The Primary Doctrine of American Evangelicalism
What doctrine must you understand to to really understand how ‘church” works in this country?
What doctrine, more than any other, is the heartbeat of the majority of churches in this country?
The “autonomy of the local church”.
The word autonomous comes from two Greek words meaning “self” and “law”… and in the context of church government it means that each local church is self governing with no oversight or interference from outside the local assembly.
The belief in a nutshell is that the local church is solely responsible for all matters relating to faith and practice and answers only to Jesus Christ, not any church hierarchy.
The doctrine probably originated as a response to the government control of state run churches and extended to deny any outside influence at all.
This is the the fundamental secondary doctrine of American evangelicalism…and if you don’t get a handle on how important it is to those who practice it, you have no hope of understanding how these organizations respond to issues of corruption or abuse.
Any governmental or denominational oversight or authority is anathema to these churches…it violates the central principle of why they are associated or “affiliated”.
This is perhaps the first hill that these groups would die on.
Who practices this doctrine?
The largest denomination in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, along with all Baptist organizations, all independent churches, and to a great degree, Calvary Chapel.
All of the above have protocol in place to get you in or throw you out…but none have any process for disciplining abusive leaders because they believe that is the holy duty of the local assembly.
Baptist churches are very consistent about this…Calvary Chapel holds it as a high and holy doctrine but at times has also intervened directly with local churches in a highly inconsistent and frustrating manner.
When you hear or read of a CC pastor stating that “we are not a denomination” what they are really saying is that ‘we refuse to acknowledge any outside oversight or direction as legitimate”…they hold to the autonomy of the local church.
One of the biggest issues on the table among rank and file CC pastors is this one…what kind of central authority will be established in wake of Chuck Smith’s death?
Many have already said that any oversight will be grounds for leaving the movement.
The bottom line in understanding how to deal with abuse and corruption in these churches is that without the cooperation of the board, elders, and congregants involved on the local level there will be no reform or disciplinary action because reform or discipline from outside the local level violates the most cherished principle of their ecclesiology.
When the board, elders, and pastors won’t budge…it’s up to you.
The challenge then isn’t to reform the “leadership’…but to reform how people think and act about their responsibilities in the local church.