The first value I want to highlight in Churches of Christ is our commitment to congregational autonomy. Because it's the water I swim in, I haven't always appreciated this impulse of my movement. I guess I always assumed that every church had elders who made decisions for their particular body.
As I've gotten to know ministers in several different denominations, many of them would jump at the chance to minister in a church that had fewer hierarchical structures and complications. It would be difficult to work in a church that was forced to submit to decisions made from leaders at top who were not familiar with the contextual issues present in each congregation.
One of the greatest traits of Christianity is its contextuality. While there is a consistent story, God's good news works itself out differently in different locations and times. If Jesus were to be born in 21st century America, his ministry would have looked and worked very differently.
One of the key verses that speaks to Jesus' contextual ministry is John 1:14. The message translates it best, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." Since then, God has called the church, his body, into neighborhoods throughout the world.
The Quran (Islam's holy book), when translated into languages other than Arabic, is not considered fully inspired. Only in its original language is the Quran considered Allah's inspired word. Islam, as well as other religions, are not nearly as contextual as Christianity is. But Christians do believe different versions of the Bible are fully inspired. Our best missionaries (those not involved in colonialism) have always shared the good news throughout the world in ways that are contextual to the cultures they find themselves in. Congregational autonomy is one of the best means churches have for doing the best on-the-ground, contextual ministry.
I value autonomy because decisions are left up to leaders who, when at their best, are making the best decisions for their sheep. No denominational leadership knows each congregation as well as church leaders do. If certain changes make sense for our church, our church's leaders are able to make a discernment that will impact us without impacting dozens of other churches.
Now, we do have to be careful not to equate American values with kingdom values. We have to be aware that our movement emerged in specific context. The American frontier valued rugged individualism a great deal. And many of our churches have taken this value to an unhealthy end. Our autonomy, at its worst, has devolved into a competitive spirit, which has kept us from working with other churches.
But no worries, next time I'll talk about another key impulse of our movement that allows us to retain our autonomy without sacrificing the ability to work with other churches.