The Autonomy of the Local Church

by Keith Sharp

Introduction

Several years ago I spoke by phone to a preacher who works with a large congregation in South Texas. As we conversed he asked if I was “anti-cooperation.” I told him I knew what he was talking about, but that I advocated scriptural cooperation between churches of Christ. He changed the subject.

The issue of how local congregations may scripturally cooperate with one another has been from early days and continues to be today a live issue among brethren. So, we inquire, how may local churches of Christ scripturally cooperate with one another?

Autonomy

There was a time all gospel preachers at least gave lip service to the principle of congregational autonomy. For example, Brother Lewis G. Hale wrote a generation ago:

We are all in agreement that each local church is separate and independent in organization from all other local churches. All of us are opposed to the destruction of autonomy (Hale. 77).

Today many have quit even giving lip service to the principle of the independence of the local church. In 1985 Brother Alvin Jennings wrote:

To sum it up, the church, the treasury and elders will be one in the urban area. Elders will allow and encourage assemblies anywhere and everywhere that men gather in the name of Jesus. Congregational autonomy will begin to fade within the city... (Jennings, 71).

(I understand Brother Jennings has now renounced this position, but this remains a correct statement of the position of the International Church of Christ, formerly known successively as the “Crossroads Movement,” the “Discipling Ministry” and the “Boston Movement.”)

Although the word “autonomy” is not found in the New Testament, the principle of congregational autonomy is plainly taught there. In fact, no principle is more basic to the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church than that of the independence of the local church.

The term “autonomy” means, “The quality or state of being independent, free, and self-directing; individual or group freedom” (Webster. 1:148).

How Applied to Local Church

Does this principle apply to the local congregation? If so, how?

It certainly does not apply to legislative (i.e., law making) power. Christ is the only Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23) and its only Law Giver (James 4:12). No man or group of men may make laws and bind them on Christians as a test of fellowship, whether they act within or without the confines of the local church. Christians must neither draw up nor recognize human creeds or uninspired statements of faith as binding. To do so is to usurp the authority of Christ.

Rather, by congregational autonomy I mean that the direction of the execution of the will of Christ belongs completely within the local church and is not to be surrendered, partially or completely, to any outside control. Elders are to be appointed within each local church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). These elders (also called bishops, i.e., overseers, or pastors, i.e., shepherds - Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-2) have the oversight of the congregation of which they are members (1 Peter 5:1-2). There they rule under the authority of Christ, the Chief Shepherd (1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). No passage of Scripture broadens their authority. The elders of the local church have no right to oversee anything other than the work of the local church where they are members. There is no authority for a congregation to allow any man, group of men, or organization outside the local church to oversee all or any part of its function.

Importance

Why is the independence of each local church of Christ so important? The obvious and most basic reason is that it is part of the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church, and we must keep this pattern (2 Timothy 1:13; 2 John 9).

But it is easy to see the wisdom of the Lord in this plan for His church (Ephesians 3:10). Congregational autonomy protects the church of Christ from general apostasy. Though there were numerous sins and false doctrines found among the seven churches (local congregations) of Asia, nevertheless, because of the independence of each local church, no sin or false doctrine was found in them all (Revelation chapters 2 and 3). When, centuries later, all known local churches in Western Europe were tied together under the papacy, each false doctrine or practice that was introduced immediately spread to all. Historically, the first step into a general apostasy in the Lord's church has been the destruction of the independence of local congregations (Catholic Church, Christian Church, institutional churches of Christ today).

Of course, the Lord also recognizes that local elders understand local needs and problems better than those outside. For example, a nationwide television program might interest inhabitants of large cities but not residents of rural Northern New York or the rural South. Who would be better equipped to determine which members of a local church should receive benevolent assistance than the elders of that local church?

