Free in Christ – Chapter 23, Autonomous or Episcopal

by Cecil Hook

AUTONOMOUS OR EPISCOPAL

While we talk much about our congregations being autonomous, in reality many are episcopalian in government.

Autonomy is self-government. Elder/bishop rule is episcopal/presbyterian rule. For a congregation to be autonomous, the members must approve those who are appointed to capacities of leadership and service, and they must continue to exercise the right of approving or recalling those who are serving. Once either of these rights is forfeited, autonomy has faded and episcopacy has set in.

We tend to confuse independence with autonomy. A group may be independent of all others and not be autonomous, even as a nation may be independent, but because it is ruled by a non-elected king or dictator, it is not autonomous. The earthly operation of the church is democratic even though in its spiritual form it is a kingdom with Christ as King.

If the will of the majority is not served, then self-government is lost to minority rule. If elders assume power to bind decisions on a church, that is episcopal rule and lordship. If they exercise authority contrary to the will of the majority, they are lording it over the flock. The elder who serves unwanted by a large segment of the congregation is lording.

If elders are to be put in the role of decision makers for the group, their decisions must forever remain in the realm of judgment. A work program or schedule of services set forth by the elders is no more authoritative and binding than one set forth by a business meeting in a church that has no elders. To exercise the power to bind these judgmental decisions would rob a congregation of its sacred right of self-government.

If elders, whether in a house church with one elder or a congregation with several, serve as pastors/shepherds to the spiritual need of the flock instead of being rulers/decision makers/business managers, they will be serving their intended purpose. Thus, no longer being authority figures, they will be removed from the power structure and struggles that involve them in so much controversy.

Elders are chosen to oversee the congregation, but a church cannot empower men to legislate for it. A minority cannot rightly choose men to oversee the whole flock without the group’s loss of its autonomy. In order for leaders to represent the autonomous group, the whole group must be given opportunity to vote for or against their appointment. Yes, vote! As selection is usually done, the only voice the people have is to black-ball men after they have been nominated. To object to a man whom the elders nominate is to question their judgment, so the individual voice is usually silenced by intimidation. Exercising this negative vote of objecting can only create strained feelings between the nominee, the objector, and others in the church. A secret ballot would be much more positive, honest, and representative of the people.

“If elders are selected by popular vote, it would be a political race,” you may object. Do you deny that church politics and power struggles are involved in our traditional methods? “It would become a popularity contest, and unqualified men might be chosen!” Do you mean that the congregation is unable to judge and that an elite group must limit the choices by selecting the nominees? And what is wrong about an elder being popular? I take no pleasure in asserting that many of the elders that I have known would not have gotten a majority vote of the church. How can one be an effective leader if he is not liked or trusted by a majority of those whom he seeks to lead? A man who will not agree to majority vote approval is jealous of his position and has the spirit of lordship.

When the existing elders restrict the church to their own nominations, the group has lost its freedom to a self-perpetuating body of bishops. The selection becomes as free as a Russian election! (Even they have changed now!)

The Scriptures set no tenure for elders, so the length of term of the appointment is left to our judgment. By electing for a specified tenure of years, recall can be made simply by failure of reelection. In our present system, an elder can be recalled only by creating a big, unpleasant scene in the church.

The elders are to be pastors of the flock rather than a board of directors administering from a meeting room. Let the elders be involved chiefly in the spiritual care of the members. Business of the congregation can be carried on by selected servants, committees, and the whole congregation. All business should be done with the general approval of the church. It is admitted that clear distinctions cannot always be made between the spiritual feeding and the business of the church. However, neither the elders nor any other group within the church has the right to obligate the congregation to an expenditure of money, time, or work without consulting the people for their approval. Elders often initiate such programs without consent and then expect cooperation, and wonder at the lack of enthusiasm by those whom they laid the burden on. It is not the load that is burdensome so much as the loss of their freedom to choose.

Who is to have the determining voice in the congregation? If we feel that we must establish an authority structure among disciples, we have at least these four alternatives to choose from or to integrate together:

1. Some situations indicate that the church as a whole made its decisions (Acts 6:1-6; 11:29f; 15:1-4; 15:22, 30-32, 33, 35).

2. We are to submit to our leaders, which leaders are not identified as elders (Heb. 13:7; 1 Cor. 16:15f; 1 Thes. 5:12f).

3. These references indicate that evangelists are given final authority (1 Tim. 4:11; 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:1f; Titus 1:5; 1 Thes. 5:12f; Heb. 13:17; Eph. 4:11f).

4. Some accept the elders as authoritative decision makers (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:4f; 5:17; Eph. 4:11f; Heb. 13:17).

It seems evident that neither of these four alternatives is established as an exclusive authoritative voice in the congregation. The different circumstances within the various groups would allow for much flexibility to meet their specific needs as long as they respect the priesthood of each believer. Whether one form is accepted or a blending of the four, none will be effective unless disciples are mutually submissive to each other in love (Eph. 5:21; 1 Peter 5:5). Authoritative pronouncements do not solve problems.

You should have no earthly spiritual rulers for none stand between you and God. Being a priest serving through your High Priest, you need to gain permission from no one to serve and worship according to your understanding of God’s will. You are free to leave one congregation in favor of another, or to start a new congregation.

God could have established an authority structure for the churches in one sentence in the epistles, but He didn’t. Yet we continue to try to establish a system of authority to be a part of a necessary pattern of organization. Why should we not become wise enough to accept the wisdom of God and to recognize the flexibility that He put in the church to make it adaptable to local circumstances? This flexibility can be maintained only in autonomous congregations where there is a spirit of unity and loyalty.

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