Read related posts here.
This part of the discussion will seem strange to those outside Churches of Christ, but it was a question I was asked to address in my class so I’ll include it here also.
The autonomy of individual congregations has long stood as a core tenet of belief within Churches of Christ. The basic argument proposes that the New Testament describes no church organization above the local congregations. In fact, the only instructions for church governance detail the appointment of elders and deacons in local churches. The elders in each location are responsible for the teaching and faithfulness of their congregation. (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb 13:17)
Thus Churches of Christ insist we are not a denomination, which would be unscriptural, as we have no overseeing administrative offices. There is no hierarchy of clergy, nor any requirement to pay dues to use the name “Church of Christ”. Theoretically, each congregation is free to make its own decisions on belief and practice.
However, a traditional competing doctrine muddies these autonomous waters. Through the middle of the 20th century many churches of Christ developed the logic that if there’s one Bible and we all read it with an open mind, we should all come to the same conclusions. Therefore, churches across the US (world?) should share the same doctrines and practices. This line of reasoning excluded opinion and cultural values/customs from the church. Anecdotally I have been led to believe that a general uniformity of teaching and practice appeared and churches that didn’t measure up were disfellowshipped.
I find it really quite remarkable that such a broad fellowship of autonomous congregations could ever develop a significant degree of uniformity. Apparently no one gave much thought to the innate contradictions of these two beliefs. The doctrine of autonomy was applied only to church leadership to exclude the possibility of formal church hierarchies involving offices such as bishops or synods. As long as this type of congregational autonomy could be maintained the churches could continue to distinguish themselves from all the other unBiblical (sinful) denominations. Yet there was very little scope given for doctrinal autonomy.
I pointed out in my first post on this topic that many of the possible applications of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are pretty subjective. So who makes the decisions? In the traditional Church of Christ practice, a degree of “conventional wisdom” supported by teachers or publications well-known within the movement established the orthodox beliefs.
I believe that in issues with this level of subjectivity the best people to make decisions are the elders at each congregation. They can take a word like “authority”, consider the cultural values of their community, and decide what roles within the church comply with Paul’s teaching in this passage. As a consequence, different churches will reach different conclusions and practices.
Is saying a public prayer an act of authority or of service? While I believe we serve one another through prayer, I can understand how some people might view anyone that stands before the congregation as automatically possessing authority. However, since neither of us can prove ourselves right or the other wrong our churches will probably have different practices as we exercise our autonomy and our elders “watch over the souls” of each congregation to the best of their ability.
These two doctrines raise a lot of questions about the balance between congregational autonomy and cooperation, between the local church and the universal church.
- How do you believe you should respond when you see a “sister congregation” teaching or practicing something with which you disagree?
- I suggested in my class that although God is the ultimate judge we each make practical decisions about who to fellowship with and support, both individually and congregationally. Some practices should have no impact on our relationships (eg. Lord’s Supper before or after the sermon) while others are vital (eg. deity of Christ). In your eyes, how important is the role of women in the church in determining who you fellowship with?
- If anyone has some more insight into the origins of these two doctrines (congregational autonomy, and uniformity of practice) within the Restoration Movement, I’d love for you to leave a comment. (Please don’t just leave a list of Scriptures. I’m aware of those.)