We define local churches independent of denominational institutions as congregations of believers that are not subordinated to an external ecclesiastical organization. They vary amongst themselves, but I believe that the person who raised this question has in mind the believers who seek to follow faithfully the teaching found in the Bible, observing it in their relationship with God and in their behaviour as congregations.
Their foundation is the apostles' and prophets’ teaching that is found there, of which the Lord Jesus Christ is the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). Any modification is rejected. Their main characteristics are:
They are formed under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6, 7).
The Holy Scriptures are their only rule of faith, not submitting themselves to directives and traditions established by men (Colossians 2:8);
They are supervised by a plurality of members of the church recognized as leaders for their blameless character and endowed with certain moral and spiritual qualities (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7);
Some of their members, known to be respectable people, are designated for the provision of services (1 Timothy 3:8);
Each church is subordinated directly to the Lord Jesus, who is its Head (Revelation 1:20);
Each church is an organism whose members serve in different functions and depend on each other, all being important (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
Churches like this have existed since the beginning of Christianity, starting with the first church, the one in Jerusalem. It was formed by the disciples of the Lord Jesus and many people converted through the apostles' preaching in its first days, and others who the Lord added to them (Acts 2:47).
It had many members, it was supervised by the apostles and elders (Acts 21:18, Galatians 2:9), and was served by deacons chosen criteriously (Acts 6:3). Its meetings were held daily in the Jewish temple and in homes (Acts 2:46).
After the death of Stephen, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and all its members, except the apostles, were dispersed throughout the areas of Judea and Samaria, and they went everywhere preaching the Word.
We read that, after Paul's conversion, the church had peace in the whole of Judea, Galilee and Samaria, and grew in number: there were, therefore, many dispersed congregations in those areas, seemingly independent of Jerusalem.
These new local churches, practically only of Jews who knew the Old Testament, were taught the oral tradition (1 Corinthians 11:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6), supplemented by prophets provided by the Holy Spirit for their special circumstances.
As the divinely inspired Scriptures of the New Testament were not yet in existence, they sometimes fell back upon the apostles in Jerusalem for explanation of some important doubtful point (Acts 15:2), because the apostles were acknowledged to be taught by the Holy Spirit in all truth (John 16:3).
With Paul's ministry there was a great impulse in the evangelization of the Gentiles, and local churches, simple congregations of believers, were formed in all places. Paul urged Jews and Gentiles to meet together.
In all the record of the New Testament, we don't see any ecclesiastical bond between them - they were all independent of each other. It is quite correct to say, therefore, that the beginning of the independent local churches happened in the apostolic era, and further, that they were the only ones in existence at that time.
In the last book to be written, the Revelation, we notice that there were some changes when the first century of the Christian was closing: the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (chapters 2 and 3) show us that each church distinguished itself considerably from the others. As the whole book is a prophecy, we understand that those churches, existent when it was written, were also types of local churches that can be found at any time of the Christian era.
Furthermore, from the point we find ourselves in history, we can now look back and verify that each type of church prevailed successively through times, in the order given in the prophecy, giving us one more proof of its divine authorship. Let us just see some details, directly related with the current subject:
Ephesus (from the end of the first century of the Christian era to approximately the year 170 A.D.): “You have, however, in your favour that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate”. From the meaning of the word Nicolaitans in Greek, we understand that there were some people in that church that tried dominate the other members of the church. It was an incipient clericalism, still rejected by most of the churches of that time. But the Nicolaitans had success in some places, they called their churches Catholic (universal), and promoted unions and hierarchies.
Smyrna (from 170 A.D. to 312 A.D.): “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); … Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer”. There was ferocious persecution on the part of the Roman emperors, resulting in the purification of great part of the churches. Some even got rid of the Nicolaitan practices, but others allowed themselves to be attracted by the Catholic movement.
Pergamos (from 313 A.D. to 606 A.D.): “…you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam… also you have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate…” In 312 the Roman emperor Constantine legalized and adopted the Christian “religion” personally, being made its pontiff or high priest. He introduced countless pagan practices, and the Nicolaitans made an enormous progress. With the supremacy of clergy in the first Council of the “universal” churches in Nicaea in 325 their doctrine was permanently established.
