Church autonomy is a biblical and time-honored Baptist principle. “Autonomy” means the right or condition of self-government or self-control. In Baptist ecclesiology this means that each local congregation is self-governing. A Baptist church recognizes no secular governmental control or religious denominational control over faith and religious practice. The highest authority under heaven given among men is a local congregation of baptized believers. Biblical autonomy is not lawlessness, but rather asserts that a church is over governed by its head and lawgiver, Jesus Christ, and the inspired word that he has given (the Bible, John 17:14).
Unfortunately, a number of Baptists use autonomy as an excuse to do what they wish, regardless of biblical teachings. The more liberal element has hid behind autonomy for all sorts of modernistic heresies (e.g. origin of man a myth and blood atonement a superstition), but conservatives are guilty in their own realm.
Another time-honored Baptist principle is regenerate church membership – that a church is made up only of believers baptized upon a credible profession of faith. Most conservatives will agree on this, yet may exercise some latitude on how they receive, dismiss, and record members. “How my church manages its membership roll is none of your business,” one Baptist pastor boldly proclaimed. True, based on autonomy, no other Baptist church can tell them what to do! That doesn’t mean it is “none of your business.” While we are independent, we are also dependent on the Word, and interdependent with each other. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7), and so it is true of the churches as well. If your church accepts the unacceptable and keeps the unacceptable in your membership, our church has no ruling authority to make you do otherwise. However, we vocally assert that your practice is unbiblical, can choose not to fellowship your church, and choose not to receive members or letters from your church. When your practice is unscriptural and we are trying to be scriptural, your practice is in that sense some of our business!
The principle of local church autonomy must operate consistently and distinctly within biblical theology and ecclesiology. On the subject of complementarianism and women’s roles in church, a Southern Baptist minister expressed that “as long as a church is faithful to the BF&M 2000, a local church can decide what role women can have in their local church.” Well, that may sit well with many Southern Baptists, but it is the Bible that governs our faith and practice, including the roles of men and women in the church. If they can get along cooperating based on the Baptist Faith and Message – which says “the office of pastor is limited to men” (often interpreted as “senior pastor”) – fine for them. Nevertheless, we hope to make it our business to cooperate on the basis of the New Testament.
Ultimately, autonomy is practiced by almost all Baptist churches. No outside entity can compel them to function in any particular way. That does not mean that any way that a Baptist church chooses to function is biblical. A church’s autonomy ends where her violation of Scripture begins – not that she comes under the authority of another church or some denominational body, but that she has run afoul of the authority of her head Colossians 1:18, who purchased her with his own blood Acts 20:28, the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Somehow, some way, glory in the churches by Christ Jesus is the business of all of the Lord’s churches (Ephesians 3:21).