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Autonomy of the Local Church

I am interested in this discussion of the Autonomy of the Local Church because some are yet to be enlightened on this.

Autonomy of the Local Church


Autonomy of the Local Church



Doctrine is the compass any institution uses to view its path and direction, so it is with the Baptist Doctrine. One of the popular doctrines of the Baptist is the autonomy of the local church; it is one of the oldest Baptist distinctive and unique heritage of the Baptist faith that qualifies the identity of Baptist members. The founding fathers, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, led a group of believers, also known as the separatist, out of England and travelled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where they established the General Baptist faith. For the Bible testifies about God almighty of our Lord Jesus Christ laying a foundation through His son Jesus Christ of a church that will be independent of external forces on earth, and to promote the great commission of beating the gate of hades, to save souls for the kingdom of God (Matthew 16:18-19; Matthew 28:18-20). However, some local churches have misused this viable principle of local church autonomy independently to hook itself as a slave of itself. Therefore, a proper understanding and biblical enlightenment are required to repel every ignorant and misguided thought of how local church autonomy should be implemented and practised. This paper will be looking at the holistic study of the autonomy of the local church; as it will cover brief background history, proper practices, and relationships of local church autonomy with its cooperative and denominational bodies; as well as the misconceptions, disadvantages and benefits of the local church autonomy principle and other related concerns.

Definition of the Autonomy of Local Church Autonomy:

According to McBeth, in the 17th century, the General and Particular Baptist agreed that the church is a company of baptized believers that must observe the gospel ordinances, preach the gospel and discipline its members. However, they differ on how local congregations are to relate with one another. The General Baptist regarded local congregation as, in some sense, branches or local units of the larger church, and they can perform some churchly acts like Lord’s Supper or Baptism. In contrast, the Particular Baptist regarded each local church as an independent local church from other independent local churches of the same faith.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines autonomy as "the state of existing or acting separately from others" and "the power or right of a country, groups, etc., to govern itself’. from the perspective of law, it means “the ability to act and make decisions without any outside interference". The key points to note from these definitions of autonomy are separate existence or entity, the power of self-government, and the ability to act. This indicates that every autonomous body has its own self-existence and the right or power of self-government. The local Church's autonomy is one of the legacies handed down from past generations of the Baptist faith. Autonomy comes from two Greek words: ‘auto’, which means ‘self’ and ‘nomos’ which means ‘law’. This literary implies ‘self law’ and ‘law to self’; autonomy means ‘self-governing’, ‘self-rule’, ‘self-directing, and ‘self-determining’. It does not mean lawlessness, unbridled freedom or “do as one pleases”. Therefore, an autonomous local church governs itself without any outside human interference, direction or control, but the control and authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and Head of the Church (Col. 1:15-18).

According to the Pastor of Verity Baptist Church, Autonomy of the Local Church is based on Biblical authority, and it is hinged with “Soul Competency” and “Priesthood of all Believers” and “Congregational Governance”. Soul Competency implies that each believer has direct access to commune with God through the lordship of Jesus Christ as their mediator, and so there is no material or human constraint or hierarchical protocol for a professing believer to have an accessible relationship with God; Priesthood of all believers justifies each individual regenerate members of the church as a minister unto God, and as a professing steward to be held accountable of their service in the body of Christ Jesus; and therefore, there is no status differentiation between the Laity and Clergy; and Congregational Governance meaning that the local church members have the final say as supposedly led by the Holy Spirit in decision-making issues concerning the local church.

Therefore, the autonomy of a local Church is the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a group of baptized believers in a contiguous location to govern themselves and direct their affairs in-house under Christ without any outside human interference. This, in practical terms, means an autonomous local Church, among other things, determines its membership, chooses its leadership and decides which responsibility it will give to them and what responsibility the congregation will hold, determines its worship form, decides financial matters, Conducts business meetings, owns the property, exercises discipline on its membership, propagates itself, determines either to be part or not a part of denominational bodies and directs other Church-related affairs without outside human control or supervision (of civil government and denominational or ecclesiastical organization).


From the New Testament scriptures, there are instances of the independence of some local Churches, Churches were autonomous in their decisions and control, but all recognizing the Lordship of Jesus Christ, carrying out their activities and duties of God autonomously; some of these Churches from the new testament scriptures are The Macedonian Church, the Church of Ephesus, the Church of Corinth and others.

According to the New Testament Scriptures, Churches voluntarily help and support other Churches in providing welfare and other forms of assistance (2 Corinthians 9; 3 John 5-8; Philippians 4:10-20); examples can be seen how the gentile churches supported the church in Jerusalem of Judea during the period of famine as seen in the scriptures of Acts 11:28-30; Acts 24:17-18. That should be the same with the contemporary Baptist setting, whereby denominational bodies are set according to the degree of the task or project involved. These denominational bodies are Baptist Associations, Baptist Conferences and Baptist Conventions, and international related Baptist denominational bodies, which include: All African Baptist Fellowship (AABF) and Baptist World Alliance (BWA). In this way, individual local Baptist Churches with the local church autonomy principle can willingly volunteer, without any form of compulsion and give their best support to these denominational bodies in carrying out missions, disciplinary matters, social welfare, doctrinal organization; thereby fulfilling the great commission.

