By Robert Jackson, Sydney, October 2005
"I myself feel confident about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able to instruct one another" (Romans 15:14, NRSV).
"Autonomy" does not mean "independence." It is derived from the Greek words autos, meaning "self," and nomos, which means "law." An automobile is self powered (you don’t have to plug it into the wall to make it go) while an antinomian is a revolutionary – he doesn’t like obeying laws. Something is autonomous if…
• it is self governing,
• it is self regulating, and/or
• it obeys its own system of laws.
The central nervous system is also called the "autonomic nervous system," but it is in no way independent of the other systems. In fact, it is incredibly closely connected to all other systems, and supports them in an intrinsic and fundamental way. However, it is a self regulating system – it is not controlled by any other system; it acts autonomously and obeys a unique set of biological processes.
Anyone who thinks that "autonomy" means complete "independence" does not properly understand the meaning of the term. This is probably due to the tendency in many churches, in particular within the Churches of Christ, use the term "autonomy" to mean "independence." It would be closer to the truth to say that a church is autonomous if it controls its own affairs, and this has no direct bearing on the depth or extent of its relationships with other churches.
It may also be an independent church, like an island among the sea, and this would be a tragedy, since Jesus prayed for his followers to be unified (John 17:11). Alternatively, an autonomous church could have deep and powerful ties of fellowship with a whole host of sister congregations. Such a church would be far closer to the biblical precedent than an independent church, as this paper will seek to demonstrate.