The Authority of the Church in the World
Independent Churches and the Authority of the Church in the World
Dr. Timothy J.
Peck, D. Min.
What Are Independent Churches?
Independent Christian congregations have been a prominent American phenomenon.[i] This is likely due, in part, to the absence of an official state church or government legitimized religious institution. Despite this absence, however, American culture has historically encouraged Christian expression. This combination of factors created what might be described as a “free market” for Christian congregations in the United States.[ii] With the creation of this free market, congregations are free to adapt to cultural changes and compete in their efforts to attract and retain church members.[iii] No one church has a “monopoly” in this system. Although this environment has led to the unfortunate consequence of transforming church goers into religious consumers, overall it has had a positive impact on the growth of Christian congregations. This positive effect is evidenced by comparing church attendance statistics in Christianized countries without this free market (countries with a state church), with church attendance in the U.S. from the 1700s to the present. Such a comparison demonstrates a long term downward trend in congregational attendance in nations with a state church, contrasted with a continual increase in congregational attendance in the U.S. from the dawn of the American Revolution until the 1950s.[iv] It is within this free market context that the independent church phenomenon has emerged.
Most of these independent churches are evangelical in their orientation, conservative in their theological framework, and missional in their approach to parish life. It is impossible to characterize the origin of all independent churches, since their independence makes each independent congregation unique. For example, they range from the charismatic Calvary Chapels and Vineyard Christian Fellowships that emerged in California in the early 1970s to the Bible churches that sprang up in Texas, from the seeker targeted Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois to the independent Pentecostal churches that can be found in storefronts and industrial parks across the U.S, from the East Coast to the West Coast.[v] Ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and nationalistic reasons may sometimes come into play in the formation of independent churches. Overall these congregations are autonomous of any outside denominational authority structure, although some join voluntary associations such as the National Association of Evangelicals. Larger independent congregations sometimes form their own associations, as seen in the Calvary Chapel movement and the Willow Creek Association.
Independent congregations tend to be Bible centered, some being more reflective of Christian fundamentalism, others preferring to identify themselves as evangelical Christians.[vi] Regardless of where they are on this spectrum, the Bible plays a significant role in both the message and the structure of these congregations. Moreover, these congregations tend to adapt quickly to innovations and trends within the culture. Consciously or unconsciously, these congregations aim to communicate their message within the vernacular of their culture. Because of this, some independent congregations can tend to be overly individualistic and lack a sense of rootedness to history.
Authority of the Church in the World
Independent congregations tend to view the authority of the church in the world as extrinsic. This is to say that these congregations mostly reject the notion that the church has any intrinsic divine authority within its structure or its clergy. In agreement with the magisterial Reformers, these congregations tend to view authority as resident in the Christian Scriptures.[vii] Rather than residing within church structure, traditions, or an episcopate, authority resides in the written Word as it bears witness to Christ, the living Word. Consequently, a congregation can only speak or act with authority, in this view, insofar as it acts under the authority of Christ as expressed through the written Word. This is not to say that independent churches reject other sources of truth (e.g., reason, experience, etc.). However, it is to say that independent churches hold that the Bible’s affirmations about truth stand over and above these other sources of truth. Theologically most independent churches are in agreement with the ecumenical creeds of the first four centuries of the Christian faith. Although usually not accepting these creeds as authoritative in themselves, most independent churches agree with the doctrinal tenants affirmed in these creeds.
Remaining Under God’s Authority
Because of their particular view of authority, independent churches are careful to ensure that they remain under the authority of the written Word. The Bible is continually sought to provide guidance for ordering and nurturing congregational life. Activities such as education, worship, governance, fellowship, and mission are all patterned after the Bible. Ironically, independent churches will often differ significantly on how they engage the Bible and translate ideas from the Bible into practices. This sometimes leads to sharp disagreement between independent churches, since both appeal to the Bible as their ultimate source of authority.
Speaking with Authority to Culture
Expressions of Authority of Church in the World
Most independent churches affirm some sort of inaugurated eschatology. They believe that the Kingdom of God was inaugurated by Jesus, but they also look forward to some sort of final consummation of God’s Kingdom that is still future. As such, independent churches believe that they are participating in a divine purpose that is leading toward a divine goal. This creates a sense of urgency to continue to live under the authority of God as expressed in the written Word. This also creates motivation to continue proclaiming the New Testament kerygma. Insofar as independent churches are accomplishing these tasks, to that extent they believe that they express the authority of God in the world. To the extent that they do not accomplish these tasks, they stand against God’s authority in the world.
Most independent churches believe that the kerygma of Jesus has inherent power to transform people through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. They resonate with St. Paul’s affirmation that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16, NRSV). Thus, members of these congregations are confident that their church’s proclamation will be both persuasive and powerful. Responding in faith to the kerygma is the starting point for transformation for most independent churches, whether transformation of individuals, families, communities, or nations.
Many independent churches also seek to address social issues in the world. However, this activism does not take place in a vacuum. The impetus for this type of practice comes from a commitment to the written Word and thoughtful reflection on the implications of the kerygma. Although most independent church proponents carefully avoid altering the content of the kerygma, they do feel the freedom to explore the implications of the kerygma as it relates to social issues. Thus, the convictions of independent churches about issues such as race relations, poverty, women’s rights, and the environment are expressions of thoughtful reflection on how the kerygma relates to these issues. Although not all independent churches stand with each other in agreement on these issues, they are in agreement on how to approach these issues.
Some independent churches have strong convictions about separation from “the world.” These churches are more reflective of American fundamentalism, and members of these congregations are careful to avoid what they perceive as compromising entanglements with social structures and values. For instance, many parents in these congregations homeschool their children. Many create their own sports leagues, network their businesses, and so forth. Often these congregations have a negative attitude toward other churches, especially those associated with historic denominations.
However, not all independent churches approach culture in this manner. More in keeping with Neibuhr’s “Christ transforming culture” model, these independent churches seek meaningfully to engage social structures and values.[ix] Although careful about any perceived erosion of God’s authority as expressed in the written Word, these congregations avoid the isolationism that characterizes American fundamentalism. These churches also actively relate to other congregations as well.Independent churches look forward to the final consummation of God’s purposes in the world. Although some disagree with each other on the sequencing of events that will lead to this consummation, they believe that a time will come when God’s purposes will ultimately prevail. This conviction creates a sense of hope and urgency as these churches seek to accomplish their mission.
[i]Independent congregations have also been a part of other Christian contexts, for example, in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. This paper will focus on some of the prominent independent congregations within the context of the United States. For discussion of the African phenomenon, for example, see Jehu Hanciles, Euthanasia of a Mission: African Church Autonomy in a Colonial Context (Westport, CT: Prager Publishers, 2002).
[ii]See Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).
[iii]For the use of economic theory as applied to the growth of Christian congregations, see Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).
[iv]See Finke and Stark, 232-48.
[v]See Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1997).
[vi]On the distinction between Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism, see G. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991). Usually fundamentalists are characterized as being less willing than evangelicals to interact critically and constructively with contemporary religious, social and cultural issues. Unfortunately, observers do not always distinguish between fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
[vii]This is not to say that all independent churches are inerrantists; however, it is to say that all hold to a view of Scripture that embraces its divine authority and relevance to the life of the church. Most independent congregations would be in agreement with Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 volumes (reprint; Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999).
[viii]See G. A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996).
[ix]H. Richard Neibuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1956).