Accountability & Authority

Hierachy vs. Network

*updated on Oct. 15th*

I wanted to speak about a thought I closed my last post series with: accountability. This religious term has a lot of baggage for me, and I am assuming it may to my readers as well. But understanding what it really is, or at least defining a healthy version of it, is important for formulating a final idea I am trying to reach – what a good working spiritual authority structure looks like. I have concluded in my past post that current religious power structures don’t take into account the fallibility of human moral corruption. Human leaders + power = inevitable corruption. Just because people are Christian and are expected to be moral doesn’t protect them from moral decline that people in all other spheres of power are susceptible to. To temper this unfortunate truth, I believe a leadership structure overhaul is needed. In the closing thoughts of my last post, I mentioned that the glue to hold a better structure together is – you guessed it – spiritual accountability, a feature that is hopelessly broken due to the way traditional structures are designed.

My definition of accountability is nothing more than a relationship between two people where one person shares issues they are having in their lives with another and asks for advice. We all need some wise person to talk to for advice in terms of our spiritual lives when things are difficult. This is not to say our close friends can’t be this kind of person. Many spiritual problems can be solved by talking with our spiritually-minded friends. However, not everyone may have good friends like this, and some topics are often too difficult for friends to discuss, and a more mature person with expertise may be better to talk to.

In the Christian tradition, this would be a pastor or a priest. More recently, churches have been getting savvy and have experts in whatever area of help you might need – the pastor for guidance from God, and a church counselor (another specialized assistant pastor) for family or marital problems. I have encountered churches and pastors who don’t like their members to seek advice from outside influences, such as para-church counseling ministries not controlled by themselves, so they try to have it all within their control by offering accountability in any form you might need it. The only catch is they control and filter what advice you get. This would be great if our leaders were perfect, and only gave great, absolutely true advice, but we must look towards a solution that breaks away from this corruption-prone model. I have drawn below a diagram of what I call the “hierarchic model” – it is one where a single or a group of people are all-powerful. The structure is organized and centralized.

The “hierarchic” spiritual leadership model

Good examples of this are found in the structures of the Catholic and Mormon faiths (if I understand them properly), and mainline Christian Protestant denominations. Here are some conclusions based on this model:

  • All accountability happens with leadership within the religious group. Accountability outside this group is either illegal for leaders, or frowned upon for members.
  • Accountability should be kept to within the local congregation leadership – you should not go to another church’s leadership,either within the same sect and especially not outside that sect.
  • Depending on how strict a religious group is, this may extended to banning spiritual books not written or approved by the local authorities.
  • There is a guy at the top – a single person as king, or in some more modern versions, a CEO with a governing board of directors – which borrows liberally from a corporate business model to the great hurt of a relationship-centric community.
  • The guy at the top has no accountability! I have known these types of people to “talk” to others, but in the end, they hide their corruption and focus only on the networking benefits of the relationship. They don’t really listen to others, or really share their struggles. Why should they? They are the top dog in their religion, it’s humanly hard to be humble to listen to anyone in a different sect… after all, they are different and believe wrong doctrines (i.e. not ours), so you can’t trust them anyway, right?
  • The hierarchy controls land, budgets, and other assets of local congregations to further control their power.

So I have spent a lot of time making the argument that this is not a good model to follow. Even though I believe we are not to take the book of Acts as a specific model for how to run a church, we do not even find leadership there acting in this fashion. There was a strong model of individual congregation independence – their only connection with the apostles was through respect and human relationships. In other words, when the apostles talked, they sometimes listened. Otherwise, they ran their own show. We do not live in such a world anymore, and the model used back then, which still had some apostles, no longer exists. Without these recognized leaders, we are left with the authority of the Bible alone. There is no longer a central body for all Christians everywhere to listen to or ask advice of. Over the last 2000 years, the church has tried to continue with the model of centralized leadership, but this has failed due to overwhelming corruption and evil. The Protestant Reformation was a step away from centralized authority for all Christians into sects. However, it is more apparent then ever today that these mainline denominations that have grown out of the ashes have come to resemble the central governing structure of the original Catholic church, which was proven to the entire world to be a corrupt model. Protestant denominations are even resurrecting the same control tactics as the Catholic Church used- by employing typological interpretations on otherwise innocent narratives in the Bible to promote their unique doctrines.

So it appears we are dawning on a new church era- we see the moral decline of the mainline protestant denominations (and the Mormon church as well, if I understand it correctly) well on its way – following the model and behavior of the Catholic church (although not modeling its violent and bloody extreme during the Middle Ages.) We stand at a point with our generation to make a change to step away from this, and to reject the concept of a centralized body of men and women to govern us. My conclusion is that Christians cannot unite together under men, but rather under the authority of the Bible alone. This is my guess behind what is meant by “Christ is the head of the Church.” His written word guides us.

