The New Testament is the only sufficient and authoritative constitution of the church. An understanding of New Testament ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) will disclose the autonomous and independent nature of the local church. To be autonomous is to be self-governing and to be independent is to be free from any outside control or religious hierarchy. There is no person or organization above the church except Christ the Head.
Though local assemblies are autonomous and independent, local congregations may and sometimes should voluntarily collaborate for greater efficiency and effectiveness, especially in matters of educational ministries such as Bible training centers, camps, intensive Bible Study programs, and support of missions. They could also collaborate on conferences, seminars, evangelistic outreach, combined prayer meetings, and any other beneficial and edifying activities. I believe it enhances our love and fellowship for one another and imparts spiritual encouragement. We can also learn from one another’s experience and testimony. Mutual consultations can also help us in resolving issues and problems we face every day. This is to be encouraged because autonomy means self-rule, not isolation.
A healthy and balanced perspective is needed in the matter of independence and interdependence. These two truths must be maintained properly to give visible and tangible proof of Christian unity, love, and service. In failing to act in cooperation and in unity with fellow believers, the church ceases to give one of the most effective forms of testimony to the world.
Some assemblies are barely surviving as their numbers have considerably declined. There is no proper leadership and regular ministry of the Word. One young man in a declining assembly told me recently that most of the Sundays during the ministry time, they are watching Christian videos as there is no one capable to teach from the Word. It will be a wise step for them to merge with another assembly in the locality, or they may seriously consider how to revive the assembly. They may seek counsel or help from neighboring assemblies and invite teachers or other brethren who can be of help to them. Anemic, weak, inactive, and bare survival does not seem to be a pattern in the New Testament. When assemblies face multiple crises, it is always desirable to seek help and fellowship from other assemblies. Welcome ministering brethren who may be exercised to help and “strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die” (Rev. 3:2).
Our watchword should not be independent, but interdependent. The distinguishing mark of Christians and of churches is their unity, not their independence. The church at Antioch expressed its unity with the church in Jerusalem in several ways. They accepted Barnabas when he was sent to them (Acts 11:22-24). This resulted in a milestone event in the birth of global Christian missions. The church at Antioch sent money to the “brethren in Judea” when the prophetic word of the famine was delivered to them (Acts 11:27-30). They also appealed to the church leaders in Jerusalem when the gospel was challenged by the Judaizers (Acts 15:1-3). This resulted in the positive outcome of closer fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers.
The autonomy of the local church is a doctrine which needs to be very carefully defined and practiced. Taking the doctrine of autonomous and independent assemblies should not lead us to isolation and detachment. We must respect the independence and interdependence we share with others. As such, each church has the opportunity and obligation to partner in various levels of Christian life and ministry such as shared resources, shared encouragement, shared suffering, shared ministries, and shared orthodoxy. We dare not be independent of other churches in our sense of obligation to them.
Many Christian assemblies have overlooked the importance of interdependence. They have made independence their watchword, to their own peril. Let us not forget that one of the biblical distinctives we hold on to is independent yet interdependent.
A great assembly missionary and Bible teacher of the last century, J. M. Davies, warned us against the trend towards too much independence. He writes:
“On the one hand anything savoring of affiliation must be avoided, and on the other, local church autonomy should not militate against united activities for specified purposes. We must not be like the men of Laish who had no business with any man. They were easily overcome (Judges 18:27-28).”