Churchly Quality Control IX: Autonomy?
I have really mixed feelings on ecclesiastical autonomy. It’s clear that it has at least some attraction to me since I was until very recently a member of independent Bible churches for over 16 years.
Now, in my past church searches, I never said to myself, “I must join a completely independent autonomous church.” But in hindsight, one reason I joined two such churches is because I saw most denominations completely botching both autonomy and the lack thereof.
I too often saw liberals and apostates being the beneficiaries of any autonomy. This was a big reason I didn’t even consider joining a Baptist church back in 1988. For I saw over in Raleigh a Southern Baptist church that ordained a rabidly pro-abortion woman and had a quasi-Communist as a pastor. I felt if that’s what Baptist congregationalism means, then count me out.
(To their credit, the Southern Baptists have tempered their once radical congregationalism. That Raleigh church and a handful of others have been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention. And I’m glad to see that today even some Canadian Baptists aren’t buying a radical, anything goes autonomy.)
On the flip side, when autonomy was not the standard of a denomination, I saw conservatives as the usual victims. I’ve mentioned the Presbyterian congregation in which I became a Christian was kicked out of their building by the local presbytery.
And, of course, today we see in the ECUSA persecution of the orthodox in several dioceses while liberals run riot. But if someone tells liberal bishops they are out of line, they claim the protection of diocesean or provincial autonomy at the very same time that they steamroll orthodox parishes. Again, autonomy for liberals, submission or else for conservatives.
So you can see why my feelings about ecclesiastical autonomy are ambivalent. I’ve often seen it (and its lack) used as both a haven and as a club by apostates. And that has repelled me from most denominations to the point that I wasn’t a member of one for 16 years. You could say that twisted churchly autonomy drove me to real autonomy – independent Bible churches. Yes, a bit ironic now that I look back on it.
But even a cursory reading of the Bible shows that ideally churches should not be autonomous. Jesus prayed that we’d be one. And in the early years of the church, even in Acts, there were church councils whose decisions were considered binding.
And thank God that when Arianism and other heresies were taking over churches, the church at large didn’t say, “Oh well, they are autonomous. Let them be.”
So today I would say, no, churches should not be autonomous.
But I still see real congregational autonomy and independence as vastly preferable to membership in most of the major denominations.
I told you I was ambivalent.
If you want a pointy-headed (and hopefully less confusing) conservative look at the issue of autonomy in the ECUSA, here’s a piece by Ephraim Radner.