Does the church which Christ built have the right to autonomy, or what is rightly defined as self-government? The word “autonomy” does not appear in the English Bible. However, the concept of church autonomy certainly does.
Local churches are independent from each other. The authority of the elders in a local church is limited to the “flock of God which is among you” (1 Pet. 5:1) and the flock “over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). Elders have no authority to rule over anything larger than the local church.
The sponsoring church is a violation of church autonomy because it makes elders of the local church oversee the funds of thousands of churches, much like the Pope in Rome which oversees the Catholic denomination. The elders have the authority to oversee the members, discipline, teaching, and funds of the local church and it only.
“Autonomy” is not a concept to hide behind to avoid scriptural examination, the necessity of giving Bible authority, and exposing specific cases of digression and apostasy to the light of truth. Any Christian with a Bible in his hand can ask where the Bible authorizes a specific practice of any given congregation. Members of that congregation can choose to give a Bible answer, or to declare themselves immune from giving a Bible answer on the mistaken notion that giving a Bible answer to “every man that asks you a reason” violates church autonomy (1 Pet. 3:15; 4:11).
If a church uses mechanical instruments in worship, the concept of autonomy does not shelter it from preaching that condemns innovations in worship. If a church builds a fellowship hall and perverts its mission to provide recreation for its members under the guise of “felt needs” preaching, the concept of autonomy does not condemn brethren calling attention to these apostasies.
The doctrine of Christ is universal, that is, for every congregation. What the apostles taught in one congregation, they taught in every congregation (1 Cor 4:17). This means that all congregations of the church of Christ must meet each Sunday to remember the Lord’s death by taking the communion (Acts 20:7 f; 1 Cor 11:24-26). This means that all members of the church of Christ must give of their means each Sunday (1 Cor 16:1-2). This means that all congregations of the church of Christ must sing without the aid of musical instruments (Eph 5:19). This means that all congregations of the church of Christ must forbid women from speaking or teaching in the assemblies (1 Cor 14:33-40 f; 1 Tim 2:11-14). This means that all elders and deacons in the church of Christ must be faithful men who meet all the qualifications listed in 1 Tim 3:1-13.
2 John 9-11 says, “Whosoever transgresses, and abides not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abides in the doctrine of Christ, he has both the Father and the Son. The same gospel of Christ which makes Christians of all who obey it is a universal criteria for every congregation, and anyone who changes it shall be accursed (Gal 1:6-9).
However, each local congregation can determine when to assemble on each Lord’s Day because no such time was commanded. They could meet all day or just for an hour, as long as what is required has been completed. Each local congregation can choose which song books from which to sing and how many songs to sing. Each local congregation can decide whether to have gospel meetings or a special gathering for singing or praying. Each local congregation can decide whether to have special Bible studies for the benefit of its members. None of these things can be commanded for every congregation, because none of these things were specifically commanded by Jesus and His apostles. Thus, they fall under the autonomy of the local congregation and its elders.
No local congregation has the right to bind their traditions upon other local congregations. If a local congregation had Bible studies or sang every week, this might be too cumbersome for those who have a heavy work schedule. No local congregation has the right to bind their traditions as commandments upon its members (Mt 15:7-9). If a member finds some local traditions to be too cumbersome, they have the right to leave that congregation, and find another faithful congregation in which to attend. The only traditions which can be commanded are the traditions which were given by Christ and His apostles. “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Thess 2:15).
Conclusion: Let us avoid violations of church autonomy. There is no eldership which has authority over anything larger than a local congregation. No outside individual has the right to intrude into the affairs of a local congregation to make decisions for that congregation. However, there is no sin committed in preaching the truth to anyone, whether or not he is a member of the same local congregation or not. Church autonomy is not a concept to hide behind to escape open investigation of any Bible subject or principle, or the necessity of giving Bible authority for the actions and decisions made in a local congregation!