The word “autonomy” is not found in the New Testament, yet the word frequently is heard in pulpits, classrooms, and religious publications. Just what is meant by “autonomy” and is there scriptural justification to speak or write of “the autonomy of the church”?
The word “autonomy” means “self-rule” or “independent.” It has been shown that the local church is a “functioning unit;” that though it may be composed of hundreds of members, in some things these hundreds of members functioned as a single unit. The church at Philippi, with many members, sent one gift to Paul twice while he was in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:15-16) and at least once to him later when he was in a Roman prison (Phil. 4:18). Paul wrote about the mystery which had been hidden in God’s mind, but which was revealed to Paul who assured us that when “ye read, ye can perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:3-4). The revealed mystery involves the church as it makes known the wisdom of God (Eph. 3:8-11).
Local churches were ruled by a plurality of men identified. among other names, as “elders.” We know God’s mind only as He reveals His mind to us; thus the significance of the scriptures: God’s mind or will for us. When Paul and Barnabas were in the midst of their first preaching journey (Acts 13-14), they preached in the regions of Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia converting people and setting in motion functioning congregations. When they had done this, they reversed their steps, revisiting the cities and churches they had just left and they “confirmed the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed for them elders in every church and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they had believed” (Acts 14:22-23). Notice that there were elders (plural) in every church (singular). In this passage one reads that a local church was designed to have a plurality of men called elders who had “the rule” over these churches (Heb. 13:17). This was a uniform practice among churches. Paul left Titus in Crete that he might “set in order the things that were wanting and ordain elders in every city …” (Titus 1:5). We realize that a city might have more than one congregation and that “elders in every city” does not necessarily infer a plurality of elders in every church. Still, we do read of “elders in every church” and never read “elders in every city who are over the churches in that city” elsewhere, so the weight of evidence would conclude that “elders in every city” had reference to “elders in every church.” Universally, we read of “elders in every church,” never of “elders over a plurality of churches.” It is not just Acts 14:23 which bears this out. Paul called for the “elders of the church” at Ephesus to meet him at Miletus (Acts 20:17), and he wrote to the church at Philippi, greeting the “bishops” (another word for “elders”) and “deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Both these latter examples are consistent with the premise “elders” (plural) in every church (single).
We must observe that while “autonomy” means “independent” or “self-rule,” it does not mean that human wisdom decreed the work in which these men were to function. Inherent in their rule was that they directed the local church in all its affairs of work and worship as God’s word ordained. Paul charged the Ephesian elders “and now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all them that are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). In short, these local churches were under the rule of no other humans beyond the rule of their own elders. And the elders were under the rule and authority of God in all things.
Local churches might be located in a certain region such as “churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:1), “churches of Asia” (Rev. 1:4), etc., but churches in a locality were not tied together into functioning units. There are seven letters to seven churches of Asia and in none of those letters is there a single hint of some sort of ruler who exercised rule or authority over all of them. They were each single, independent, self-functioning units in a common area. Nor anywhere else do the scriptures indicate any rule of men exercising control over any body other than elders over a local church.
The myth that Peter was made head of the universal church by Christ has no authority in the scriptures. Peter refers to “elders among you” (1 Pet. 5:1) identifying himself as an elder also, and uses a phrase to show that the rule he exercised was no higher nor greater than any other elder. He called himself a “fellow-elder” (1 Pet. 5:1), a term showing his equality with other elders and on the other hand, their equality with him. The only authority Peter had above others was that he was an apostle of Jesus, and even in this he was no greater than the other eleven apostles to the Jews, nor Paul, who was God’s apostle to the Gentiles. All the apostles were endowed with the Holy Spirit to guide them (Jn. 16:13).
Any organization formed by men to rule over several local churches is an addition to that which the Holy Scriptures reveal, a “going beyond the things written.” Such organizations exist solely by the authority of man; never by the will and authority of God, and ultimately will be “rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). In His wisdom God willed that local churches should be the single, functioning body of His church. Those who respect God and His word reject all other organizations as the work of man.