If churches could make up a perfect recipe for unity, one absolute essential ingredient would have to be understanding the importance of autonomy. Some define unity as forcing everyone to think and act like them, and the word “autonomy” means nothing. Religious groups whose various bodies are held together by “conformity” to a common creed don’t need to grapple with this issue. I belong to a church that believes we are independent of one another, bound only by our common trust and belief in the Word of God. I believe that is the nature of the first century church.
If the New Testament church that Jesus established is truly autonomous, why do people spend so much energy telling other people what ‘all’ people in the church believe? One of the first things you notice when you examine the beliefs of various religious systems is that often times their organization has a central headquarters where fiats, policies, and interpretations of scripture are issued and enforced. It is a common practice in many religious groups to write up or to secure a variety of pamphlets or brochures for those who come in the doors. Some of these tracts are for help in personal living. Some try to help explain to visitors a bit more about the beliefs of the group. Some come up with mission statements to clarify their direction and focus.
Even in most churches of Christ it is common to find a tract on what the “Church of Christ” is and what we believe. Invariably one of the most important truths stressed right up front is that the church of Christ does not have any centralized headquarters. We pride ourselves (and rightly so) in the fact that church Jesus established is autonomous and each congregation is free to vary from other congregations in the manner they do things. In other words, we aren’t told what to do by a council composed of a few people. Our charter and corporate handbook is the Word of God. The New Testament is the basis of our common salvation, our righteous relationship with God, our God honoring worship, and our dealings with mankind.
However, turn a few pages in most of these pamphlets and you will invariably find a statement along the lines of, “We in the church believe this” or “The Church doesn’t do things like this because the scripture says this.” Now we are either autonomous or we are not. I don’t mind a group saying they are heading down a certain direction because they personally believe the scriptures warrant such a direction. But I do hesitate when I see someone writing corporately in such a way as to declare what all sound and faithful brethren believe. This implies that any church not subscribing to their conclusions are not sound or faithful.
Convictions are Sacred!
My doctrinal beliefs belief are not based on a theological decision made by a well meaning second century council or a 21st century centralized headquarters. Neither are my beliefs based on the words of a well meaning brother who tries to tell me what it is that the “church” believes. My belief is based on what I read in scripture and what I understand God to be saying to me through His Word.
If my personal beliefs happen to match up in most regards to what I find in a brochure, I would like to hope that that is a good thing. (Maybe good minds do think alike, after all!) But what happens when good hearted, godly focused, intelligent, scripturally literate people come away with different understandings of things? Churches have been split for hundreds of years over this tough question. There are many topics in the theological realm that I have studied and on which I have come to my own conclusions. I am free in my relationship with God to maintain those convictions. In fact, the convictions I hold about God are sacred, even if sometimes misinformed. And I need to get it through my thick and sometimes biased head that your convictions on these matters are also sacred.
Let’s Get Practical
When I find someone telling me that the beliefs I hold are sinful, or suggest that people should be wary of fellowshipping with me because of the convictions I hold, are such people becoming nothing more than the judges described in Romans 14. If we are truly free as autonomous believers to study the Bible for ourselves, why do we feel so threatened when people do not land within the same doctrinal boundaries as they when the dust settles?
I understand there is a logistical and practical need to have a “common faith” so that we can share fellowship and constructively work together as a church. Autonomy and self rule does not mean that we are free to disregard the words and principles of Christ. God gave us a brain to be able to understand the scriptures which define the boundaries and limitations of our fellowship. I am not trying to say we should throw away the chains keeping us from fellowshipping with people who are clearly not walking in truth. Each autonomous local body needs to define and agree to where those boundaries and limits are. I am simply trying to keep us from venturing into dangerous prideful arena of letting our own personal convictions become the standard of fellowship for everyone in the church, lest we take on a role of “spiritual policemen.”
So go ahead and tell the world what you personally believe and even share with your community how ‘your’ local congregation operates. But please, for the sake of the unity of ‘the’ church, stop trying to convince the world about what all of us everywhere who are truly faithful are supposed to believe. Don’t tell me we should let no central organization be the spokesman for the church if you are going to turn around and write an article promoting yourself to be such a spokesman. Let the church’s author and the perfector of our faith be the one who tells us that.
Now I understand such a proposal is difficult to put into practice unless we have more Christians who are personally involved in Bible study. Only then we will grow to not rely upon other people to do our thinking for us. Carrying a monthly subscription to various “foundations of the truth” magazines doesn’t help your personal study but only transfers the beliefs of various authors to another brain.
If you need a human author to help you understand what it is that Jesus meant, I would encourage you to develop your study skills and your trust in your ability to understand God’s Word. I understand how difficult these writings can be. As Peter himself said of Paul’s writings, the can be a little “hard to understand.” But until you get to the point where you have all knowledge, please don’t let the knowledge you have go to your head so that you would judge someone else who disagrees with you. That is why small group discussions or Bible classes where there is honest and open dialogue are so important in the lives of churches today.