How Maintained

How does each local church maintain its own autonomy? By doing its own work under the oversight of its own elders (1 Peter 5:1-4). Each local church should do its own evangelism (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8; Philippians 4:15-16), edification (Acts 11:25-26), and benevolence (Acts 6:1-6). Each church should decide how its own funds are used (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Each local church should discipline its own members (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) and should assemble to worship regularly (Acts 20:7).

How Surrendered

When a local congregation gives control of any part of its work or decision making to an outside individual or organization, whether the organization be a human institution or another local church, that church has surrendered that much of its autonomy. The fact the sacrifice of oversight may be voluntary does not change the fact independence has been lost. When thirteen colonies voluntarily formed the United States of America, they ceased being thirteen independent nations and became parts of one nation. They voluntarily gave up their autonomy to a federal government. When local churches voluntarily surrender all or any part of their autonomy to a central organization, they become a denomination. When Baptist churches give control of their works of evangelism and preacher training to an association or convention, they may claim to have autonomy, but they have surrendered that much of their independence, and they constitute a denomination. When churches of Christ surrender the oversight of their work of evangelism to a sponsoring church, give control of their work of benevolence to an organization which cares for abandoned children, or sacrifice supervision of their work of edification to a college, they sacrifice that much autonomy.

Scriptural Cooperation

How, then, may congregations scripturally cooperate while at the same time maintaining autonomy?

Local churches may certainly keep each other informed about their own affairs without violating the independence of the local church. The church in Jerusalem had a keen interest in the church in Antioch, and vice versa, and they exchanged news with each other (Acts 11:19-30). It is indeed scriptural for congregations to exchange bulletins or newsletters as a means of keeping each other informed about one another’s affairs, and we should be interested in the work of the Lord in other localities.

Furthermore, a local church may invite members of other congregations to come study the Bible with them. The church in Jerusalem welcomed Barnabas and Paul from Antioch to consider the question over circumcision and the keeping of the law (Acts 15:1-22). When a local church has a gospel meeting or lectureship and sends invitations to other congregations, inviting their members to attend, no autonomy is sacrificed.

When a preacher writes an article or preaches a sermon which exposes error in a local church, there is no violation of autonomy. He may, and should, send this teaching to that local church, but he still has not usurped the decision-making power that is within the local church. Paul and Barnabas preached to the church in Jerusalem about whether the law and circumcision were to be bound on Gentiles (Acts 15:12), but the church at Jerusalem led by the apostles and its own elders decided what to do about the controversy (Acts 15:22-25). Local church autonomy is not a shield for false doctrine or unscriptural practices.

Acts 15 and Congregational Autonomy

Let's examine Acts chapter 15 and it's bearing on the autonomy (independence, self-government) of each local church. (Why not read Acts 15 now?)

Paul and Barnabas had been sent out by the church at Antioch on the first preaching journey to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3), and they returned there at the end of this very successful trip (Acts 14:26-28). Some men came from Judea, teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

These men were trying to bind the law of Moses, the Old Testament, on Gentiles (Acts 15:5). If they had been successful, they would have caused these brethren to be severed from Christ (Galatians 5:1-4) and turned them into Jewish proselytes rather than Christians. Those introducing this doctrine were “false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage)” (Galatians 2:4).

Paul and Barnabas did not yield to them for even an hour (Ibid.) but opposed them vigorously (Acts 15:2). This should have settled the matter with the church in Antioch due to Paul's apostolic authority (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1).

But, for whatever reason, the brethren at Antioch wanted to hear from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this question (Acts 15:2). Thus Paul, Barnabas, Titus and at least one other went to Jerusalem about this issue (Acts 15:2-3; Galatians 2:1).

They met first with the apostles and elders over the question (Galatians 2:2). These men added nothing to Paul's understanding of the matter (Galatians 2:6). Rather, Paul “went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which” he preached “among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:2). Thus, the apostles at Jerusalem gave to Paul “and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:7-9).

