Yesterday, the Bishop Seabury Anglican Church held its last service on the property where they had worshiped for 135 years. In 2006 the church was one of six Connecticut congregations that decided they could no longer be a part of the Episcopal Church. The six congregations disagreed on biblical grounds with recent decisions by the national body. The Episcopal Church moved to evict them. Bishop Seabury Anglican Church appealed all the way to the SupremeCourt but lost a six year struggle. The US courts decided that the Episcopal Church owned the 165 acres and buildings that the congregation paid for, improved and maintained for over a century.
On that same Sunday I preached on the Baptist principle of local church autonomy. The Baptist movement was born out of similar conflict with the Anglican Church over 400 years ago. Some members of the Church of England believed that the Reformation had not gone far enough to correct the errors and abuses that had crept into the Church of England. The Puritans wanted to change the church from within but were frustrated because the bishops refused. Some who felt strongly about this left the Church of England and became known as Separatists. Baptists were among these Separatists. Baptists believe that, since churches in the New Testament were autonomous, each local church is a complete organization that is self governed and self supporting. Baptist churches own their own property, decide who their pastor will be, how their money will be spent, and how and if they will relate to other churches.
The rise in the number of “non-denominational” megachurches combined with the ubiquitous independent churches found in storefronts and converted homes bears witness to the growing consensus on this doctrine. Lutheran church historian, Martin Marty, called this part of the “baptistification” of the American church in a 1983 Christianity Today article.
Hierarchical forms of church government (run from the top down) gave birth to the Protestant Reformation and other church renewal movements. Political control of large numbers of people and resources are a temptation that is attractive to people who are power-hungry and lacking in scruples. Moreover, the leadership of hierarchical denominations tend to be out of touch with the people in the pews and are often more concerned with protecting the status quo than the concerns of their parishioners.
Free churches are able to choose the best programs and materials from a variety of para-church groups, Christian businesses and denominational sources. They can partner (or not) with other churches and para-church groups without losing their autonomy. They can apply biblical truth in their own context and reject teachings from national leaders whom they deem to be in error.
I commend Bishop Seabury Anglican Church for standing up for its principles and pray for their continued prosperity
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then,
and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.