Church Autonomy

September 7, 2007

I still owe you a concluding article in the Proposal for Unity series. But today I am going to write about a different matter.

Two years ago, a group of prominent leaders from the former ICOC congregations began an effort to re-unite these churches on the basis of a doctrinal statement, a system of delegates, and regional discipleship groups. The response has been mixed, as some congregations questioned the wisdom of having a doctrinal statement other than the scriptures, as well as the biblical validity of the proposed organizational structure. The difference in the two perspectives centers on creeds and church autonomy.

Recently, a member of the group that drew up the proposal wrote an article about the current status of the proposal. One statement in the article spotlights the issue of autonomy:

We are not a movement of autonomous churches. We interact, encourage, correct, and love one another. While it was obviously time to put aside the structure of the 1990’s where one man was in charge world-wide, most of us did not want to revert to total separation and autonomy. We have functioned for years as circles of churches. The current arrangement of a brotherhood of churches looks promising.

It is my opinion that this perspective is an overreaction to what was seen in the mainline churches of Christ. But I think that overreaction illustrates a misunderstanding of autonomy.

Churches of Christ do not have a corner on the market of church autonomy. Baptists also have a strong conviction on this topic. We can gain a valuable perspective on the meaning of autonomy from them. Quoting from baptistdistinctives.org:

Autonomy means that each Baptist church, among other things, selects its pastoral leadership, determines its worship form, decides financial matters and directs other church-related affairs without outside control or supervision. Baptist denominational organizations such as associations of churches and state and national conventions have no authority over a Baptist church. For any one of these organizations to attempt to exercise control over an individual church is to violate a basic Baptist conviction about polity.

Comparing this Baptist concept of autonomy to the stark denial of autonomy quoted previously raises concerns. Under the Unity Proposal, who chooses leadership of the local congregation? Who determines the details of the worship service? Who decides financial matters? What church-related affairs would be controlled or supervised by someone outside the local congregation? Is it the goal of the Unity Proposal to take control of these decisions away from the local congregation?

As far as I can tell, based on this definition, even the congregations who ratified the Unity Proposal are actually operating autonomously, as much as they hate that word. Nobody outside these churches is making decisions for them. Although they deny it, these churches are clearly autonomous, by the generally accepted definition of the term.

And wherever that is not the case, it should be.

Act 20:28-31 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

Note that the Holy Spirit appointed the Ephesian elders as overseers of the church in their city. Paul charged them to care for the flock, and to protect the flock from wolves. Notice the conspicuous absence of any organizational authority outside Ephesus. Even the apostle Paul himself would never see them again. These elders must give an account to God for the flock (Heb 13:17) They were under the authority of God, not some man-made worldwide federation. And so it should be today.

Part of the controversy over autonomy among the former ICOC is semantics. There certainly is a widely held desire to work together on world missions, to exchange visiting preachers, to maintain unity of doctrine, and to urge one another to live lives worthy of the calling we have received. Along with that, there seems to be an unhealthy desire among some to exert undue influence over other congregations. Those who seek that undue influence should redirect their energies toward the flock that God has placed under their care. All of the healthy goals of the ICOC Unity Proposal can better be achieved (and are being achieved in many places) without ratifying a man-made doctrinal agreement, and without organizing a man-made federation of churches.


  1. I always thought this was a hoot, even back when we were all Organized, complete with Pope^H^H^H^H World Missions Evangelist and College of Cardinals, I mean World Sector Leaders:We were always way more autonomous than we’d ever admit. Anyone who thinks Triangle or your congregation were ever run by their World Sector is dreaming.Ok the actual hoot is due to Brotherhood Publications, Workshops, Seminars mixed with a little peer pressure:CoCs were always way less autonomous than they’d ever admit.

  2. When I was a member of ICOC I felt this wish to take care of everything. This attempt to control all the things can seem wisdom, but – as you wrote – does not add anything. It is opposite, only plant more walls. I feel bad that the approach of the subjects about union is not what we think in this blog, because it is much more simple and deep subjects.

  3. Alan,What a very, very interesting post. I have learned a lot. I want to thank you. I appreciate you educating me. I feel like your student.

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