I have two problems with the concept of congregational autonomy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me:
1. It’s not a concept found anywhere in scripture that I’ve found so far, and
2. I think that may be so because congregations are not autonomous. Neither are we autonomous as individual believers. We are subject to the King, and citizens of the kingdom. What each church and each believer says and does reflects on the entire kingdom, and we really need to start recognizing this.
I know this has unpopular ramifications. It means that we actually are responsible for teaching believers and churches which have fallen away from the doctrine of Christ (which is to love each other deeply) and that is exactly how we need to be doing it.
Am I just blowing bubbles through my snotty nose? Can someone point me to the book, chapter and verse where congregational autonomy is commanded, authorized, exemplified or reasonably inferred? Can someone give me a passage which even hints that it is what Jesus has in mind for us? That we are to be governed or ruled by anyone but Him?
Because the picture I get from "kingdom" is that He is in charge (Matthew 28:18) until He returns and hands the kingdom back over to God for judgment (1 Corinthians 15:23-28).
We answer to Christ.
We have elders/shepherds/bishops to help us know how to answer to Christ; to care for us, feed, teach, pray over us, and help direct the affairs of the church. I'm willing to give pretty wide latitude to the interpretation of that last phrase, but I find nothing in scripture which insinuates in any way that elders/shepherds/bishops are to be a ruling body or a board of directors over a single congregation.
The way we do church these days makes that almost a requirement, but that is not the way believers met together in the early days of Christianity. You've read the last verses of Acts 2; I don't need to explain this to you. They didn't own buildings, for instance (borrowed a lecture hall once, in Ephesus), but continued to meet in homes. That's not to say there's necessarily anything wrong with the way we do church now, but you have to admit, it's certainly not explicitly authorized by scripture. At least some ministers worked part-time to support their own ministry (Acts 18:2-3), and there's no indication anywhere in scripture that individual congregations supported their own minister (who was likely a traveling missionary, there for a few months or years only).
But when you have a building and a staff now, there are costs of maintenance, insurance, supply, policy and a thousand other items - and our very American way of doing church has virtually necessitated a board of directors, and somehow elders have ended up with the job, whether they wanted it or not.
And with that power and responsibility, even more has been taken.
Still, I can't tell you that there is necessarily anything wrong with that; serving in that way has just - in many cases - prevented men still working full-time from spending the time their church families need them to spend as shepherds, pastors, teachers and preachers (1 Timothy 5:17) - especially those latter two when there is no traveling evangelist available to do them (1 Timothy 4:13). I fear that it has sometimes led to levels of power and authority which tempt the lust for more - and the misapprehension that those levels of power and authority are innately theirs.
The idea that elders have some sort of absolute authority in their given congregation is simply unfounded. Of course, other believers are to respect them and they are to be men worthy of respect (1 Timothy 3:2-4). So are their wives (3:11) and deacons (3:8). We are to show respect to each other (1 Peter 2:17); husbands to wives (1 Peter 3:7); wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:33).
And they should be obeyed (Hebrews 13:17), as the context of the passage is more likely referring to spiritual leaders than earthly ones - whereas the context of 1 Peter 2:13-14 lists earthly leaders, yet leaves out any mention of spiritual leaders.
Why obey? Because "... they keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Hebrews 13:17, above). Of all people - elders need to recognize the authority of Christ, rather than to think it is innately theirs to wield over a church.
Remember what Jesus pulled his disciples over to the curb and told them after the sons of Zebedee used their mother in an aborted power-play?
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." ~ Matthew 20:25-28 (parallel passages, Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27)
If I'm right about this - if elders are not really elders in order to wield their own local authority, but to teach Christ's universal authority, and to serve/care for His flock - then what is the basis for congregational autonomy? Doesn't "autonomy" mean:
"independence," noun of quality from autonomos "independent, living by one's own laws," ... Self-government or the right of self-government; self-determination ... Self-government with respect to local or internal affairs ... ? (~ various dictionary entries)
Dear ones in Christ - we are not self-governing. Not as individuals. Not as churches. We are subjects of the King, as I said in my comment above, obedient to His authority. We are the ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20) in the frontier outposts of the kingdom of heaven, still breaking through from eternity to the earth right now (Matthew 11:12).
I know that the term "congregational autonomy" is used by many church fellowships to describe their independence from other fellowships' synods and bishoprics and regimenting hierarchies of church government - none of which are a part of the instruction of scripture, to be sure. But "congregational autonomy" is not a Biblical term.
And it is not a Biblical concept.