Congregational Independence

by Harris J. Dark
via The Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 2, Dec. 1951.
via The Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 3, Jan. 1952.

(Note: The following was electrically recorded when delivered as a sermon by the author at the Chapel Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee in the spring of 1950 and is reproduced here as originally preached).

In a generation or two past the question of congregational independence, sometimes called congregational autonomy, came up for much discussion. It was one of the focal points in what is known as the restoration movement, a high point of which occurred at old Cane Ridge, Kentucky, when a group of brethren met and wrote what they called "The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery." Having become convinced that it was wrong, unscriptural, for the congregations to be bound together as they then were by this "presbytery," they dissolved it by writing its last will and testament.

After the battle for congregational independence had been fought and won, the brethren quit talking about it so much. In recent decades we've been taking it for granted. I doubt that you've heard a sermon on congregational independence in the last twenty-five years. We've assumed that everybody understood it, that everybody believed it, and that everybody was acquainted with its significance. But it may be that we have taken too much for granted. During that time there can grow up a generation whose attention has not been called to this Bible doctrine. There are many pieces of evidence that this subject needs further study.

For instance, one prominent leader in Nashville said last week he believed that we ought to have a general organization, tying the churches together, and that he had nothing to say against the missionary society of the so-called Christian Church. Surely with such straws in the wind, we need to open our eyes to the facts that exist.

Over-confidence has lost many a battle. "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (I Corinthians 10:12). Whenever individuals or groups of individuals assume that they cannot err, they are in great danger.

Recently, on several different occasions, I have been challenged to prove that the Bible teaches congregational independence. To tell you the truth I'd never thought about proving it. I just assumed that everybody with whom I associate religiously already believed it. Tonight I want to give you some of the reasons for believing that the Bible teaches congregational independence.

It Is Scriptural

In the beginning, I shall incidentally answer a question which I have been requested to answer tonight, namely, "What is the origin of the church of Christ?" The answer is found in Acts 2:47 where the Bible says, "And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." Christ had previously said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." On the day of Pentecost, there were about three thousand who believed and were baptized, many others in the days which followed believed and were baptized, and the Lord added to the church daily all those that were saved. Since the church of the Lord is composed of the people who have been saved, which means those who have believed and have been Scripturally baptized, the church was begun on this earth by that method. And consisted of all that believed and were baptized into the body of Christ.

After people had thus obeyed the Gospel they were taught to meet together regularly and to worship God. The disciples came together at Troas on the first day of the week to break bread (partake of the Lord's Supper) Acts 20:7. The church at Jerusalem "...continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). In Hebrews 10:25 we are admonished not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is. Wherever there are people then, two or more, who have been baptized into Jesus Christ, it is their duty to meet together at a convenient place for the purpose of worshiping God. This practice naturally assumed some sort of organization. Such was necessary to their functioning efficiently as a church.

According to the Bible, the organization developed as the need for it arose. When the Grecians murmured against the Hebrew brethren, because their widows were being neglected in the daily administration of needs, men were appointed from among them to see to this matter. They were not appointed to "perfect the organization of the New Testament church," but they were appointed to meet a need, to do a work that was not being satisfactorily performed. This was done so that the apostles could continue to give their full time to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Likewise, in the future, when qualified men were available, elders were appointed to look after the spiritual needs and interests of the members of the church. And so we have the simple organization of the New Testament congregation of the Lord's people, consisting of elders, deacons, and members, there were preachers from among the members of the congregation that taught the Word of God to them on a regular basis.

Right here the New Testament stops. That's as far as it goes in giving information on the organization of the church. In the New Testament, there is not a single word about two or more congregations being bound together by any sort of an organization whatsoever; there is not a word about any kind of a mass meeting of the churches of Christ in any area for any purpose. There's nothing said about representatives appointed to attend any sort of a conference of the churches. The New Testament absolutely stops with the congregation as far as organization is concerned.

Someone recently asked me what verse of Scripture I would use to prove that we ought not to have inter-congregational organizations? I said, "The same one that tells us not to have mechanical instruments of music in the worship." Both are forbidden by the principle of exclusion, by the limitations of God's law. We truthfully contend that in reference to the worship we must be confined to what is written. The Bible teaches that it is a sin to go beyond what is written (Revelation 22:18). Paul said, "These things brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to go beyond what is written..." (I Corinthians 4:6). No doubt, you have heard many sermons on the point that the Bible is complete and that it furnishes us completely with all things that we need for our salvation, and that we are not to add anything to it nor take anything from it (II Timothy 3:16,17).

