Hello again everyone,
The holiday season is fast approaching. Many of us are distracted with the extra demands of winding up the present year and the busyness of preparing for a new year (not to mention Christmas—you have my sympathy if you still need to get out there to finish your Christmas shopping). Assuming you can manage one more thing on your to-do-list, here are a few thoughts for your consideration about Congregational Autonomy which is the next item from our whiteboard.
Autonomy is the right or condition of self-government. Congregational autonomy (congregationalism) has typically characterised restoration movements seeking to replicate the primitive church. The New Testament (apostolic) ideal of each congregation being governed by its own eldership and diaconate while united under the headship of Christ furnishes the primary case for congregational autonomy as opposed to any form of extra-biblical super-congregational government. Congregationalism tends to nurture and maintain the organic, family-oriented character of the body of Christ. Super-congregational forms of government are prone to create hierarchical power structures and religious institutions or denominations that are foreign in both form and spirit to the New Testament church.
Congregational autonomy is an important factor when it comes to selecting bishops and deacons. It allows for adaptation to the variety of situations (e.g. rural or urban) and cultural contexts (e.g. Eastern or Western) in which churches world-wide operate. For example, hospitality might work quite differently from one place to another, and from one generation to another. Each church must define what it is to be hospitable in their own context. Further, each congregation must wrestle with those qualifications that are sometimes controversial such as the meaning of “husband of one wife” and the elder’s “faithful children” (e.g. faithful to whom? Titus 1:6). In what positive degree must a candidate for eldership be blameless, or temperate, or able to teach, before he is considered qualified? Addressing these sorts of questions without ready-made answers being imposed by some remote authority is both the privilege and the responsibility of every local church. Challenging? Difficult? Risking conflict? Yes, on all counts. But such struggles are the way to maturity as a community of faith. That is where and how the fruit of the Spirit becomes more than a mere phrase to which we give lip service. Paul wasn’t kidding when he said, “we must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Peter said for good reason that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). It takes a lot of love and patience and forbearance to rise above the challenges of fear and pride and selfish ambition that threatens the development and appointment of biblical leadership. If I understand Paul correctly, love was his antidote to the worldliness and selfishness that was rampant in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). The challenge does not lie so much in understanding the mind of Christ revealed to Jesus’ apostles through the Spirit in the first century AD (1 Corinthians 2:1-16). The much greater challenge lies in our willingness to have the mind of Christ to embrace one another in humility and love as He demonstrated through kenosis in the incarnation (Philippians 2:1-13). Each flock of sheep needs to recognise and follow those from among themselves who are demonstrably fit in biblical terms to lead them as their own shepherds and deacons (Acts 6:3; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Lynn Anderson was right to say that shepherds should smell like the sheep they serve.1 That normally happens only where congregations are truly self-governed.
Congregationalism can, however, be misconstrued and so become detrimental to God’s purposes. No congregation of God’s people exists alone. While rejecting the sort of dependence created by super-congregational governance because it lacks biblical support, we must avoid being driven to the other extreme of independence which also lacks biblical support. In any living organism such as the body of Christ, each component (i.e. branches of the vine, whether considered individually as Christians or collectively as members of a congregation) is inter-related and inter-dependent. We are family! Any congregation seeking to develop and appoint biblical leaders ought to be willing and able to draw upon the experience and wisdom of other brethren—the extended family—around them (It seems to me that evangelists played a key role in this process in the apostolic era—I plan to say more on the role of evangelists next month). Surely churches with an established eldership and diaconate can and should provide valuable insights and support to any sister church seeking to appoint their own. No congregation needs to reinvent the wheel when it comes to developing and appointing home-grown elders and deacons. I suspect that isolationism in the name of independence (mistakenly associated with congregational autonomy) may account in part for why many churches have tried to appoint elders and deacons but abandoned the process because they found it too difficult to accomplish on their own. What do you think?
My prayer is that 2019 will be a great year of spiritual growth for you and for the body of Christ at large. May God bless our endeavours to “know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” 1 Timothy 3:15 NRSV.
Looking forward to seeing you all in Melbourne at the APEDS2020 Conference!
Grace and peace,
Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (West Monroe, LA: Howard, 1997), 4. ↩