Category Archives: unity

Are Local Churches Truly Autonomous?

FacebookTwitterGoogle+Share

Very seldom do I venture into the realm of church politics and leadership failures, especially when it involves naming names. I greatly prefer to write about what I’m learning and how theology applies to our everyday lives and I recognize that talking about specific individuals must be done with extreme care if it is to be helpful, hopeful, and grace-filled. Yet the reality is that church politics and leadership do apply to our everyday lives, and they are—or ought to be—rooted in sound theology. We also can and must learn from both the successes and the failures of specific individuals. So here goes….

On Tuesday, October 14, Mark Driscoll resigned as Senior Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. Much has been and will continue to be written about this; unfortunately far too much of that will be unhelpful, lacking grace, and downright caustic. And that’s just from those who call themselves Christians. But Aaron at Blogging Theologically had some good things to say that spurred my own thinking. (Please take some time to read his thoughts, then add to the discussion.) I want to take something Aaron said and (gracefully, I hope) disagree with it. Mars Hill church, Aaron said, needs to evaluate their [leadership] structure. (I agree.)

The model they’ve been running on—with an outside board of accountability—simply doesn’t work, nor is it biblical. If they’re serious about getting healthy, they need to put in place a model of governance where every leader really is one vote at the table, and are held to account. They need to become autonomous churches with elders who are biblically qualified and capable of preaching the Word.

I grew up basically Baptist, and almost exclusively in the Free Church tradition. In those worlds, local churches are viewed as autonomous; that is, they are self-governing, and although they may choose willingly and voluntarily to associate with other like-minded churches through conferences, conventions, or associations—i.e., denomination—they do not sit under the authority of those organizations or the other affiliated churches. The past fifty years has seen a growth in “non-denominational” churches; that is, churches that have taken autonomy one step further by choosing to not affiliate with a denominational organization…even one within the free church tradition. When a local church is substantially healthy, this autonomy can a good thing. The church can make its own decisions on leadership, vision, strategy, and activities without having to submit those to an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. When problems arise, however, autonomous churches are left to struggle on their own, often crumbling under the weight of leadership abuses, failed structures, financial mismanagement, or devastating moral failure.

Aaron’s post over at Blogging Theologically raised two questions for me. First, are outside boards of accountability unbiblical? Second, should churches be autonomous? Aaron’s post seems to suggest that the answer to both of these questions is yes. I would argue not.

Outside Boards of Accountability. Some local church structures rely on boards comprised primarily of men (or men and women) who are not connected to that church in any other way. It is a model learned from the private sector in which corporations are overseen by a board of outside directors. The Microsoft board, for example, includes a college president, the CFO of a food group, the CEO of a credit card company, and the former chairman of a German automaker. There are many advantages of such a structure, not the least of which is an outside perspective that can help a local church keep its eyes on God’s kingdom instead of its own. But is such an external board unbiblical? Certainly not. The apostle Paul was a church planter throughout the Mediterranean region. In each area where he started a church, he also planted a pastor or commissioned some other leader: Timothy, Titus, and Lydia, to name a few. He instructed them to appoint elders (also known as overseers) for those churches, which gives us a clear example to follow: churches need to have local leaders exercising authority. But does that discount the benefit of external authorities? Or, more significantly, does it render external overseers unbiblical? By no means! Paul himself exercised authority over the churches he planted, both by instructing the local leaders to appoint elders and by intervening in matters of practice (e.g., circumcision), doctrine (e.g., the resurrection), and sin (e.g., sexual impurity). Further, Paul and Barnabas, Peter, Silas, and Luke, among others, all seem to have exercised such external authority over the growing number of local churches. This leads to the next question: ought local churches to be autonomous?

Local Church Autonomy. One of many results of the Protestant Reformation was the growth of the Free Church tradition; that is, local churches coming out from under the overbearing authority of The Church (namely, the Roman Catholic Church headquartered in Rome). My roots in the Baptist world plant me firmly in this Free Church tradition. I believe it is good and right…but neither biblical nor unbiblical. There is great freedom in the structure; not only freedom of outside authority (which is what the name truly reflects), but also freedom of movement and vision and strategy. Local churches that are unencumbered hierarchical bureaucracies are far more able to adapt their ministries to the ever-changing needs and cultures in which they exist. When a local church is substantially healthy, autonomy can be a good thing. Yet good things can also have negative side effects. Antibiotics fight infections, but they also reduce the body’s natural infection-fighting abilities, so that a person who has had to take antibiotics for a long period of time actually becomes more susceptible to future infection. In the same way, autonomy can lead to disastrous consequences when a church faces a crisis such as a moral failure, an overbearing pastor, or a leadership power struggle. In these types of circumstances, the church is no longer the doctor but the patient; and the patient is rarely in the best position to either diagnose the problem or prescribe the treatment. This is when an otherwise-autonomous local church must submit itself to others: an external board, the denominational or association leadership, or some other external, biblical source of authority. This is what the Galatian church did when they appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision debate (Acts 15).

When we elevate the autonomy and independence over mutual submission—whether as individuals or as local churches—we have a recipe for arrogance and failure. We are giving Satan the foothold he needs to forestall the church’s attacks on his fortress. But when we humbly submit to the wisdom of those with a different and broader perspective, we demonstrate the grace and unity that Jesus prayed for and that will draw people into His kingdom.