I have recently become acquainted with a couple who are keen to follow New Testament teaching and who desire to start a church in their home that functions purely according to scriptural precept. The husband is one of those guys who can preach the gospel on street corners to the milling crowds, something I respect enormously. Because he is friendly with another street preacher who evangelises under the auspices of an actual missionary organisation, he eventually applied to that organisation, offering himself as an unpaid voluntary associate. The problem he faced though was that once the leadership realised that he wasn’t part of an ‘official’ mainstream church they expressed concern that he was not, therefore, in their view, properly ‘covered’ or accountable. The complications then became such that my newfound friend felt it best to simply withdraw his application so as not to cause any further difficulty for anyone.
It’s not something I would normally give much thought to because I hear such stories often, but something else happened just a few days later that made me want to clarify where those of us pursuing biblical church life stand regarding this. And what happened was a telephone conversation I had with a brother whom I didn’t know, albeit it in a totally different context, whose declared position sums up a problem those of us who are pursuing biblical church life in the context of also being in a functioning Ephesian 4 itinerant ministry, often have to face.
Knowing that I am engaged in full-time teaching and pastoral work, this being the reason he contacted me in the first place, he raised the question regarding to whom I am accountable. It is, of course, a perfectly legitimate question, but where things took the usual unfortunate turn was when I gave him the actual answer: that I am accountable to the church of which I have been a part for three decades, and that when I travel in the context of my wider ministry, I serve in accountability to whichever church, or group of believers, I am with at any one time. And of course the problem is that it’s an answer with which Christians in mainstream churches, and certainly the one I was talking to, are not at all happy. It was as if he had asked me what car I drive, and upon me informing him that I drive a Volkswagen his response comes back that Volkswagens don’t count because he doesn’t consider them to be proper cars. It’s the kind of response that makes it difficult to know quite how to proceed. The fact that I afterwards discovered that he had once been an ordained Church Minister certainly helped me to make sense of why he responded the way he did, and so strongly too, but this is nevertheless something that is good for us to think through as clearly and biblically as we can.
The problem is, of course, that believers who are tied in to the institutional church scene have a tendency to mix up and confuse two entirely separate things; that is, the subject of spiritual accountability as envisaged by, and enacted in, the New Testament, and ministerial accountability as understood in the context of institutional church life. By way of a parallel here there are, for example, folk who have said of me that I am not part of a church, when what they actually mean is that they don’t recognise that the assembly of which I am part is a legitimate example of one. But of course the deceptiveness of them saying such is that they thereby paint the completely false picture that someone in my position is churchless, and therefore some kind of lone wolf maverick who is without the significant, ongoing and accountable close relationships we all need. And of course, in exactly the same way, it is equally deceptive to say of someone in an itinerant ministry that they are not accountable to anyone, as if to imply that they just do exactly what they like whenever they like without reference to anyone else, when it is rather merely the case that the person saying it just doesn’t recognise the legitimacy of the accountability the one in question does have. Someone is then being said to not be accountable to anyone, an injurious statement, to say the least, when the reality is that the one declaring such just doesn’t accept as legitimate the accountability they do have. To return to our motoring analogy, it’s a bit like saying of someone that they don’t drive, even though they do, when it’s just that you have an inconsistent, illogical and incomplete definition of what the concept of driving a car actually is, and therefore don’t recognise the vehicle they do drive as actually being one. So let’s ask whether or not us biblical church-types can claim to be legitimately and biblically accountable, and start by first taking a look at the nature of leadership accountability as understood and practised by mainstream institutional churches.
If there is one thing that can be said of the traditional, historic, mainstream church system it is that just about every conceivable thing that could have gone wrong with it has. Every heresy, wrong practise and sinful behaviour imaginable has repeatedly sprung up from within its Ministerial ranks, including nowadays the condoning of a gay lifestyle, and even gay marriage. Indeed, being a practising homosexual is not, broadly speaking, a bar to becoming a Minister in mainstream Christian churches, and sexual immorality in general, along with easy divorce and the condoning of adulterous remarriages and such are rife amongst Christian Ministers (to say nothing of their congregations) of all shades. (So much for accountability there then!) Moreover, mainstream Christian churches, from the Catholics to the Methodists, have, in recent years, been forced to acknowledge and apologise for the appalling amount of abuse, even sexual abuse, that has been discovered to have been endemic within their ranks, perpetrated against those supposedly under their ‘pastoral care’ by ordained and ‘official’ church Ministers, children included. Just last month (May 2015) the General Secretary of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, publicly apologized for the decades of such abuse at the hands of Methodist Ministers that has come to light within that denomination. (I repeat; so much for accountability in mainstream Christian Churches then!)
