Autonomy of the Local Church

A couple of weeks ago I discussed the Baptist distinctive, biblical authority (BAPTISTS). This week I will discuss the Baptist distinctive, autonomy of the local church. When we look at the N.T. we witness the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).1 We are informed by God’s Word that the Lord Jesus Christ alone is the head of the Church (Eph. 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19). What Scripture means by “head” is Jesus is of superior rank. He is the Lord or master of the Church. Let me start by distinguishing the Universal Church from local churches. The Universal Church includes every born-again Christian. At the moment of salvation every true Christian is placed into the body of Christ (i.e. the Universal Church) by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 18-20; Eph. 4:1-16). Local churches are to be visible expressions of the Universal Church in different geographical locations. But, the difference is it is possible that local churches may have members who are unbelievers, professing to be genuine Christians. Only God and the individual professing Christian ultimately know whether he/she is genuinely born-again. The Universal Church contains only true believers. Only those with credible professions of faith should be baptized and become members of local churches. As much as is humanly possible, our church membership rolls should reflect those who are a part of the Universal Church (i.e. born-again Christians). This is why we have membership classes, and strive to keep our membership roll current.

Christ has communicated in the N.T. Scriptures how he desires the church (Universal and local) to function (John 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:4, 12-15; 2 Tim. 3:16-4:5; 1 Tim. 3:15). So, Jesus is the head of the Church and he has given us his complete instructions for the Church in the N.T. (hence, the Baptist distinctive, biblical authority). The local church is a structurally organized fellowship of baptized professing believers in a specific locality: meeting in the name of Christ, under the authority of Scripture, for the purpose of carrying out Christ’s commission in their area (Acts 2:41-47). A local church should be under the leadership (or at least in pursuit of) of a biblically qualified and called elder/pastor (or if possible a plurality of elders/pastors) (Tit. 1:5-9; Heb. 13:7, 17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). The local church is called by God to carry out the biblical purposes and functions of the church in this world – evangelism (Acts 2:47), discipleship (Tit. 2:1-5), prayer (Acts 2:42), ministry (Eph. 4:11-16; 5:19-21; Tit. 3:8, 14), worship (Acts 2:47), baptism (Acts 2:41), celebrating the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), appointing of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13; cf. Acts 6:1-6 – prototype deacons), disciplining elders (1 Tim. 5:19-20), and disciplining members (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11).

The apostles led the Church following Christ’s ascension to the Father’s right hand. We see Peter as the leader of the apostles (Acts 1:15; 2:14; cf. John21:15-19). Therefore, the apostles taught, led/shepherded, and equipped the Church for ministry. But, as the Church began to grow numerically, it began to spread geographically (Acts 8:1; 11:19-26). In these new geographical locations the Christians were organized into local churches. The apostles were mainly stationed in Jerusalem, where they provided leadership for the local church there. This necessitated leadership in the various local churches that were being organized. The first mention of non-apostolic leadership for local churches is found in Acts 11:30. The local church in Antioch sent financial relief to the local church in Jerusalem. They sent it with Barnabas and Saul, who delivered it to the “elders” of the Jerusalem church. Now, these elders were not the elders of Judaism, but rather, elders in the Jerusalem church. This begins a shift from apostolic leadership to elder leadership. Ultimately, the spiritual leadership was carried out according to Scripture, under the Lord Jesus Christ’s authority. He is the head of the Church (Universal and local). In Acts 14, we learn that after a group of individuals repented of their sin and believed the gospel, they were organized into a local church under the leadership of biblically qualified elders (vv. 21-28). In Acts 15, we learn that the apostles and elders in the Jerusalem church led the church through issues concerning Gentile Christians. Verse six says, “Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter.” Verse two describes the apostles and elders as those in leadership. So, it is clear that as time progressed in the book of Acts, the leadership role transferred from the apostles to the elders in local church. The apostles oversaw the Universal Church but elders had oversight of individual local churches.

When we look at Acts 20, we observe the apostle Paul, who had planted the church in Ephesus, exhorting the Ephesian elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) and oversee (i.e. bishop) the Ephesian church. He urged them to follow his own personal example (vv. 17-38). Paul urged them to, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers (i.e. bishops), to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood” (v. 28). Leadership in the Ephesian church transferred from Paul the apostle to biblically qualified elders. The apostle Peter exhorted elders of local churches here, “I exhort the elders (presbuteros) among you: Shepherd (i.e. pastor, pomenate) God’s flock (pomniou) among you, not overseeing (i.e. bishoping, episkopontes) out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will; not for the money but eagerly; not lording (i.e. dominating) it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock (pomniou). And when the chief Shepherd (archipoimenos) appears, you will receive me the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:1b-4). Jesus is described here as the chief Shepherd (i.e. chief Pastor). He is the head Pastor of the Church (Universal and local). Elders are Christ’s under-shepherds.

When the apostle John died of old age before the end of the first century the apostolic office came to an end. Jesus Christ is still the head of the Church (Universal and local). But now, biblically qualified elders/pastors/overseers lead local churches in which the Holy Spirit appointed them (Acts 20:28). These biblically qualified and divinely appointed men serve under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. They shepherd (i.e. pastor) and oversee local churches.

Now, I’ve gone through all of these biblical passages to establish the biblical basis for each local church being autonomous. Each local church has Christ as its head. According to the N.T. biblically qualified elders were appointed to shepherd (i.e. pastor) and oversee local churches. Each local church carried out its own church discipline (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2:5-11). Some of the local churches are addressed in Revelation 2-3 were urged to repent of their congregation’s sin and conversely some of them were encouraged to continue in their congregation’s obedience. The church in Philadelphia wasn’t told to help the Ephesian church repent (2:4-5). The church in Ephesus wasn’t told to deal with the idolatry and sexual immorality in Thyatira (2:18-23). The local church in Philippi was called to spiritual unity in their congregation (Phil. 2:1-4). They were not called to spiritual unity with the church in Corinth. Each local church is called to respect, love, and submit to its own pastor(s), not the pastor(s) of another local church (1 Thess. 5:12-13; Heb. 13:7, 17). Each local church is responsible for its own affairs under the headship of Christ. It is to be submitted to the Word of God in all areas, and following the leadership of its biblically qualified pastor(s).

This means the local church should not be under any denominational hierarchy or authority. No one outside the local church has authority to tell that church what to do or teach. Under the headship of Christ, each local church should call its own pastor(s) and appoint its own deacons to care for it. It functions under the authority of God’s Word in all areas. It should approve its own Constitution and doctrinal statement. Local churches should follow God’s Word in issues of church discipline, baptism, church membership, doctrine, encouragement, correction, music, etc… Others have created a denominational hierarchy outside of the local church. It determines what pastor(s) a local church receives, how much he makes for salary, and how long he remains at the church. The denominational hierarchy outlines its doctrine, even what marriages a church will perform. Many local churches have been evicted from the buildings they in which they met because they did not agree with their denomination over homosexual marriage, female pastors, and a variety of other issues. We do not find evidence of any such hierarchy in the N.T. Christ alone is the head of the Church. Pastors lead the local church they were appointed to, under the headship of Christ. The apostles are gone. So, there is no one who has authority over multiple churches, except Christ himself. He is over them all.

The Baptist distinctive, autonomy of the local church, states that there is no authority outside of the local church, except Jesus Christ the Lord. Next week, I will deal with the Baptist distinctive, priesthood of the believer.

1The church was born when the Holy Spirit came upon the Christians, baptizing and indwelling them (Acts 2).

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