The idea that local assemblies are autonomous entities is not taught in Scripture, either by precept or example. What is presented in the Bible is the Assembly, the body of Christ (see Col. 1: 24), and all Christians as members of that body (see Eph. 5: 30), with the assembly of God in one place representing the whole and acting on its behalf. Thus in 1 Cor. 1: 2 all those that “in every place” called on the name of the Lord Jesus are associated by Paul with “the assembly of God which is in Corinth”. However, the assembly local to Corinth is also treated as “Christ’s body” (1 Cor. 12: 27) and made locally responsible for maintaining the purity of God’s house (of which there is only one, not many). It is important to be clear here: Paul does not say that they are the body of Christ (there is no definite article in the Greek), and to say so would be to contradict not only Eph. 4: 4 (“[There is] one body”) but would exclude Paul himself since he addresses the Corinthians as ‘ye’ not ‘we’. The absence of the definite article in 1 Cor. 12: 27 simply means that Corinth was the body characteristically, expressed in a local setting: “Now ye are Christ’s body, and members in particular”. As the local representation of that which the Lord calls “my assembly” (Matt. 16: 18), the Corinthians were responsible to act on behalf of that whole—and there was certainly much to put right. Since it was His Assembly, all was to be done “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 5: 4).
Now by rejecting independence, I am certainly not advocating that local assemblies are to be run by individuals or groups in some other location. That too, would be unscriptural. Whatever we make of ‘the angel’ in each of the seven assemblies in Revelation 2 and 3, it is perfectly plain that responsibility resided in each assembly and not elsewhere. Ephesus, for example, was responsible to decide on the matters that came before it—but it would be wrong to deduce from this that they were not also acting for the whole. If each assembly acts independently of the others and receives independently of them, then the unity of the whole is rejected—they are merely independent assemblies, and there is no practical unity of the one body.
The Assembly is not a voluntary system formed of several independent bodies each acting for itself. In the book of Acts it was never dreamt that Antioch would act independently of Jerusalem, and the consistent action of the Holy Spirit throughout is of maintaining the unity of the body (see Acts 11: 22; 15: 1-35). That Jerusalem then had a somewhat unique place through the presence of the apostles is not disputed, and it is also clear that they were in a position to provide guidance and help to Christians elsewhere. However, that does not invalidate the underlying point that Antioch did not think to act independently of Jerusalem, nor Jerusalem to act independently of Antioch. The letter written from Jerusalem was from “The apostles, and the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are from among the nations at Antioch, and [in] Syria and Cilicia” (v23). It was a practical working out of “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3), for the clear intention of the Holy Spirit was to maintain the two assemblies (and Christians further afield) in fellowship.
Suppose there was a national society, bound together by a common membership and terms of fellowship, but meeting in local branches on grounds of convenience. Further imagine that a member was excluded from one branch by the rules of the society. Now if there was a question about the justness of that exclusion, then are all the other branches to receive or reject him on their own independent authority, instead of looking to the local branch to review the case? No, for if each branch is an independent body acting for itself, then the unity of the society is gone, and they are really just many societies instead of branches of the one. Now as regards the Assembly, Scripture knows only one membership, and that is of the body (see Rom. 12: 4 etc.), and that body is one (see Eph. 4: 4), not many. When the wicked man was put out at Corinth, was Ephesus free to receive him? No, for Ephesus could not receive what had been rejected at Corinth without dissolving the practical unity that existed between them. The “within” and the “without” (1 Cor. 5: 12; AV) relates to the assembly as a whole, not just a local representation of it—to be outside was not merely to be no longer recognised as part of the assembly in Corinth but to be no longer recognised as a Christian. Corinth had competence to act (being local to the issue), but if Ephesus responded as if that competence was only operative in Corinth, then Ephesus was rejecting the unity of the body. Was Ephesus therefore to blindly accept whatever decision Corinth made? Not at all, because Ephesus had its own accountability to Him who “walks in the midst of the seven golden lamps” (Rev. 2: 1). However, Ephesus could not reject Corinth’s decision just because it did not like it. There is only one fellowship (see 1 Cor. 1: 9) and the terms of that fellowship were not laid down by either Corinth or Ephesus but by the apostle’s doctrine (see Acts 2: 42). Thus, if Corinth had acted in accord with those terms, then Ephesus was bound to honour its action in order to preserve the unity of the Spirit.Of course, the present day is marked by a great deal of ecclesiastical confusion, much of which seems insoluble. That should not be an excuse to faithlessly retreat into independence. God’s truth does not alter, and our responsible path is surely to seek to work it out in a practical way despite the many limitations and difficulties.