The Biblical Basis for the Three “Self’s”

New Testament churches should be autonomous. Autonomy comes from two Greek words: autos (self) + nomos (law) = Each group is ruled by itself. Church autonomy does not mean freedom from God, but from other churches. Autonomy does mean submission to God directly without control from any man outside the local church membership.

When Paul planted churches, each one was independent or autonomous. In Paul’s 12-15 years of missionary service, the book of Acts records 14 churches that were planted, but there were probably more.

  1. The first missionary journey, 7 churches: Salamis (13:5), Paphos (13:6-13), Perga (13:13; 14:25), Antioch of Pisidia (13:14-50), Iconium (13:51-14:5), Lystra (14:6-20), Derbe (14:20-23).
  2. The second missionary journey, 7 churches: Troas (16:8; 20:6-12), Philippi (16:12-40), Thessalonica (17:1-9), Berea (17:10-14), Athens (17:15-34), Corinth (18:1-18), Ephesus (18:19-21; 19:1-41).
  3. The third missionary journey: No new churches are recorded in this journey.

Each of these churches stood on its own without government, finances, or oversight from other places. This is implied throughout the record of the missionary journeys (Acts 13-21). In modern times, this independence is commonly divided into three categories called the “three self’s.”

They met their own financial needs without depending on other groups for support.

  • The church at Ephesus learned from the beginning to take care of its own financial problems (Acts 20:35).
  • Paul told Timothy to train the church to support its pastors (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
  • Even though churches at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea were living with “deep poverty” they still took the initiative to support poor Christians (2 Cor. 8:1-4).

They made decisions in their own local church without taking directions from a structure of churches or offices above them.

  • The churches that Paul started on his first missionary journey, all had elders to lead them (Acts 14:23; 20:17).
  • Titus appointed elders to lead each church on the island of Crete (Tit. 1:5). These leaders were taken from the churches themselves.

They evangelized their communities and even sent missionaries without expecting other Christians to do that work for them.

  • The church at Antioch was started in Acts 11:19-26. By Acts 13:1-3, they were sending missionaries from their own congregation.
  • The churches that Paul established on his first journey evangelized the lost around them so that “the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (Acts 16:5).
  • The church at Thessalonica was started in Acts 17:1-9. By 1 Thess 1:8, less than a year later, they too sent out evangelists to cities around them.
  • The church at Philippi was started in Acts 16:12-40. By Phil. 4:14-18, they took the initiative to support Paul and his team in order to plant more churches.

Each local church should take responsibility for itself just like each husband and wife must take responsibility for their own home.

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