A few weeks ago I posted this tweet and wanted to expand on it:
True accountability in the Body is not found in church membership and submission to clergy, it can only be found in genuine community among the Body of Christ
What is this accountability? What does that mean?
As the Body we need accountability in areas of doctrine and in areas of behavior. Accountability within the Body in matters of doctrine prevents us from wandering off into error or outright heresy. We need accountability in behavior to help ensure we are living as redeemed believers and not slipping into the habits of our past. How that happens is another question.
I have been thinking about this based on an email exchange with a friend and let me say up front that I don't have all the answers. We are still working this out. At the outset, the traditional view of accountability is inextricably tied into the ideas of clerical leadership and church membership. In other words to have accountability you need formal structure, recognized and authoritative leaders and a membership system. I want to look at this idea of accountability and ask if we as the Body of Christ are accountable to one another or to the local church organization and its designated leaders.
Does accountability in the church mean that the local body of a particular group of believers is to submit to the clergy that have been elected or hired over them? Many times we are led to believe that the Scriptures mandate this so that the elders can exercise church discipline and church discipline and accountability kind of walk hand in hand. There is a real problem with that view, namely church discipline is not something that is reserved to the clergy or elders. In fact what we see in the Scriptures is that what we call church discipline and what is often considered a distinguishing mark of a “real” church is actually something that is carried out by the entire Body. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5 we see Paul addressing a serious sin issue that has been brought to his attention.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)What does Paul call the church to do? Bring this man before the elders for a church trial? No, he is to be “removed from among you”. What does that mean? Paul gives us a picture later in this chapter:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor 5: 9-13)Paul is calling on believers in Corinth to have nothing to do with this individual. He is not welcome in their gatherings, not even welcome to share meals with the church. The discipline is administered by refusing fellowship. Anabaptist groups have traditionally carried this out in “the ban”, one of the items in the Schleitheim confession. In another example, Jesus addresses the issue of a brother who has sinned against you (the actual sin is unknown and apparently irrelevant here)
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt 18: 15-17)Note here that in the case of a brother sinning against another brother, the wronged party is to address the offender himself and if the offending brother doesn’t listen he is to bring a couple of “others” from the church, who may or as likely may not be elders, and then if that doesn’t work, the sin of the wronged party is to be brought before the church. It is not a “top down” disciplinary process, it is a one on one, two or three on one and finally all on one issue. Even 9 Marks advocates this approach:
Notice also that it is the congregation's responsibility to clean out the old leaven (1Cor 5:7), and to remove the wicked man from among themselves (1Cor 5:13). It is not simply the elders' or deacons' or leadership team's responsibility, and Paul doesn't recommend that they appoint a committee. Preserving the holiness of the church through the godly exercise of church discipline is the responsibility of the whole congregation.The “penalty” that is invoked with the intent of bringing a brother to repent is the breaking of fellowship. Another less well-known example appears in 2 Thessalonians 3…
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 ESV)A lazy brother is not even to eat with the church. Don’t think you are going to be a slacker and then show up to the gathered church for a handout during their shared meals! This echoes 1 Corinthians 5: 9-13 where we are not to even eat with someone who is sinning. So what is all of this saying to us? Here is what I am gleaning from this;
The ultimate church disciplinary action is the removal of fellowship, denying the unrepentant the community of the church.This plays out traditionally in some sort of excommunication, a formal process carried out by a church court or similar authority. At some point it often involves denial of the Lord’s Supper/Communion, which in some traditions is a pretty serious. At the point of excommunication the party in question is removed from the fellowship of the saints, from the local body that he or she has been a part of. In Scripture it is not a judicial act but a functional act, a removal from the fellowship of community not a removal of your name from a list.
Where am I going with this? What does this have to do with church membership? Just this. Having an accountability structure in the church requires more than formal church membership and a hierarchical structure. Just being able to say Brother X is a member here because his name is on a list and Pastor Y is in charge because he is the pastor is wholly insufficient to have any real sense of accountability.
The long and short of it is that church discipline and accountability is a corporate activity. It is not restricted to the pastor or the elders. That is clearly true but I often read that we need church membership because how else are the elders going to know who is supposed to be submitting to them and who they are supposed to watch over? My response always is that if you need church membership rolls to know who is part of your local body, you have some serious issues.
The only way church accountability and discipline can function in a Biblical fashion is for Christians to be in close community with one another such that they know one another. Not just “know” as in “I know his name and see him on Sunday morning” but know as in spend time together and have a real relationship with one another. There are a few brothers in Christ that I know I could turn to with an issue if I was in need of counsel. None of those relationships are based on church membership rolls or even regular attendance at church with them. Every single one of them are men that I have built relationships with that transcend the formal church meeting. The relationships we have built mean that I know that I can trust their counsel and their discretion. A guy that I know because we say hi to one another on Sundays is not someone I would have that relationship with.
It is very instructive to see how often Paul writes letters that mention many local Christians by name. Never the "pastor" of the local church but the people in that locality who are Christians. Paul knew the people he was writing to as more than just "First Baptist Church of Corinth" or "Grace Fellowship of Ephesus". These were people he knew and cared about. Take for example the end of his letter to the church in Rome:
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:3-16)Do you think Paul knows these people? He knows and loves them by name. We see Prisca and Aquila, refered to as “fellow workers”. Note that Aquila doesn’t carry a title, he isn’t referred to as “Pastor Aquila” or even as elder or deacon (although I did read something yesterday that referred to ‘Pastor Ananias’!). In fact, unless I am missing something, Paul never refers to “elders” or “deacons” or “pastors” anywhere in the letter to the church in Rome. This most beloved of letters, the deeply theological letter to the church in Rome is addressed to everyone: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints (Romans 1:7) Paul was concerned with all of the Body, not just the leadership. That doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn't turn to the more mature believers in the church for leadership or when there is a problem but I am saying that accountability in the church requires community in the church.
Church membership is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a community of accountability. The big problem with formal church membership is of course that it doesn't appear in the Bible. It is strictly, 100% a manmade invention. I won't go into all of the factors that led to its formation but it doesn't come from Scripture. The other problem that is more pertinent to this conversation is that it a) doesn't necessarily foster community where accountability can take place and b) in many ways can hamper it by creating a false sense of community based on membership and a human based authority system. Even the reality of a clergy-laity distinction hampers this. The division between the clergy and laity means that a) most laypeople have an arms length relationship with their clergy, b) the clergyman has few if any brothers that he is accountable to in his local church because after all he is the pastor, c) many laypeople defer to their leaders rather than seeing accountability as something that they are personally responsible for.
Christians who want accountability and Biblical church discipline will only find it in community and community requires that we live our lives together, not just a few hours on Sunday but as an intentional part of our everyday lives. It requires letting people into our lives and being willing to be part of the lives of others. That is inherently messy and messiness is anathema to the Western church world. We like church to be scheduled, orderly, predictable, clean and preferably at arms length. We don’t want people in our homes or in our business, we prefer to go to a neutral site where everyone can smile and get along for an hour. We can keep doing that and living weekly as strangers in the same room or we can get away from the pews, church bulletins and anonymity to find that our brothers and sisters in Christ are just as messed up and in need as we are!