Autonomy and Authority
by Michael Browne
The growing persecution of Christians across international boundaries in country after country is currently a major concern of both the local Christian communities and the whole global Christian profession. What should be the attitude of Christians towards this on-going oppression? Why has it happened and what is the Christian response?
In the nature of assemblies seeking to follow New Testament principles, they stand essentially alone in their individual entities. They have no confederated voice or energy. They appear insignificant and irrelevant to both national and local authority where in any given location they are simply one small religious group – easily overlooked and marginalised!
The answer of some sincere brethren to this situation is that the status and presence of such congregations need to be elevated and then combined to make their voice heard by the powers that be. They need an authoritative corporate voice to be able to call for protection from actual physical attack, and financial support for legal representation in cases of unjust litigation against them. So the case for some kind of confederation is presented as an answer to this very real predicament. But while a ‘confederation’ of isolated and independent local churches may appear to be the logical and human answer to the problem, is it the spiritual and biblical answer?(
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Local Assemblies in the Acts of the Apostles
Originally the early New Testament assemblies were maintained in doctrinal purity and godly order as they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” Acts 2.42. They followed the exhortation of the beloved Apostle to the Gentiles who said, “Be ye followers of me even as I also am of Christ ” 1 Cor.11.1. As those who were ‘spiritual' they acknowledged that the things written by Paul were “the commandments of the Lord” 1 Cor.14.37. Consequently we read in the history of the Acts of the Apostles that local assemblies were formed as a result of Gospel witness, and these assemblies were guided by their own local elders and were therefore independent or autonomous, that is possessing the right of self-government and freedom of action as local churches.
This original apostolic purity and Divine order was soon lost sight of however as men departed more and more from original principles and substituted their own ideas and traditions for the Word of God. The reasons for this were rooted in human pride and rivalry, and a struggle for power which produced a class system of clerisy and resulted in the domination of the assemblies by a priestly hierarchy. These powerful men centralised all church rule in themselves and as they continued to struggle, one against another, divisions occurred and Catholicism and Orthodoxy came into being. In process of time, as the "mystery of iniquity" continued to work (that system of lawlessness eroding the unity, harmony, and order of God's purpose for the age, and which will reach its climax in the substitution of the Lawless One for the Obedient One—that is, the Man of Sin for the Christ of God), further fragmentation occurred even amongst those whose "protest" against the evil of the Babylonish system of Catholicism led to them to leave it, and so the various denominational organisations of Christendom were born. But originally it was not so.
The only organisation that appears in the New Testament authorised to discipline, guide, and instruct the people of God, is the local assembly. The highest court of appeal set to adjudicate between brethren is the local assembly. The only body from which workers were commended to preach and teach in the New Testament was the local assembly. Beyond the local assembly there is absolutely no other organisation or body that appears on the inspired pages of the New Testament, not even the slightest suggestion of anything else.
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