I am not, of course, suggesting that most leaders of mainstream Christian Churches are of that ilk, or are terrible people; merely that whatever system of accountability such ‘official’ churches have historically employed, it clearly isn’t a very effective one. I think it is therefore quite reasonable to ask that those in the glasshouses of ‘official’ Christian Churches not be quite so ready to cast stones regarding the subject of accountability at those who live their Christian lives, and who conduct Ephesian 4 itinerant ministries, outside of their auspices in ‘unofficial’ house based churches which function solely according to the New Testament pattern. It is therefore against such a background that we must ask just what kind of accountability ‘official’ mainstream church leaders; that is, those who don’t base their set up and practice on New Testament example, actually do have. What, we must ask, do they mean by accountability anyway, and what, exactly, does this accountability encompass and include in practical terms?
Whether Catholic, Anglican, Methodist or Pentecostal (or any other name-brand you care to mention), existing mainstream Christian churches work fundamentally on the same operational principle. Priests, Ministers or Pastors (depending on whatever title any given denomination employs for leaders of individual churches) are either entirely in charge of their congregation, or answerable to someone above them in whatever ecclesiastical hierarchy they practice. And this immediately raises the question: who is the person at the top of the pyramid accountable to then? Whether the Minister of a church himself, an Archbishop, the Pope or an area Moderator in the Methodist Church, where does the buck actually stop, and to whom does the head-honcho actually answer? So that’s the first problem! Any hierarchical system, Christian or otherwise, has to have someone at the top to whom everyone else is ultimately accountable, but who are themselves, ultimately, accountable to no-one. But of course the other problem is this: Even if a Minister/Pastor/Priest of an individual church is accountable to someone above them in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, that person, by definition, is highly unlikely to know them well enough on any personal level personally to be aware of such things as how their marriage is doing and what kind of husband and father they are, or even merely what they are actually like as a person in their daily lives. (As an aside, I am assuming that those in mainstream churches that practice the accountability of leaders not to hierarchies above them, but to the congregations they serve, such as Baptist and Congregational Churches, are saying a hearty ‘Amen’ to everything I am saying here. Yet I find that even they think that the congregational-type system which they believe in and practice in their churches isn’t valid for some reason when likewise practiced by churches such as I would advocate, but which are outside of the system.)
Area supervisors can monitor local ministers a bit on the financial level, and have the means to check to see how the church is doing numbers-wise and how the tithe income is shaping up under their leadership, but that’s really just about it. It’s not particularly personal or intimate, but rather ‘professionally’ based; and apart from making sure the church leader in question isn’t currently being accused by anyone of having an affair with the organist’s wife, or molesting the boys in the choir, the accountability isn’t really very comprehensive at all. In other words, such ‘official’ accountability doesn’t really extend to the sort of accountability that is personal, intimate or actually intrusive and invasive…the very thing personal accountability needs to be! Compare this, however, to how accountability works in churches that are based solely on the teaching and practice of the apostles in the New Testament.
Firstly, in biblical churches the only local leadership that exists are elders who have been recognized by the church of which they are a part, and on the basis of the qualifications given in the New Testament by Paul to Timothy and Titus which consist mostly of godly character, the quality of one’s family life and a proven walk with the Lord over years, and which consist only secondarily of ‘performance’ ability regarding such things as teaching and refuting doctrinal error. We immediately have accountability of a meaningful kind; that leaders are only ever recognized as such by the gathered church precisely because of proven character and godliness in all areas of their lives. But of course secondly, precisely because biblically based churches are numerically small and house-based, these men’s lives, just like everyone else’s life in the church, remain open to continued and ongoing scrutiny. The Pastor of an unbiblical church could have a bad marriage and family life, but without anyone else in the church necessarily knowing precisely because he is not really known either intimately or personally by those who comprise his congregation. Not so with elders in biblical churches though, whose marriages, along with, for example, their children’s behavior, and how they, for example, deal with difficult situations, are fully on display, day-to-day and week-to-week, to everyone in the church. How many mainstream church leaders have you heard of who have been asked to resign because their children are disobedient, disrespectful and unruly, or because their wives are un-submissive?
