Monday, July 9, 2012

Church Search Chronicles: Accountable Churches vs. Autonomous Churches

'Seat belt plug' photo (c) 2008, Benjamin Goodger - license: I slide into the driver’s seat of my car, the first thing I always do is fasten my seatbelt. By now, it’s an involuntary action—it’s so automatic that I don’t really even think about it. 

The irony is that after all these years, I haven’t needed it. But it only takes one moment for that seatbelt to make all the difference in how I fare in a car accident. In a split second, it could save my life.

It takes advanced planning to build safeguards into our lives. They don’t happen instantaneously. They take intention, realism and forethought to implement. We may go decades without needing them. But a day will come when their years of dormancy will prove to have not been in vain.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about safeguards in the context of church. For example, what safeguards should churches build into their by-laws to inform how they settle disputes and disagreements that emerge between pastors and parishioners, or even among pastoral teams? Can a church organize itself as a completely autonomous entity under God’s Word, under the assumption that no issue is too great to solve within their own four walls?

I have come to the conviction that such an assumption may be harmless in the short-term, but perilous, even fatal, in the long-term. It’s like driving without a seatbelt.

Yesterday, we re-visited a church we had visited earlier in the summer, which had remained at the top of our list. There are so many things we love about it. But perhaps the one aspect that most attracted us to this church is the structure of accountability they’ve been very intentional about putting in place.

Typically, when we hear the word “accountability” in church circles, we think internally—small groups and 1:1 relationships between people who sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron. This is important. But I’ve learned that there’s another kind of accountability that needs to be present as well for the long-term health of a local church. I’m talking about its external accountability.

This church is part of a regional network of churches that provides external accountability and support, while still giving it a healthy measure of autonomy as a local church. Like a seatbelt, it doesn’t pinch or chafe. But in the event of an issue or disagreement that can’t be settled, the elders have a higher human institution than themselves to whom they must answer, or who can also go to bat for them if needed.

World history is our best witness to the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And personal experience tells us that this phrase doesn’t just apply to secular and civil institutions. In any completely autonomous entity with no higher-level human accountability, it is far too easy for the leader(s) to fall into a sinful pattern (sometimes subconsciously) of manipulating and lording over those in their charge.

Sadly, even a group of well-intentioned leaders can fall into this trap together, leaving the congregation with no formal process in place by which they can bring a legitimate charge against them. With by-laws that are carefully crafted to protect the leadership from any recourse, the congregation is left without a voice. Anyone who musters up the courage to make an attempt to lovingly come alongside the leadership is deemed insubordinate at best, and apostate at worst.

On our first visit to this church, the preaching pastor made it clear in a newcomer’s class that the buck did not stop with him, or anyone else in leadership. Although they believe deeply in the biblical model of authority and submission in the local church, they humbly hold themselves accountable—to each other, to the congregation, and to the outside network of like-minded churches. This was truly refreshing.

We're in a place now where we feel it's critical for the next church we join to have an outside, objective structure of accountability in place. No human system is perfect. Even higher levels of accountability can be corrupt. But we feel that this is a safer structure all around for pastor and parishioner alike.

Like a seatbelt, you may never need it. But then again, you may. It only takes one time to make all the difference.

What do you think? Is it wise for a church to insist on isolating itself from outside accountability and say they need only answer to God? Have you seen autonomous churches work out issues in isolation, with favorable results? How about churches that had good accountability in place?


  1. a person ordained in a denominational setting rich with accountability balanced by congregational polity - I'd say you are right on target.

  2. While denominationalism has some drawbacks, it is far better than any alternative, except in rare cases (true isolation). BTW, the “non-denominational” affiliations (i.e. Willow Creek Network, etc.) are as much denominational the church body I believe to. I too pastor in a denomination by with congregational polity.

    On the negative side, I have seen the accountability become a license to interfere when it is not needed. And as sinful humans, we sometimes justify such interference.

    Bottom line: accountability is important, but must be also balanced by things like trust, Galatians 6:1 approach to relationship, etc. And I’ll point out again, these thing shave doctrinal foundations. Thus, even here doctrine becomes critical.

    Scott, really appreciate yours and Joy’s writing about this search. God’s blessings.

    1. Thanks for your words, Rich!

      I'm really torn because I don't necessarily think that a "democracy" is the answer (which I think would be what we call "congregationalism").

      At my core, I long to place myself under godly church leaders who both LISTEN and LEAD well, making sound, wise, informed decisions without the need for a congregational vote at every turn.

      However, based on past experience, I think there needs to be a system in place for situations where leaders stop listening and insist on operating in a vacuum without being sensitive to the collective wisdom of the people. At that point, the people are essentially told to submit and stop complaining.

      I'm still wrestling with all of this, so I deeply appreciate your patience and perspective along the way.

  3. This is an interesting post. We belong to a New Frontier's Church ( and this organization holds our local church accountable ( We just changed our by-laws so that the local congregation does not have to vote on everything (it is not how our church functions anyway) however, there are still provisions for "accountability". (Within the larger network, elders, and congregation.) I have been following your wife's post and found this through her link. Thanks!

    1. That's interesting information, Pamela. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Excellent blog Scott....agree with your concerns, assertions and rationale. I conceed I have remained naive and trusting of leadership in the churches I've attended throughout my life. Furthermore, I'm saddened and angered that accoutabilty is something that has to be insisted upon instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our actions. Pride, self reliance and arrogance can certainly get in the way and leave a wake of destruction.

    I look forward to reading more about your search for a new church home as I begin the journey as well.

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