Now I want to ask a few questions. I'd like for you to think about them. If we are justified in adding to the New Testament with reference to organization, why can't we add to it with reference to worship? If we are justified in have some organization that is not known in the Bible, why can't we have something in the worship that's not known in the Bible? The Holy Spirit said by the pen of Paul, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly (or completely) furnished unto all good works" (II Timothy 3: 16,17).

If the Word of God is not a complete guide on organization how can we assume that it's a complete guide on worship? In fact, a guide which is incomplete is not a guide. A standard to which you must add, in some instances, ceases to be any standard at all. If you add to the Bible where your judgment so dictates, then your own judgment and not the Bible is your standard.

Inter-congregational organizations, the piano in the worship and all other additions to God's Word come in at the same door. Before this audience, I don't need to argue that it's a sin to add to God's Word, that on points where God's Word does not legislate, we must stop right where it stops. That ought to settle forever the argument about congregational independence. You know that there is no Bible authority for any church organization except that of the local congregation.

Since the local congregation is the only church organization God has given us, then whatever work God wants the church as an organization to do, can be done by the local congregation. You agree, I believe, that the local congregation is the only church organization revealed in the Bible and that it is, therefore, the only one that has any right to exist. That being true, a work which cannot be done by a local congregation is not a church work. Whatever is the work of the church as an organization must be done by the congregation. Whatever is not the work of the church should not be imposed upon, or undertaken by, the church. Why should the church as such be expected to support, sponsor, or promote that which is not church work?

It Is Effective

In the next place, I would like to call your attention to the effectiveness of this divine plan, congregational independence. Jesus said, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature" (Mark 16:15). That was an exceedingly big order. Thirty-four years afterward, the apostle Paul said that the gospel had been preached unto every creature under heaven (Colossians 1:23). Think about it! In a span of thirty-four years the gospel had been preached unto every creature under heaven. This remarkable success was achieved without any church organization except that of the local congregation!

But someone may say, "The world as known by the early Christians was not nearly as big as the world we know today" In one sense that may be true. But it's also true that they did not have our modern methods of communication and transportation. They had no telephones, no radios, no printing presses! When you take such things into consideration, the world was far bigger then than it is now. And yet with their primitive means, they preached the gospel to every creature in thirty-four years without any organization except that of the local congregation. If it could be done then, why can it not be done now? Our trouble today is not a lack of sufficient organization but our failure to use the organization which the Lord has provided.

During that period of thirty-four years, the gospel was preached by individuals as they went from place to place. The apostles went in various directions. When the church at Jerusalem was scattered abroad the Bible says they went everywhere preaching the Word. The individual effort-- everybody teaching wherever he is to whomever he is with! That's one of the finest and most effective means of doing missionary work. It's practical, it's effective, it's inexpensive, and it is Scriptural. What else would you want to recommend it? That was one of the chief methods used by the early Christians in accomplishing their great work.

If members of our Lord's church had been doing that in the United States for the last twenty-five years, I would dare say there would not be a town in this nation with as many as twenty-five thousand people without a strong congregation of saints. Members of the church still move around over the country. The trouble is, we don't go everywhere preaching the Word. If we did we could get the job done. We cannot atone for our personal failures by supporting or promoting some sort of a big scheme or combined effort. Such will not excuse our failure to do our individual duty.

When Paul went out to preach, different churches sent directly to him. He said, "I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service" (II Corinthians 11:8). Philippi sent once and again unto his needs (Philippians 4:18). And may I remind you that there is not one word in the Bible about the churches sending money to some sponsoring church to be forwarded on to Paul? They sent directly to him. You can make of it whatever you will. There is no Bible example of funneling money into one congregation to be distributed over the world by that congregation. According to the Bible, they sent to the preacher. You may think you know of a better plan but that's the Bible method.

