Sacred Space: Accountability Beyond the Local Church

Sacred Space: Accountability Beyond the Local Church August 17, 2012

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.

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