Then the matter was discussed before the entire congregation at Jerusalem, and even the false teachers were given the opportunity to present their case (Acts 15:4-17). James stated the conclusion he drew, that the apostles and elders, including Paul, had already concurred in, that Gentiles need not be circumcised or keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:18-22).

Therefore, “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” decided to send Paul and Barnabas, along with Judas and Silas, from Jerusalem to Antioch stating this conclusion (Acts 15:22). They put this in the form of a letter which became a part of the inspired canon of Scripture (Acts 15:23-29). They claimed the guidance of the Holy Spirit in reaching this conclusion (Acts 15:28).

Johnson, in a commentary put out by the Church of England, comments, “This, the first council of the Church, is generally considered an example for all times” (2: 15). Thus, such denominations as the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church, and Episcopal Church view this as the First Ecumenical Council, in which questions of church doctrine are settled for all time. This is a strange “ecumenical council,” that consisted of a few messengers sent by the congregation at Antioch, all the members of the congregation in Jerusalem, and no one from any other congregation.

This High Church view assumes “The Church” decides doctrinal soundness in councils composed of uninspired men. The church decides nothing about truth or error. The Holy Spirit sent by Christ to His apostles revealed to them all truth (John 16:13-15), the entirety of the mind of God for our salvation (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). They wrote it down for us in the New Testament (Ephesians 3:1-7). Anyone who adds to this is anathema (Galatians 1:6-9; 2 John verse 9). The responsibility of the church is to uphold and defend this divine truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15; Jude verse 3).

The High Church position also assumes that the apostolic authority has been passed down to bishops today. The apostles of Christ were led into all truth and guarded from any error by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13-15). They demonstrated their authority by working the miraculous signs of apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12). To occupy their office, one would have to be an eye witness of the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:15-26), and Paul was the last such witness (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Modern denominational bishops don't even claim these abilities. They are pretenders.

Acts fifteen does not authorize church councils or courts, nor does it sanction less formal assemblies of representatives of congregations to discuss and decide anything. All matters of salvation were decided by the Lord two millennia ago and written by His apostles in the New Testament. Matters of individual conscience must be decided by each Christian for himself alone (Romans 14:1-5).

Those in Acts 15 who stated the conclusion that all accepted were inspired of God. They were led by the Holy Spirit. Their conclusion is a part of the canon of Scripture. This was not a council of representatives from all or even various churches. One congregation sought to know if those who had come from another congregation to trouble them actually represented the views of that congregation.

Thus, there is nothing in Acts 15 that contradicts or amends the fact that the direction of the execution of the will of Christ belongs completely within the local church and is not to be surrendered, partially or completely, to any outside control. The local church is indeed to be autonomous.

Benevolence and Evangelism

Defenders of the sponsoring church arrangement characteristically employ passages authorizing churches to send funds to another church for the work of benevolence to defend churches sending to another church to do the work of evangelism. What difference does this make?

It makes a big difference. First, the New Testament clearly authorizes many churches to send to one for benevolence (Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; Acts 24:17) and for one church to send to several for benevolence (Acts 11:27-30). But there is no authority for a church or churches to send to another church or other churches to do the work of evangelism. Shall we follow the New Testament pattern or not?

This also involves the issue of autonomy. Each local church has the responsibility to assist its own needy members (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35; 6:1-3). Local churches may assist a church unable to relieve its own needy members until the church is able to do so (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). The work of the sending church is to help the needy church, and the work of the receiving church is to assist its own indigent members. Thus, equality and autonomy of local churches are maintained in that oversight of the work of each local church is within that local church, and each local congregation is able to do its own work.

But each local church has equal responsibility in the work of evangelism, commensurate with its own ability (Matthew 28:19-20). Thus, when churches send funds to another church to do the work of evangelism, the oversight of the work of all the churches involved is within the receiving church. Sending churches sacrifice oversight of part of their work and give up autonomy.

