For those who are convinced of independency (as I am), we believe in the primacy of the local church. We don’t believe it is right for outside individuals or bodies to reach into our churches and tell us how they ought to be ordered. Church discipline lies in the hands of the local church and appointments to office are by that same local church. It is not for bishops, presbyterys, moderators or anyone else to determine what we do within our churches. Should you want that sort of external oversight (and presumably believe it is biblical) independency is not the place for you – you might want to consider the Anglican or Presbyterian churches.
But just because we are independents, doesn’t mean that we have no duty to speak to each other. Whilst we can’t insist that other churches appoint whom we demand or discipline those we have determined they ought, this doesn’t mean we have no duty to speak nor any reasonable influence. Nor does it mean that we have no ability to act in response to issues within autonomous local churches, especially those to whom we are formally associated. Ryan King linked to this helpful twitter thread early in January, which I think is entirely right:
The point here is that independency ought not to be an excuse for us to say nothing about sin (see here). Likewise, independency should not mean that – in our wider associations – we cannot act in response to issues within other local churches. Independency does mean that we have no external power to insist a church appoint or remove individuals from office, discipline certain individuals or even insist on particular teaching within that church. But it doesn’t stop us from responding as other autonomous churches, and wider associations, to problematic appointments, inadequate church discipline, moral failure and false teaching. Independency does not mean freedom from correction nor innoculation against any wider ramifications of our decisions taken autonomously within our own local churches.
As such, it does not undermine the primacy and autonomy of the local church for other local churches – especially those formally associated to those independent churches – to speak out against their autonomous decisions. Likewise, if a church has formally disciplined an individual or removed them from office entirely rightly, it in no way undermines the local church for other local autonomous local churches to affirm that this was the right decision. To suggest either of these things is a problem for the primacy and autonomy of local churches is not credible and fails to understand that the other churches commenting are also speaking autonomously.
Given all that, how can wider associations of independent churches legitimately respond to matters of moral failure or false teaching without undermining local church autonomy and the primacy of the local church. This is particularly pertinent as we see issues of abusive leadership coming to the fore. I would suggest there are three main things associations can legitimately do.
If there are serious matters of moral failure or doctrinal problems, associations cannot insist that autonomous local churches toe the line. However, they can determine that they will not fund churches that maintain such positions. Being independent and autonomous does not give you a right of access to funding from wider associations. It is my view that where there have been serious failures in standards by those in pastoral ministry, access to funds should not be granted until there is some repentance on these matters. Not granting somebody funds is no threat to the autonomy of that local church.
Similarly, if an autonomous local church wishes to hold its own conference and build a platform for itself, wider associations cannot (and should not) stop them. This would be association over-reach and would mean the affiliate group taking on the role of a denomination. However, being part of an association does not give you a right to be platformed by that association. Again, where there have been failures in pastoral standards or problematic positions taken on key issues, associations should not platform such people and churches until there is some repentance. Again, not giving somebody a platform is not a threat to the autonomy of that local church.
As I’ve said, autonomous local churches may appoint whom they will, teach what they will and discipline whomever they may. Should serious patterns of sinful behaviour, moral breach, abusive leadership, failure of discipline and other such things persist, associations cannot reach into the church and externally do what the church will not. The church is primary and autonomous.
However, the association – and its individual churches – may choose to disassociate themselves from those who have such persistent behaviour. Whilst the church may be autonomous and teach what it likes and allow whatever it wills to go on within its own membership, wider associations and churches may take a view on that and respond accordingly. If repentance on serious moral failure or denial of the core basis of faith is not seen through withholding funds and removing platforms, associations may ultimately choose to disassociate themselves from such churches. Again, this is not a breach of local church autonomy but a question of other autonomous churches wisely associating and disassociating themselves.
It has been interesting, following the wider issues of abusive leadership, to hear some use independency as an excuse to say or do nothing. We are using the autonomy of the local church to mean that we can say or do nothing in response to sin. But, as I commented here, our saying nothing damages those who have been badly hurt by such leadership. Worse, they hear silence and reckon our associations to be places that are not interested in justice and speaking up for those who have been damaged.
We have a duty to associate and disassociate with people and churches wisely. We have a duty to not platform and fund those who would bring disrepute to Christ. We have a duty to ensure that we speak for those without a voice, whether that is church leaders who need support because of bullying from their congregations or church members who have been abused by their leaders. We have a duty not to let our polity, our commitment to independency, our belief in the primacy and autonomy of the local church to act as a cover to allow sin, injustice, moral failure and heterodoxy run rampant.