Congregational Autonomy—Fact, Fiction and Myth

Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell Movement), Baptists, Mennonites and other churches that govern themselves according to a congregational rather than a presbyterian or episcopal order often describe their model as “congregational autonomy.” These churches were born during the 16th and 17th centuries in resistance state churches and later in protest of centralized denominations that restricted the freedom of local bodies to control their internal affairs.

For this essay I will assume the basic soundness of the congregational model and deal with what I consider its abuses.  Even in episcopal-type churches local congregations and their ministers, priests or bishops are allowed some say-so in the way they administer their local congregations. But congregational churches insist on more control to the point that it can be called autonomy. What are scope and limits of local church autonomy?

Congregational autonomy cannot be unlimited. Every local church claims to be a manifestation of the universal church of Christ founded by the Lord and his apostles. A local body possesses the right to make this claim only if it binds itself to uphold the faith and essential qualities of the original and universal church. No local authority has the right to eliminate or change the essential characteristics of the universal church. Not even the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church claims this right! In fact, his main responsibility is to protect this faith. If a group makes these changes it forfeits its claim to manifest the universal Church. And other local congregations are under no sacred obligation to recognize it as a Christian church.

Most Protestant churches whether congregational, presbyterian or episcopal in organization make at least the implicit claim to adhere to the common faith held by the early post-apostolic and patristic church through at least the 5th century and embodied in the Rule of faith and Ecumenical Creeds, especially the Nicene Creed (381).  This common faith includes among others the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation and the extent and limits of the New Testament canon. No local authority—or for that matter no denominational body—has the right to change the New Testament cannon or any other ecumenical doctrine while at the same time claiming to represent the ecumenical church as defined by the Rule of faith and the ecumenical Creeds.

What about the limits of congregational autonomy within a denomination, a fellowship or a tradition, that is, some sort of collective of local bodies that claim a common identity? It should go without saying that a local body that presents itself as Baptist or Church of Christ or Menonite, implicitly binds itself to embody and teach the essential marks of those associations. If a local congregation of one of these fellowships decides to abandon those marks, it possesses the authority to do so only in the sense that there is no extra congregational legal authority to stop it. Since it has not bound itself legally to the association, the association cannot depose the local leaders or confiscate a congregation’s property. However, if a local congregation abandons the essential marks and teaching of the Baptist, Church of Christ or the Menonite fellowship, it should cease to present itself as a manifestation of those fellowships. Truthfulness demands it. Nor does a local church have the right to determine autonomously what it means to be Baptist, Church of Christ or Menonite. That question is for the whole fellowship to decide in whatever way it decides things. And other congregations of this fellowship are under no obligation to recognize a rogue congregation as one of their own simply because it claims “congregational autonomy.”

What, then, is the role of local leaders within congregationally organized churches? There are indeed internal matters that are best controlled locally, decisions about property, ministers, salaries, selection of teachers, administration of funds and others. However in matters of doctrine local leaders have the responsibility of discernment but not of legislation. They may act on doctrinal matters only in sincere consultation with the wider circles of the original and universal church as described in the New Testament, the ecumenical teaching on the central teachings about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the fellowship which they claim to represent.

Every local church should attempt to remain in communication and fellowship with the original church, the living ecumenical church and with the fellowship that gave it birth and gives it a specific identity. At every level it should endeavor to embody truly what it represents itself to be. And the local church’s “autonomy” consists in its right to give itself to these tasks.

3 thoughts on “Congregational Autonomy—Fact, Fiction and Myth

  1. nokareon

    Thanks for these thoughts and reflections, Dr. Highfield. I find your words very meaningful since you are coming from a Church of Christ background, which seems to be founded on the principle of each local congregation determining its own doctrine (at least at the level of praxis, and of course with the caveat of it being through biblical interpretation). I love the Protestant church and have been a part of Protestant churches all my life, but there are days when I yearn for the kind of unity and oversight that one of the great monumental traditions like Catholicism and Orthodoxy have to offer.

