Church Autonomy: What It Is and Why It’s Important

June 16, 2021
Scott Blakeman

A church or house of worship needs to maintain independence from government control in certain fundamental ways. This is vital not only for its thriving but also for the flourishing of religious freedom throughout the United States.

There is a legal term for this concept: church autonomy.

So, what exactly is church autonomy and why is it important? Let’s briefly explore the topic.

As we saw in the video, the Constitution helps protect churches and other houses of worship from unnecessary government interference so that they can carry out their mission according to their deeply held religious beliefs and convictions.

It’s crucial for church leaders to understand their legal rights, which is why ADF recently released a guide for church leaders to help them better understand this important, longstanding legal doctrine.

According to the church autonomy doctrine—which has been expanded, refined, and clarified over the years—there are four key areas where the government has no right to interfere. These include:

1. Issues of doctrine .

Places of worship can determine for themselves what they believe and how they apply those beliefs. The government does not have a right to get involved in these matters.

2. Determination of church polity.

This means churches can determine how they are governed and structured as an organization. The government is absolutely prohibited from interfering in this area.

3. Relationships with ministers.

The church autonomy doctrine protects a house of worship’s ability to select, credential, promote, discipline, and appoint ministers (or any teachers and leaders of the faith). Churches have the right not only to hire or fire their own ministers, but also to determine the employment policies their ministers must abide by. All of this is done without interference from the government.

4. Affiliation with church members.

This means the government can’t dictate what church membership entails. Houses of worship have the freedom to determine how one can become a member, the standards members will be held to, and how members will be disciplined.

It's apparent that church autonomy is vitally important for multiple reasons, but most of all because it secures freedom: freedom for churches to define for themselves what they believe, how they’ll be organized, who they hire, and how to best engage with their congregations. When there’s freedom in these matters, the Church—and the Gospel it promotes and preaches—has a chance to thrive and transform lives.

And that is something we can all support.

Get additional details on church autonomy, real-life stories about what its protections look like, and best practices to help clarify it for your church.

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