The Autonomy of the Local Church | Baptist Distinctives

Lesson 3: The Autonomy of the Local Church

This is the second lesson in a series on the Baptist Distinctives, those specific positions which distinguish Baptists from everyone else in the religious realm. We are following the acrostic – B A P T I S T S – each letter standing for a distinctive theological viewpoint. B dealt with what Baptists believe about the Bible. We now come to the Aautonomy of the local church.

Definition: The most basic definition of the word “autonomy” is self-rule or self-governance. All human authority for the doctrine and practice of the local church lies within the local church itself. In other words, the local church is completely self-governing and not subject to any external control, even choosing the level of external influence to which it will expose itself. Even secular courts recognize this truth (and tend to treat all local churches as if they were Baptist).


What is the Biblical support for local church autonomy? There are at least five Biblical expressions of autonomy:

1. The local church has both the authority and the ability to solve the problems of its own members. (Matt 18:15-17 and I Cor 6:1-8)

2. The local church has the authority and responsibility to appoint its own leadership. This involves at least pastors and deacons. (Acts 6:1-7)

3. The local church has the authority and responsibility to commission and to send out missionaries, choosing those whom it desires to support. (Acts 13:1-3; 14:26-27)

4. The local church has the authority and obligation to regulate its own membership. (1 Cor 5:1-5, 12-13; 2 Cor 2:5-7) Someone has said, “[A]n autonomous local church determines the extent of its own membership by both admitting and dismissing individuals.”

5. The local church is responsible to give an account to God and may do as it sees fit so long as it does not violate Scripture. (Rev 2 and 3.)

Forms of Church Government

If you’ve attended only one church or one type of church for your entire life, you may be surprised to find out that other churches operate differently from your own church. Here are the three basic forms of church government (often called polity).

  • Episcopal: A single leader, the bishop (Greek episkopos), exercises rule over the whole organization. The Roman Catholic Church employs an episcopal form of church government. The pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, is the head ruler, and under him are cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, etc. Greek Orthodox churches are also episcopal in their organization, although they don’t recognize a single leader over their whole system. They have several bishops (called metropolitans or patriarchs) who rule over the churches in their areas.
  • Presbyterian: In the presbyterian system, each church is governed by a session (or consistory) made up of the pastor(s) and elders (Greek presbuteros), who are the representatives of the church. The churches in an area form a presbytery, which meets occasionally to decide on policy issues for all the churches in the area organization. Presbyteries combine to form a synod, and synods combine to form a denomination, such as the Presbyterian Churches of America (PCA) or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).
  • Congregational: The church congregation governs itself in the congregational system. There is no higher governing body over each individual church. The members of the church vote on all the major decisions facing the church without any influence from anyone outside the church. This does not rule out pastoral leadership, but it does mean that the pastor governs by the authority that the church gives him. Most Baptist churches are congregational in government. Some Baptist churches are part of a denomination, like the Southern Baptist Convention or the Baptist General Conference. However, such denominations tend to allow great freedom to the churches within the organization.

What does the autonomy of a local church mean in actual practice? The local church has the right to do at least the following:

  • Determine its own doctrinal position – within the guidelines of biblical orthodoxy.
  • Set its own priorities in regard to its ministry.
  • Establish and operate its own programs.
  • Select its own curriculum and decide how to teach it.
  • Determine the translation or version of the Bible which it will use in its public assemblies.
  • Determine the composition of and qualifications for its own membership, as well as the circumstances for removal from membership.
  • Collect and disperse funds and incur debt.
  • Select its own leaders.
  • License and ordain men to the gospel ministry.
  • Support the missionaries and mission agencies of its own choosing.
  • Establish and support schools of all kinds and on all levels.
  • Select the service ministries it will provide and select assistance for those ministries from the sources it wishes.
  • Choose its own style of worship.
  • Conduct its own business and business meetings.
  • Buy, own, and sell real estate.
  • Join an association.
  • Set expectations for its members and employees.
  • Set its own standards of behavior, dress, music, etc.

Are there limits on autonomy? There are, indeed, limitations on the autonomy of the local church, including, but not necessarily limited to, the following:

The Scriptures – The local church can’t go beyond or stop short of the teaching of the Word of God and still rightfully claim to be a legitimate New Testament church. Someone has said, “The local church must pay absolute, unconditional and ultimate homage to Scripture.”

The Baptist distinctives – A local church may do anything it wishes; but when it ceases to practice the Baptist distinctives, it has lost rightful claim to the name Baptist.

Accountability to Christ – The local church is always subject to the Lord and Head of the church, to whom the leaders of the church will ultimately give account.