    Continuing on that thought, an issue that has been heavy on my heart lately is what one should do if one becomes convinced that one’s local church denies a theological doctrine that is a central tenet of the Christian faith. Recently, I discovered through an illuminating conversation with my church’s pastor that my pastor denies the Resurrection of the Body as the believer’s eternal destiny, instead viewing it as only necessary for facilitating the final judgement on the way to a disembodied, Platonic existence in heaven. The Southern Baptist Convention’s statement is unambiguous in affirming glorified eternal bodily existence, but the local church I attend is technically nondenomenational, though it is most heavily influenced by the SBC in other areas. What, then, is one to do as a parishioner if one becomes prayerfully convinced that one’s local church has strayed on a central tenet of Christian doctrine? I would love your advice on this, as I am deeply torn.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    I am so sorry that you find yourself in this situation. Some thoughts: does the pastor teach this doctrine publicly either as a speculative opinion or as the offical teaching of this congregation? Or does he hold it tentatively as a private opinion open to revision? Is this theory central to the identity of this church so that it is marked off as a sect specializing in propagating this opinion? Does your congregation belong to a denomination with a confession of faith? Was your pastor ordained in such a way that he is under obligation to adhere to a confession?

    If I were clear that the teaching authority in my local congregation taught a doctrine that contradicts a central tenet of the Christian faith, one that is clearly taught in scripture and articilated in the great ecumenical creeds or in a confession of faith that I felt obligated to uphold, I would be looking for another congregation. These things are so sad, and many of the brothers and sisters in those churches don’t really understand what is at stake and are somewhat innocent of the erroneous teaching of the pastors.

    I understand completely your longing for a church in which the unity is visible, traditional and authoritative. I especially long for traditional worship conducted by people who understand the tradition. I grow tired of every Tom, Dick and Harry espressing his or her private experience, thoughts and feelings during sacred moments! It should be as if the people saying the words and performing the ceremonies do not exist as private persons. Christ alone should be the active person!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. nokareon

    To respond to the questions respectively:

    1) It’s hard to say. Honestly, most of the time the Platonism has just kind of creeped in and permeated the rhetoric without making any explicit statement (hence why my suspicions were only confirmed when talking with my pastor). Though, the statement that sparked this conversation was in a sermon on Easter Sunday when, after an invitational prayer, the pastor said “If you prayed that prayer with me, know that no matter what else happens, when you die your soul will go to be with God in heaven.” Not wrong in the sense of the intermediate state, but misleading in making disembodiment sound like the promised Christian hope.

    2) In conversation, he stated that he believes a final disembodied state, rather than resurrected physicality, to be the traditional orthodox Christian position. However, he accepted my invitational to look at some summary articles arguing for the final resurrected state as well as a survey of excerpts from the early church fathers’ treatises on the subject, so he at least claims to be open to revision.

    3) It doesn’t seem central or formative to the identity of the church in a doctrinal sense—but again, it’s hard to say, since the sort of “fly away to heaven” Platonism permeates a lot of the church’s rhetoric and praxis down to a lay level as well as in the sermons and teaching. However, I have found that the layfolk are at least willing to affirm eternal resurrected physicality, even if they are confused about what that means or how that does/does not fit in with the “fly away to heaven” mentality.

    4) The church is nondenominational, so no regulatory confession has power. I did find this in the church’s statement of faith: “We believe that there shall be a bodily resurrection of the just to eternal life, and of the unjust to eternal punishment.” However, this is just ambiguous enough to be compatible with the view the pastor sketched out—that the Resurrection of the Body is necessary for the last judgement on the way towards final disembodiment in heaven or hell.

    5) The pastor is ordained, though I don’t know under what terms or denomination. Since we are a nondenominational church, it wouldn’t seem that there is any regulatory statement or doctrine that would be active on him after his ordainment, even if he was ordained by a denominational body. That’s part of what makes this so difficult.



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