Paul wrote letters and visited churches in Galatia, Achaia, and Macedonia telling them about the needs of the poor saints in Jerusalem. Concerning the collection for them, he ordered everyone to lay by in store, upon the first day of the week, as God had prospered him. See Acts 24:17; Romans 15:25; I Corinthians 16:1,2; II Corinthians 8,9. "Taking thought for things honest, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men," Paul himself, in the company of others, delivered the funds to Jerusalem to be used in ministering to the saints there.

Agabus came to Antioch and told about the need in Judea. "Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:29-30). In like manner, the church at Chapel Avenue has sent money to the elders at Fifth Street to be used by the deacons there in taking care of the poor saints in the area.

That's the way they did it then. They didn't have all of those poor people to come to some big institution which the church at Antioch might establish and be cared for through it, but disciples at Antioch sent their money to the elders in Judea where the poor people were, to be used in taking care of them there. For this method, we have a Bible example. We don't have a Bible example for some centralized scheme.

If the local congregation was sufficient then to evangelize the world in thirty-four years, and take care of the poor on an international scale, why do we need any other organization today?

Many of you know that a few years ago, brother E.L. Flannery gathered statistics which showed that the Chapel Avenue congregation did more missionary work in one year than all the members of the United Christian Missionary Society in North Carolina. And yet some of my brethren are rising up today arguing that we ought to have a central organization for the sake of effectiveness.

A man sitting in my office a few days ago said, "Don't you think that you will have to organize in order to meet competition? Other churches are organized and you can't compete with them unless you are." There are two things wrong with that. First, to organize in order to meet competition would be to set aside God's plan in favor of our own, as if we knew better how to get the job done than He. And, second, the very minute we organize, we will have already lost the battle, because the thing we are contending for is strict adherence unto the Word of God. If we violate that principle in an effort to make a bigger show than some of our religious neighbors, then they will have won the battle. Because we will already be over on their side -- guilty of error with respect to an organization as well as they.

So I contend for congregational independence, first because its effectiveness has been demonstrated. To set it aside for some human scheme would be to substitute man's judgment for the wisdom of God.

It Is a Safety Measure

In the third place, I contend for congregational independence because it is one of the greatest safety devices ever provided by the Lord. Centralized movements are hard to resist, if they do go astray, as they are almost certain to do, sooner or later.

Let me show you why they are hard to resist. In the first place, people take pride in them and develop a patriotic attitude toward them. Without this, they could not exist and continue. It is necessary to build up a spirit of patriotism with reference to the central organization. Then, if the central organization happens to go astray (and it would be directed by human beings who are subject to error) that spirit of patriotism (maybe prejudice) must be overcome in order to resist effectively.

Furthermore, the apostasy does not come in one big leap; it comes very gradually. The central organization does something that's somewhat questionable and a given congregation doesn't like it much, afraid of it, considers it a dangerous trend. It looks like it's a little offside but it's not a big enough step that you want to make an issue out of it. You hate to be the first one to object, make yourself conspicuous, and be classified as a reactionary. So finally you think it over and say, "Well, maybe it will be all right, I'll string along." After you get used to that one until you don't think about it much more, there is another questionable move. You go through the same process again until after a while you fall in line. Then the first thing you know there is a rank digression.

In other words, in order to resist the drifting or digression of the central organization, you have to secede and secession is not popular. It's difficult. It's not nice to be a rebel. And so when the central movement goes wrong there is a strong tendency for all affiliated congregations to go with it.

Furthermore, pressures will be applied, though indirectly perhaps. Statements will be made to indicate that if you don't string along you are not loyal. All the congregations in a given area will be invited to attend a mass meeting "to demonstrate our loyalty to the cause of Christ," with the implication that if you don't come along, you are not loyal. Well, who wants to be classified as disloyal by his own brethren, by the folk whom he loves? Thus pressure is brought to bear. You are not considered co-operative if you don't go along and so it's hard to resist.

Congregational independence is a safety device also because the centralized movement gives an opportunity for a dictatorship to be developed. As long as dictatorship is confined to a local congregation it can be only local damage. But if you have a broad general movement and happen to get a dictator in charge of it, then he does broad and general damage.

So, congregational independence curtails the danger of apostasy. It curtails the danger of dictatorship and makes it comparatively easy for one congregation to remail loyal even though others may go astray.