Local churches should follow the right practices of an autonomous church as it is inherent from scriptural doctrines of the New Testament. These practices of the Baptist Local Church autonomy are enumerated as follow:

  1. With the local church autonomy principle, the Church has the power to make its own decisions and control its own church affairs without any interference from outside, giving the church liberty to call and remunerate Pastors; and appoint officers of its’ choice. The church has the power to execute programs, projects, investments, and they can run related institutions for the welfare of citizens like hospitals, schools etc.
  2. Local Baptist churches should endeavour to honour their denominational bodies by supporting them in any project and other related matters concerning the great commission while practising local church autonomy.
  3. When there is a case of conflict in church matters, and beyond the disciplinary control of a local church, local churches should be willingly submissive to various denominational bodies that can handle such conflicts or level of problems arising, by inviting the immediate body concerned, if it is an issue that requires the Association to resolve such matters troubling a particular church or set of churches, then the Association should be invited; if the problem persists or cannot be handled by the Association, the Conference should intervene, and if it tends to be more difficult, then Convention can take it from there.
  4. The practice of local church autonomy in individual Baptist churches should be responsible for willingly making financial contributions to Baptist Denominational and Corporate Bodies.
  5. Local church autonomy admonishes that Baptist Local churches should voluntarily adhere to Baptist denominational bodies' policies, principles, and practices.
  6. Local Baptist churches are required to practice local church autonomy to promote denominational programs voluntarily and willingly under the governing power of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Gold O. Annie advocated for interdependent congregational autonomy, which can also be referred to as “responsible autonomy”, should be practised by the local church under the governance of the Holy Spirit and not by mischievous means of some powerful unrepented members or officers of the church. An autonomy that is guided, controlled and directed by the leading of the Holy Spirit, as the Holy Spirit allows faithful decisions to be made through faithful regenerated members of the church. Therefore, every individual Pastor or regenerate leader of his individual local church assembly should coordinate their members responsibly and lead them to practice the policies and submissively obey the decisions of the cooperative or denominational bodies.


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Some sometimes misunderstand the autonomous relationship of the Local Church in various ways.

There are thoughts that some have about the Baptist denomination concerning the autonomy of the local Church that there is a hierarchical level of authority which starts from an ascending order of individual local churches level to association level and conference level. To convention level, this notion about the Baptist faith is wrong, for all these are autonomous bodies that operate individually on their own and are led under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and any of the individual churches can volunteer to Join, and there should be no human or any entity subjugating his or its own authority over any group or individual local churches.

Another wrong belief is when an individual thinks that he can do as he pleases, believing that there is a carnal immunity away from scriptural examination concerning the local church autonomy principle, this is also wrong; for church autonomy principle was founded even from the scriptures, meaning that church autonomy principle is subject to biblical authority of the scriptures, implying that you have a will of your own not to do as you please, but to do as the Holy Spirit directs and governs you, even according to the truths of the Bible; for the words of the scriptures are the words of Jesus Christ, authored by the Holy Spirit.

Disadvantages: some of the shortcomings and abuse of this principle concerning some members of any local church are:

  1. It may jeopardize the physical and spiritual growth of the church as unregenerate members may take advantage of the system to maltreat the leadership.
  2. If the leadership is weak, the unregenerate members may seize power for themselves and hijack church deliberations to suit their selfish ambition.
  3. Most unregenerate members operating with this principle under a particular local church might stir confusion where there can hardly be any concrete and useful decision to enhance the church's spiritual growth.


There are benefits of operating under the Baptist distinctive of local Church autonomy, which includes:

  1. It is hinged on other Baptist beliefs: Soul Competency, Congregational Governance and Priesthood of all Believers, for it agrees with these principles and works efficiently.
  2. Autonomy as a Baptist distinctive is based on biblical truth and not on human desire or intuition; these biblical bases act as leverage to Church autonomy principle.
  3. It gives room for flexibility and creativity among regenerated members on relating and ministering to the community.
  4. It helps to strengthen each individual's maturity and responsibility among the members of a local Church, thereby making everyone individually have an identity of being recognized as an important person of the Church, even making and carrying out healthy decisions to edify the Church.
  5. Autonomy provides security in cases of liability lawsuits. Entailing that the denomination is not liable for the actions of the local Church members, and the local Church members are not liable for the actions of another or any Baptist denominational entity.


Autonomy of the Local Church as a Baptist distinctive and as a heritage of the Baptist faith, have been criticized by man due to how some unregenerate local church Baptist members have abused it, but one cannot deny how it has contributed to the growth and reformation of the Christian faith historically; and how it has stirred and cause revival in the Christian faith. Its contribution to missions and evangelism has brought about the growth of the Church, even in different areas of the world; and has made ideal Christians be men and women of the bible, Autonomy of the Local Church principle has revealed and enlightened Christians of the Christian faith through other related Baptist distinctive (Soul Competency, Priesthood of all Believers) to be stressed and implemented in some Christian denominations. It is indeed one of the valued teachings of the Baptist faith and identity; it is a matured principle of the Christian doctrines that challenges a local Church and individual Christians to be matured in the faith and spirit, to make matured decisions only by the governance of the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Christ Jesus without any human hierarchical policies, and outside interference. Since it is a distinctive principle that requires matured regenerate distinctive members; it, therefore, advocates for such members to submit their will to Jesus Christ and to be led only by the power of the Holy Spirit to make sacrificial decisions and keep to faithful commitments of the Baptist denominations in accordance to the truth of God’s word (the Bible).

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