What are the practical considerations of local church autonomy? The practical application of this distinctive includes at least the following considerations:

  1. Input from parachurch organizations, individuals not connected with the church, or external institutions is inappropriate unless sought by the local congregation. A local church has a perfect right to seek guidance and/or direction from external sources, but the local church is well within its rights to reject and rebuke any such external guidance that it does not seek.
  2. No local church has the right to criticize any other autonomous local church for conducting itself in the way it sees fit.
  3. Autonomy requires some form of congregational church government. A hierarchy of denominational control does not fit with autonomy.

Who Runs The Church?

We’ve already learned that a church should be autonomous. But that doesn’t answer the question of who leads the church itself. Baptists normally enjoy congregational church government, i.e., the members of the church run the church. However, there’s usually a certain person or group within the church who actually has the most influence and makes most of the important decisions. The leader is usually either the pastor(s) or the deacons. Occasionally there may be an influential church member who is neither on the pastoral staff nor a deacon, but most would agree that such a case is clearly unbiblical.

It is relatively simple to make a biblical case for pastoral leadership; it is virtually impossible to make a case for strong deacon leadership. The Bible simply does not allow for the deacon board to run the church.

The word deacon, a transliteration of the Greek word deakonos, is “one who serves; a minister” (in the sense of ministering to others). It might well be translated as waiter. Rather than a special authoritative office, deacon appears to speak of a group of dedicated men, specially chosen for their ability as servants and ministers. On a strictly biblical basis, it is difficult to identify deacons as anything more than assistants to the pastor(s). There is no evidence in Scripture that deacons independently voted on anything or made any policy decisions without other authority. The concept of rule appears a number of times in the New Testament in conjunction with the government of the local church. In every clear-cut case, rule is a pastoral responsibility, not a deacon duty.

This does not imply that deacons are not valuable and needed. Deacons are often more in touch with what the people are actually thinking than pastors are. They are to be the pastor’s friends, advisors and colleagues. Deacons are extensions of pastoral ministry into the lives of the church members.

The Word doesn’t teach that pastors are higher or more important than deacons, but it surely appears to make a difference between the two and to lay far greater responsibility and obligation on the pastor.

Why is it so common for deacon boards to run churches? Pastoral authority is somewhat at odds with the kind of democracy practiced in our country, and anything that resembles “one man rule” is abhorrent to most modern Americans. In addition, some pastors display few of the management skills required for the administration of the local church. A strong deacon board fills this vacuum. Furthermore, there are always the horror stories of pastors who have wrecked churches through ignorance, self-will, or pride. However, modern ideas of democracy, the bungling of ill-equipped pastors, or even the mistaken notions of arrogant glory-seekers do not reverse the clear teaching of the Word of God. The pastor(s), not the deacons, are to be the primary leaders of the church.

The old saying, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is often true. Insisting on strong pastoral leadership may have its drawbacks and dangers. However, the whole issue of who runs the church should not be a problem if the pastor sincerely seeks to walk humbly with his God, and the congregation, well taught in the Word, sincerely desires to see the will of the Lord worked out through its ministry.

The Lord is the Head of the church, the pastor leads the church, the deacons assist the pastor, and the congregation affirms the leadership of the pastor. Let the pastor lead, the deacons assist him, and the congregation affirm and determine. That way appears to be God’s way.

Conclusion: Baptists churches are autonomous and enjoy congregational church government. Each individual church determines its own policies, procedures, and theological position. No outside organization has the right to influence a local church. While the local church is self-governing, the pastor(s) of the church have the biblical responsibility to lead the congregation.

A local church is free to establish any procedure it wishes (although it is not ethical for that church to call itself Baptist if it chooses to follow procedures and patterns which are not biblical and thus not baptistic). If, however, congregational government is actually biblical, any deviations from biblical patterns ought to be a decision of the congregation and not something into which the church has drifted.

Discussion:

1. What does autonomy mean? Self-governing. Each church governs itself without outside influence.

2. How does Congregational church government (polity) differ from other forms? In the Episcopal system, a bishop or bishops lead. In the Presbyterian system, the elders as representatives of the church lead. In both these systems, larger organizations often dictate policy to local churches.

3. Can a church be part of a larger organization and still be autonomous? Yes, depending on the organization the church is part of. Some denominations strictly control the churches within its organization, while others are very loose. Independent Baptist churches often join Fellowships or Associations, which don’t attempt to influence member churches.

Why should the deacon board not run the church? There’s no biblical evidence that deacons are supposed to rule the church. Pastors are to lead with the assistance of the deacons for certain matters. The deacons’ primary job is service/ministry.