When we speak of congregational autonomy, we are using a term that is not strictly scriptural; however, the concept expressed by the term is scriptural. A congregation is a local assembly of the saints in pursuit of serving God. We know that such groups are authorized scripturally by the fact that they exist in the scriptures, 1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1, etc. We also know that these groups are authorized because we see the functions of such groups in the scriptures: elderships, 1 Peter 5:2; teaching responsibilities, Titus 2; care for widows, 1 Timothy 5:16; joint encouragement, Hebrews 10:24-25; marking, 1 Corinthians 5:13, among other functions.
Autonomy is a word that we generally do not hear. The word “signifies the power or right of self government.” This definition would mean that a local congregation has the right of self government within the limits of authority previously established by God and revealed in His word, Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Peter, therefore, had no right to allow women to serve as elders in a congregation; and neither do any of us today, 1 Timothy 3:2.
All of the foregoing means that each and every congregation is free to conduct its work in whatever way it sees fit with Christ as its only head and within the limits of God’s word. No congregation has the power or right to oversee or dictate the actions of another congregation. Such does not preclude the Christians in one congregation from recognizing the sin of another congregation, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/360-may-one-judge-other-churches .
In fact, we do see congregations having interactions. Jesus dictated seven letters to seven congregations within the book of Revelation which means that the congregation at Smyrna knew what was going on in Ephesus, etc. Colossians 4:16 tells us, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.” Also, Colossians 4:15, “Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea.” Paul notes in 1Corinthians 16:19 that, “The churches of Asia greet you (the Corinthians).” Even today, we allow guest preachers to come and preach for our congregations, we hold gospel meetings to which the Christians of other congregations are invited, and we often inform other groups of needs for prayer or support.
Realizing that knowledge of the workings of other congregations and certain interactions are permitted, we turn our attention to a concept that, to me, seems 180 degrees out of phase with God’s will in scripture. Wayne Jackson expresses it as, “Autonomy was never meant to be a shield for apostasy,” though I am not sure he had the idea I am addressing here in mind. I suppose he is addressing more the idea of a congregation’s slide into sin. The reality is that any sin on the part of an individual or group of individuals is wrong. It may not be that a congregation is sliding into apostasy but it may be engaging in a sin that needs to be corrected. If Christians from another congregation have knowledge of that sin, are they forbidden because of congregational autonomy from trying to reach those Christians with the truth about the matter?
Some I have known seem to be making this claim when Christians leave one congregation in an unscriptural manner and for unscriptural reasons and decide to land in their congregation. It may be that the receiving congregation contacts the leaving congregation to find out what the situation is or it may not. Either way, the decision is made to allow the Christians who left to come and worship there, maybe even join themselves to the new congregation. I believe this situation cannot be justified scripturally and certainly not on the basis of congregational autonomy.
Let me illustrate my point this way. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, a man has his father’s wife. Paul has written to the Corinthians to purge this man from among them. He is, after all, unrepentant. The Corinthians respond as Paul has encouraged them; the man is put out from among them. If it were feasible, the man might decide to visit the few saints in Athens or maybe those in Berea. Would those groups be right to admit him to their number? Would it be proper to use congregational autonomy to protest that they were right even though the Corinthians (and Paul) tell them that he must be put out? Or did he only have to be put out of the Corinthian congregation? In essence, using congregational autonomy is exactly the action we take when we admit those in sin into our number after they have left another congregation. Our forceful argument that congregational autonomy allows us to admit sinners from other congregations into our number does not change the fact that the action is unscriptural.
If we believe in and want to obey Colossians 3:17 (which I have heard too many Christians ignore) regarding this issue of leaving and receiving, then we will need to prove the practice by scripture. Too many Christians simply accept the status quo as within God’s will and make vain, defensive pronouncements rather than opening their hearts and minds to the word. Remember, when a congregation accepts Christians who are in sin (i.e. out of a right relationship/fellowship with God), they are allowing him to continue in his sin. God’s will is that he be confronted by his sin so that he will come to himself and be reconciled to God (see the account of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11ff). The congregation, therefore, merely enables the Christian to fall deeper into sin. Sad indeed, when men decide to do things their own way rather than God’s.