The Autonomy of the Local Assembly
by Ken Cooper (England)
The word “assembly” is derived from the Greek word “ekklesia”. This word is made up of two words: “ek”, out of, and “klesis”, a calling (kaleo, to call). Sometimes this word is translated “church” or “congregation”. To many the word Church directs attention to either a denominational sect or a building. It should be noted however that the word “ekklesia” is never used in the New Testament of a building. It is preferable therefore to use the word “assembly” in reference to companies of believers who gather into or unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Greek word ‘ekklesia’ is used of both the Church which is the body of Christ and local churches. Vine’s dictionary says that the word “ekklesia” has two applications to companies of Christians: “First it can refer to the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era, the company of which Christ said, “I will build My Church” Matt.16.18, and which is further described as “the Church which is His Body” Eph.1.22; 5.23, and second in the singular number (e.g., Matt.18.17, R.V. marg., “congregation”), to a company consisting of professed believers, e.g. Acts 20.28; 1Cor.1.2; Gal.1.13; 1Thess.1.1; 2Thess.1.1; 1Tim.3.5, and in the plural, with reference to assemblies in a district.”
These two aspects of the church were introduced by the Lord Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matt.16.18 we read, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church”. The rock was the truth contained in the confession made by Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” Matt.16.16. The expression “I will build” refers to something yet future when the Lord Jesus spoke these words. The “church” in its wider aspect came into being at Pentecost. In Matt.18.17 the Lord Jesus referred to what would later be understood to be the local church when an offended brother, having failed to resolve a personal dispute with his brother, should “tell it unto the church”. The context clearly refers to a local church, for only a local company could deal with the situation in view.
Every true believer, from the birth of the Church at Pentecost to the rapture of believers when the Lord Himself descends to the air for His own, is part of the “church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all”, see also Eph.1.22, 23; 5.23, 25; Col.1.18; Heb.12.22, 23. Here the term “church” is used in a wide aspect of all who are saved in this day of grace. It is frequently designated by such terms as the universal church, the mystical church or the dispensational church although these terms are not used in the New Testament. The term “dispensational church” is preferred by many and will be used in the ensuing comments.
Those who constitute the Church, having been called out from this world, are so vitally linked to the Head in Heaven that they, spiritually, are His body. This truth, developed in the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, is true of every believer irrespective of what his or her spiritual condition might be. In Ephesians (chapters 2 and 3) Paul develops the great dispensational truth of the Church as being comprised of both Jew and Gentile brought together in one body; he speaks of it as being a mystery, a truth previously hidden in God, but now fully revealed, “the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, Who created all things by Jesus Christ” Eph.3.9.
THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY
A local assembly is composed of a group of Christians called out and called together by Him Whose name is the focal point of gathering. Christians (should) gather together in local assemblies in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The Lord does not want us to wait until we get to Heaven before we enjoy fellowship with one another. He expects us to meet with other believers in local churches. In this context the word “church” refers to a “called-out” company of believers who meet regularly in a particular locality. Whereas there is one Church there are many local churches.
Local churches or assemblies are composed of baptised believers who meet in the name of Christ, see Acts 2.41; Matt.18.20. Such companies meet regularly (Acts 2.42; Heb.10.25) in a particular locality according to the New Testament pattern. This would include meeting for the breaking of bread, worship, prayer and the teaching of the Word of God. Such a company acknowledges the sole authority of the Word and the sovereign control of the Lord through the Holy Spirit Who indwells them, “Know ye not that ye (the assembly at Corinth) are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” 1Cor.3.16. Spiritual gifts are exercised under the control of the Holy Spirit and for the edification of the church. The members of a local assembly practise in worship and prayer the priesthood of all believers and, by godly living and the judging of sin in their own lives and in the assembly collectively, recognise the holiness of the assembly as the temple of God. Others may be received to the local assembly and whilst it is not an organisation it should have a degree of order and defined functions, Acts 9.26, 1Tim.3.1-16. The local assembly has geographic location, either unassembled or assembled, Acts 14.27; 1Cor.14.23. It has elders and the believers are to submit themselves to the guidance of the elders, 1Timothy chapter 3; Heb.13.17. It is in the assembled local company only that the Lord’s Supper is observed; where Christians contribute to the support of the work; believers are provoked unto love and good works, 1Cor.11.18-34; Eph.5.19; 1Cor.16.1,2; Heb.10.24. The local assembly is not a denomination, but is simply a group of Christians who have joined themselves together for the purpose of worshipping God and collectively preaching the Gospel to the lost and edifying the saved, 1Tim.3.15; Eph.4.16.