So returning to our discussion about accountability, it makes sense that the people who adhere to the Bible as the final authority for all Christianity and have wisdom from experience – they are the people we look to for advice and accountability. Below is a diagram of a new proposal for a religious authority structure. It is decentralized and each congregation is independent and controls its own assets. I call it the “network” model.


The “network” spiritual leadership model


The purpose of this structure is to reduce the effect of corruption. Here are some notes:

  • People who we should be accountable to do not have to be full time workers paid by the religious group, that would be a conflict of interest, wouldn’t it? They can be anyone, as long as they adhere with standard doctrines. Otherwise when corruption arises within a church, how can an assistant pastor criticize the senior pastor, or a senior pastor a district leader, and not loose his job and his house? Churches don’t have good layoff packages. The early church didn’t have this problem – Paul sharply criticized Peter for his agreement with those who wanted to force non-Jews to follow Jewish customs to be Christians.
  • People who we can be accountable to do not have to be part of a local congregation. Why should they be? This seems to be residue of the hierarchical system where ALL people need to be under the authority of a local congregational pastor,who in turn reports up the chain to the guy at top, another aspect of power and control that seems to only suit the desires of leadership for job security (there’s that monetary conflict of interest again) rather than actually being a good thing to help people.
  • These people can advise people from other local congregations, and they can find accountability from people from other local congregations.
  • Accountability for members is not restricted to leaders in the local congregation. Anyone who takes their lead from the Bible and is wise is a good candidate. God usually makes these people known to others.
  • I see a lot of older men and women making up this body of accountability partners. They may or may not hold leadership positions, or they may be retired from those positions. This is an excellent body of people to talk to. They have no direct responsibilities (running churches, ministries, etc.) – they have retired from that work and other younger men are leading those things. If they are in local congregations, they are not leaders, possibly elders, but their duties are small. They have more time to guide and teach others. I’ll bet that this is in the heart of many of our older people – to pass on what they know from experience to the younger leaders making the same mistakes. I’ve taken this idea from John Eldridge in his book – Way of the Wild Heart.
  • Local leaders (pastors) may be part of an accountability chain that ends with a person in their own congregation.
  • I see many of these groups being very small – like house churches of 10 or so people. Anything more than that, such as a decision to pay the pastor or own a building becomes something more like a club and its members should pay club dues, no different than a health club. If a group desires to grow larger, I see a better model being one of renting a community space – such as a town hall or pavilion. Why burden people with gigantic building projects? This feels again like the Catholic church dumping tons of money into lavish buildings by pouring spiritual guilt onto its membership to pay over and above tithe for no purpose that actually helps them live lives closer to God.
  • The house church model is flourishing in China, and has been used by one of my favorite authors (John Eldridge) and the concept of a decentralized leadership seems to be a aspect of the charismatic movement. Most of my younger life has been spent in these small house church groups. They all had a transient nature to them, but were rich in relationships and shared lives – happy to be with each other and amazed that God was passionately apart of it all. Both of these aspects make these Christian movements/sects successful in drawing people closer to God and to deeper friendships with each other. The opposite is having huge buildings, highly paid professional speakers and musicians, and huge mega-church congregations. These all seem to contribute to lost personal income, a fun Sunday show once a week, continued isolation from deep friendships replaced by superficial ones because you get lost in the crowd, and no encouragement from close-knit peers to draw closer to God, which seems to be the point of church when power and politics are not around – a place to gather with friends and hang out and to celebrate the unbelievable truth of God living among us.

At this point, I need to discuss an important detail about this network model. There are many variations of Bible interpretation that spawn many different sects that all believe the Bible to be the main authority in the Christian faith. Because of this, we will have network “sects.” This is a good thing. It is a general rule that people do not agree on many details of Bible interpretation, so trying to unify all Christendom to adopt a common doctrine is once again introducing centralization with a governing body of representatives, and thus opening the door once again to corruption and dissension. If an entire sect becomes corrupt, which is less likely since the centralized place of power, politics, and money has been substantially reduced, followers will adapt and create new sects. This movement between sects is a grass-roots movement, and will not be crushed by petty leadership scared to loose their power, money, and their spiritual influence. It is fueled by relationships. There is less pain in changing and evolving because of this. People who are close to God will move towards sects that are passionate about Him. People who are less interested in God will find it easy to move towards a sect that suits their selfish interests more, and will eventually die out much faster because the heavy asset-laden hierarchic structure is absent here, along with its leaders who spiritualize giving money to themselves and their building plans normally there to keep people who don’t want to be there from staying and their money flowing. Instead it stands or falls based on the passion of the people involved – passionate for God and for their friendships with each other.

Anyway, these are my rough thoughts and ideas so far regarding church structure.

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