I’ve hinted at various times throughout this blog that I’ve got issues with authority. I’ve been far more direct about this in my comments on others’ blogs…particularly my friends Carson T. Clark and Kurt Willems. I’ve always been going to get around to a serious ecclesiology post on church leadership, and I may yet. This is not that post.
Once again, I have witnessed an authoritarian church leadership make a decision behind closed doors, without consulting the people whose lives are most profoundly affected by that decision. Nobody but the leadership even knew the decision was being considered until it was announced as a done deal…first to (in this case) certain staff members that were being let go, and then to the entire church body.
I’ve seen this movie before. I’ve seen it done by an elected church council (several times), I’ve seen it done by an autocratic pastor, and now I’ve seen it done by an unelected (and self-appointed) board of elders. Though it wasn’t part of my personal sphere of friends, I’ve also known of cases where it was done by an episcopacy or denominational authority. Sometimes, there have been allegations of sin (though not sin that would obviously require confidential treatment) or heresy; in others the decision has been more managerial in nature. In one instance I was the subject; in others the subjects were close friends or “just” acquaintances. The only common threads in all of these cases that I have seen are:
- The decision was made without permitting the affected member to participate in the decision or the deliberations leading up to it; and
- The decision was announced as a fait accompli with no opportunity for others in the congregation to express any opinion, voice any concern but in retrospect, or offer any alternative solution/interpretation to the issue at hand.
The details are insignificant. The geography is insignificant. But I submit IN EACH AND EVERY CASE, THE CONDUCT OF THE LEADERSHIP WAS WRONG.
We can discuss (and Carson, we definitely have done so!) just what Jesus intended with regard to apostolic succession, whether bishops are necessary in the modern church, who can and should be ordained as pastors or elders or deacons or whatever, and what those people’s authority is within the church. I’ve got some pretty strong–and, I think, Biblical–opinions in this regard, and I’ll give you a hint: only rarely in my life have I witnessed a paradigm of church leadership that I believe is truly Biblical, even when I acknowledge that those leaders are still making an honest attempt to lead in a Scriptural and godly manner. Plenty of dedicated, holy men and women still get it wrong…most definitely including me.
Nevertheless, the Scriptural case is pretty clear, I think, that closed-door decisions by leaders of whatever stripe, taken without counsel and issued without accountability, are unbiblical. Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 18:15-20 offers guidance in the situation where transgression is alleged: the offended should first confront the offender directly; if resolution fails in this regard, then the matter should be pursued in the company of “one or two others” (note carefully–not necessarily “ordained” authorities), and only if that fails should the matter come before “the church” (again, not the authorities, but rather the body). While this passage directly deals with personal sin against another person, it would seem to me that if this paradigm is applicable where actual wrongdoing is considered, how much more ought it be the case where no wrongdoing is alleged, that the affected individual(s) ought to be party to the discussion?
Repeated examples throughout the book of Acts emphasize this paradigm even more. In Acts 1:13-26 the decision to choose another apostle to replace Judas was made in the company of about 120 followers (v. 15). In Acts 6:1-7, it was “the full number of the disciples” (v. 2) who were “summoned” by the apostles to pick out and ordain deacons including Stephen (one could argue the apostles did the “ordaining,” I’m not getting into that here…but the selection process was unarguably public). When Peter went off and preached to Cornelius (Acts 10) and got some of the brethren hot and bothered, they confronted him directly (Acts 11:1-18). The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is often cited as a case where the “apostles and elders” heard the case of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to the Gentiles; however, the climactic decision of that council is related in Acts 15:22, where we are told that “…it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch…” to give them guidance on appropriate behavior for Gentile followers of Jesus.
There is absolutely zero precedent in the entire New Testament for closed-door, secret-until-final decision making in the Body of Christ. Whatever the authority structure in the church, it should be exercised in the full light of day, and accountable to the larger body.
The reason is actually quite simple. Jesus taught it throughout his ministry (Matt. 20:25-27, for example). Those who choose his way are not to act like the world’s leaders. Too bad we seem to have yet to get the memo!