Sometimes, I hear people reason like this. They say “the NT teaches that we are prone to self-deception. Therefore we need to be accountable to others and especially the leadership of the church.”
This sounds good at first. However, all 6,000 years of recorded history — as well as the Scriptures themselves — reveal something very incomplete about that thinking.
I’m not against accountability. But something is being left out, and it is this: the most important form of accountability is the accountability of leaders to those they are leading.
In other words, this new movement in the church seems to be placing the emphasis on followers “submitting.” But the lesson of human history and the Scriptures is that the first and greatest priority is for the leaders to submit to the followers by seeing themselves as servants who are accountable to them.
We see this in world history, where we learn that power has a tendency to corrupt people — and therefore must be limited and kept accountable. For example, the basic premises behind the structure of the United States, learning from what went before in the over-reaching governments of history, is that even more important than getting the right people into power (as important as that is) is having mechanisms of accountability for those in power, regardless of who they are.
The reason is that even good people are often corrupted when they get into power. The temptation to please others and fall into group-think are great. Hence, the integrity of formal authority needs to be based not only in the character of the individuals, but also a system of checks and balances that checks and limits the authority.
This is also true in the church, and is seen in the Scriptures. The chief opponents to the prophets (in the OT) and Jesus and the apostles in (in the NT) were not the people, but the leaders. Further, God holds people accountable for whether they go along with over-reaching leadership or stand up to it. For example, in Jeremiah 24:10-11 we read: “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no man lays it to heart.” Note that it is the shepherds — the leaders — in this passage who destroyed God’s flock, and God laments the fact that no one (that is, not even the non-leaders) lay it to heart and thus do something about it.
Likewise, in Isaiah 3:12, God says “O my people, your guides mislead you.” He then continues “the Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people” (Isaiah 3:14). In the NT, we see leadership often using their authority to oppose the doing of good. The Pharisees, for example, claimed it was contrary to proper rules for the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) and for Jesus to heal a man on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). And, of course, they ultimately used their authority to crucify Jesus.
The notion of “submit to those in authority” can easily be a recipe for overlooking these important realities of how authority is often abused, and how we therefore always have a responsibility to use our critical judgment to “examine all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), including the use of authority.
It is certainly important for individuals to keep themselves accountable as part of a good circle of Christian fellowship. But let’s not forget that leadership also needs to keep itself accountable. Let’s make sure we don’t fall into a one-way notion where we forget that accountability equally (in fact, more fully) applies to leadership. To view the accountability of individuals to leadership as the key solution to individual self-deception is simply to set ourselves up to repeat the mistakes of the middle ages and corrupt governments, by handing over more authority to leadership than it is designed by God to have.
Let me be clear that I am not against authority, and submission to authority. Rather, I am saying two things. First, true submission to authority recognizes that authority itself needs to acknowledge its accountability. It needs to acknowledge this not just in the sense that it will be accountable to Christ at the last judgment, which can be easily abused, but in the sense that they are also accountable here and now to the people they lead. This creates an accountability loop that affirms the dignity and equality of the followers and tends to check corruption.
Second, I am saying that authority is best exercised when it recognizes its limits. In the church, the limits pertain chiefly to primary doctrines — not secondary doctrines. That is, it is not over-reaching to seek to hold someone accountable for rejecting a primary doctrine of the faith, such as the Trinity or justification by faith alone. But when authority seeks to “keep people accountable” in relation to secondary issues, they very often by definition step outside of the realm of their legitimate authority and wreak havoc. This brings people into bondage and hinders the advance of the gospel and the joy people are to have in their salvation.
Further, the entire notion of “being submissive” can sometimes end up being understood in a way that diminishes the competence and freedom of the individual before God — which are important truths that we especially learned from the Reformation.
Leaders are not somehow better or more important to God than those they lead. The people they are leading are incredibly competent and amazing in their own right. Leadership that does not acknowledge this at its very heart and does not lead in such a way that centers on affirming and building up the dignity and competence of the individual is not true biblical leadership.
The proper use of authority is a beautiful thing. A truly wonderful, beautiful thing. Common grace and the Scriptures teach us that the chief and proper use of authority is to defend people’s freedom. That’s how Jesus used it (Matthew 12:1-21; Galatians 5:1) and how Paul used it (Galatians 2:4-5; 5:13). Let’s get back to emphasizing this important truth.