The Autonomy of the Local Church

by Keith Sharp

There was a time all gospel preachers at least gave lip service to the principle of congregational autonomy. For example, Brother Lewis G. Hale, Bible professor at Oklahoma Christian College, wrote over 50 years ago:

We are all in agreement that each local church is separate and independent in organization from all other local churches. All of us are opposed to the destruction of autonomy. (77)

Today many have quit even giving lip service to the principle of the independence of the local church. In a 1985 publication, Brother Alvin Jennings wrote:

To sum it up, the church, the treasury and elders will be one in the urban area. Elders will allow and encourage assemblies anywhere and everywhere that men gather in the name of Jesus. Congregational autonomy will begin to fade within the city…. (71)

(I understand both Brother Jennings and the International Church of Christ denomination, which began in the 70’s as the “Crossroads Movement,” metamorphosed to the “Boston” or “Discipling” ministry, then crystallized as the ICOC, have now renounced this view.)

Although the word “autonomy” is not found in the New Testament, the principle of congregational autonomy is plainly taught there. In fact, no principle is more basic to the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church than that of the independence of the local church. The purpose of this lesson is to scripturally explain congregational autonomy, or local control. The Word “Autonomy” The term “autonomy” means “The quality or state of being independent, free, and self-directing; individual or group freedom” (Webster. 1:148).

How Applied to Local Church

Does this principle apply to the local congregation? If so, how?

It certainly does not apply to legislative (i.e., law making) power. Christ is the only Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23) and its only Law Giver (James 4:12). No man or group of men may make laws and bind them on Christians as a test of fellowship, whether they act within or without the confines of the local church. Christians must neither draw up nor recognize human creeds or uninspired statements of faith as binding. To do so is to usurp the authority of Christ.

Rather, by “congregational autonomy” I mean that the direction of the execution of the will of Christ belongs completely within the local church and is not to be surrendered, partially or completely, to any outside control. Elders are to be appointed within each local church (Acts 14:23; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5). These elders (also called bishops, i.e., overseers, or pastors, i.e., shepherds – Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-2) have the oversight of the congregation of which they are members (1 Peter 5:1-2). There they rule under the authority of Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). No passage of Scripture broadens their authority. The elders of the local church have no right to oversee anything other than the work of the local church where they are members. There is no authority for a congregation to allow any man, group of men, or organization outside the local church to oversee all or any part of its function.

This principle applies to every facet of the work of the congregation. Each local church selects its own leaders (Acts 6:1-6), governs itself within the limits of those things Christ has authorized (1 Peter 5:1-4; Colossians 3:17), determines its own program of work and selects the arrangements to carry it out (cf. Acts 11:22; Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philippians 2:25), controls the use of its own resources (Philippians 4:15-16; 2 Corinthians 11:8), and disciplines its own sinful members (1 Corinthians chapter 5).

I believe Brother Lewis Hale well summarized the scriptural principle of congregational autonomy:

Church autonomy includes and requires that the local church, under Christ (1) control its own resources, (2) exercise the 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, and (6) governs itself in all matters of judgment and expediency. (Ibid)

Acts 15 and Congregational Autonomy

I received this e-mail message from a friend in response an article on the autonomy of the local church. “I appreciate the emphasis on individual congregations. Though I was wondering how you would view Acts 15 in light of this?” This is an excellent, pertinent question. Let’s examine Acts chapter 15 and it’s bearing on the autonomy (independence, self-government) of each local church. (Why not read Acts 15 now?)

Paul and Barnabas had been sent out by the church at Antioch on the first preaching journey to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3), and they returned there at the end of this very successful trip (Acts 14:26-28). Some men came from Judea, teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

These men were trying to bind the law of Moses, the Old Testament, on Gentiles (Acts 15:5). If they had been successful, they would have caused these brethren to be severed from Christ (Galatians 5:1-4) and turned them into Jewish proselytes rather than Christians. Those introducing this doctrine were “false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage)” (Galatians 2:4).

Paul and Barnabas did not yield to them for even an hour (Ibid) but opposed them vigorously (Acts 15:2). This should have settled the matter with the church in Antioch due to Paul’s apostolic authority (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1).

But, for whatever reason, the brethren at Antioch wanted to hear from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this question (Acts 15:2). Thus Paul, Barnabas, Titus, and at least one other went to Jerusalem about this issue (Acts 15:2-3; Galatians 2:1).

They met first with the apostles and elders over the question (Galatians 2:2). These men added nothing to Paul’s understanding of the matter (Galatians 2:6). Rather, Paul “went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which” he preached “among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:2). Thus, the apostles at Jerusalem gave to Paul “and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:7-9).

Then the matter was discussed before the entire congregation at Jerusalem, and even the false teachers were given the opportunity to present their case (Acts 15:4-17). James stated the conclusion he drew, that the apostles and elders, including Paul, had already concurred in, that Gentiles need not be circumcised or keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:18-22).