The voice of history declares that congregational independence is a safety device. Let me give you just a brief history of what happened following the thirty-four-year period I have mentioned before. A few years after that period the principle of congregational autonomy was forsaken. The change came about very gradually. God's plan was for there to be a plurality of pastors or overseers in each congregation. But after a while one of those overseers gained pre-eminence over the others and he came to be distinguished by the word bishop, which according to the Bible should have been applied to all of them alike. But it wasn't long until this mother church established a mission or two nearby. No doubt it argued that it needed to look after the missions.

Incidentally, the Bible doesn't say anything about establishing missions. The Bible talks about establishing churches. When Paul returned on his first missionary journey, as we call it, he appointed elders in every church (Acts 14:23). The Bible doesn't say he appointed elders at every mission. He appointed elders in every church. They were churches before they had elders. They were churches the very minute two or more Christians began to meet and eat the Lord's supper. Today some speak of missions. You don't read such language in the Bible. There's nothing found about a superintendent of a mission. Paul appointed a plurality of elders in every church. That is significant.

Following the apostolic period, they established missions and the "mother" church looked after them. Thus, after about 150 years, since there was one man now running the"mother" church and since the "mother" church had some others under its wing, there was one man over a group of churches instead of a group of men serving one church. The Bible plan was reversed.

Suppose I had been living back in those days and had raised my voice against it, what do you think the folk would have said? They'd have said, "Well, Brother Dark is kind of curious, narrow, anti-missionary, reactionary, non-cooperative," and all that sort of thing.

I don't believe those brethren meant to do wrong. They no doubt thought they were doing right. But suppose you could have shown one of those fellows back in 150 A.D. the Roman Catholic Church of today. What do you reckon he would have said? Yet the mistakes they made then finally led to the Roman Catholic hierarchy with all its evils. If you and I are not very careful we will make the same mistakes they made. Let me ask you if we once go beyond the Bible, where will we stop short of Rome? Is there any stopping place? We can stop when we get to where the Bible stops, we have an excuse for stopping; but if you once go beyond that, then where you stop is just a matter of opinion. You don't have any Bible to stop you after you pass congregational independence, because you've passed the limitations of the New Testament.

There is a saying that history repeats itself. Departure from congregational independence led to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church. Let us heed the warning.

Four or five hundred years ago there was what we call the Reformation Movement. Men like Martin Luther started out to reform the church of Rome and to get back to Jerusalem. But it wasn't long until they let up on the oars and began to drift. Apostasy set in again and any informed Lutheran Church is more like the Catholic Church now than it was three hundred years ago.

Then we had what is known by historians as the Restoration Movement, in which the purpose was not only to reform on doctrine and certain practices but on organization as well, and go get back to the congregational independence. But it wasn't long until drifting set in again. There was a great apostasy over instrumental music in the worship and the missionary society. It was the rich churches that went astray. It was the rich churches that digressed. When I was living in Richmond, Va., a big central church downtown with 2,500 members had a brass band playing for them on Sunday night. The majority went astray and it was a minority of the small churches that held out against them.

Since then we've had another apostasy, not quite of such great proportions, over premillennialism.

Do you think there will never be another one? Do you believe we are immune from apostasy from here on out? Do you think it can happen again? It won't happen over instrumental music anymore, that point is settled, the line drawn. We have a traditional opposition to it if no more. It won't happen over premillennialism next time, that line is already drawn, too. What do you think it will happen over next time? What will be the nature of the next apostasy? If you think there won't be another one, I'm afraid you have a false feeling of security and are over-confident.

Some Current Dangers

Just a word about some dangers confronting us today. First, there is a danger of our developing a central power while preaching against it. I can give an example of doing so. There's not a group of people anywhere on this earth as far as I know who contend for congregational independence anymore than the Baptists do. That's a cardinal point in their doctrine. If you don't believe it, just ask an informed member of a Baptist Church. Yet, there are few churches more tightly bound together than they are.

They have what they call their co-operative movement. If one doesn't take part in it, he is not co-operative; and it isn't nice to be non-cooperative. So there's pressure brought to bear upon one to line up. If a preacher or a congregation does not line up, then they don't get favors. They are kind of ignored, pushed aside, and they are not given much publicity and favors are not turned their way. They are somewhat ostracized. That doesn't make one feel good, so if one isn't pretty strong in his convictions, he will start to co-operate. This has happened to them while preaching against such organization and while contending for congregational independence. If you and I are not very careful, we will make the same mistake.