In essence, there is one pattern (the autonomy of the local church) with two applications (cooperation for benevolence and for evangelism). This is not hard to understand. We often preach on “God's Two Laws of Pardon.” God has one plan of salvation: by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). But there is one set of conditions for forgiveness of the alien sinner and another for pardon of the erring child of God. One pattern - two applications.

When many churches send to one for the work of evangelism, since the elders of the receiving church are overseeing a work that pertains equally to all the churches, a collectivity of churches precisely parallel to a Baptist association is created, something unknown to the New Testament. This is not true in benevolence, since the sending churches simply help the receiving church do its own work.

Pattern for Cooperation for Benevolence

The Lord has a pattern of congregational cooperation for benevolence. Six New Testament passages authorize congregational cooperation for benevolence (Acts 11:27-30; 24:17; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; Galatians 2:10). Parallel to this, there are seven passages that authorize music in worship in the New Testament age (Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12; James 5:13). They constitute a pattern which specifies the kind of music, singing, and we must follow it (sing in worship) and not violate it (use instrumental music in worship). Even so, the pattern for congregational cooperation for benevolence specifies the kind of cooperation, concurrent, and we must follow this pattern (each contributing congregation must send directly to the church in need) and not violate it (create a collectivity of churches or a church supported benevolent society).

The New Testament passages authorizing congregational cooperation for benevolence relate to two historical occurrences separated by over a decade. The church in Antioch sent benevolent aid to the churches in Judea ca. A.D. 44-45 (Acts 11:27-30), and the apostle Paul took a collection from Gentile churches for the benevolent assistance of Christians in Jerusalem ca. A.D. 57-58 (Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9; Acts 24:17). Don't confuse the two collections.

wpdoc.gif

The brethren in Antioch assisted their brethren in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). Since the elders of each church had the oversight of the work of that church (1 Peter 5:1-4), there is not even a hint that this money was sent to one church in Judea, such as Jerusalem, for distribution to the other churches. Rather, congregational autonomy was maintained, and no collectivity of churches was created.

James, Cephas, and John asked Paul to remember the poor, and he eagerly followed their request (Galatians 2:10). He took a voluntary contribution from Gentile churches for the needy

Christians in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9) and delivered this assistance at the end of his third preaching journey (Acts 24:17). The purpose of the collection was to maintain the equality of the churches (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), i.e., to insure that each church would have sufficient funds do its own work. Each church raised its own funds and chose its own messengers (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). No church or human organization acted as a collecting and dispersing agency or assumed the oversight of the benevolent work of all the contributing churches. Each congregation maintained its autonomy, and no collectivity of churches was created.

wpdoc1.gif

The pattern of congregational cooperation for benevolence establishes the principle of local church autonomy. Each church is to raise its own funds and send directly to the church in need. The equality of all the churches relative to independence must be kept. No church may act as an agent for another or assume oversight of a benevolent work of several churches. We must maintain local church autonomy.

Evangelism

The Scriptures also reveal a pattern of congregational cooperation for evangelism.

wpdoc2.gif

It is perfectly scriptural for churches to send teaching to each other. The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to the young church in Antioch to encourage them “that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (Acts 11:22-23; cf. 13:1-3; 4:21-23, 26-28; 15:22-31,40; 18:22; Colossians 4:16). A local church may send scriptural teaching to any person or group of people anywhere (1 Thessalonians 1:8). When a local church sends a teaching paper to other churches or pays a preacher to hold a gospel meeting for a small congregation, this is scriptural congregational cooperation.

Each church may support an evangelist to work with it (2 Corinthians 12:13). A congregation may act alone in supporting a preacher in another place (Philippians 1:3-5; 2:25,30; 4:14-18. Or, several churches may independently and directly support a preacher working in another place (2 Corinthians 11:8-9).

wpdoc3.gifThis reveals three facts. No church is to act as an agent for another church or churches since, when several churches pool their resources to do a work common to all of them, all the other churches become subordinate to the congregation which decides how the funds will be used. No church may assume the oversight of any part of the evangelistic work (or any other work) of any other church or churches. Also, the equality of each local congregation relative to oversight must be maintained.

