This is part four of a multi-part series I’m calling Rethinking Religion. If you haven’t read parts one – three, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve written so far:
- Rethinking Religion, Part 1: What is a Pastor?
- Rethinking Religion, Part 2: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling
- Rethinking Religion, Part 3: The Clergy/Laity Distinction
- Rethinking Religion Part 4: Community and Accountability (This Post)
- Rethinking Religion, Part 5: Formal Church Membership
- Rethinking Religion, Part 6: Confessing Our Sins
I’ve previously noted that the directive by Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). By that time, Ignatius’ words, “Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” were considered the norm and assumed to be directives originating in scripture. But they are not. Tradition and tradition alone has given us this model. It is nowhere in the New Testament.
We’ve already shown that this top-down authority structure, present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as originating in scripture, is actually something that has been handed to us by religious history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchal organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why.
Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the assembly and the priesthood of all believers. How does this top-down authority structure that is present in so many institutional churches impact genuine community? Let’s take a closer look.
Does Accountability Produce Community?
Most of us think community and accountability are two sides of the same coin, or that one is necessary (accountability) for the other to function (community). Community is the agreed upon goal and we think accountability is the bus that will take us there. But it’s not. That bus is traveling in the opposite direction. We mistakenly believe that accountability is the magic ingredient that will lead us into genuine community. In fact, we try to use accountability as the catalyst to form community. Stop going to a Sunday morning event or tell someone you’re not currently involved in an institutionally sanctioned small group and they’ll respond with, “Who are you accountable to?” We’ve so equated community with accountability that we don’t recognize how far apart the two are from one another. I was in a recent conversation with a friend who is a pastor at a local institutional church and when our discussion turned to small groups and he discovered I wasn’t in one that was sanctioned by a local institution, his immediate response was the same; “Who are you accountable to?” as if the Holy Spirit’s work in my life in leading me to community elsewhere was inadequate. His follow-up statement was “you need to be accountable to and under the authority of the elders.” Go back and read parts one and two if you need a short refresher on pastors and authority. You might want to add a dash of part three as well.
What is accountability? The best definition I’ve heard of accountability describes it as the right to compel action with the enforcement of that right accomplished through rewards and punishments to conform behavior. I would add that in the church, we use guilt, shame, fear, threats, and condemnation in the list of punishments for non-conformity to those rules, whatever those rules are. Accountability is needed in society to prevent chaos, crime, and anarchy (Romans 13). While there is a place for accountability within the church where top-down authority structures become abusive or rogue narcissistic leaders have unrestricted license to abuse others privately or in public, we’ve brought accountability into the church in a failed attempt to use it as a vehicle to compel genuine community.
I’ve been a part of that system and you probably have too. I’ve initiated it as a pastor and been on the receiving end of it as one sitting passive in the pew. As pastors, we ask the question, “How can we get more commitment and participation in our mid-week small groups?” and we answer it by making participation a requirement in our formal church membership contracts, thereby obligating people to comply with the threat for non-compliance spelled out in those same membership contracts. We also assume that greater participation in our institution’s mid-week small groups can be attained by adding more rules or restrictions onto people like, “you’re in this age group, so you need to be in one of these groups” or, “you live in this geographical area, so you need to be involved in group A, B, or C” instead of letting genuine community just happen. But genuine community happens when we stop trying to force it via compliance to rules.
I’ve been in countless conversations with people involved in mid-week small groups who are there by fear-based compulsion or guilt. They have no friends there or just feel out of place because they’ve been herded into the group by some organizational requirement. They’re there simply because they’ve been told they have to be there and they fear reprisal if they pull out. Someone recently told me, “We’ve been told we have to be in this small group because of our age, but our close friends are in another small group. We don’t know anybody here and we want to be with them, but we’ve been told we have to be here instead. It seems so forced that we don’t even go anymore.” This is a common theme.
But don’t take my word for it. Become a formal member in most local institutions and don’t join an institutionally-sanctioned small group and see what happens. Your days there are numbered! As I said earlier, I’ve been on both sides of this experience, as both a pastor and a pew sitter. As pastors, we herd people into these propped-up accountability-driven environments and call it community and pat ourselves on the back thinking we’ve done a great job of creating community. But that’s not community. It’s a cheap substitute for community. Community that is built on obligation to rules and fear of punishment for failure to conform to the rules is no community at all. Those things are community killers. And yet accountability remains our tool of choice to usher people into supposed community. We use the accountability trump card to compel people to join our mid-week small groups or our accountability groups. So they go, propelled by false guilt, obligation to duty, and fear of punishment or reprisal if they fail to go. And then we wonder why most of our small groups have such high turnover rate and their attendance has to be constantly policed and monitored.