In support of this description such local companies are designated in various ways in the New Testament including:
- “Churches of God” 11.16; the term “church of God” (apart from one or two debatable instances e.g. 1Cor.10.32) always refers to a local company;
- “Churches of Christ”, Rom.16.16; they belong to Christ;
- “Churches of the Saints”, 1Cor.14.33; they are comprised of sanctified ones, those set apart for God.
In the New Testament the following terms are also found: “Churches of the Gentiles” Rom.16.3,4, (in those early days, some churches were made up of just Gentile believers); “Churches of Galatia” Gal.1.1,2 (not the church of Galatia but churches of Galatia, thus recognising independent churches); Churches of Judaea” Gal.1.21,22; “The Seven Churches which are in Asia”, Rev.1.4. The plurals here indicate local companies are in view.
CHRIST AS HEAD OF THE CHURCH
Col.1.18 and Eph.5.23 tell us Christ is the Head of the Church. This is the place the Lord Jesus has in relation to the dispensational Church and is to have in relation to local assemblies. As far as the physical body is concerned the head speaks of authority, direction, leadership and the seat of intellect. This has its spiritual counterpart in that the authority, direction, leadership and mind of Christ are to be acknowledged in the dispensational Church and its local expression.
Local churches are to reflect the character of the greater whole to which each member belongs, 1Cor.12.27, the Church which is His body and His bride. His relationship to each individual local church mirrors His relationship to the dispensational Church. Among other things this means that He is the Head of each individual church. In local assemblies therefore we are to follow the guidance of our risen, glorified Head in heaven. This requires dependence on His Word, prayer and the leading of His Spirit.
The converse of this truth is that if our Head is in Heaven there is no need for any human “head” and “headquarters” on earth. Our headquarters are in Heaven. Further any prior obligation to man made codes, rules, creeds, covenants and rituals, which prevent complete obedience to the Head, are unscriptural and unnecessary. There is no intermediate hierarchy between Christ and individual assemblies. No archangel, no archbishop, no group of overseers representing several churches is given delegated power by the risen Christ to act on His behalf over several churches.
The Autonomy of the Local Assembly
by Ken Cooper (England)
The distinction between the “dispensational” church and local assemblies has been set out in paper 1. Christ is Head over both. This second paper addresses some practical implications of this important truth in relation to local assembly practice.
THE AUTONOMY OF THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY
The Biblical examples of New Testament churches show that they are not ruled by any board, hierarchical system or another church. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are sufficient testimony to show that self-governing local assemblies were the pattern in the first century AD.
We generally use the word “autonomous” and “independent” and speak of local autonomy to describe this state. But “autonomy” and “independent” are not New Testament words. Autonomy is a compound word consisting of “autos”, self, and “nomos”, meaning law; hence meaning self-law or self-governing. Autonomy is defined as, “Independence … the right of self-government … a self-governing community”. By implication the autonomy of the local church means that the church governs itself.
In this sense, and being pedantic to a point, the concept of autonomy is to be rejected because a local assembly should not be governed by self but be governed wholly by the Word of God. The Bible is our only guide and is authoritative and must be solely used to determine truth and practice, Jude 3. God’s Word is to determine all matters of fellowship for the individual believer and the local assembly, 2Jn. 9-11.
However, while autonomy literally means self-governing when used in relation to a local church it is used in the sense of accountability to none but the Lord alone. This truth is seen illustrated in the seven churches of Asia Minor where we see that each assembly is a golden lampstand on its own golden base and responsible to the Lord alone, Rev.1.20.
Notwithstanding these pedantic statements in light of the precise definition of the word autonomy, the word autonomy will be used in the rest of this article since the readers will be acquainted with the spirit of the term. It may be more helpful to place less emphasis on the words autonomy and independence and more stress on the idea of “local” churches. While “local” is also not a New Testament word the concept is most definitely scriptural. The existence of local churches in the first century, in different localities, with different problems, demonstrates the fact that the early assemblies were not a denomination (a group bound together in structure). The reality of their individuality (independence, autonomy) is seen in the fact that elders were to be appointed in each local assembly, Acts 14.23. Moreover, these elders only had rule and authority in the local assembly where they served, 1Pet.5.2. If God had not desired each local assembly to be a self-governing unit surely there would have been explicit instruction about corporate administration.
