Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 25, 1954
NUMBER 29, PAGE 1,12-13a

More On Local Church Autonomy

Cecil B. Douthitt, Brownwood, Texas

A good letter from Brother Waymon D. Miller of the Northside Church in Fort Worth contains some pertinent and timely questions on a point which has not been discussed as fully as other phases of the controversial subject of local church autonomy.

We cannot hope to attain solutions to our problems and differences, unless we give due consideration to all questions relevant to the issues involved. I wish our "sponsoring church" advocates and promoters of centralized agencies for brotherhood action could be persuaded to give attention to the questions that deal with the real issues in these matters on which brethren disagree.

I appreciate Brother Miller's letter and I shall try to answer correctly and scripturally all his questions. Here is his letter:

Dear Brother Douthitt:

I have just recently read your series of articles in the Gospel Guardian reviewing the brochure released by the Highland Church in Abilene. Having been in Africa for the past five years, and especially being so unsettled since the middle of April, I have not been able to follow all points of issue in this matter as carefully as I have liked. I did receive most of the issues of the Guardian, however, while in South Africa, but only last week was able to read the ones from your pen now referred to.

For the most part your articles are exceedingly commendable, and I appreciate them very much. Especially do I appreciate the spirit of kindness and fairness that seemed to permeate your approach to this issue and problem. You have very definitely and obviously indicated that this is no personal brief you entertain either toward Brother Harper or the congregation for which he preaches. This objectivity and absence of personalities are so often wanting in such reviews, which fact you will agree, I am sure, is deplorable.

As explained, I have not been in a position to follow all your articles on the subject, which circumstances may of itself leave me somewhat in darkness as to your real position in a matter which I do not understand from this present series. You will be gracious enough to forgive me, please, for this lack of understanding.

It is not my intention here to contest your position in the articles in its entirety, but there is one point that I could not quite follow or grasp in your argumentation in them. I really do not believe you occupy a position that would be suggested by the conclusion which I seemed to very naturally draw from your argument in these articles. I am writing, therefore, to have a clear expression from you in this point, if you will be so kind as to give it to me.

The point I have in mind relates to your line of arguments on congregational autonomy. Here is the way in which I interpreted your position: "It would be improper (or unscriptural) for the elders of church "A" to send a contribution to church "B," if the elders of church "B" exercised the oversight of distribution of these funds. The reason being that if church 'A" had no voice in the distribution or disbursement of these funds, church "A" would thereby surrender its autonomy." (This is the gist of your argument as it appeared to me, and I trust I correctly understood it. If it would clarify the point, substitute "Fort Worth" for church "A" and "Abilene" for church "B," if you like.)

Now, have you assumed that the surrender of the local autonomy of the contributing church is the only issue involved here, Brother Douthitt? Did you assume that, were it not for this violation of congregational autonomy, the arrangement would be otherwise permissible? That is, would it be scripturally permissible for church "B" to receive and disburse said funds, were it not for the fact that church "A" surrenders her autonomy by having no voice in the matter? You may not have intended this interpretation of your views at all, but this is somehow the conclusion I drew.

But if church "A" contributes to church "B" to help in some work, and church "A" exercises some sort of oversight in the disbursement of its funds at church "B," would not this arrangement compel church "B" to surrender her autonomy? Would not this arrangement destroy the autonomy of church "B" while maintaining it for church "A"? Have the elders of one church any right of control over the work of another congregation without their action becoming an arrangement of ecclesiastical hierarchy? I cannot see how here the see-saw could be pressed down on one end without flying up on the other.

It is not clear in my mind really what oversight a contributing church can exercise over its funds, to maintain its autonomy, after said funds have left the region of that congregation. Is not autonomy local? Does not the concept of foreign control breed a hierarchy?

This issue we pressed all the while we worked in South Africa. We maintained that when the church was established (though without elders) in Johannesburg, a church in America who may have assisted that weak congregation in reality could maintain no "supervision" over the work. They could contribute, say to the new building if they so desired, but when the funds left the local area here (wherein autonomy is concerned) the contributing church could not direct the expenditure of the funds in South Africa. Were we correct in this? I hope I have not misinterpreted your position. I only wish to understand it. Warmest of personal greetings to you.

Yours in the Lord, Waymon D. Miller


Brother Miller certainly is correct and scriptural in his assertion that the church in Johannesburg must exercise the supervision of its work, and that the contributing churches could not direct the expenditure of the funds which they had sent to the Johannesburg Church. The Johannesburg Church could not maintain its autonomy, if it permitted the contributing churches to retain any control in the disbursement of funds sent to it.

Brother H. A. Dixon said in the Gospel Advocate, July 8, 1954, that when the church in Henderson, Tennessee, sends a donation to the elders of the church in Abilene for the Herald of Truth radio program, the authority is with the Henderson Church, and the Henderson Church has authority to direct the place and person to be benefited.

