Independent churches lack accountability! I’ve been told this for the past 24 years. And it’s true. Independent churches often lack accountability, but so do mainstream denominational churches. You only need to look at the terrifying accounts of greed, sexual immorality, false teaching, abuse, and cover ups within churches, to see the failures of our structures to ensure accountability.
Congregations must do their bit to encourage their churches and leaders to stay on track. Bishops, synods, and assemblies can draw lines and forbid their leaders and churches from transgressing. Codes of conduct, covenants of service, rules and conditions, can all play a part in keeping churches on the straight and narrow. And, ultimately all churches are accountable to God, and pastors and teachers are especially accountable for how they exercise their responsibilities of leadership.
The stark reality is that no rules or structures, authorities or procedures will produce righteousness. Never have and never will. But if you argue for church autonomy and leave it at that, you will be both naïve and dangerous. Let me recommend four processes for increasing accountability in independent (and other) churches.
- Keep focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sinners saved by grace and we are being transformed by God’s Word and Spirit into the fulness of Christ. Churches must keep shining a light on the gospel, preaching the gospel, refocusing their leadership on the gospel, growing their members in the gospel, applying the gospel to conflicts and divisions, setting budgets with gospel priorities, forgiving one another with the grace of the gospel. Literally applying the gospel to everything we teach and do. Accountability comes not through law, but through gospel.
- Seek out fellowship with other churches. Don’t stand on your independence from other churches and other leaders. God has called us to be his holy people and to be adopted into his family. We belong to God, and by his Spirit we belong to each other. We gather separately, with distinctive names and quirky cultural expressions, but one day we will be gathered together for all eternity with no divisions. Let that future shape our present experience. Independence is not a Christian trait. We are all dependent on God and one another. Interdependence should be a more accurate description of who we are as Christians and churches.
- Invite a number of mature respected Christian leaders to be on a Board of Reference for your church. If you’re a new church plant, then such people can provide credibility and support to your venture. If you’ve been around for a while, they can help you see your blind spots. Such a group doesn’t have governing authority. They primarily offer support, prayer, and advice. You can insert them into your church systems, such that they must be consulted on major matters and have the opportunity to speak into the circumstances. Changing a church’s theological beliefs, sacking or choosing a senior leader, accusations made against a senior leader; these are all issues that shouldn’t be covered up or go unnoticed. Ensuring that an independent voice gets to speak on these and other major matters can provide important checks and balances for churches and their leaders.
- Provide for your senior pastor (and potentially all your pastoral staff) to have an external mentor, coach, or pastoral supervisor. Be generous and pay for this if necessary. Invest in your leaders. The Royal Commission into Child Abuse has made recommendations that pastors have professional supervision, and some denominations already have this in place. An informed external perspective can assist leaders to look after their churches, grow their people, and watch themselves more effectively. Seek out someone with experience whom you trust and then make yourself accountable to them as you meet with them regularly. Without honesty, accountability means nothing. So speak the truth, seek help, and invest in your life and doctrine wisely.