Therefore, “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” decided to send Paul and Barnabas, along with Judas and Silas, from Jerusalem to Antioch stating this conclusion (Acts 15:22). They put this in the form of a letter which became a part of the inspired canon of Scripture (Acts 15:23-29). They claimed the guidance of the Holy Spirit in reaching this conclusion (Acts 15:28).

Johnson, in a commentary published by the Church of England, comments, “This, the first council of the Church, is generally considered an example for all times” (2:15). Thus, such denominations as the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church, and Episcopal Church view this as the First Ecumenical Council, in which questions of church doctrine are settled for all time. This is a strange “ecumenical council,” that consisted of a few messengers sent by the congregation at Antioch, all the members of the congregation in Jerusalem, and no one from any other congregation.

This High Church view assumes “The Church” decides doctrinal soundness in councils composed of uninspired men. The church decides nothing about truth or error. The Holy Spirit sent by Christ to His apostles revealed to them all truth (John 16:13-15), the entirety of the mind of God for our salvation (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). They wrote it down for us in the New Testament (Ephesians 3:1-7). Anyone who adds to this is anathema (Galatians 1:6-9; 2 John verse 9). The responsibility of the church is to uphold and defend this divine truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15; Jude verse 3).

The High Church position also assumes that the apostolic authority has been passed down to bishops today. The apostles of Christ were led into all truth and guarded from any error by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13-15). They demonstrated their authority by working the miraculous signs of apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12). To occupy their office, one would have to be an eye witness of the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:15-26), and Paul was the last such witness (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Modern denominational bishops don’t even claim these abilities. They are pretenders.

Acts fifteen does not authorize church councils or courts, nor does it sanction less formal assemblies of representatives of congregations to discuss and decide anything. All matters of salvation were decided by the Lord two millennia ago and written by His apostles in the New Testament. Matters of individual conscience must be decided by each Christian for himself alone (Romans 14:1-5).

Those in Acts 15 who stated the conclusion that all accepted were inspired of God. They were led by the Holy Spirit. Their conclusion is a part of the canon of Scripture. This was not a council of representatives from all or even various churches. One congregation sought to know if those who had come from another congregation to trouble them actually represented the views of that congregation.

Thus, there is nothing in Acts 15 that contradicts or amends the fact that the direction of the execution of the will of Christ belongs completely within the local church and is not to be surrendered, partially or completely, to any outside control. The local church is indeed to be autonomous.

The Difference Between Evangelism and Benevolence

Several years ago a preacher asked me if I was “anti-cooperation.” I told him I am in favor of scriptural congregational cooperation. I further add that I have many times been and even presently am involved in authorized cooperation between local churches. We are examining the scriptural pattern for cooperation between congregations. This section examines the difference between cooperation for benevolence and for evangelism.

Three Great Issues

The study involves three great issues.
(1) Must we follow the divine pattern?
(2) May we sacrifice local church autonomy?
(3) Is a collectivity of local churches scriptural?

Benevolence & Evangelism

Defenders of the sponsoring church arrangement characteristically employ passages authorizing churches to send funds to another church for the work of benevolence to defend churches sending money to another church to do the work of evangelism. What difference does this make?


It makes a big difference. First, the New Testament clearly authorizes many churches to send to one for benevolent needs within the receiving church (Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; Acts 24:17) and for one church to send to several for benevolence inside the receiving congregations (Acts 11:27-30). But there is no authority for a church or churches to send to another church or other churches to do the work of evangelism. Shall we follow the New Testament pattern or not?


This also involves the principle of autonomy. Each local church has the responsibility to assist its own needy members (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 6:1-3). Local churches may assist a church unable to relieve its own needy members until the church is able to do so (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). The work of the sending church is to help the needy church, and the work of the receiving church is to assist its own indigent members. Thus, equality of congregations relative to oversight and the autonomy of local churches are maintained, in that oversight of the work of each local church is within that local church, and each local congregation is able to do its own work.

But each local church has equal responsibility in the work of evangelism, commensurate with its own ability (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus, when churches send funds to another church to do the work of evangelism, the oversight of the work of all the churches involved is within the receiving church. Sending churches sacrifice oversight of part of their work and give up autonomy.

In essence, there is one pattern (the autonomy of the local church) with two applications (cooperation for benevolence and for evangelism). This is not hard to understand. We often preach on “God’s Two Laws of Pardon.” God has one plan of salvation: by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). But there is one set of conditions for forgiveness of the alien sinner and another for pardon of the erring child of God. One pattern – two applications.