There is really no serious dispute regarding the fact of autonomy in New Testament assemblies. New Testament assemblies had no denominational headquarters, no single standard of affiliation or formal membership. Each local assembly was “independent and autonomous” but informally linked with other assemblies by a common doctrine. Such companies understood themselves as gathered unto the name of Jesus Christ alone. There was a distinct absence of any bureaucracy in the form of hierarchies, committees, councils, formal associations or regional strategic bodies. These are nothing but human arrangements.
It should be accepted therefore that local autonomy means there is no place for a central, controlling board to maintain the doctrinal and moral purity of each local assembly within a circle of like-minded companies. This would be tantamount to denominationalism. Such a practice is emphatically in complete violation to truth taught in the Scriptures. Such a practice should neither be formal nor official.
The truth of autonomy must be understood in light of the fact that all believers are linked to Christ in heaven. We are members one of another, Rom.12.5, and all the members have the same Head, Eph.4.15. We must hold the Head, Col.2.19, “from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God”. This does not rule out autonomy but qualifies the way in which it is to be practically expressed. Again, in this context, note Eph.4.16, “the whole body fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
If assemblies are autonomous then they may be slightly different. It is possible, in our attitude to other assemblies, to look for a measure of uniformity that takes us beyond Scripture. Too often we condemn diversity on the basis of matters upon which Scripture does not legislate. Negative views of certain assemblies emerge because of a deviation from what is perceived as the acceptable norm. Judgments from a distance are often based on hearsay and passed on by people who love to make these issues the subject of gossip.
The autonomy of each local assembly is a truth to remember when we look at the testimonies around the world. All genuine saints have the same Lord and the same New Testament as the basis for gathering. Yet assemblies may differ slightly because sometimes the New Testament establishes principles rather than a detailed code of rules for every situation. Legitimate variations may be the result of various local factors but such minor differences should never cause us to act in a bigoted way towards other saints who seek to gather to the Lord Jesus.
If we therefore teach “the autonomy of the local church” we must accept that this means their independent accountability to the Lord and must avoid any action that promotes the notion of denominationalism (such as the “cutting off” of companies). The use of a common name for companies and buildings may suggest denominational tendencies. It should be recognised that the use of a name such as “Gospel Hall” is not always an endorsement of the doctrinal or spiritual integrity of a gathering and may be wholly misleading, Rev.3.1.
The autonomy of the local assembly is an important truth of the New Testament and must be borne in mind in all inter-assembly relations. New Testament assemblies were local and independent groups but this did not preclude inter-assembly fellowship. There are a number of Scriptures that show there was active fellowship between New Testament churches. This was seen:
- In the matter of practical aid. Local assemblies sent to other local assemblies, Acts 11.27-30; 1Cor.16.1; 2Cor.8.9; Rom.15. In such cases the relief was sent to the elders of each local assembly for distribution, Acts 11.29,30.
- When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and spoke of glorying “in you in the churches of God”. The implication is that different churches in different localities were made aware of the spiritual conditions that prevailed elsewhere. Independence did not mean exclusivity.
- Acts 8.4-18 not only show that the work commenced in Samaria was not directed by the church in Jerusalem thus confirming independence (there was no idea of a mother church), but also that there was fellowship between different localities and genuine interest in one place as to what was going on elsewhere.
- In the teaching on spiritual gifts and the movements of men of God in different localities. The New Testament shows us that certain men were given by God for the benefit of more than one company.
- The references to “the faith” and the need for adherence to it, implies that there should be common ground across Christian companies.
- The use of letters of commendation indicates that there was fellowship between individual saints from different assemblies and greetings exchanged between companies.
Good relationships with other local churches are valuable and to be fostered. However, this must not be at the expense of autonomy. The local church to which I belong may agree or disagree with the decisions and practices of others but we have no right to interfere in their affairs or vice versa. Churches are not called to establish formal links with one another. There is no evidence that Paul’s reference to “the churches of God” (e.g. 1Cor.11.16) denotes a formal grouping.
THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THIS TRUTH
What then are the practical implications of this truth? To what extent should individuals from one assembly be involved in the day-to-day life of another company? Is there a danger of undue emphasis on autonomy which promotes abdication of responsibility for what goes on in another assembly and/or failure to help where this may be constructive? Does autonomy call into question the practice of gifted men helping in other companies? At what point does the inability to function autonomously call into question the appropriateness of continuing as an assembly? Does the truth of autonomy call into question the existence of groups of convenors or committees, Trusts and charities which may be established, in good faith, to support the Lord’s work?