But the elders of the Highland Church in Abilene, in their brochure "That the Brethren May Know," pages two and three, state plainly, positively and repeatedly that such is not so. They say that the Herald of Truth is their work, solely under their authority, and "since this is a work of the Highland congregation, to maintain its autonomy or independence the elders must make the decisions." They are exactly right in that statement. They are wrong in their violation of the autonomy and independence of the contributing churches; but they are right when they say they would surrender their own autonomy or independence, if they permitted the contributing churches to make any decisions at all in that work. The Highland Church is maintaining its own autonomy in the operation of Herald of Truth, but the contributing churches are surrendering their autonomy.

Brother Dixon says, "One church, by simply turning its funds over to another for handling, would surrender its autonomy, and place the other in control." He is exactly right in that statement, and that is precisely what the Henderson Church does, when it sends money to the elders of the Highland Church for the Herald of Truth radio program.

When the elders of a church assume, retain or accept the oversight of the work of another congregation, when both congregations are equally related to that work, then the New Testament principle of local church autonomy is violated, and such action becomes "ax arrangement of ecclesiastical hierarchy."

When one church sends its money to another church for a work to which they are equally related, then without exception the autonomy and equality of one of those churches is violated. If the contributing church retains any control of that money after placing it in the hands of the receiving church (as Brother Dixon claims), then the receiving church surrenders its autonomy by permitting another to oversee its work. If the receiving church becomes the sole authority over this work to which the contributing church and the receiving church are equally related, then the contributing church surrenders its autonomy "by simply turning its funds over to another for handling."

So far, it has not been possible to get some of the modern "sponsoring church" devotees to see, or even to consider, the fact that a church's sending a contribution to another church for a work to which the donor and receiver are equally related, is quite different in principle and consequences from a church's sending a donation to another church for a work to which the two churches are not equally related.

Many churches sent funds to elders of churches in Judea during famines in that area (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Acts 11:27-30; 2 Cor. 8 and 9 and many other passages). This was no violation of local church autonomy, because the receiving churches and the contributing churches were not equally related to that work. All the contributing churches sustained the same relationship to that work; but the churches in Judea, which received the funds, bore a different relationship to that work.

Many saints in the churches in Judea were in need, and the Judean churches were unable to relieve their own; therefore, they must have help from churches that were able to do more than provide for their own worthy indigent. The only way that other churches could help the Judean churches in doing their work, was by doing just as they did; namely, send funds to the elders of the churches whose members were in need, and then leave the oversight of disbursement of these funds solely and completely to the receiving churches.

If Corinth or Philippi or some other contributing church had assumed or accepted the "sponsorship" of this Judean charity work, and had begged and received the contributions of other contributing churches, and had undertaken to exercise the oversight of the expenditure of such funds (as Broadway in Lubbock is trying to do in brotherhood charity work and in the building program in Germany, and as Highland in Abilene is trying to do in a nation wide mission project), then there would be no such thing as a New Testament principle of local church autonomy, but there would be a scriptural precedent and "arrangement of ecclesiastical hierarchy."

When several American churches send contributions to the church in Johannesburg to help her build a meeting house (assuming the Johannesburg Church could not do so without such help), no principle of church autonomy is violated; the contributing churches do not sustain the same relation to that work that the Johannesburg Church sustains to it. But when several churches send their money to some American church to direct or control a building program for a church in Germany or Africa, then the New Testament principle of church autonomy is violated, and such a "concept of foreign control" does "breed a hierarchy," and why some of our scholarly brethren cannot see it is one of the "seven wonders of the world." If a young man like Brother Waymon Miller can see so clearly that the concept of remote control breeds a hierarchy, then our older and more experienced brethren certainly should be able to see it too.

Gamaliel was a scholarly man, "a doctor of the law, had in honor of all the people"; a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and an eye witness of many of the activities of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 5:33-40), and yet he was so blind that he failed to see and obey the truth of the gospel.

Some of the scholarly brethren in Abilene, Lubbock and Memphis do not seem to be able to see that they are advocating a system of centralized earthly authority over church resources, which is as contrary to New Testament teaching as anything Rome ever initiated. They are as blind as the scholarly Gamaliel.

Brother G. C. Brewer of Memphis, Tennessee, is a scholarly man. He is editor of a paper established for the specific purpose of fighting Catholicism, but I do not know of any man outside of the Roman Catholic Church, who is more Romish in his ideas of centralized earthly control of church work than he is. He does not know Romanism when he sees it; when confronted with ecclesiastical hierarchy in embryo, he is as blind as Gamaliel. He has not been helped by the study of the history of the Roman apostasy any more than Gamaliel was benefited by the preaching of Peter and John.

If all our brethren could be persuaded to turn a deaf ear to the "glory that is of man," and open their hearts to the "glory that is of God," then all these centralized authoritative agencies for universal church action, which are disturbing the churches, would vanish into oblivion and nothingness. May God speed the day!