But, as Tom Breen of the Associated Press reports, the larger issue here is the lack of accountability in many Christian ministries and independent mega-churches.
As he reports:
It’s too early to say whether the sex allegations against Bishop Eddie Long, the famed pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta, will spur the kind of soul-searching that followed the downfall of the Rev. Ted Haggard in Colorado.
Regardless, pastors and experts say the Long case demonstrates how vulnerable the country’s independent churches still are to being damaged by the misbehavior – sexual, financial or otherwise – of leaders whose considerable influence often comes with temptation and little accountability.
One thing that we must account for is that Mohler himself belongs to an organization of independent Baptist churches in which no true accountability exists. That being said he is correct, where there is not intra- and inter- church accountability, the door is wide-open for corruption of the Gospel and the piety that it should engender.
The courts do not define sin, nor do churches, nor do conventions or denominations, Scripture does. Yet, God has given us the government of the church to hold to account, not just its members, but the several congregations that make up the catholic body of Christ. Laying distinctives aside for a moment, the real issue that Dr. Mohler is addressing is autonomy, the heart-throb of the very SBC to which he belongs. He says:
The prior scandal in so many of these cases is the lack of accountability in these ministries. Many of these independent mega-church pastors are defacto dictators, totally without accountability structures. The congregations lack the discipline of a denomination and the pastors or leaders often lack any accountability at all.
Addressing for a moment the controversy about whether the SBC is a denomination or a convention, let’s just say this; as a convention it operates as a co-op, but as a bureaucratic structure it operates as a denomination. Even at that, the central dogma of its organization is the independence of the autonomous local church which is not held accountable to anyone but its congregants. There are no central tenets which form a core belief structure required by its constitution, so there is no constitutional authority by which the non-denomination denomination of the SBC can discipline any of its members. Which often means capitulation to the very dictatorships that Mohler describes. All that Mohler says about the dangers of unaccountable pastors and churches falls squarely at the doorstep of the SBC. It is a prime leader, the exemplar in the defense of the potential corrupted church. There is nothing in the SBC constitution that even allows for the discipline of sister congregations except for the clause on homosexuality (a rare, one time only insertion that was more a political statement than an apologetic one). In reality, the SBC’s churches are the example that people like Eddie Long have modeled their churches after.
Getting back to Ergun Caner and the Liberty University scandal, the lack of accountability is the reason that it exists and persists. It is Mohler’s own institution that promotes by its historic establishment the potential of abuse. It is telling that many within and without the SBC who operate under the misguided and unfortunate paradigm of autonomy have so fiercely defended Caner’s claim to impunity for the sins he has committed.
So we ask, is Dr. Mohler suggesting that the SBC become a true denomination, with a defined confession and a book of church order which would demand that its several churches, their ministers, and their people toe the line of the necessary practices and doctrines that make for a system of “true church” government? Is he suggesting that a more or less presbyterian system become the standard? We can only hope. The SBC, for over a century, has been rocked with the scandal of syncretistic modernism, a big tent mentality, that allows for any and all to join and believe what they want, which can only set the stage to pervert its ranks. The fact is, what we find in the SBC is nothing short alphabet soup purée doctrinally and in practice. Such is the legacy of E. Y. Mullins, past president of the SBC in the heyday of early modernism. Unfortunately the entire camp caved into the allurement of becoming relevant to the world to attract as the big ten revivalism took over. The results have been the sacrifice of quality of knowledge and piety for the fortune of church growth.
The Eddie Longs, the Ergun Caners, are all the offspring of this notion that autonomy and independence is good. One need only look at the historical record of independent, autonomous churches to find that the end of them is not good. The world watches as incestuous churches justify their own behaviors and that of their chosen cult leaders or founding dictators and even of their members and staff. It laughs as it sees that those churches are more like the world than the world is like itself. The world at least, for the most part, understands the necessity of a defined, unifying belief system and the rule of law. Independent churches flaunt their autonomy and have become less submitted to governance than any other people group.
The U. S.. It is a presbyterian form of governance where representatives (elders) are chosen from among the people in multiplicity, to govern, not as to what please the electorate, but in a manner as to achieve the highest right and good. This is not happenstance, but the founders purposely paralleled what is evident in Scripture. What is not found there is the concept of independent, autonomous governments. If it had, the U.S. would have remained a vulnerable, disjointed hodge-podge of private estates, hamlets and colonies. From local representatives, others are chosen to represent the states. If the U.S. were a denomination, those states would be presbyteries in their own right. And those presbyteries in turn would be made up of representative elders of the many communions. In the world, those are called communities. We call them churches. But even the communities and their people subscribe to The Constitution, a set of by-laws, known as statutes, and a confessional creed we oft repeat, but don’t recognize as such, the Pledge of Allegiance.
Loraine Boettner noted what others have said:
In his book, “The Creed of Presbyterians,” E. W. Smith asks concerning the American colonists, “Where learned they those immortal principles of the rights of man, of human liberty, equality and, self-government, on which they based their Republic, and which form today the distinctive glory of our American civilization? In the school of Calvin they learned them. There the modern world learned them. So history teaches,” (p. 121).