The principle is congregational autonomy. The oversight of all the work of each local church is completely within that congregation (1 Peter 5:1-4).

This plan dramatically demonstrates the superiority of God's wisdom to man's wisdom (Isaiah 55:8-9; Romans 11:33-36; Ephesians 3:8-11). By this amazingly simple plan, in stark contrast with the elaborate schemes of men, the first century church took the gospel to the whole world in one generation (Mark 16:15; Colossians 1:5-6,23). By comparison, the heavy machinery of human organizational schemes led to an actual loss in membership of the church of Christ in this country between 1965 and 1980 (Yeakley, v). The divine plan of church organization is to the glory of God (Ephesians 3:20-21), whereas human organizational schemes only glorify men.

The Sponsoring Church

For over a half century the issue of “the sponsoring church” has divided churches of Christ. Such programs as Herald of Truth, World Radio, Search, One Nation Under God, Amazing Grace, and Campaign America are examples. Lewis G. Hale described the part of contributing churches thus :

There are hundreds of churches which send financial aid to help keep the program on the air. They have no part in the management of the program. They have no part in the selection of the preacher, singers, nor sermon topics. Their part is solely that of financial assistance (2).

wpdoc4.gifThis is the work of all involved churches.

The principle of representative work is involved when a church sends a gift to another church to assist in a work which it is doing. If the gift is to help pay the expenses of the evangelistic effort, the contributing church is preaching the gospel just as surely as if it had used those finances to have the preacher come to its own locality to do the preaching. In either case, the church is preaching by means of a representative, the preacher (Ibid.. 57).

Thus, the elders of the sponsoring church oversee the work of a number of churches.

This violates all scriptural principles governing congregational cooperation for evangelism. One church acts as the agent of other churches, one church assumes the oversight of an evangelistic work belonging to several churches, and the equality of each congregation relative to oversight is destroyed. The sponsoring church violates the New Testament pattern for congregational cooperation and destroys the autonomy of local churches.

For over a generation faithful brethren have pointed out that sponsoring churches are parallel to Baptist Associations and the Christian Church Missionary Society, in that each is a collectivity of churches that destroys local church autonomy. In recent years the fruit of this digression has been seen in the outright denial of congregational autonomy by the International Church of Christ.

The Issues Are NOT

I am not opposed to cooperation between local churches of Christ. Opposition to a combination of congregations is not opposition to all congregational cooperation, and concurrent cooperation (all acting independently toward the same goal) is just as much cooperation as collective action.

The issues are not over methods and arrangements whereby local churches do their own work of preaching the gospel. For many years I have edited local church papers that have been mailed to other congregations. I have done extensive radio work. I have even preached on television. Several local churches scripturally have their own TV programs. It is collective action of churches, not methods or local arrangements, that arouses my opposition.

The question is not whether we should take the gospel to the billions in America and the world who are lost. The same smoke-screen was raised by the advocates of the Christian Church American Christian Missionary Society a century ago. Brother Benjamin Franklin eloquently replied: “It is not missionary work to which we are opposed, but empty plans, schemes and organizations after sectarian models...” (Review, March 12, 1867).

This is not a dispute over expediencies. Before our brethren can truthfully contend their promotional schemes are expedient, they must establish that such collectivities of congregations are lawful (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).

The Issues ARE

The sponsoring church arrangement is a violation of the New Testament pattern for cooperation between congregations for evangelism. The pattern is concurrent cooperation of congregations, each working independently toward the same goal. No church acted as the agent of another. No church assumed the oversight of any part of the work of any other church or churches. The equality of each congregation relative to oversight was maintained. The sponsoring church organization, a collectivity of churches under the oversight of the elders of one church, totally violates this pattern of congregational cooperation for evangelism. Of course, the principle violated is that of congregational autonomy (independence).