Someone may say, "Brother Dark, don't you think it's right to cooperate?" I certainly do. I don't want you to misquote me on that; don't you go away from here and say "Brother Dark preaches against co-operation." I'm contending for cooperation. But let me ask you something: when each member of that original church went everywhere preaching the Word was that not cooperation? Now that was not an organization. That was not centralization; that was dispersion. But it was the finest co-operation in the world.

We have recently heard of a group of about seven hundred people in the heart of India who have taken the Bible as their guide and are Christians according to the New Testament. They are over there preaching and converting Indians. It's our job to convert the world. While they are working at it over there and we are working at it somewhere over here, aren't we cooperating in spreading the Word of God?

I want you to get this statement, two congregations can cooperate in the finest and most effective way without either knowing that the other is in existence. Hasn't that group in India been co-operating with us, when neither of us knows about the other personally? They've been trying to convert the world, we've been trying to convert the world. It's the job of all to convert all and every time one converts one there's one less for somebody else to convert, and everybody can work at the same task without one even knowing what the other is doing.

Somebody said, "The churches in Nashville ought to get together and hire a preacher to visit the hospitals." One congregation can do that if it has enough money, and many of them have. If Chapel Avenue wants to hire a preacher to spend his time visiting the hospitals, you don't have to call all the churches in Nashville together to do a little job like that. There are many individuals in Nashville who could do that alone, without any help at all. Surely one congregation could do it. When everybody works at the job of converting the world then we have the finest and best sort of cooperation.

There is a danger of our attempting to substitute our promotion of some central movement for our individual responsibility and effort.

For instance suppose we start some big movement to do charity work or to do evangelistic work and I contribute five dollars a year to it, wash my hands of all further responsibility, and go on having a good time. I can fish, play golf, do what I please. I've made my contribution to the cause of Christ and I'm loyal to the central movement! I don't have anything else to do. Now that just won't work! Because that organization can't answer for me on the judgment day. God will ask you whether you've visited the sick, whether you've helped the poor, what you've been doing about it (or rather He will already know and judge accordingly) and you cannot substitute a program or a small contribution to a central organization for your individual responsibility and effort.

Another danger is that a central movement is liable to result in denominationalism. Let me show you how it works. We start some movement in Nashville and invite or expect all the churches in Middle Tennessee to have a part in it. Well, some will and some won't. Those who do may assume the attitude that those who don't are not loyal. I can give you some documentary proof of it if you want it. So the congregations are classified into two groups -- those which participate in the central movement and those who operate independently. Then comes the practice of differentiating the two groups of congregations by distinguishing titles. People will start calling those who do participate by one name and those who do not participate by another name. The is denominationalism! (Whenever you use a name to distinguish religiously some of God's people from others of God's people you've made a denominational title of it). The only way to deny this would be to claim that those who don't co-operate with your central movement are not churches of Christ. I don't think one would go quite that far just yet. Thus mass movements, directly or indirectly claiming congregational support as a Scriptural obligation, lead to denominationalism.

Finally, my friends, if an inter-congregational organization had been formed in Nashville a few years ago, it would already be split a half-dozen different ways. There would already be several branches of the churches of Christ in Nashville. You know of congregations which would have been excommunicated because of premillennial tendencies or some other doctrinal unsoundness. Such action would probably have made it more difficult for them to be reclaimed. Hence and organization binding congregations together would mean division and increase the danger of further apostasy.

We contend, therefore, for congregational independence for the following reasons: First, it is Scriptural, there being no Bible authority for additional organization. (This alone is enough to demand its practice). Second, its effectiveness has been demonstrated. Third, it is a great safety device provided by our Lord. And, fourth, it needs special emphasis in the face of dangers currently confronting the church.


Please remember, now that the church of our Lord consists of persons who have believed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who have repented of their sins, confessed their faith, and obeyed the commandment to be immersed in water in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins. When you do these things, God adds you to His church. Then, if you will be faithful, studying God's Word, praying without ceasing, serving and worshiping Him while you live, He will save you everlastingly. Why not obey the Lord Jesus now?

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