Some Issues To Consider?
- In certain countries there are legal obligations (such as the registration of assemblies as a named group) that cannot be ignored. While this may appear to compromise the truth of
Scripture it does not necessarily in practice undermine local autonomy or doctrinal purity. Only if this were the case should it be resisted.
- There is such a thing as paying only lip service to the truth of autonomy. This is seen for example in the case when brethren from neighbouring assemblies or sometimes from a distance, would fiercely defend the truth of autonomy, but make judgments about another assembly’s practices or seek to legislate for other assemblies or even join together in collective communication to other companies. While in a very few circumstances, it may be helpful to involve a more mature spiritual person from another assembly in giving guidance on a difficulty this should only be by invitation.
- There is a potentially serious problem arising from current practices where resources are pooled, where organisations have been established to support missionary activity, teaching brethren move on a national and international circuit, assemblies work together to convene joint meetings in a locality; all of which could be perceived as compromising autonomy. “The end justifies the means” is a motto for the world not for God’s people.
- Unity is not uniformity. It is possible to strive for uniformity on the pretext that this is unity which thereby promotes a sectarian spirit.
- There is a danger of taking an overly simplistic or an overly prescriptive approach. The principles and spirit of Scripture must be applied with wisdom in the circumstances of the day.
The Autonomy of the Local Assembly
by Ken Cooper (England)
Paper 2 considered some of the practical implications of the autonomy of the local assembly. The New Testament endorses inter assembly activity in certain circumstances but the potential problems that may arise should always be carefully considered. This paper looks at the positive benefits and some practical problems.
THE POSITIVE VALUE OF AUTONOMY
- Autonomy can be a safeguard. If one local assembly departs from Scripture it does not automatically affect other local assemblies, even in the same geographic area. This is illustrated in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 in that Pergamos held the false doctrine of the Nicolaitanes but this did not affect the other six assemblies within the same region.
- In cases of departure no group of overseers can act to excommunicate another assembly from an informal circle of churches. While such things can happen among denominations this is not Scriptural. There is no set, established group of churches that can claim the Lord walking among them. As with individuals, so with churches, “The Lord knoweth them that are His”. He alone can remove the lampstand, Rev.2.5.
- Autonomy means that assemblies do not have the right to state that other assemblies are no longer “recognised” as assemblies. As stated there is no specific Scripture for cutting off another assembly. However, there may be occasions where an assembly withdraws fellowship with another company but this must be based upon Scriptural grounds only and not arising from personality clashes. Ideally fellowship between assemblies should be preserved. It is tragic when something interferes with this. If an assembly has completely set aside the Word of God or, for example, has sin unjudged in its midst, or receives a person inappropriately (notwithstanding the production of a letter of commendation) everything Scripturally should be done to try to help remedy the situation, including earnest prayer. If all this proves abortive, then fellowship with such an assembly would only condone the conditions. In this regard it must be emphasised that before any assembly sits in judgment upon another or decides to withdraw fellowship, it must be absolutely sure it has clear authority from Scripture to do so and of course be fully conversant with the facts of the case. To not recognise another assembly for any other reason than what is taught in Scripture would be very wrong indeed.
- As indicated the use of letters of commendation indicates that there was fellowship between individual saints from different assemblies and between assemblies. Such letters are a Scriptural and courteous way of offering reassurance that a person is fit to be received. Present day practice leaves a lot to be desired in that some letters are generated without thought and accepted without question. The use of pre-printed letters is contrary to the spirit of the activity. A letter does not automatically mean that the receiving assembly must accept the person(s) bearing the letter. Those who receive must still exercise their own judgment before the Lord as to whether they will receive, remembering the responsibility to honour the Lord above accommodating men. That a letter is not a guarantee of being received also means that a letter is not necessary where someone well known to the company is on a visit. In all these circumstances the principle of autonomy enhances the integrity of the local company. It should be stated however that either a “letter” or a personal introduction was the norm in the New Testament.
THE PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM AUTONOMY
- Autonomy could potentially mean that local assemblies ignore what is taking place in other local companies. The balance between independence, interference, indifference and abdication of responsibility must be carefully considered. No assembly should be indifferent to what goes on or is believed in other assemblies but the nature of any subsequent action will vary subject to local circumstances.
