Sacred Space: Accountability Beyond the Local Church

Every Friday in Sacred Space, Brad Williams explores the place of popular culture in the local church.

I pastor a church where we do our best to resolve conflict according to the outline that Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17. That is, if someone offends you, you ought to talk to them about it first. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, take a couple of non-biased judges with you, preferably elders. Finally, if one or the other will not listen to anyone, then the matter is put before the church, and if there is still no repentance, they should be treated like an unbeliever, which is to say we urge them to repent and believe the gospel.

Proper accountability is far, far, easier to talk about than actually do, and if we take this concept outside the local church and begin to try to apply it to the larger, universal body, things get even tougher. That does not mean that the accountability is unnecessary, in fact I think it is greatly needed, but I am sometimes at a loss as to how we should try to carry it out. First of all, those outside my local church have not covenanted with me personally, so they really are not the responsibility of our fellowship. Secondly, how could we even effectively reproach them for wrongdoing or injurious teaching if we wanted to?

Should we seek to hold people outside the church to any accountability for their actions? I’d say that in the day of celebrity, if someone puts themselves forward as a ‘Christian’ teacher by publishing books and seeking influence on the church, they’ve probably reached the level of  accountability from the church. The steps of accountability cannot be the same because the because the relationship is not the same. The personal commitment to one another is not as intimate, the author could live far away or even be dead. That makes a one-on-one conversation tough. So how should the church handle it when a well-known, public, influential Christian teacher is in sin?

Anyone who seeks to influence a local church ought to be prepared for critique, rebuke, and encouragement for their work from the church, and they ought to expect that it will be as public as the means of influence. In other words, if I write a book, I should not be surprised to find myself critiqued in a similar medium. The critic does not owe me a phone call or coffee, though that might be nice.

Why don’t they owe me that? Because they did not ask for my help, they did not invite me to their church, and they probably didn’t recommend my book to their people. I sort of “put myself out there” by writing, and so they are free to critique me just as I was free to intrude. If someone publishes something publicly, they should be ready for public rebuke and interest.

But what if someone publishes something solid, thoroughly Biblical and helpful, and then we find out that they have a moral failing. Should we toss their books? This is a little more tricky because the aim of church accountability is restoration, not condemnation. If an author writes a wonderful book on the nature of the gospel’s help in times of depression, and then we find out that the author is/has been unfaithful to their spouse, how do we rebuke with an intent to restore?

I’m not certain how we can really do this very well at all. We can hope that this person’s local church will work with them towards restoration. But has the author really broken trust with the public by sinning? I believe that in such cases the best we can do is pray for this person, pray for their publishers, and hope that they don’t get invited on the speaking tour for awhile.

In the end, the author or ‘influencer’ will have to decide to be transparent if they want to be a trustworthy teacher of the church. If you are considering publishing something for the benefit of the church, consider again the words of James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). If someone like this fails publicly, the repentance ought to be public if they expect local pastors to keep the door open for them. And if someone isn’t prepared for that kind of public scrutiny, they should probably reconsider blogging, publishing, or public ministry in general.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://blog.emergingscholars.org/ Thomas B. Grosh IV

    Amen! A much needed word. Thank-you Brad.

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    Brad, I stopped at the line, ” those outside my local church have not covenanted with me personally…” I *dare say* that those who have allegedly covenanted with you according by normal church orders have not covenanted with you by any reasonable biblical standard. To test this, ask if all the members of your local “covenant” feel obligated to welcome all other members of the local covenant to their children’s wedding receptions and to accept being defrauded in a legal matter before they would take it to court; or would consider submitting their job choices, their family moves, their marriage choices (either to get married or to get divorced) to the covenant leadership; or would keep their finances private from leaders of the covenant members. Or that they would join another church because they weren’t being fed, so to speak. Maybe one or two doesn’t pass biblical muster for the definition of covenant, but I doubt it. If members say, “OF COURSE these are private matters,” then your church is a voluntary association and not a covenant.
    I would be *SO VERY PLEASED* to hear that most church members respond well to these questions, and be happy to say, “excuse me, I’m sorry, never mind,” and go on with the rest of your argument.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Bruce,

    Well, we do those things so…I guess I can carry on then? Not sure what you mean by “their family moves” though. We recite our covenant together before we take the Lord’s Supper. You can read it here: http://discovernewcovenant.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=161&Itemid=40

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    hmmm… that last comment was kind of a rabbit trail. Maybe it would be more helpful to model that sort of biblical community in love, rather than vent angrily on an online forum. It came off somewhat abrasive and arrogant, which is ironically also unbiblical. Not looking to knock your hustle, just trying to encourage you Bruce. :-)

    Brad, this is an excellent word. Thank you.

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    to be clear, not your comment Brad…I am a slow comment typer

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    Brad,
    Thanks. I didn’t write my comment in any of those ways, as a ramble or anger. I just thought that a lot of people (comfortable people, normal people) commandeer the biblical concepts and say that they have them too. People go on retreats to form a covenant, as if a biblical covenant were something you could slap on to life as normal.

    My experience is that good hearted people bring their normal presumptions with them to church, so that the way we relate in reality is identical both among Christians and among nonChristians. Pastors who try to lead people into a covenant way of life either get looked at as weird or as cultish. It depends on how far you push it: touch their wallets, touch their careers, touch their life opportunities, touch their privacy, touch their resentments–you touch the nerve somewhere. If people don’t explicitly bring their life expectations under covenant, there’s not much there, even if people love one another.

    The movie Lars and the Real Girl dramatically portrays ordinary people with covenant assumptions. Even though it’s fiction, I can imagine a congregation living with this heartfelt love. Especially in the two minute scene where the church group tries to decide how to relate to Lars. When I lived in East Lansing (about 20 years, partly with URC), I found many people with simple and deeply consistent love for God and their covenant siblings, many of whom grew up inside a Reformed world.

  • Bruce Charles Meyer

    Brad, thanks. Your article is a good article, and you made your point well. By family moves, I mean geographically.
    I browsed New Covenant’s covenant statements. It looks like you leave radical individualism alone. In which case, I wouldn’t expect church discipline to go very well, or teaching about anything that people consider their private lives to be received very well. You wrote, “Proper accountability is far, far, easier to talk about than actually do, and if we take this concept outside the local church and begin to try to apply it to the larger, universal body, things get even tougher.”
    That was my point. It’s very hard to do because people don’t buy into it *in principle* unless they’ve been particularly converted to a covenant point of view, or been raised in a home with a covenant point of view. What you take to be a sticky application problem, I’m describing as an essential hole in their Christian commitment.
    Thank you, Brad, for your years of commitment to the ministry, and your faithfulness to the Gospel.


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