The Independent and Autonomous Nature of Local Churches

We are in the midst of noting some characteristics that we should look for when as Christians we are trying to find a church to join that we know God will be pleased with. Thus far we have discussed the name with which the church identifies itself and the way they worship God according to the pattern He set forth in His word (John 4:24). But going beyond this, there are still other things we can and should look for. In this article we want to notice the organization of the church of Christ found in the New Testament.

In an earlier article we noted the distinction between the church universal and local congregations. Our primary focus will be on local congregations, since the church in its universal sense is not an organization but simply the body of all who are saved.

A study of the New Testament will reveal that local congregations were self-governing and autonomous. They answered directly to Jesus for their actions. An example of this is found in Revelation 1 Ė 3. The book of Revelation was written to "the seven churches which are in Asia" (Revelation 1:4,11). After seeing a vision of Christ in the midst of the seven churches (seven lampstands, 1:13, 20), John is instructed to write a message to each of these individual churches. These individual instructions are recorded in chapters 2 and 3. Each church was given its own message based upon its actions and standing in Godís presence. The church at Ephesus was rebuked because they had left their first love (Rev. 2:1-7, esp. 4). Both Smyrna and Philadelphia were commended because of their stand for the truth, even in the midst of trials and tribulations (2:8-11 & 3:7-13). Sardis was declared as dead by the angel of the Lord to that church (3:1-6, esp. 1). And, Laodecia was condemned for being lukewarm, a most repulsive state to God (3:14-22, esp. 15-16). The point is that each church answered directly to the Lord for their own actions. Their judgment was based upon that which God had taught them through His word.

Many of Paulís letters are written to local congregations. In some cases, they were written to a group of congregations (Galatians 1:2). The reasons for these letters were to instruct these churches in the way God wanted all local churches to conduct themselves. In studying these letters you will find the absence of instructions for any organization larger than a local congregation. The same is true of the book of Acts, which records the establishment of the church. In Acts we find the apostle Paul establishing numerous churches (chapters 13 Ė 21). We are told that he taught the same thing "in every church (1 Corinthians 4:17). Yet, we do not find Paul establishing anything more than a local church. This being true, any church that answers to another church or to an organization of churches cannot be the church of Christ. This would include churches that have councils, synods, headquarters, the Vatican, and even conventions and general conferences that dictate what a group of churches must believe. In searching for a scriptural congregation, this will eliminate most churches.

One might refer to Acts 15 as authority for church headquarters. In this chapter we read of certain men who came from Judea and taught brethren in Antioch that they had to follow the Law of Moses to be saved." (1) As a result of this, Paul and Barnabas and others go to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. (2). While in Jerusalem, the matter is discussed and a letter is sent back to Antioch stating that the teaching of the men who came into their midst was false (23-29). Some will say that the church at Jerusalem was the "headquarters" of the church. BUT, a careful study of the text will indicate that this is not the case. First of all, the reason Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem is because that is where the problem originated (Jerusalem is the primary city of Judea). In addition to this, we note that the conclusion that the apostles (who were inspired of God, unlike any man today), and the elders was based upon what God's word taught, not some decree they voted upon to impose on all churches. Thus, this is not an example of a headquarters, or a council to make up laws, or a sponsoring church, etc. Instead, it is local congregations each taking Godís word and determining for themselves what God wants them to do. The fact that they agree with one another shows their mutual respect for Godís word on the subject.

The apostles, when they taught, did so without authority form God, not some church. Consider what Paul said to the churches of Galatia. "But I make known to you brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:11-12). In fact, as Paul elaborated upon the source of his gospel he spoke of going to Jerusalem after three years and THEN he was only Peter and James before going to Syria and Cilicia. Then he said, "And I was unknown by fact to the churches of Judea which were in Christ." (1:18-22). The point is, that the authority with which the apostles taught was from God and not from churches.

This is the organization we find in the church of Christ in the Bible. In our next article we will notice the organization within a local church. What about the church where you attend? Does it fit the pattern of a local church found in the New Testament? If not, then it is not the church of Christ. We follow the pattern you can find in God's word. We invite you to come and check us out.





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