Many of the moral and ethical issues being bantered about in society today come down to the issue of authority. Who has the authority to define marriage? Who has the authority to assign gender? Who has the authority to tell a woman what she can and cannot do to the human being conceived in her womb? Who has the authority to tell me what is right and wrong? Good and evil?
In 21st century America, the answer to questions like these is overwhelmingly consistent. Who is the final authority on morality and ethics? Me, myself, and I. I only answer to me. In the courtroom of my life. I am the lawmaker, judge, and jury. I am a law unto myself.
This is called “individual autonomy.” The word “autonomy” comes from two Greek words: autos (‘self’) + nomos (‘law’). A law unto self. While we, as Baptists, believe in the autonomy of the local church, we do not believe in the autonomy of an individual.
Individual autonomy is condemned in the Scripture. It is the essence of sin. In the garden, Adam and Eve rejected the authority of God and went with their own ideas. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband…and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).
The condemning statement that concludes the book of Judges is that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). God condemns Babylon in the book of Isaiah for the pride of autonomy. They said in their heart, “I am, and there is none besides me” (Isaiah 47:8, 10). Finally, James 4:12 says, “There is only one lawgiver and judge…” And the position is not up for grabs. God is that One.
So, God condemns individual autonomy. We probably already believed that. After all, we know God’s authority is ultimate. We affirm that His Word is the supreme standard for all human conduct. It’s in our statement of faith. We sing of His authority in corporate praise. We “amen” it in sermons. We speak it to a culture that’s gone astray. We know man is not his own authority.
But there seems to be a disconnect here. We see clearly the individual autonomy that’s “out there”, rebelling against God’s authority. We see it in the unbelieving world, and we even see it in fellow Christians. Yet, we are blind to the way we lay claim to our own individual autonomy.
How do we do that? Some do it by refusing to join a church under the guise of not needing the institutional church. They’ve got their Bible, Christian friends who hold them accountable, sermons on podcast or TV, and praise music on CDs or Spotify. They don’t need to belong to a church. What is this but a rejection of God’s authority and declaring I know better?
Others may join a church, but they espouse individual autonomy as a member. He might resist the idea of living under the God-given authority of that church. Texts like Hebrews 13:7, about submitting to our elders, are dismissed as antiquated…or being for ‘weaker’ Christians. She might claim to want accountability but resist the actual rebuke when it comes. Why? Because “it’s none of their business how I live.”
Also, we may turn our preferences into demands. We may start by saying, “I would prefer it if we started a square dancing ministry.” However, we up the ante when we say, “We need to start a square dancing ministry.” Then, we go further. “We must start a square dancing ministry.” Ultimately, “If we don’t start a square dancing ministry, I’m leaving this church!” I chose a preference I’ve never heard in real life, but you get the idea.
In all three ways I might choose individual autonomy over the authority of the Christ-led church – not joining a local church, not living under authority, and making my preference a demand – I am exalting my own standards above yours. At times, I’m exalting my own standards above God’s. I’m a law unto myself, and you will respect my law. I am, and there is none besides me.
Pride drives individual autonomy, and that’s why I believe it fights against the biblical vision of the local church. The local church is a community where others are more important than me (Phil. 2:3-4). Individual autonomy says I’ll be part of any community that thinks I’m important. The local church strives for greatness through service (Mt. 20:25-28). Individual autonomy must be served by others, rather than be a servant itself.
The local church submits to those entrusted with God-given authority (Heb. 13:17). Individual autonomy says I’ll follow any leader who does everything I want him to. The local church, as shown in Acts 4, gives. Individual autonomy takes. The local church is about us. Individual autonomy is about me.
Individual autonomy is an enemy to the local church, and it can sneak into anyone’s thinking. From the pulpit to the pew, nobody is safe. By the power of the Spirit, we all must “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor. 10:5).