Although many churches advertise themselves as “independent,” proudly claiming to be free from the control of ecclesiastical bodies or denominational hierarchies, there is no such thing as an independent church.
Take the congregation I pastor. Because it belongs to no denominational group, it is considered independent. Yet this church’s life and witness would be greatly impoverished without the support and resources of other churches. It has never had a pastor raised in its midst, for example. It operates no school, college, or seminary. We do not print our own Sunday-school literature or write all our own music. Nor do we write or publish books for Bible study. We operate no radio or television station. Even the missionaries we help need support from other churches. We read periodicals, attend conferences and seminars, and even use films, tapes, and computer software produced by others. Every phase of our ministry is dependent upon others—other Christians and other churches.
By contrast, the word independent means “not dependent” or “free from control.” It is an unfortunate choice of words. Of course, no Christian or church would claim to be free from dependence on God or his sovereignty. We depend on him for our life, health, salvation, instruction, growth, and destiny. Our churches rely on him for their power and effectiveness (although sometimes we seem to depend more upon methods, intelligence, and personal charisma). Independent churches are not claiming otherwise, so why use such potentially misleading terminology? Independent is too easily read in our culture as a justification for a myopic “rugged individualism.”
There are other theological problems with independence. Independence is not the opposite of unity, but it works against it. Jesus tried to promote unity among his followers. Before his crucifixion, he prayed that they would become one (John 17:20–23). Luke emphasized in Acts 15 that the apostles were sufficiently concerned about unity to call a church council to bring believers to consensus and to keep factions from developing. And Paul strongly preached unity in his letters (1 Cor. 3:4–7; Eph. 4:7–13). This unity involved interdependence, not independence.
Even with all the disagreements of believers in the New Testament on law and grace, circumcision, eating of meat offered to idols, and qualifications for leadership, splintering into independent groups is never advocated. In fact, one of the few offenses that give us reason to separate from a brother is the offense of causing disunity: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions.… Keep away from them” (Rom. 16:17, NIV). Rather than permitting believers to divide into different churches, in 1 Corinthians Paul urged believers to heal the divisions and function as one body. Perhaps Paul would not require us all to be one organizational entity, but the notion of any church in a community being totally independent from the other churches clearly violates his teaching.
Perhaps worst of all, pride in our independence can become an arrogance that makes impossible true fellowship with believers who are not also “independent.” Even as God reminded Elijah that there were 7,000 other obedient believers when the prophet feared he was alone (1 Kings 19:10, 14; Rom. 11:1–4), so today’s independents sometimes fail to see beyond the walls they have constructed. They are thereby unable to find the help and encouragement God would send them through other believers.
True independence is both undesirable and impossible. There are no really independent congregations. As individuals we need one another for survival. And as churches we need to become unapologetic partners with other churches for effectiveness in our ministry.
By Ken McGarvey, pastor of First Baptist Church, Pierceton, Indiana.
Speaking Out offers responsible Christians a forum for their views on contemporary issues. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
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