This is the first installment of what I hope will be several entries called “BUT WHAT ABOUT….?” These probably won’t occur on consecutive days, but they’ll be categorized in the sidebar, so it will be easy to find them. In this set of entries, I hope to address some common concerns people have about the idea of leaving institutional churches for more organic expressions of faith.
When I was doing a bit more in the way of traveling ministry, a common question I’d get from pastors considering having me come to their churches was, “Who is your covering?” By that question, they wanted to know what type of group, organization, or hierarchy I answered to, or who was keeping me in line. Was I under authority? Was I accountable in matters of sin and doctrine? Generally, if you name an organization the pastor knows or respects, the chances of getting invited to minister greatly increases.
I understand their concern. As a leader in institutional church, the main problem I had with some independent or home-group meetings was the apparent lack of accountability. They were meeting, in my view, outside the covering of the local church (us), which I found offensive. (Now that I’m a few years outside that system, I now realize our real offense was that we leaders couldn’t control what was going on in those meetings, or what was being said.)
When the church we started here in Tulsa became a house church, I found myself on the other end of such scrutiny. Now in the eyes of many, I was the one who was unaccountable. I struggled to answer when pastors would ask me who my covering was. Even though I was constantly seeking outside counsel and oversight, I had a hard time defining an organizational structure that others could recognize and affirm.
Accountability is a legitimate issue. I think we all need someone watching our back, someone who can speak truth to us, show us our blind spots. Even during the earliest days of the church, the two biggest issues the early church leaders dealt with were sin and heresy. Indeed, many of the New Testament epistles were written to answer these two issues, which are our biggest challenges to this day. One of the reasons many still favor institutional church is that it is supposed to be a safeguard for us–it has accountability structures such as doctrinal statements, eldership boards, and the like, to help keep us in line. These structures protect us, keep us pure, keep us from going off the deep end.
Or do they?
Consider the following:
- A few years ago, Tulsa pastor Carlton Pearson went public with his “gospel of inclusion”, which questioned the existence of a literal hell and stated that people did not need to accept Christ in order to go to heaven (essentially a form of universalism). Numerous leaders challenged his position, and he did not listen. He has been largely ostracized from the evangelical community for this heresy, and his church attendance dropped by 70-90 percent, although his church still meets.
- Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, lost all his positions of authority after admitting to sexual misconduct–after a gay prostitute went public with the claim that he’d had a relationship with Haggard for several years. Haggard also admitted that he had struggled with these things for most of his life and did not know where to turn for help.
- Going back a bit further…the infamous Jim Jones, before starting his cult, moving his followers to South America and having them commit mass suicide, was a doctrinally sound Pentecostal preacher in Indiana.
Here’s the disturbing point: All of these instances of public heresy and sin occured within the institutional church structures that were supposed to prevent them. In the case of Haggard, New Life Church’s organizational structure has helped the church survive the scandal, but for some reason wasn’t able to provide the proper accountability before Haggard’s fall.
I know a pastor who can fluently list his accountability structures to you, including a church eldership board and even an apostolic covering from another church; but he also knows how to manipulate them, letting them see only what he wants them to see. In effect, he does whatever he pleases, because he short-circuits the system. He looks good on paper, but when you get to know the inner workings, he’s not accountable at all.
By contrast…I have no eldership structure, no apostolic network that I can list as a “covering”; yet I have maintained relationship with mature believers–people with wisdom, people I consider to be apostolic–with whom I can share my weaknesses and flaws, and to whom I can bring doctrinal questions, and who are unafraid to speak truth into my life. Within this loose-knit community of fellowship, I feel a stronger sense of accountability than I did in any institutional church I was part of. I feel safer here than I ever did under a recognizable “covering.”
What am I saying here? Sin and heresy are always going to be issues the church must war against, and accountability will always be a need for us. It is true that organic groups like house churches often suffer from moral failures and heresy, but it is equally true of institutional churches. Institutional Christianity is not an automatic safeguard against these things, neither can we assume that independent groups are unprotected.
Here’s what I’ve learned: true accountability comes from the heart. One will only be accountable when he/she wants to be. So the critics of organic forms of Christianity are simply wrong when they cite lack of accountability as an argument against them. I for one have actually found a greater level of accountability in house church, partly because there’s nowhere to hide in a small group (!), and partly because I choose accountability every day. My relationships and my community, not my organizational structures, provide the covering I need.
Jesus didn’t say we’d know them by their “covering”; He said we’d know them by their fruit. It would do us all well to look beyond the organizational structures that many of us actually hide behind, and look for the true fruit of Christ, whatever form of church we may be involved with.