The Dark Side of Autonomy
Children crave autonomy. Whether they are trying to get dressed in the morning, make something for lunch, or ride a bike around the block. There seems to be something in human nature that causes us to desire to do things for ourselves. For children, this process is normal and necessary. Human development necessitates that children learn to maneuver through life without depending on others to do for them what they can, and should, do alone.
Unfortunately, this push for independence doesn’t end with adolescence. The drive for autonomy often continues into adulthood and causes many to careen off the precipice toward the independence of radical isolation. We see ourselves as sovereign agents, not requiring external contributions. Autonomy has become so ubiquitous in the social psyche that it has morphed into a cultural norm to be lauded. To be human is to be autonomous; we must achieve unaided, without the help of anyone or anything. Or so we surmise.
In the end, the insecurities that drive our independent detachments usually become our undoing.
Autonomy and the Church
Evangelical churches in North America have seen rewards in co-opting autonomy, and translated this value into a hallmark of the local church. Confessionally, I count myself as one who agrees with this hallmark. Autonomy protects God’s church and honors the work of God among an individual local body.
In reaction to the menacing overreach of many hierarchical structures throughout history, numerous denominations emphasize the obligation of the local church to govern, lead, and correct herself. Such a structure rightly highlights the belief that God has given each local church a leadership who is accountable to God for teaching, correcting, and equipping God’s people toward his eternal mission.
But while clutching white-knuckled to our autonomy, we need not jettison relationships altogether. Some choose paths of voluntary affiliation and association with other churches, primarily for shared mission and education endeavors. While this voluntary associationalism is certainly a step in the right direction, it’s far too easy for many to opt into these relationships when they are deemed beneficial, and opt out when their immediate value becomes unclear.
Interdependent Autonomy vs. Radical Isolationism
The unfortunate byproduct of local church autonomy is closely akin to the challenge faced by toddlers rejecting help. Unbeknownst to the child, their efforts to accomplish things autonomously actually sets them up for failure when the task is beyond their toddling capacity. The drive for radical autonomy leads children to make foolish decisions or perhaps suffer harm because they are unwilling to accept the help of others. Autonomy is not always our friend.
The church isn’t different. It’s a simple reality that the scope of the mission of God is usually beyond the capacity of any singular local church. Forget the ends of the earth; it’s overwhelming to merely consider the needs of any one particular city. If the mission is merely collecting our market share of the pre-converted, that’s one thing. But if the mission is to give every person in a city of millions the opportunity to see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then that is an entirely different challenge.
Such a massive mission for a singular church is not dissimilar to assigning a 6-year-old the task of writing a dissertation on quantum physics. Radical autonomy, in this case, is not a virtue to be espoused, but a dark folly to be shunned.
And let’s not deceive ourselves, the ecclesiastical battle cry of ‘autonomy of the local church’ is often translated in reality as ‘the autonomy of the local pastor.’ Far too often, an emotionally damaged leader holds a local church hostage, and the suffering saints have few avenues for help. The abuser stands at the gate denying any neutral assistance all the while asserting his ecclesiological rights. There is nothing theologically sound in this declaration.
Rejecting Radical Autonomy
So what’s the answer? Certainly, the solution is not to recreate hierarchical structures or enforce an artificial associationalism. Coercing people out of radical autonomy will only bolster the death-grip that some leaders already feel when it comes to ‘their’ local church.
But we can, and should, confront the radical autonomy that is all-too-pervasive in many ecclesiastical subcultures. Pastors and leaders could strive to form interdependent relationships with like-minded pastors in a defined geography for the sake of personal edification and missionary effectiveness.
Once these relationships are forged, leaders should refrain from opting out when the help that they receive challenges their familiar sensibilities. Could other brothers and churches be necessary to provoke us out of complacency, or help surface blindspots that might otherwise have been missed?
Maybe, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, our autonomy could be tempered with a smidgen of biblical interdependence?
There’s no shortage of ways to pursue kingdom relationships, but here are seven ideas to get us started:
- Make a list of ten pastors/churches in your immediate geography that you can pray for weekly by name.
- Prioritize a time each month when you meet with one or two of these pastors to talk about God’s work in your life.
- Lead your church to pray for another church by name during your weekend services.
- Publically celebrate God’s work through other churches when you have a chance to speak, write, or share a thought on social media.
- Actively pursue a new pastor who plants a church in your area or who takes over the leadership of an existing church.
- Whenever you drive or walk by an existing church, send a note of gratitude or encouragement to that church’s pastor. If you don’t know them, do a little online research about the church and work to meet the pastor.
- Invent a shared mission that more than one church can be involved in and work together to plan and execute a multi-church project that targets every man, woman, and child in that locale.
What other bunker-breaking ideas would you have for pursuing interdependence in the midst of a culture of radical autonomy?
Jeff Christopherson is the North American Mission Board’s Vice President of the Send Network. He and his wife, Laura, live in Alpharetta, Georgia.