Not a New "Anti Hobby"

We are not just a “little bunch of moss-backed antis opposed to everything.” Brethren of past generations were generally united in opposition to such sponsoring church schemes. For example, Brother H. Leo Boles taught: “There is no example in the New Testament of two or more churches joining together their funds for support of the gospel” (Advocate, Nov. 3, 1932). F.B. Srygley warned:

If two or more churches put it into the hands of a board, though the board may be made up of the elders of one of the churches, we have a very nice beginning of a missionary society to try to take charge of the churches (Ibid., Jan. 11, 1934).

Human Organizations for Spread of Gospel

In the mid nineteenth century brethren divided over the American Christian Missionary Society. In the late twentieth century the heirs of those who opposed the Missionary Society began supporting parallel organizations, such as World Bible School.

The American Christian Missionary Society was an organization begun by uninspired men to do the work of evangelism. It was formed by a convention composed of delegates from local churches.

Both the Missionary Society and World Bible School are church supported organizations.

The Christian Missionary Society, too, on its own independent footing, will be a grand auxiliary to the churches in destitute regions, at home as well as abroad, in dispensing the blessings of the gospel among many that otherwise would never have heard of it (Campbell, 1849. 694-695, as quoted by Hailey.150-151).

We would like to see more churches financially supporting WBS. Small churches that do no mission work because they are small would find themselves responsible for more baptisms than more large churches if they simply sent a monthly check to WBS to help with this good work. Mention it to the leaders and elders where you worship and ask that they consider doing it (Lovell, March, 1986. 2).

The convention met in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 24-28, 1849, at which time the American Christian Missionary Society was organized. The following resolution was proposed by John T. Johnson, of Kentucky, and passed by the group:

Resolved, That the 'Missionary Society,' as a means to concentrate and dispense the wealth and benevolence of the brethren of this Reformation in an effort to convert the world, is both scriptural and expedient.

After full discussion of the matter, a constitution was adopted,...

Article 1st. This Society shall be called the American Christian Missionary Society.

Article 2d. The object of this shall be to promote the spread of the Gospel in destitute places of our own and foreign lands (Campbell, 1849. 690, as quoted by Hailey,148-149).

wpdoc5.gifWorld Bible School is a parallel organization today. Its founder and long time head, the late Jimmy Lovell, wrote:

Legally, and again I have never been questioned, we are incorporated under the laws of California as West Coast Publishing Co. - a non-profit, tax deductible religious organization. We have another corporation in Texas known as World Bible School, with directors who are on the WCC board (Sept., 1983. 2).

When churches support a human organization to do the work of the church, they establish ties of fellowship with the human institution, since a contribution by a local church is an expression of fellowship (2 Corinthians 8:4; Philippians 4:15-16). The only tie in Christ is that of fellowship (1 John 1:3). Thus, by donating to the Missionary Society, World Bible School, or any other human organization, that man-made institution is attached to the churches in ties of fellowship. It becomes in reality a church organization. It thus is a violation of the New Testament pattern for the organization of the church (2 John 9).

Church support of human institutions violates the independence of the local church. In the Missionary Society, the board of the Society supervised the work of evangelism in which all the contributing churches participated. The elders of those local churches surrendered their oversight of that work to the board of directors of a human institution. The same thing is true of church support of World Bible School. Churches send the money; World Bible School provides the oversight.

All of this is handled through our follow up work in Visalia, California with funds provided by churches and individuals who want someone to follow-up on their students (Action, January, 1986. 4).

This clearly violates local church independence (1 Peter 5:1-2).

