churches; it was simply offered as the combined judgment of the group.

The history of the church speaks for itself. Wherever there has been federation of churches under a central organization, there has been an acceleration of decline. The purest testimony for God has been maintained by churches which are free from outside human domination.” William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, P. 1631-1632

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