The answer to all of this is amazingly simple! They fail because they’re based on accountability, obligation, and fear instead of being built on love and affection. But obligation is a cheap substitute for genuine affection. Accountability may get external results in the form of temporary behavior modification, but it can’t capture a heart. Accountability can compel people to jump through hoops and lie about spiritual progress (whatever that means!) but jumping through hoops isn’t community and it eventually exhausts you and causes you to give up. People are so busy jumping through hoops that they don’t have time for real community or to love their neighbor, should the option present itself. And if they stop jumping through the hoops we set up for them, they run the real risk of being ostracized or kicked out altogether. But Jesus came to set the captives free, not to hold them accountable!
What is Genuine Community?
I once heard someone say, “The incarnation is God’s full-on commitment to win by love and affection, what fear and law could never win.” I would add obligation, shame and guilt to that list. We see genuine community revealed in the incarnation and it is there that Jesus brings us into a relationship with the Father that is based solely on love and affection (1 Jn. 1:3). Jesus came to reveal the Father to us (John 14:8-9) and in that unveiling, we get a glimpse of that first community, that of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into that community that Jesus brings us:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Accountability leads to heavy-laden hearts and burnout, but the community Jesus gives, leads us into rest for our souls. Why? Because genuine community is founded on love and affection alone. Jesus showed us a Father who isn’t mad at us or insisting we jump through hoops to keep ourselves accountable. Jesus showed us a Father who is eager to share with us in community:
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
Christian, does that sound like a God who’s mad at you? Does that sound like an invitation into community that requires things of you? Does that sound like obligation with threats of punishment if you fail to jump through all the hoops, or does that sound like one-way love and affection with no strings attached? It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. This is community in action at the highest level.
Susan and I have been married almost 42 years. We’re best friends. That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems. We do. If you’ve listened to our podcast for any length of time, you’ve probably already figured out that we love each other. But at times, what runs deeper than love or is more tangible, is affection. I love showing affection to Susan. I want to do things for her, spend time together, and I think about her when we’re apart. That kind of engagement can’t be forced, demanded, or coerced. And that kind of engagement is the community that the Father draws us into. It’s his good pleasure to give you the kingdom! Did you catch that? It’s his GOOD PLEASURE! Jesus showed us a Father that has love AND affection for us and shows us genuine community. We’re walking in genuine community when we can say someone is a genuine friend and there is no pretending or coercion.
Accountability encourages people to pretend. Community invites us into the Father’s affection where we can feel safe and accepted, fully known and fully loved without any pretense. In an accountability structure, we learn to hide the stuff that’s the real us or that we think will disappoint others and God. We learn how to fake it and which masks to wear to fake people out in every circumstance. In accountability structures, we are focused on getting people to do what they don’t really want to do by way of manipulation and behavior management with corresponding rewards and punishments.
True community that is built on love and affection instead of obligation to the rules is a threat to our top-down authority structures in the institutional church because it can’t be controlled or manipulated. It’s going to do what it needs to do to remain genuine and that may or may not feed the institution’s agenda. We are members of his body not to control each other, but to love each other, share life together, and rescue one another when rescue needs to happen. Not to hold each other accountable to behavior modification and sin management via guilt, shame, or threat of pending punishment for non-conformity. Genuine community is Holy Spirit driven and can’t be faked.
In accountability models, we end up lying and being fake to keep people off our backs. Our accountability groups produce liars. It’s 30 minutes before the start of my accountability group meeting and because I have a busy life with more than enough stress of its own, I haven’t read my chapter. I’ve been too tired. So I skim it real quick so I can say I read it and in so doing, keep the sin management team at bay. But almost everyone else in your accountability group is lying too. They’re tired and tired of faking it and having to jump through hoops out of fear and obligation. But love takes us further than fear and obligation ever can. Fear makes us do the minimum. Love knows no bounds. Shame is a useful tool to exploit conformity to the rules but it too is a poor substitute for love and affection.