Independent but not alone
As our name makes clear, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches is a family of ‘Independent’ churches. However, many people have no idea what this means, or misunderstand what it means. In this article John Stevens gives a beginner’s guide to what Independency is all about.
What is Independency?
An ‘Independent’ church is self-governing. Each individual local church has ultimate control over its own affairs. It does not belong to any external body or institution which has control over it.
When FIEC was first established in 1922 it was called ‘The Fellowship of Undenominational and Unattached Churches’. While this name was quickly replaced, it did capture something of the essence of what Independency means. Independent churches are not part of wider denominational structures, which require individual local churches to adopt their beliefs and practices, and which often have the right to appoint leaders for each local church. In contrast to Anglican and Presbyterian churches, each individual Independent church is free to make its own decisions.
Why are churches Independent?
Churches choose to be Independent because they believe that this is how the Bible teaches that churches should be organised. The Bible does not command the creation of national and international denominations, but rather the establishment of local churches with their own leadership.
Independency has a long and distinguished history. It emerged in the 16th century just after the Reformation, when some church leaders felt compelled by the Bible not to conform to the state-imposed Church of England.
What are the advantages of Independency?
The great advantage of Independency is that individual local churches are free to organise and act in accordance with what they believe, in good conscience, the Bible teaches. They do not have to accept unbiblical doctrines or practices imposed by a denominational hierarchy, or appoint leaders who they do not believe to be biblically qualified.
Independency allows local churches great freedom in church planting, as they do not have to get the approval of denomination authorities to start new churches.
Independency has also been a defence, preserving local churches from the liberal theology that has captured many denominations which makes it harder for evangelical ministers to preach the gospel.
How has Independency been misunderstood?
There are a number of common misconceptions about Independency:
- Independency does not mean Congregationalism. While many Independent churches are congregational – which means that the members of the church democratically make decisions affecting church life – not all Independent churches are congregational in this way. There is a wide range of different models of Independency within FIEC. While many are fully congregational, others are governed by a group of self-appointing trustees who make all key decisions, whilst others are led by a group of elders who require the support of a majority of their members only for major decisions.
- Independency does not mean isolation. Sadly some Independent churches have treated Independency as meaning that they should have nothing to do with other churches. However, this has not been the historical position of Independency. Independent churches have always chosen to work together with others to serve the wider cause of the gospel. However, this co-operation is voluntary, and does not compromise their control over their own decisions.
FIEC is itself an expression of the desire for Independent churches to work together and support each other as ‘partners’ (which is the root meaning of the word ‘fellowship’) rather than remain isolated. Every affiliated church is however free to leave at any time.
- Independency does not mean unaccountability. Some people in denominations fear that Independency inevitably means unaccountability. While it is certainly easy for Independent churches to split or slide into heresy, this is not inevitable. Most Independent churches have a strong Confession or Statement of Faith in place.
While FIEC is not a denomination with control over its churches, many churches join because they wish to have a degree of external collective accountability. Every FIEC church has to annually reaffirm its agreement with our Doctrinal Basis.
If a church goes astray from the gospel it will be removed from membership. While individual Independent churches may adopt false theology, the benefit of Independency is that other churches will not be forced to adopt that theology as well. Over the last 150 years denominations have shown themselves less able to preserve faithful biblical orthodoxy.
FIEC is investing in the future of Independency at a national level to further our vision: to see thriving gospel churches reflecting the biblical pattern of local church autonomy in every community. We are delighted that many new churches have joined us in recent years, precisely because they want to join with others to advance the work of the gospel in their localities and across the UK more widely, without in any way losing their right to self-governance.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of our Together magazine, which you can download here.