These organizational schemes elevate human wisdom above divine wisdom. WBS supporters claim, “We are convinced that it affords the greatest of all opportunities to preach Christ to the 80 million in Nigeria” (News, Nov.- Dec., 1975). The masthead of Action, the voice of WBS, declares, “Nothing Compares With It In Our World.” In reality nothing compares with the Lord's church. How dare men elevate their wisdom above God's (Isaiah 55:8-9).

In Favor of Foreign Evangelism

Please don't accuse me of being “anti’ foreign evangelism. I have made six overseas preaching trips to five countries. The congregation of which I am a member sends support to evangelists in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Canada.

Church of Christ - Nigeria

I possess a legal document entitled “Amended Constitution of Church of Christ - Nigeria.” This document was adopted by many churches of Christ meeting in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State (where I taught 111 preachers in classes on the authority of the Scriptures in January, 1992), Nigeria in 2003 . While declaring, “The Church shall uphold the Supremacy of the Bible in all matters of doctrine as the standard of her practice and faith,” the document nonetheless and inconsistently declares, “WE THE MEMBERS of Church of Christ - Nigeria, ...DO HEREBY MAKE, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES the following Constitution.” I thought the Bible was the constitution of the church of Christ. The Constitution declares the organization to be composed of churches of Christ in Nigeria. It provides for the selection of a board of trustees and states, “All landed property of the Church shall be registered in the name of the Registered Trustees.” The document decrees a “National General Meeting” of the church at least annually. It claims for the organization the power to deny any congregation the right to bear the name “Church of Christ”if they are not approved by this national organization.

Obviously this constitution simply creates a national denomination calling itself “Church of Christ” and wielding power over local congregations to keep them in line. It would be hard to imagine a more obvious denial of the autonomy, self rule, of local churches. It would be difficult to conceive of a more dramatic proof that, when local autonomy is ignored, denominational tyranny results.

A half century of American influence in Nigeria, chiefly through the auspices of World Bible School, has resulted, not in the promotion of nondenominational Christianity, but in the birth of a national “Church of Christ” denomination claiming the power to crush dissent. We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). American churches and preachers operating with commendable zeal to reach the lost but in either ignorance or defiance of the divine principle of congregational autonomy have caused enormous harm. They have spawned a human denomination that threatens to persecute and crush those who remain loyal to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

The autonomy of the local church is the binding and exclusive pattern for church government in all the activities of the church. We follow this divine pattern of congregational independence when congregations engage in concurrent cooperation.

The sponsoring church system and church supported human organizations corrupt the organization of the church, alter the divine pattern for congregational cooperation, destroy local church autonomy and lay the groundwork for denominationalism. Furthermore, these human schemes just don't work.

Churches of Christ should zealously do the great work God has given us to do. But, we must follow the divine pattern in this endeavor (2 Timothy 1:13). A life time ago Brother Guy N. Woods spoke what remains true today and until the end of time:

The ship of Zion has floundered more than once on the sandbar of institutionalism. The tendency to organize is a characteristic of the age. On the theory that the end justifies the means, brethren have not scrupled to form organizations in the church to do the work the church itself was designed to do. All such organizations usurp the work of the church, and are unnecessary and sinful. This writer has ever been unable to appreciate the logic of those who affect to see grave danger in Missionary Societies, but scruple not to form a similar organization for the purpose of caring for orphans and teaching young people to be gospel preachers (Lectures. 1939).

Brethren, let us return to the “old paths” (Jeremiah 6:16).

Works Cited

  • Amended Constitution of Church of Christ - Nigeria
  • Boles, H. Leo, Gospel Advocate.
  • Campbell, Alexander, Millennial Harbinger.
  • Franklin, Benjamin, American Christian Review.
  • Hailey, Homer, Attitudes And Consequences.
  • Hale, Lewis G., How Churches Can Cooperate.
  • Jennings, Alvin, How Christianity Grows In The City. Gospel Advocate.
  • Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged.
  • Woods, Guy N., Abilene Christian College Lectures.
  • Yeakley, Flavil R., Jr., Why Churches Grow