The words “autonomy” and “autonomous” come from two Greek words (αυτός and νόμος), which mean “self” and “law.” According to English dictionaries, autonomy is a noun that means “independence or freedom; the right or condition of self-government.” Its corresponding adjective, autonomous, means “self-governing; independent; having the freedom to govern itself or control its own affairs.” As an ecclesiological term, church autonomy means that there is no earthly organization, headquarters, or oversight beyond or above the local church.[i] This is in contrast to congregations set within hierarchical systems, such as Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Roman Catholicism. These are governed from outside the local body.
The church is independent and autonomous in relation to other churches, but is not independent and autonomous in relation to God and truth. Jesus Christ is the head of the church, its lawgiver (Colossians 1:18). The Bible is the faith and practice of the church, its law (2 Timothy 3:16-17). A local church is not autonomous in an absolute sense. The local congregation must recognize the control and authority of Jesus as Lord, as exercised through his word and the leadership of the Spirit (Proverbs 30:5; John 16:13). Malcolm Yarnell suggests it would be better if the term “autonomy” was replaced with the term “Christonomy.”[ii] It is unlikely the old term will be exchanged for the new, but it is incumbent on all autonomous – self-governing – churches that they be self-governed only in the sense that no one governs them other than their Master and Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
“No servant can serve two masters.”
[i] The autonomy of the local church refers to self-determination as opposed to answering to a higher church authority on earth. It is but one part of local church governance. The term “congregationalism” also refers to local congregations as self-governing.
[ii] He writes, “This would help correct the idea that Baptists may rule themselves. Looking to Christ as our ever-present Governor would subvert inappropriate power claims.” Christonomy means “Christ-rule,” which is more biblically accurate than autonomy, literally “self-rule.” There is nothing wrong with the theological use of autonomy, properly understood – but all too often, it is not properly understood.