Each congregation of the Lord’s church is autonomous, or self governed, in that there is no earthly headquarters, conventions or synods that determine what a particular church should do. The local church has it’s own elders and deacons that work with the church and determine the direction they will go. There is no mother church to command the others in what to do and how to act. The elders of one church can’t oversee what another church is doing, even if they started the church and are supporting it financially. They control the money they send and can certainly pull it away if the other church doesn’t go the way they think it should.
Autonomy is a great thing. The fact that each local church is independent means that when one church gets into trouble it doesn’t affect every other church around them. Since elders only oversee the congregation they are part of, the idea of one church withdrawing from another congregation doesn’t make sense or fit anything the Bible teaches. The job of shepherding a church and its people to help them grow and develop in their faith should occupy any elder to the degree he doesn’t have the time to be watching after other churches.
I certainly believe that the New Testament teaches the autonomy of the local church and wouldn’t want to do anything to change that. But in most cities where there are multiple congregations our autonomy has largely meant that we have little or nothing to do with each other. It is decidedly against Scripture for churches and their preachers to build walls around themselves so that they think the whole world of the people is right there.
Think of some things that went on in the church during the first century and see with me how that applies to today. One of the biggest projects that involved multiple churches was Paul gathering of a contribution from Gentile churches for the benefit of the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. He wanted to tear down the wall between the Jews and Gentiles who were Christians. The text we usually go to on giving in I Corinthians 16:1-2 was about this contribution. He challenged everyone to give as they were prospered on the first day of every week so that there would be no need for gathering it up when he arrived there. This contribution wasn’t for the work at Corinth but to give to another church far away that they would have known little about.
It’s this same contribution that was talked about in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Paul told us in the beginning of chapter 8 how the Macedonian church that was in deep poverty wanted so much to be part of the contribution that they begged Paul to let them participate. They gave freely even beyond their ability because they had first given themselves to God. Paul again challenged the Corinthian church to fulfill the promise they had made a year ago to gather money for this contribution. Great principles are on giving for any church are given in these texts. But it should be remembered that this was a special contribution being made by many churches who worked together and even sent representatives from different churches to go with Paul to deliver the contribution. When he arrived in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 21 he met with the elders to give them the contribution.
In Acts 15 there is another example of churches working together and helping one another. Some from the Jerusalem church had gone out among the new churches established among the Gentiles and spread the word that everyone who really wanted to be full Christians needed to be circumcised and keep the Old Testament law. The church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to meet with the elders and apostles who were there and at least some of the time meet with the whole church there. These elders and apostles made a decision that was to be spread among the Gentile congregations that they didn’t need to be circumcised or keep the law. They did need to abstain from sexual immorality, from meat sacrificed to idols, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.
Did the Jerusalem church have authority over the Gentile churches? No each congregation is autonomous. But it was right for one church to do something that would help all the other churches. Was the decree sent out from these elders and apostles of a nature that every church in all time is to follow these commands? Would it be wrong today for one to eat a chicken that had been strangled? I don’t think so. This wasn’t intended to be some kind of law for all time. It was a decision of those elders in trying to help the unity of the church everywhere.
When Peter commanded us to “Love the brotherhood” he wasn’t just talking about the local congregation where we worship or have our membership. We are to love those who are Christians all over the world, including the congregation that meets down the street or across town. It seems that we have developed such a fear that some of our members might leave the church we are part of to go to another congregation in town that we have tried to make certain they never have any contact with the others.
One of the best things that has developed over the last decade or so is the practice of churches in an area to have special Wednesday night programs during the summer at which preachers from other churches, usually in the same area are invited to speak. At least this offers people a chance to see someone from another congregation.
It would help people from different congregations to trust one another and to get past the whole idea of “them” and “us” if there were more joint activities, where people could recognize we are all brothers and sisters in the Lord.
What attitude then should we have in different churches when members decide they would be better off spiritually if they changed and went to another congregation? I think this is the real rub and probably especially among the preachers. We can’t really learn much about it from the New Testament because that wasn’t a real problem to them. Many times there was only one congregation in a city. People typically met in homes and were small groups. Certainly it would have been the case that people might even then have moved from one home to another group meeting in another home. Paul did send word to the church in Rome to receive Phoebe when she came and to help her in whatever business she needed help in (Romans 16:1-3).
But there is no evidence that the early church had the same kind of concern about how many members we have and how big our contribution is at any given time.
What if a person would be better off spiritually if they left one congregation to become part of another that in personality and programs would better fit them? Should the church they left get upset because they chose to go to another congregation of the Lord’s people to serve? I don’t think they should. Truthfully I’ve seen many people both come where I was to become part of the church and become deeply involved in the work when they had not been involved in much of anything before. But I’ve also seen many leave the church where I preach and teach to go to another congregation in town and become great workers when they seemed not to ever be willing to do much while with us. Personally, I thank God that they have found a place where they are better moved to serve. The Lord’s church is not equal to the local body that I’m a member of. Every Christian in the world belongs to His church since he adds them to the church when they are saved. (Acts 2:47). The church in every place is his, not ours. Remember how God had Paul and Peter to remind elders that the flock was God’s and not theirs (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:1-3). That statement applies with equal force to the preacher. Too many of us get into the mind set that the church is ours and we tie our whole feeling of acceptance with God and success in life to how big and how strong the church is where we preach. We should often remember Paul’s words in I Corinthians 3:5-9 when he asked “Who then is Apollos and who is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed. Apollos watered the seed. But it was God who made it grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Our job is to plant and water the seed by preaching, teaching, loving and serving the people all along. But the adding and subtracting of people is God’s business and not ours.
Love the brotherhood is big challenge since some aren’t very lovable. But Jesus said the new commandment he gave was for us to love the brethren as he loved us and by this all would know that we really are disciples because we have love for each other. When churches fight each other and show disdain for one another it does nothing but hurt the cause of Christ everywhere. By the way, when we think of others as unlovable, remember that they may be thinking of us the same way.