January 19, 2006
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. -small";>From the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message
The autonomy of the local church is one of the distinctions that separate Baptists from most other Protestants. There is no centralized authority that has any jurisdiction over a local church -- the churches decide individually what doctrines they adhere to, what they teach and preach, what materials they use, etc.
Even within the Southern Baptist Convention, each local church is autonomous. The national Convention does not tell us what to do -- in fact, the purpose of the convention each year is for the local churches to establish the direction of the Convention as a whole.
But is it Biblical? Briefly, let me offer some Biblical support for the idea of local church autonomy. 1. Election of Officers and Appointment of Ministers. In Acts 6 we see the local church in Jerusalem appointing seven deacons, to oversee the ministry of that local church. As we read further in Acts (chapter 13), we see the local church in Antioch appointing Paul and Barnabas as ministers, and sending them as missionaries. There is no ruling body that appoints the pastor of an individual church.
Sometimes I think it would be much easier for the churches if there was someone else who hired the pastor. Imagine -- no more pastor search committees, no more trial sermons, no more need for an interim pastor. And no more pastors leaving for "another ministry." You get the preacher that the denomination says you get, and he stays until the denomination says he goes. Easy -- but I'm not sure that's the Biblical model. Individual churches ministering within their own communities know best what their needs are, and who can best meet those needs.
2. Local Church Discipline. Matthew 18 tells us how we are to deal with a brother who sins -- and it doesn't involve denominational action. It involves the local church meeting with him to discuss the problem. It involves the local pastor trying to restore that person. And ultimately it involves separation from an unrepentant individual.
3. Local Churches taking care of each other. When the church in Jerusalem needed financial help, Paul didn't go to the disciples and get them to issue a command to all Christians to help. Paul went to individual churches, presented the need, and asked for help. And each individual church gave as it could. Same thing when Paul needed financial help in his missionary journies -- he asked for help from the local churches, and each gave as they could.
The problems John had that we read about in 3 John were with a local church. John certainly had authority to simply order that church to excommunicate Diotrephes, but he didn't do that. He went to the church to take care of the matter:
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.John brings it before the local church, relying on them for appropriate discipline.
(3 John 1:9-10 ESV)
Local church autonomy is important. It allows local churches to function in their community without outside interference. BUT it is not what I would consider an "essential doctrine." I wouldn't get into a huge fight over it, and certainly wouldn't separate over it. But it is a Baptist distinctive, and one I believe in.
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