This linked article drew my attention back to something that I’ve been pondering for some years now. Yes, I am aware this was written by a lady who is an Anglican priest wanting to function within the constraints of historic Christian practice. You can’t have everything, you know.
The issue is accountability, in this case, accountability for theological bloggers. The rise of the Internet has created quite a situation with regard to those who—like me—blog on spiritual matters, a situation where all the monkeys have somehow gotten out of their cages. The presenting problem is Joe Lay Blogger typing whatever comes into his head. This is the “guy in his pajamas” problem applied to theology, as opposed its original application as made by Dan Rather to those disrespectful bloggers who dared to bring him down. To be fair to Rather, they used some new techniques he was not ready for at all—viz. Truth, Honesty, and Actual Facts.
And the developing showdown between institutional Christianity and free range bloggers is illustrative of the same old problem, albeit painted on another canvas. Depending on our prejudices, we tend to see how a “lack of accountability” in this or that direction could have damaging effects, and so we must do something—about this or that direction. But if we are to cross the street safely, we need to look in both directions.
Individual teachers, writers, podcasters, etc. most certainly need accountability. This is the focus of the linked article. But we live in a fallen world, and we must recognize that institutions go corrupt at least as often as individuals do—and they do a lot more damage when they do. As a parishioner in a very Dutch denomination once said to me, “No denomination ever went liberal because the pig farmers went bad.”
Think of it this way. The Sanhedrin were doing what to Jesus? Well, obviously, they were holding Him accountable.
If you think this is just word games, you have to pay attention to what they thought they were doing. What question did they ask Him? Better yet, what question sprang naturally to their lips? By what authority do you do these things (Matt. 21:23; Mk. 11:28; Luke 20:2)? Who do you think you are? Where was your ordination? Why will you not allow the credentials committee to put a bit and bridle on you?
Now the Bible is plain about spiritual responsibility as needing to be exercised in both directions. For example, the institutional church must hold false teachers accountable. Not receiving ordinations obtained from a Cracker Jack box is part of this. “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10, ESV). The institutional church has the responsibility to deal with the sin that manifests itself as individual men try to lure followers away for themselves. “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30).
But it must go in the other direction also. Individuals must hold institutions accountable, and this is always messy. Now how are institutions to be held accountable? Who does that? Why is it always a vigilante operation of some sort?
There is a certain kind of person who knows how to gravitate to the important desks, and they soon learn how to operate all the levers under the desk, the ones that are connected to the important committees, and the influential thought leaders, and the networking conferences. How can this sleek, bureaucratic and manipulating monstrosity ever be held accountable? Well, it has to be by means of some guy blowing out of the wilderness, dressed in camel hair hitched up with a leather belt. And what kind of credentials are those?
When Athanasius stood contra mundum, lest us never forget that he was standing against mundus episcopi, the world of the bishops. John Bunyan spent time in the slammer for preaching without a license. Spurgeon was a successful renegade, never having been ordained. And Peter and the other apostles were graced with the gift of disgrace when they were flogged by the appropriate authorities (Acts 5:40). I have gotten in trouble with fellow Presbyterians before, but I have never risen to the apostolic height of having been flogged by them.
If we may take direction from shrewdness in the civil sphere, as we should, we could hardly do better than to pay attention to James Madison. These words are from Federalist 51, with wisdom radiating from them like heat from a wood burning stove in a small hunters’ cabin. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” This is no less a problem in ecclesiastical affairs than it is in civil affairs.
And why? We live in a time when the infrastructure of the institutional church is swollen with conceit, hopelessly corrupt, bought off, and desperately in love with the world and with the wrong kind of respectability. To borrow a phrase from Randolph, the kind of respectability we hanker after is like a dead mackerel on the beach by moonlight—it both shines and stinks. Our love for this kind of thing is what keeps us from a true and living faith. “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44).
We need to recognize that in His providential governance of the world, God uses checks and balances also. The priests in Israel were part of the establishment, and their annals told many tales of heroism and corruption both, from Jehoida to Caiphas. The prophets were out in the countryside, living in their shantytown Bible colleges, and were not part of the formal establishment, and their annals told many tales of heroism and corruption both, from Micaiah to Hananiah.
This is another way of saying that in any given showdown, you cannot know beforehand who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. Sometimes the establishment is in the right. Sometimes the outsiders are. That is to be determined by the Scriptures—in other words, who is right?
Right? Wrong? These are strange words. Tell me more about this faith of yours.
But when conscientious men in the establishment have a hot prophet on their hands, they could do far worse than to follow the advice of Gamaliel. “And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if the blog traffic be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38–39). And when conscientious men on the outside are admonished by institutional men with open Bibles (I know, I know, work with me), their response should be to listen, heed, and take it to heart.