Two years ago, I wrote a post called “Autonomous churches” as a follow-up to another post called “Autonomous individuals“. I was commenting on a passage from a book that followed the interrelational aspect of church communities in Scripture. I think we’re missing something today when we believe and act as if our little group is “autonomous”. I think this post goes along well with my last few posts.
In my last post, “Autonomous individuals…“, I began discussing a book by Abraham J. Malherbe called Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1977), specifically his chapter called “House Churches and Their Problems”. In my last post I discussed how the early Christians saw themselves as part of an extended household – a family. But, how did these early Christian “households” relate to other Christian “households”?
As the church grew in a particular locality, more than one house church would be formed. The scarcity of information on the house churches in the first century precludes our having a clear understanding of their interrelationship. Paul seems to have known of at least three such churches in Rome (Rom. 16:5, 14, 15), and there may have been more than one group in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:17) and also in Laodicea (Col. 4:15). Although they may have formed separate communities, such groups were not viewed as being separate churches. Luke’s description of the church in Jerusalem is not clear on this point, but it does convey the impression that he thought of it as one church despite the smaller groups that composed it. This is supported by his (and the Pastoral Epistles) relating presbyters, or bishops, to cities rather than to individual groups (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5). By that time, however, more than one house church would presumably have existed in most localities with which the literature is concerned. More significant is that Paul and his followers, although they knew of separate groups in an area, wrote one letter to the church in that immediate area, apparently on the assumption that it would suffice for all the groups (e.g., Romans). On this understanding, the individual house churches would together have represented the church in any one area. 
Malherbe recognizes, as Scripture indicates, that there were different groups of Christians in a particular area (city). But, these groups did not consider themselves separate or distinct from other groups in the area. Instead, they considered themselves to be part of the same church. Also, Paul and others outside a particular city recognized all of the believers – and all of the groups of believers – in that city to be part of the same church.
As God formed the believers into households, He did not form them into exclusive households. Just as individuals now recognized that they were part of something bigger than themselves, the individual groups of believers also recognized that they were part of something bigger than that group. Thus, it seems from Scripture, that the distinct groups in a location – while recognized by themselves and others as a church – did not see themselves as truly distinct from other groups of believers in that same location. In fact, they also recognized a connection – though perhaps a looser connection – with other groups of believers in more distant locations. For this reason, Paul could label each group of believers meeting in a home as a church, but he could at the same time label all of the believers in a city as a church.
An autonomous church did not exist in the early days of Christianity. In fact, Paul reminds the believers in Corinth of this several times in his first letter to them. In 1 Cor. 1:2, he reminds his readers that they are not alone, but “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. (ESV) Similarly, Paul reminds them that all the churches share common beliefs, activities, and teachings (4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:34; 16:1). The church in Corinth – even the church at the city level – was not an autonomous church, but was to recognize itself as being in relationship with the wider church throughout the world.
Similarly, in Romans 16, Paul expects and encourages the various “home churches” in that area to greet one another, recognizing some level of association between the different groups since the “greeting” was certainly more than a wave or a handshake. Thus, as the believers from different groups encountered one another – either in an intentional or unintentional meeting – they recognized themselves as part of the same church, not as members of distinct churches with little to no relationship between the two groups.
Invariably, when this idea of multiple groups (churches) recognizing themselves as one church is suggested, the question of leadership and control arises. If the different groups are a single church, then who is the leader? Who is in control? Who is responsible for the “meeting”? To me, these questions indicate a lack of understanding of biblical leadership. Biblical leadership is not about control, but about service. The leader is the one who serves. Thus, the true leaders are not concerned with being in control, but with serving others.
Similarly, this idea does not mandate a city-wide hierarchy of leadership. Instead, it mandates humility, gentleness, patience, love – in fact, the whole fruit of the Spirit – in accepting others and treating others as members of the same body – which we are, whether we accept it or not.
The people that meet in the building down the street – those people that we like to make fun of – they are our brothers and sisters. The people that meet across town – those people with the strange practices – they are part of the body of Christ with us. The people that rent the school auditorium – those people who are a little louder/quieter than we like – they are part of our church. We do not do service to the body of Christ by separating ourselves from other brothers and sisters who may be different from us. Instead, we demonstrate our love for one another by reaching out to one another, serving one another, accepting one another, learning from one another, especially when those “one anothers” look or act differently than us.
The autonomous church is not found in Scripture. Instead, the church in the New Testament recognized its mutual relationship with other believers in their area and their mutual need of one another (interdependence), despite their differences. And, where the believers did not think they needed each other, the biblical authors wrote against those practices and teachings.