- In the New Testament the apostolic writers repeatedly expose or challenge error in local assemblies where they were not in that fellowship but were either visiting or writing from a distance. Autonomy should not mean exemption from challenge and/or exposure of sin and false doctrine which is how it is perceived by some.
- Difficulties and even division often arise in local assemblies. These are sometimes compounded by rumour, gossip, speculation and untruths. Autonomy may cause another meeting to receive or refuse a person from either party. Autonomy can give rise therefore to the inappropriate reception or exclusion of a person. Autonomy can promote a lack of consistency. So, for example, a person may be justly disciplined or refuse to bow to assembly discipline or leave an assembly under unsatisfactory circumstances and he or she might go to another assembly and be received. Recognising local autonomy the decision of the receiving meeting would be its own responsibility and, while it may offend the first, it would not ultimately be their concern. The person could then travel without Scriptural authority and surreptitiously go round other gatherings (with a letter of commendation from the receiving assembly) and would not be affected by the disruption they had caused in the first meeting. This is clearly unsatisfactory.
- It has already been stated that “unity is not uniformity”. However if Scripture is obeyed there will be a measure of uniformity of practice. Autonomy has at times been used as the reason to move away from this. So for example in the area of discipline sin in one place must be acknowledged as sin in every other place. Every scriptural assembly must therefore recognise the judgment of another. Autonomy cannot be the ground for ignoring the matter. This assumes of course that when judgment has been carried out it has been righteous and scriptural. If this is not the case ultimately each assembly and each individual has the responsibility to weigh the matter before the Lord and come to their own conclusion. This may lead to the severance of fellowship. Experience generally suggests that those who pursue an unscriptural action initiate the cutting of themselves off from those who seek to exercise spiritual judgment.
- The principle of independency may be deemed to be in opposition to the Scriptural principle that association with evil defiles.
Unity is to be maintained without a central overseeing body or unscriptural collective arrangements. Every believer has the same Head and is indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. We all have the same Word of God. We all must be walking according to the direction of the Head and in the power of the Spirit. Everyone must be guided by the Scriptures. Paul maintained that he had the same pattern for all the local churches, see 1Cor.4.17; 7.17; 11.16; 14.33; 16.1. Everything in the local assembly must be taken up in the light of that which is true of the whole.
The Scriptures clearly teach the truth of the autonomy of the local assembly. However while many would claim to subscribe to this teaching, in practice it is potentially being seriously undermined. This is happening in a number of ways including:
- Through the use of modern communication technology which transforms local issues into subjects for national discussion
- Through the establishment of unnecessary inter assembly committees. There may be occasions when joint working is helpful. However:
- There appears to be an unscriptural tendency to set up committees and charitable trusts, with sub-committees and substructures, following the model of the business world and not that of Scripture, without sufficient thought as to the serious implications for local assemblies.
- Any committees or charitable Trusts must ensure that in functioning they do not compromise local autonomy, or become the unofficial arbiter of what is deemed to be acceptable or Scriptural and exert undue influence through the control of resources.
- There are clear indications that the government in the UK will want an increasing say in the distribution and use of resources when money has been obtained centrally as a result of a “Charitable Status”. They will increasingly want to dictate the make up of companies and the basis of membership which could ultimately lead to serious problems for assemblies.
- All inter-assembly “groups” should regularly and critically review their “raison d’être” to ensure they are not assuming an unscriptural position; that they are the most appropriate way to further the Lord’s work; that they are a legal necessity and that they represent good stewardship. All such groups should ensure they do nothing to undermine local decisions in local assemblies.
- Through individuals from one assembly or groups of individuals from a number of assemblies interfering in the local decisions of another assembly.
- Through the insistence on uniformity and the withholding of fellowship where this does not prevail.
Scripture gives no sanction for inter-assembly committees. Where brethren from different local assemblies work together to support a work on a wider geographical basis, the need for such must be overwhelming and in practice they must not act to undermine important Scriptural principles including that of local autonomy.
In light of the above, the conclusion must be that neither a confederation of assemblies nor independence to the point of isolation is taught in the Scripture. The New Testament does not support either of these extremes.
Caution must also be exercised to ensure that where assemblies work together that this does not become the basis of a sectarian outlook. Conversely autonomy should not be advocated simply as a pretext for the abandonment of the clear teaching of Scripture in relation to New Testament church practice.