We have learned that the word “autonomy” means “independent” or “self-governing.” We have also learned that God wants each congregation of His people in each area to be autonomous (self-governing and independent). Even though we may not understand why God wants autonomous congregations, we must still obey His will. However, there are many good reasons for each church in each area to be self-governing.
One reason is that an autonomous congregation develops its own members to be leaders. When leaders for a congregation are brought in from other places, local men do not develop their talents for leadership. Members of the church do not grow as they should (I Peter 2:1,2; II Peter 3:18). Denominational church organization discourages members from developing their talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
In Romans 15:14, Paul praised the Christians in Rome for being filled with goodness and knowledge and being able to admonish (teach) one another. These men had developed their talents in an independent church. In Hebrews 5:12-14, the members of the church were rebuked because they had not developed their ability to teach others. These Christians had been in the church for a long time, but were still unable to teach. The best way to learn is by teaching others. Leadership in the church requires men who are experienced in doing God’s work. God wants each congregation to develop its own leadership and not to have to be dependant on others.
Denominational plans of raising money often require the local church to send its contribution to the headquarters of the denomination. But in God’s church where each congregation is self-governing, the money that is given is used by the local church for its own work. When funds are available to help other works, the local church has control of where its money goes. The best way to encourage the members to give as they have been prospered (I Corinthians 16:2) is for them to control how the money is spent. People will give more and do more when they can be a part of the work.
God’s plan of church organization also prevents the spread of false teaching! If several large stones are tied together along a piece of rope, each rock is not independent, but they are all joined together. If any one of these stones falls into a river, it will pull the others into the water with it. But if the stones are not tied together, and one stone falls into the river, the others will not fall. This shows a very good reason for having autonomous congregations. Denominational churches tie churches together and take away their independence. If one of them goes into false teaching, all the rest will soon follow. Or, if the leadership of a denomination teaches false doctrine, then all the congregations that make up the denomination will also teach false doctrine since they are all tied together. God’s plan is best. Even if a congregation goes away from the truth, the other congregations do not have to for they are independent.
A church can never receive outside leadership without losing its independence. However, a church may receive outside support for a time without losing its independence. We can learn this from the New Testament. There is no command, example, or implication in the New Testament that a congregation was ever governed from the outside. But we do read of congregation receiving both spiritual and financial support from sister congregations. Churches in Judea received help from the church at Antioch in a time of famine (Acts 11:27-30). Paul received support from other churches while preaching at Corinth (II Corinthians 11:8). The church at Philippi sent support to Paul when he preached in other places (Philippians 4:15).
God intends for each congregation eventually to become self-supporting. Paul commended the church at Philippi for supporting him financially (Philippians 4:15). However, a congregation is not fully independent until it is able to carry on its own work without help from outside help. While temporary help may be necessary, the congregation should work toward being financially independent. Just as a baby grows and learns to care for himself, so a congregation must grow and learn to care for itself. Just as a child grows up, becomes a parent and cares for others, so a congregation must grow and become a helper of others.
When parents teach their baby to walk, they require him to take steps for himself. If the baby does not try to walk alone, he may never learn to walk. Each step he takes by himself, he is learning to walk. In the same way a congregation must take steps for itself even from the beginning. As long as others provide the finances, it will never learn to walk alone. But the more steps it takes by itself, the more it learns to walk by itself. God not only wants each congregation to be self-governing and self-supporting, but he also wants it to be self-propagating. A self-propagating church is one which reproduces itself. It grows. The leadership of an autonomous congregation will see that the Gospel is taught to others. It will work to establish other congregations. The “seed of the kingdom is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). Any seed has within itself the life necessary to bring forth the same kind of fruit. The Word of God has the power to produce churches of Christ wherever it is taught. Whenever good and honest hearts receive the Word of God, new congregations are established. A congregation is like a banana tree. Once it is planted it has the ability to grow even if it does not receive any outside care. It will also cause new banana plants to come up. This is the meaning of self-propagating.
The Bible says the church is the “pillar” or support of truth (I Timothy 3:15). Each congregation is to support the truth and to defend the truth. This will cause other churches to be planted. Each of them will also support the truth in other areas. Outside missionary agencies or denominational organizations are not necessary for the spread of the kingdom.
God’s plan is simple and effective. We cannot improve upon it. Let us be happy to do what God says.