The Autonomy of the Local Church (2)

by Keith Sharp

I possess a legal document entitled, “Amended Constitution of Church of Christ – Nigeria.” This document was adopted by many churches of Christ meeting in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State (where I taught 111 preachers in classes on the authority of the Scriptures in January, 1992), Nigeria in 2003 . While declaring, “The Church shall uphold the Supremacy of the Bible in all matters of doctrine as the standard of her practice and faith,” the document nonetheless declares, “WE THE MEMBERS of Church of Christ – Nigeria, …DO HEREBY MAKE, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES the following Constitution.” I thought the Bible was the constitution of the church of Christ. The Constitution declares the organization to be composed of churches of Christ in Nigeria. It provides for the selection of a board of trustees and states, “All landed property of the Church shall be registered in the name of the Registered Trustees.” The document decrees a “National General Meeting” of the church at least annually. It claims for the organization the power to deny any congregation the right to bear the name “Church of Christ” if they are not approved by this national organization.

Obviously this constitution simply creates a national denomination calling itself “Church of Christ” and wielding power over local congregations to keep them in line. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious denial of the autonomy, self rule, of local churches. It would be difficult to conceive of a more dramatic proof that, when local autonomy is ignored, denominational tyranny results.

The creation of a Church of Christ denomination in Nigeria was the result of a half century of American missionary influence. Let’s see how.

The Sponsoring Church

For most of my lifetime (I’m now 72), among the majority of brethren, before a preacher goes overseas, the eldership of some church assumes oversight of his work and solicits other congregations to send money to them to support the preacher and his work. The elders of the sponsoring church exercise authority over both the work of the congregations which send money and the congregation the preacher establishes in a foreign country. This is called “missionary work,” and the preacher is called a “missionary.” Both the terminology and the organization are borrowed from denominations.

Lewis G. Hale, a notable defender of the sponsoring church, thus described the part of contributing churches to a radio or TV program:

There are hundreds of churches which send financial aid to help keep the program on the air. They have no part in the management of the program. They have no part in the selection of the preacher, singers, nor sermon topics. Their part is solely that of financial assistance (2).

This is the work of all involved churches.

The principle of representative work is involved when a church sends a gift to another church to assist in a work which it is doing. If the gift is to help pay the expenses of the evangelistic effort, the contributing church is preaching the gospel just as surely as if it had used those finances to have the preacher come to its own locality to do the preaching. In either case, the church is preaching by means of a representative, the preacher (Ibid. page 57).

Thus, the elders of the sponsoring church oversee the work of a number of churches.

This violates all scriptural principles governing congregational cooperation for evangelism. One church acts as the agent of other churches, one church assumes the oversight of an evangelistic work belonging to several churches, and the equality of each congregation relative to oversight is destroyed. The sponsoring church violates the New Testament pattern for congregational cooperation and destroys the autonomy of local churches.

Human Organizations for Spread of Gospel

World Bible School is a notable example of an organization begun by men to preach the gospel. Its founder and long time head, the late Jimmy Lovell, wrote:

Legally, and again I have never been questioned, we are incorporated under the laws of California as West Coast Publishing Co. – a non-profit, tax deductible religious organization. We have another corporation in Texas known as World Bible School, with directors who are on the WCC board (Action, Sept., 1983. 2).

It is funded by churches of Christ. Again, Jimmy Lovell wrote:

We would like to see more churches financially supporting WBS. Small churches that do no mission work because they are small would find themselves responsible for more
baptisms than more large churches if they simply sent a monthly check to WBS to help with this good work. Mention it to the leaders and elders where you worship and ask that they consider doing it (Action. March, 1986, 2).

When churches support a human organization to do the work of the church, they establish ties of fellowship with the human institution, since a contribution by a local church is an expression of fellowship (2 Corinthians 8:4; Philippians 4:15-16). The only tie in Christ is that of fellowship (1 John 1:3). Thus, by donating to the Missionary Society, World Bible School, or any other human organization, that man-made institution is attached to the churches in ties of fellowship. It becomes in reality a church organization. It thus is a violation of the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church (2 John 9).

Church support of human institutions violates the independence of the local church. Churches send the money; World Bible school provides the over-sight. “All of this is handled through our follow up work in Visalia, California with funds provided by churches and individuals who want someone to follow-up on their students” (Action, January, 1986. 4). This clearly violates local church independence (1 Peter 5:1-4).

WBS is a missionary society parallel in structure to the American Christian Missionary Society of the Christian Church that divided the Lord’s people in the USA in the nineteenth century. The Missionary Society was a human organization supported by churches and individuals for the furtherance of the gospel.

The convention met in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 24-28, 1849, at which time the American Christian Missionary Society was organized. The following resolution was proposed by John T. Johnson, of Kentucky, and passed by the group: ‘Resolved, That the “Missionary Society,” as a means to concentrate and dispense the wealth and benevolence of the brethren of this Reformation in an effort to convert the world, is both scriptural and expedient.’ After full discussion of the matter, a constitution was adopted, … ‘Article 2d. The object of this Society shall be to promote the spread of the Gospel in destitute places of our own and foreign lands.’ (Hailey. 148-49)

The missionary society was defended in the same way WBS is defended.

The Christian Missionary Society, too, on its own independent footing, will be a grand auxiliary to the churches in destitute regions, at home as well as abroad, in dispensing the blessings of the gospel among many that otherwise would never have heard it.
(Alexander Campbell, “Millennial Harbinger,” 1849. 694-695, as quoted by Hailey. 150-51).

Results of Centralization

Sixty years of American influence in Nigeria has resulted, not in the promotion of nondenominational Christianity, but in the birth of a national “Church of Christ” denomination claiming the power to crush dissent. We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). American churches and preachers operating with commendable zeal to reach the lost but in ignorance of the divine principle of congregational autonomy have caused enormous harm. They have spawned a human denomination.

Please don’t accuse me of being “anti” foreign evangelism. I have made twenty-one overseas preaching trips to eight countries and one U.S. territory.

But we try to temper our zeal with knowledge by following the divine plan for congregational cooperation for evangelism. We must maintain the independence of each local church by engaging in concurrent cooperation for evangelism. This is both the most effective plan and the way that will glorify and please God.

Superiority of Divine Wisdom

The sponsoring church system and church supported human organizations corrupt the organization of the church, alter the divine pattern for congregational cooperation, destroy local church autonomy and lay the groundwork for denominationalism. Furthermore, these human schemes just don’t work. The last two generations have seen a dramatic increase of sponsoring churches and church supported human organizations for evangelism among churches of Christ. During this time the church of Christ in America has ceased the growth it formerly enjoyed.

This dramatically demonstrates the superiority of God’s wisdom to man’s (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:8-11). By the amazingly simple plan revealed in the New Testament, in stark contrast to the elaborate organizational schemes of men, the first century church took the gospel to the whole world in one generation (Mark 16:15; Colossians 1:5-6,23). How could mere men possibly improve on this divine plan? God’s way is both right and best.

Works Cited

Action magazine.
Hailey, Homer, Attitudes and Consequences.
Hale, Lewis G., How Churches Can Cooperate.
Jennings, Alvin, How Christianity Grows In The City.
Johnson, E. The Pulpit Commentary (Acts).
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged

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