Church Autonomy & The Eldership


 By Rufus L. Barfield

The two concepts, Church Autonomy and The Eldership of the church have been misused and misunderstood on occasions in the past.  The purpose of this article is an attempt to clarify each term.

It is appropriate that I begin with providing a clear, concise definition of the salient terminology that will be used in this article.  Let me begin by defining the term CHURCH.  The Greeks used the word EKIKLESIA in referring to representatives of the whole nation and the gathering of companies of Christians.  This was the term used by Jesus in Matthew 16:18.  It is a group of or belonging to the Lord, “The Called Out” by the Lord.  John states that they are called to be the children of God (1 John 3:1).

The ELDERSHIP consists of elders in the church who are fully qualified in reference to the New Testament scripture.  The Holy Spirit breathed on Paul the command that he was to have elders ordained in every city, which means every congregation of the Lord’s Church (Titus 1:5 & Acts 14:23).  The Holy Spirit also breathed the qualifications of the elders (1 Timothy 3:8-13).  Elders are to perform the following tasks:

  • Feed the Church (Acts 20:28)
  • Tend, oversee, or shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:2)
  • Watch over and guard the flock (Acts 20:30-31)
  • Always be in a state of readiness to give a joyous account to God (Hebrews 13:17)

Elders serve in their local congregation where they were appointed exclusively.  They are not elders in the Universal Church.

The word AUTONOMY is composed of two Greek words, (SELF) and (NOMOS) meaning (LAW or GOVERNMENT).  Each local congregation of the Lord’s Church is independent from every other congregation.  Each has its own composition of members, elders, evangelist, and deacons, etc.  Thus, we derive the meaning of these two words to be “self government or self rule, or self law.”  The Church of Christ belongs to God.  Christ is the head of the Church.  The church is referred to as His Body (Colossians 1:18).

Church Autonomy may be explained by using four different concepts which meet the scrutiny of The Holy Bible.  These four concepts are:

  1. The Law of Exclusion – The only kind of Government authorized by the New Testament is Local Government.  One can clearly examine that government in the New Testament.  Any other kind of Government is excluded.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by in store, as God has prospered you….”  Therefore, an offering should not be requested at any other time.  The Church is NOT a democracy.
  2. Direct Statement – It is appropriate that I mention two different scriptures that make direct statements.  They are 1 Peter 5:2, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind.”  Elders in the Church perceive this as a direct statement commanding them to watch over the membership, tending and keeping them as a shepherd would keep the sheep that are under his care (Acts 20:28).  The next statement is Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”  We are not to use instruments for making melody as we sing in the Lord’s Church.  The oversight of elders should definitely safeguard this direct statement.
  3. Apostolic or Approved Example (Acts 11:23-30) – During a dearth of food and other necessities, the Church in Judea fell in desperate need.  Relief came from the Church at Antioch.  It should be noted that Antioch sent the relief by the hands of Saul and Barnabas.  The Antioch Church and its elders did not try to dictate how the funds were to be distributed.  They knew that it would have been wrong for them to usurp authority over the Judean elders.  The New Testament contains numerous examples of how the early Church governed itself.  Another example is the partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).
  4. Necessary Inference is a logical conclusion drawn from given data or premises.  An example is before Jesus was baptized, he went down into the water (Matthew3:16).

As elders exercise oversight of the Church, they are to see to it that the Church take heed to the commandments in reference to the Church that are set forth in the New Testament.

Elders are men that must be fully qualified before they can be selected by the Church.  There is no specific order revealed in the scriptures for selecting and ordaining elders.  The term ORDAINED is used in Acts 14:23 with reference to the appointment of elders in every Church by Paul and Barnabas.

The Church is The Lord’s body.  It does not belong to the elders or the members or the evangelist.  The Church is the called out (1 Peter 5:10).  Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is his Bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).