We shall now pass on to consider the influence which the Presbyterian Church as a Church exerted in the formation of the Republic. “The Presbyterian Church,” said Dr. W. H. Roberts in an address before the General Assembly, “was for three-quarters of a century the sole representative upon this continent of republican government as now organized in the nation.” And then he continues: “From 1706 to the opening of the revolutionary struggle the only body in existence which stood for our present national political organization was the General Synod of the American Presbyterian
Church. It alone among ecclesiastical and political colonial organizations exercised authority, derived from the colonists themselves, over bodies of Americans scattered through all the colonies from New England to Georgia. The colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is to be remembered, while all dependent upon Great Britain, were independent of each other. Such a body as the Continental Congress did not exist until 1774. The religious condition of the country was similar to the political. The Congregational Churches of New England had no connection with each
other, and had no power apart from the civil government. The Episcopal Church was without organization in the colonies, was dependent for support and a ministry on the Established Church of England, and was filled with an intense loyalty to the British monarchy. The Reformed Dutch Church did not become an efficient and independent organization until 1771, and the German Reformed Church did not attain to that condition until 1793. The Baptist Churches were separate organizations, the Methodists were practically unknown, and the Quakers were non-combatants.” Delegates met every year in the General Synod, and as Dr. Roberts tells us, the Church became “a bond of union and correspondence between large elements in the population of the divided colonies.” “Is it any wonder,” he continues, “that under its fostering influence the sentiments of true liberty, as well as the tenets of a sound gospel, were preached throughout the territory from Long Island to South Carolina, and that above all a feeling of unity between the Colonies began slowly but surely to assert itself? Too much emphasis cannot be laid, in connection with the origin of the nation, upon the influence of that ecclesiastical republic, which from 1706 to 1774 was the only representative on this continent of fully developed federal republican institutions. The United States of America owes much to that oldest of American Republics, the Presbyterian Church.”192
You see, the reason that the U.S. has continued as long as it has, is that is has the rule of law. But not just within isolated, independent, autonomous hamlets, or colonies. Unfortunately, what systems of contrivances for convenience as set up such as the cooperative effort of the SBC, typically have is no law at all. They are called conventions for a reason. They have no law and rightly cannot be called a denomination. As each member is allowed to establish its own rule of law, it makes mockery of such a concept. What is established is not the democratic republicanism that we have come to cherish, rather, autonomous bodies are a reversion to the very systems of abuse that were the fashion in European governance.
That is the true Christian scandal today. Or at least, that is the reason for so much scrutiny by the enemies of the church upon it. It is true that even with a sound government there can be all sorts of corruptions. From Acts to Revelations we see that. No matter though, what the world cannot say when a true governing system is in place, when layers of accountability are in place, both intra and inter-church, is that there was no government to call to account. What the world loves is self-serving, chaos, anarchy, and the survival of the fittest. What they live by is the rule of law, even so. What the government of the church should be is a system that is founded upon the highest pursuit, His kingdom and his righteousness. Pursue those and then all things will be added to it. The church is a kingdom ruled in righteousness which means it must have those attributes of a kingdom to be part of one. Allow for independence, autonomy (self-law) and you will end up where the world is headed, to what they believe and what they are beginning to live.
Mohler has pointed out is a needed focus. Unfortunately, even the most articulate scholar can be blinded by his own traditions. To wit, Mohler asks:
What about at your church?
I ask, to whom is your church accountable? If you say the congregation, you’re right back to square one. But that is the system to which Mohler subscribes. Even with a multiplicity of elders, which is what I believe he is appealing, there is the threat of oligarchy. The multiple layers of accountability upon which the United States was founded is soundest idea. But that means, independent Southern Baptist Churches are founded upon the shifting sands of self-law, of fiefdoms, and not of the Kingdom. For they have no federal head as Boettner’s examples describe the Presbyterianism that was the seed-bed of the U. S. Indeed, they have no accountability to the SBC church across the street. They don’t even have to have the same law, or even the same core belief system.
One of the aspects that has secured our freedoms and the long-lasting integrity of the nation is the notion federalism and shared/separation of powers. From the local governments to state, to federal, we see the inter-working or mutual accountability and its great benefit is securing our freedom, but also, in encouraging all to do what is right and good for that benefit we call the general welfare. In the church we might say, let all things be done in love to the building up of one another. To that end we secure the privacy of individualism though the Ten Commandments, while at the same time the obligations of the individual toward the society of believers through laws equally applicable to all by those same commandments.
What I am not suggesting is an international church, nor even one that is a national church, at all be the norm. We have seen where such can lead. Neither is workable, nor tenable, given the diversity of opinions as to what makes a church a church. And I am not suggesting any form of ecumenical arrangement. What I am suggesting is that independent autonomous churches, are not churches at all. The world watches to see just what we find so appealing about the church. And it is this, we find a rock solidness. Even in the most benign organizations there tends to be more accountability than in the independence movements like the SBC. A man, even those who find solace in being alone, long for that true relationship of community. Or, what we call communion, or common union. One would think that the dying light of evangelicalism would shine much brighter if the leaders of evangelicalism’s independent churches would at least make the overtures that they no longer can sustain the myth that independence finds its part of the body of Christ. Until churches can demonstrate that they have learned the lesson of unaccoutability, the world will find their solidarity elsewhere.