Pattern for Cooperation for Benevolence

Six passages comprise the New Testament pattern for cooperation between local churches to do the work of benevolence: Acts 11:27-30, 24:17, Romans 15:25-28, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; and Galatians 2:10. Parallel to this, seven passages authorize music in New Testament worship (Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13). They constitute a pattern which specifies the kind of music, singing, and we must follow it (sing in worship) and not violate it (use instrumental music in worship). Even so, the pattern for congregational cooperation for benevolence specifies the kind of cooperation, concurrent, and we must follow this (each contributing church send directly to the church in need) and not violate it (create a collectivity of churches or a church supported benevolent society).

Two Contributions

The New Testament passages authorizing congregational cooperation for benevolence relate to two historical occurrences separated by over a decade. The church in Antioch sent benevolent aid to the churches in Judea ca. A.D. 44-45 (Acts 11:27-30), and the apostle Paul took a collection from Gentile churches for the benevolent assistance of Christians in Jerusalem ca. A.D. 57-58 (Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; Acts 24:17). Don’t confuse the two collections.

Antioch to Judean Churches

The brethren in Antioch assisted their brethren in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). Since the elders of each church had the oversight of the work of that church (1 Peter 5:1-4), this money was not sent to one church in Judea, such as Jerusalem, for distribution to the other churches. Rather, congregational autonomy was maintained, and no collectivity of churches was created.

Gentile Churches to Jerusalem Brethren

James, Cephas, and John asked Paul to remember the poor, and he eagerly followed their request (Galatians 2:10). He took a voluntary contribution from Gentile churches for the needy Christians in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapter 8 – 9) and delivered this assistance at the end of his third journey (Acts 24:17). The purpose of the collection was to maintain the equality of the churches (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), i.e., to insure that each church would have sufficient funds to do its own work. Each church raised its own funds and chose its own messengers (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). No church or human organization acted as a collecting and dispersing agency or assumed the oversight of the benevolent work of all the contributing churches. Each congregation maintained its autonomy, and no collectivity of churches was created.

Modern Example

Several years ago I received word from Brother H.F. Short that a severe, prolonged drought in Southwestern Zimbabwe threatened to cause starvation among Christians there. I brought this to the attention of the members of the congregation where I preached. We, along with many other congregations, sent relief funds to Brother Short, who in turn forwarded these funds to Brother Newman Gumbo in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Brother Gumbo traveled to the churches in the bush of Southwest Zimbabwe and dispersed the funds to each local church as they were needed. Brother Gumbo received a receipt from each receiving congregation, acknowledging receipt of the funds. Each church being helped reported the number of members whom it aided. Brother Short reported all funds received and dispersed to each assisting congregation. Brethren Short and Gumbo were messengers of the churches (Acts 11:29-30; 1 Corinthians 16:3-4; 2 Corinthians 8:16-23; Acts 24:17). They insured there was no fraud or even reasonable suspicion of it (2 Corinthians 8:18-21). No Christians in Zimbabwe starved. Each local church maintained its autonomy. Congregations cooperated scripturally to do the work of benevolence.

The pattern of congregational cooperation for benevolence further establishes the principle of local church autonomy. Each church is to raise its own funds and send directly to the church in need. The equality of all the churches relative to oversight of its own work must be kept. No church may act as an agent for another or assume oversight of a benevolent work of several churches. We must maintain local church autonomy.

Congregational Cooperation for Evangelism

How may congregations scripturally cooperate in evangelism while at the same time maintaining autonomy?

It is perfectly scriptural for churches to send teaching to each other. The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to the young church in Antioch to encourage them “that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:22-23; cf. 13:1-3; 14:21-23, 26-28; 15:22-31,40; 18:22; Colossians 4:16). A local church may send scriptural teaching to any person or group of people anywhere (1 Thessalonians 1:8). When a local church sends a teaching paper to other churches, or when a congregation pays the way of an evangelist to preach a gospel meeting for a small congregation or to preach overseas, this is scriptural congregational cooperation.

A congregation may act alone in supporting a preacher in another place (Philippians 1:3-5; 2:25,30; 4:14-18). Or, several churches may independently and directly support a preacher working in another place (2 Corinthians 11:8-9). Thus, when several churches send directly to a preacher to work with a small church or to send that preacher to another nation, they are scripturally cooperating in evangelism.

The Pattern Applied

This reveals three facts. No church is to act as an agent for another church or churches since, when several churches pool their resources to do a work common to all of them, all the other churches become subordinate to the congregation which decides how the funds will be used. No church may assume the oversight of any part of the evangelistic work (or any other work) of any other congregation(s). Also, the equality of each local church relative to oversight must be maintained.

The Pattern Summarized

The principle is congregational autonomy. The oversight of all the work of each local church is completely within that congregation (1 Peter 5:1-4). The expression of that autonomy in congregational cooperation for evangelism is concurrent cooperation. Local congregations may and should work concurrently to achieve a common objective, but they must not pool their resources under the oversight of one church.

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