Monday, March 30, 2009

Evangelicalism's Authority Problem

The Indianapolis Star ran an article this weekend about a man who confronted his pastor in the middle of the Sunday service. The man had evidence about a situation in which the minister was being accused of sexual harassment by a woman he had been counseling. While this was certainly a dramatic instance of how congregations handle ministerial problems, what caught my attention was the Star's observation about (lack of) accountability in autonomous congregations. Hope Baptist and the growing legion of independent congregations with no denominational affiliation, there is no bishop ready to step in, no hierarchy waiting to conduct an investigation or hear an appeal, and no outside accountability.

In traditional denominations, disputes that are not settled within the congregation are funneled through a structured judicial process with long-established rules, said Carol Johnston, an associate professor of theology and culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Don Gifford, superintendent of the Indiana District of the Assemblies of God, said he sees the additional layers of a denomination or a fellowship as additional accountability for everyone.

"All of us need to be under authority," he said.

But in recent decades, the traditional denominations have been in decline. As they have shrunk, many people have migrated to independent churches, which often are freer to move into growing population centers and have been quicker to embrace new worship and preaching styles attractive to younger generations.

The risk with being independent comes when the church is organized around the personality of a charismatic pastor who has much greater autonomy than his denominational brothers.

This is an important authority problem Protestants face, particularly with regard to independent, autonomous evangelical churches that have no authority-bearing traditions or practices, and no episcopal levels of oversight.

In the Star article, some of those interviewed said that there need not be a lack of accountability in such churches because boards of directors or deacons may function to provide it. However, the level of historical, theological, and pastoral understanding required to provide true oversight for a pastor or pastoral staff is usually minimal at best when it comes to the lay people appointed to such boards. In my experience, most board members are not even able to provide a knowledgeable annual evaluation of how the pastor is doing with his routine work, even when the local congregation and board have defined it! Imagine how unlikely it is that they would be able to provide skilled guidance in a time of crisis.

When we pursue a "start your own," "make it up as we go along," entreprenurial approach to ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, there are few safeguards. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes.

Houston, we have an authority problem.

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