In the Bible, one can find no hint of any earthly organization for the universal church. It is composed of all saved individuals in all locations and has no collective action or function. Its head is Christ and it in turn is His Body; therefore its "headquarters" is in heaven. Similarly, the Scriptures call for no formal organization in local churches. These local churches are composed of the Christians in a particular geographic area and they work together to spread the Gospel, edify one another spiritually and help each other in times of physical need. God has directed that men who meet certain requirements (1 Tim 3:1-7) are to be appointed in every church to lead and guide their younger siblings in spiritual matters.
- Ac 14:23 So when they had appointed elders in every church...
- Tit 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you
- 1 Pe 5:1 The elders who are among you I exhort... 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock;
From these (and other similar) passages, we learn that each congregation should have its own elders who care for the spiritual well being of the Christians whom they serve. These elders are told to "shepherd the flock of God which is among you". From this we learn that the oversight of elders is not to extend beyond the group of Christians who work together in a certain area. We also learn from other passages that these local groups had collective action and formed a working group.
- Ac 15:22 Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas...
- 1Co 14:23 Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place...
No where can we find in the scriptures any organization or work larger than a local congregation of the Lord's people. There were no hierarchies of congregations. One congregation never told another one what to do. The constituents of one church did not "mind the business" of another church. In fact, one church could have served God just fine without ever knowing that another congregation of God's people existed! It seems that there was one exception to this rule. The scriptures indicate that the apostles had authority and oversight of all the churches. Notice Paul's authority in the following verses.
- 1Co 7:17 But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches.
- 1Co 14:34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.
- 1Co 16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also:
- 2Co 11:28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.
Paul gave orders and instructions to a plurality of churches! He had deep concern for a plurality of churches. Who among us today could claim to exercise legitimate influence over multiple congregations of God's people? This type of influence rested only in the Lord Himself and His chosen apostles. Today no such authority exists among men.
Not as autonomous as we think
I think that I could preach all of the above to any Church of Christ anywhere and expect to hear some "amens" from those in the pews. We have long held that Churches of Christ are independent of one another and that no organization larger than the local church exists. Now I agree that no organizational hierarchies exist, but I wonder if our congregations are really as independent as we think? What would make me think that our congregational independence is sometimes undermined? Because there is a lot of pressure on local churches to conform to the "accepted brotherhood positions" coming from the BNPs (Big Name Preachers) and the papers for which they write.
With the BNPs leading the charge, many of our brethren have fallen in line behind them and run around calling into question the practices or teachings of congregations where they have no association whatsoever. Many in local churches fear being labeled as unsound or unfaithful and bow to this external pressure without even giving it a second thought! In fact, many of us have become so well conditioned to these external influences that we don't wait for them to come to us. We go to them to learn how the brotherhood stands on various issues and usually, it seems, we conform. We "go to them" every time we pick up a brotherhood publication instead of studying the Bible for ourselves in order to get our answers.
It is a common battle cry among the BNPs that they have the right to challenge any congregation that they don't think is teaching and practicing truth. They base this on the fact that the apostles reprimanded congregations that were straying into error. Indeed, many pages of the New Testament were written to correct false teaching and sinful practices. But, how can we ignore the fact that those administering the correction to these wayward first century churches were divinely inspired apostles who had the authority to call these congregations on the carpet? No one has such authority today! If elders don't have the authority to exert influence over those in other congregations, where do preachers, deacons or others think they derive such authority? As the Bible points out, only the apostles had such authority. It would seem the BNPs think they have it as well!
Am I saying that if a brother or sister sees something sinful going on in a congregation they are not affiliated with that they can't inquire? I'm not saying that at all, but if we decide that doing so is the wise course of action we had better go with our hat in our hand showing nothing but sincerity, humility and love. If one firmly believed that ruinous error was being taught or some sin going unchallenged, he would do well to approach someone in the congregation and carefully point it out. If after studying the matter, the congregation decides not to make correction, then that should be the end of it for the outsider. He has done his duty and they have made their decision. God will take care of the rest. However, this isn't the way the BNPs handle the matter usually. They approach the local church leaders arrogantly, demand an explanation and if the congregation doesn't do as the BNP pleases, they get written up in all the brotherhood publications and labeled as an unsound congregation. So much for the independence of local congregations!
Do you doubt that such external pressures are being exerted? Ever hear of someone calling up one of the elders of a congregation where a man is scheduled to preach a gospel meeting so that they can "warn" them that the preacher is questionable and possibly unsound? After all, they just want to make sure that the congregation is armed with all the information so that they can "do the right thing". When one congregation decides for whatever reason that it will no longer have Sunday evening services, haven't you seen all the "faithful brethren" at the surrounding congregations express their "concern" over how that church must be on a slippery slope. Yes, we know these and similar things happen. The Churches of Christ may not have a headquarters or creed book, but we most certainly have a framework of orthodoxy that undermines congregational autonomy. When you stop and think about it, all of this sounds an awful lot like we have a creed does it not?
Such behavior is sectarian. In fact our thinking, and indeed our actions, has become so denominational that the independence of many Churches of Christ is practically imaginary! If this is the way we like it, then lets have no more talk about the autonomy of local congregations and lets call our coalition of churches exactly what it is - a denomination called the Church of Christ!