Don’t Fence Me In

Fence I didn’t hear it personally, but I have been told that yesterday someone called in to a local radio station and denounced independent churches. From what I understand, his complaint was that non-denominational churches lack the oversight needed to protect the congregation. I may not have heard his argument, but the argument is not new to me. The claim is that duly appointed overseers will regulate the leadership of the local church and thereby protect the body from excess and abuse. Somebody has to police the sheriff and his deputies.

The reasoning seems sound, but it assumes that denominational officers are more righteous, wise, and trustworthy than local leaders. This is simply not the case. I am not suggesting that ecclesiastical administrators are all wicked; I am claiming that church leaders are not.

Think on this: what recourse is there for the local congregant who is troubled? In an independent church that person can meet face-to-face with the decision-makers and seek to influence events. In a denomination, the decision-makers are seldom in the same city, or even in the same state. All access is denied, and influence is lost.

And with the loss of that influence, churches are irrevocably harmed. The mainline denominations that dominated the American landscape in the last century are a study of loss. Their shrinking size is widely attributed to their abandonment of orthodox, evangelical doctrine. Their slide into theological liberalism was gradual, but visible, and while local congregations protested they did not have the authority to arrest the slide. Publishing houses and seminaries flooded these churches with a different gospel, one that had no life in it, and soon enough churches began to die.

Independent churches sprung up in response to this wrongful exercise of power. By refusing to surrender their destiny to some distant authority they have made authority accountable by keeping it local.

This is not to say that independent church leaders refuse to play well with others. Quite the contrary! In the last two decades we have seen numerous associations form to provide churches like ours the community and accountability we need. Leadership Network, Acts 29, 9 Marks, The Gospel Coalition, and the Fellowship Association are all thoroughly evangelical organizations that include thousands of independent churches. We at Fellowship are participants in the Fellowship Association (no surprise there).

Are these networks new denominations? No. They are not invested with any governing power and do not collect dues. Participation is voluntary, and many churches choose to join multiple associations. Interestingly enough, you will also find denominational leaders in these independent associations. At odds with their own denomination they find greater commonality with leaders outside of their tradition.

The evangelical landscape has changed. Across the board, denominations are in rapid decline and many are anxious, but there is no reason to panic. Just because some fences are in disrepair does not mean that the sheep are without care. The wellbeing of the flock has always been in the hands of local shepherds, and as long as they remain submissive to The Good Shepherd the sheep will be saved.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t Fence Me In

  1. ” The claim is that duly appointed overseers will regulate the leadership of the local church and thereby protect the body from excess and abuse.” … the “oversight” from the hierarchy of my former denominational church was the very reason that I left it.

  2. The churches of the early New Testament were autonomous, with local leadership, i.e. elders. We have been provided a pattern in His Word and the criteria for the elders is even spelled out for us, Every community is different, and the local elders, who live and work among the people, are in a better position to understand the culture and needs of the local church, and provide appropriate decision making and oversight. With off-site leadership, there is a risk of a cookie-cutter corporate approach, where churches are viewed as something that can be standardized, like a McDonald or Starbucks. We trust the Almighty knows what is best for us, and He has given us an example to follow.

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