Thyatira (from 606 A.D.to 1500 A.D.): “Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come.” The pope Boniface III made himself be crowned “universal bishop", and called himself “the vicar of Christ", “the heir of Saint Peter” and other things.
He and his successors tried to assume the supreme control of all of the churches in the Roman Empire, using all means including the force of weapons, torture and the death penalty if there was not submission.
The metropolitan bishop of Constantinople managed to maintain his independence, but tried to do the same with the churches of oriental Europe, gathering them with the name of Orthodox Church, an institution as corrupt as the Roman.
The independent churches that managed to escape from their persecution lived in hiding, therefore the little that was recorded and preserved of which we have knowledge, is limited to some brief reports of the atrocities practiced against the believers that were caught. They didn't allow themselves to be corrupted, preserving the faith that they had.
Sardis (1500 to 1750): “you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead… strengthen the things which remain… Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent... You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy”. As the Roman Catholic institution lowered itself to the greatest depths of heresy, idolatry and immorality, some sincere and influential believers like Tyndale, Cranmer, Le Févre, Farel, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others escaped from it, returned to the Gospel and the apostles' doctrines, rejecting the authority of the pope and a great part of the Roman Catholic heresies.
Supported by some European monarchies they established “reformed churches” in their countries, institutions more or less similar to the Roman Catholic they had left, but free from its idolatry and immorality. And so they retained in their leadership the Nicolaitans whose deeds the Lord hates. They really didn’t have spiritual life because they were in the most part composed and driven by unbelievers. They also persecuted all who didn't submit to their authority.
Terrible persecutions were promoted at that time by the popes and their henchmen, crowds being forced into martyrdom, largely by the Dominican order that was given responsibility for the “inquisition”. Whole populations were destroyed, decimated or forced to emigrate to avoid prison or death. Nevertheless, some faithful believers and independent churches managed to escape and to remain uncontaminated
Philadelphia (1750 to 1940): “I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name”. This period was characterized by churches poor in financial and material resources, and of little influence, but that had a great desire to learn and to obey the Word of God faithfully, and of practicing charity and brotherly love.
The door of opportunity was open to them: there was almost no place in the world where a missionary could not go. The Gospel was taken to China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa, Central and South America, and there was great revival in Europe and in North America.
The adjective “Evangelical” began to be used to distinguish those churches, because of their devotion in proclaiming Christ's Gospel. Since the Second World War the missionary devotion has been decreasing, and also many countries are now opposed to the entrance of missionaries in their territory.
Laodicea (from to Second World War onwards): “… because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth…” in other words, most of the churches are useless to the Lord because they don't preach His Gospel, and they don't try to maintain themselves pure from the world (James 1:27), because they are conformed with it. They are blind concerning spiritual things, without discernment, without hope as to eternal life, and they don't await Christ's return (2 Peter 2:1-22, 3:3-4).
But, as in the past, we still have today independent churches that reject the doctrine of the Nicolaitans and their works, staying firm in the apostles' doctrines. They are not a result of any human movement, but of the Spirit of God, as the "wind that nobody knows from where it comes nor where it goes" (Job 3:8). They vary amongst themselves, in time and space, but in general they resemble the church of Philadelphia. They don't have an administrative bond with each other or other churches, no subordination or commitment to people, societies, institutions or governments.
Through time, the believers that gather like this don't assume a name except that of Christ, but they have been nicknamed in several ways by those that belong to the institutions: Priscilians, Paulicians, Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards, Hussites, United Brethren, Anabaptists, Darbists, Open Brethren, Plymouth Brethren, and so forth...
They have been despised, pursued, martyred, repeatedly proven, always a minority facing powerful institutions allied to secular power.
My brethren, let us be exhorted by these lessons of the Bible and of history, and let us stay firm in the faith, for which multitudes of believers have fought before us, even at the cost of their own lives, rejecting any submission to a human authority which is opposed to the clear guidelines found in the Word of God.