Further, in biblical church life itinerant ministries are ultimately sent out and commended to other churches as being both bona fide and safe by the church of which they are a part. This is, in itself, a most important protection, for if the commendation was ever removed by the church, due, perhaps, to a moral lapse, or some un-dealt with sin being detected in the brother concerned by the church of which he is part, then such commendation is removed and his itinerant wider ministry ends. Or at least it does as far as any requiring an ongoing commendation for him from his home church are concerned. Moreover, in biblical church life a church’s protection, as far as outside itinerant ministry is concerned, is precisely that the itinerant ministry is only present because of a personal invitation, and of course a church doesn’t ever have to ask them back. So if you think there is something not quite right with them, even though they may have the ongoing commendation of the church they are part of at home, you are still utterly free to decide you don’t want them to come back. All this constitutes an accountability of leadership and ministry that is of a completely different order to anything you will ever get in unbiblical churches with their professional salaried Ministers and virtually completely impersonal hierarchical ecclesiastical and organizational machinery.
Am I, however, saying that New Testament-type churches could never throw up a bad ‘un or get taken in by someone who is in some way out of order? No, of course not! What I am saying though is that herein lie a myriad of safeguards and protections that are far more comprehensive and effective than any that could be built into the unbiblical mainstream institutional churches. To return yet again to our motoring analogy, it’s the difference between driving a thirty-year-old Chevy that doesn’t even have seat belts, let alone airbags, or a brand-spanking new Mercedes with every automotive safety feature known to man built into it. If it ever comes to having to survive a car wreck, then I know which one I’d rather be in; and it sure ain’t the thirty-year-old Chevy!
As with personal security, there is ultimately no cast-iron, bulletproof guarantee or infallible method of attaining full personal accountability. If some nutcase with a sawn-off shotgun decides to shoot my door down and massacre my family, then there’s probably nothing either I or anyone else could do to protect us. But am I going nevertheless to lock my door at night? Of course! And so it is with the accountability of leaders in Christian churches. Liars, hypocrites and deceivers will occasionally get through no matter what, and that can be the same in biblical churches as well as in unbiblical ones. But proper functioning accountability is about at least minimizing the risks, and that is one of the things that biblical church life does so well, and which the mere man-made traditions and practices of unbiblical mainstream churches does just so ridiculously badly.
One last thing: There are obviously ministries that are conducted by men who have incomes from legitimate daily employment, and certainly no one needs to be in full-time service just because they are an elder. But when it comes to men whose ministries and calling is wider than merely that of eldership in a specific and particular church, and whose work involves travel, long hours of study, research and preparation, plus availability to those in need at any time day or night, then the necessity of men who are in full-time ministry becomes both clear, as well as being fully biblical. Yet in biblical church life there is a profound difference, and it is that the New Testament churches never employed anyone, and that there are therefore no salaries on offer for any with such a calling. Indeed, those who are called into fulltime ministry of any kind have to conduct their ministry and serve entirely free of charge and at their own expense. They must never ask for money and must make their needs known only to the Lord in prayer. It is what I call living by faith properly, as opposed to living by faith…and hints…and prayer letters…and asking for expenses, or asking for collections to be taken for oneself.
It is a very wonderful thing, and with it comes yet another layer of accountability to be added to what we have already seen. And it is the accountability of the simple fact that anyone who is in full-time ministry biblically is dependent on daily miracles of provision in answer to prayer. How long, therefore, would it take for the Lord to close such a ministry down if they went wrong in some way, or if He was no longer with them in it? Answer: until the bills start piling up and until he and his family get hungry. If one’s income depends one hundred per cent on the Lord’s ongoing daily miraculous provision, then I put it to you that this is itself a marvelous form of accountability which those in mainstream churches, with their guaranteed salaries and pension payments, know nothing of. And should anyone think that what I’ve just outlined is cloud cuckoo land, then let inform you that I have now ministered on precisely such a basis for coming up to forty long years.
Leadership accountability! There’s more to it than most Christians’ even dream!