As Americans, the idea of valuing accountability and submission is entirely foreign. We are strong believers in self-determination, independence, and freedom — defining “freedom” as freedom from anyone else’s control.
But this is not the New Testament concept of freedom. Freedom in the New Testament is freedom from sin, freedom from destruction, and freedom from the burden of law.
It’s freedom to be who we were meant to be: bearers of God’s image. And it’s freedom to use our gifts and talents in God’s service as vessels in his temple.*
You see, it’s in overcoming the curse of Genesis 3, and becoming new creations, restored to God’s own image, that we experience true freedom.
(Rom 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
(2Co 3:17-18 ESV) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Indeed, we are not called to autonomy but to slavery.
(Rom 6:16-20 ESV) 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
We were once free from righteousness because we were slaves to sin. We are now slaves to righteousness but free from sin. It’s like Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody.
So the American model of autonomy is deeply flawed. It’s a method of seeking freedom from the control of others, whereas Christianity is at its heart all about submission.
(2Co 9:12-15 ESV) 12 For the ministry of this service [contribution of money to the church in Jerusalem] is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 13 By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. 15 Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
The Corinthian church submitted to the Jerusalem church by giving them money for their support. Paul says this “comes from the confession of the gospel of Christ.” You see, when you bend your knees to King Jesus, you learn to submit to his people as well.
(Eph 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, … 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Indeed, reverence for Jesus requires that we submit to “one another.” Well, in Ephesus, who was “one another”? Plainly, the entire church in the city, not just those meeting in a single house.
And would we submit to one another if a city-wide congregation were to divide itself into hundreds of smaller churches, all serving themselves but denying any duties to the others? How does the choice to be in a separate building make us independent of our brothers across the street? They are still our brothers.
So why did the early church organize itself into city-wide congregations under a common leadership? Why were they united by more than a common denominational name?
The answer is obvious from experience. We’ve seen the alternative. It’s ugly.
In America, we quickly name those under separate leadership as rivals and competitors, seek to steal their members, put down their teaching, and separate ourselves in every way possible — even as we preach on unity every Sunday.
And the ugliness is by no means limited to our most conservative Churches. Big churches compete with other big churches. They have budgets to meet, payments to make, empires to build. And when we measure our success by congregational attendance and contribution, rather than city-wide attendance and contribution, we prove how little we care what happens to the other churches in town.
I’ve heard pastors speak of denominational attendance figures in their cities and of congregational attendance figures. I’ve never heard a preacher speak of city-wide attendance for all denominations. No one keeps up. And as the saying goes, if it’s not important enough to measure, it’s not important (to you).
We count how many meals our church gives to the poor. We might even count how many meals our denomination gives to the poor in our city. We never, ever count poor fed by Christians. We don’t think in those terms. After all, those are our competitors.
When we organize a missions trip for our teens, we never ask whether a smaller church in town — one with no teen minister — might want to tag along. And yet inviting the three lonely teenagers from that other congregation might plant the seeds of evangelism — even a lifetime of missionary work — in the minds of all three of those teens. But they attend a rival congregation.
But there are deeper concerns. Who holds the elders accountable? Think about it. If an eldership allows a church to preach the prosperity gospel — idolatry, I believe — who calls them on the carpet? If they promote a racist agenda, who takes them aside and reminds them of the gospel?
There is more than one kind of accountability. You could choose to be responsible to those with positional authority — that is, a city-wide bishop, for example. But bishops are fallible, too. I can’t say I’d be keen on giving that kind of authority to just one person. And I see no biblical basis for such a position.
But if your church were part of a city-wide league of churches that did missions together, that served the poor together, that had countless overlapping ministries, and if the leadership of that group asked to speak to the elders of your church, they’d have to listen. After all, these men are brothers and friends and prayer partners. And that kind of authority could be much more potent than any bishop.
You can rebel against a ruler. But it’s hard to resist the influence of the friends and brothers who serve alongside you.
Moreover, that kind of relationship means that sound doctrine comes by persuasion and a gentle, loving rebuke, not by the power of who gets into office. It comes from servants of the Lord’s church acting as servants.
(Mat 20:25-28 ESV) 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Is is a perfect solution? Nope. Perfect solutions come in the next age. But it would be vastly better than where we are now.
You see, mutual accountability leads to shared maturation and growth. Just as a husband and wife holding each other accountable causes them to both grow as spouses and Christians, churches that love each other enough to confront sin will push each other to develop deeper, richer theologies.
It’s the nature of conversation. When you talk about church leadership and doctrine with prayerful, God-fearing people who are well-taught in the Bible, they all deepen and enrich their theologies.
A Methodist Hauerwas disciple might share with a right-wing Baptist his concerns about confusing church and state. But the Baptist might share with the Methodist his passion for personal evangelism. Both leaders grow. Neither “converts” the other, but both grow closer to Jesus. Iron sharpens iron. And we all could stand some sharpening.
Of course, building such a relationship requires time and prayer together. A relationship of trust and mutual respect must be built. And none of us has had much practice. But it can be done.
Now, notice that nothing here forces an Arminian to become a Calvinist. No one is under anyone else. Rather, the relationship is mutual submission — which is deeply biblical.
Organizational structure would depend on the size of the city and the number of leaders involved. Smart leaders will experiment a bit until they find something that works.
No congregation would be under the authority of another or under a denominational superstructure. But there’d be no autonomy. Rather, there would be accountability and mutual submission. There’d be influence and persuasion. There’d be love and respect.
It would change the world in ways we cannot even imagine.
I don’t think the city-wide, single eldership is a binding model. That is, I wouldn’t argue that it’s sin to be organized otherwise. After all, we don’t really know exactly how it was done.
For example, in a city with 20,000 Christians, did the elders all serve the entire congregation? Or did they divide the city into districts to be overseen by a subset of elders? We just don’t know.
And how would a church of 20,000 members, meeting in 1,000 house churches, select elders? Again: not a clue.
Therefore, the Scriptures give us not so much a comprehensive, binding pattern as a indication that we’ve been looking at this the wrong way.
We are so very far removed from how the early congregations worked together than we can’t even see the difference. But it’s huge difference. They were united. We talk about being united. They did what it took to be united. We do next to nothing.
The solution therefore isn’t to go looking for “patterns” but for principles — built on the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. When we begin to think as Jesus thinks, answers appear that would never have occurred to us under a patternistic approach.
* Imagine that you were designed to be a skillet, but you broke and so were being used as a shovel instead.
God comes in and fixes you. You are now freed from being a shovel — which you weren’t very good at — to become the skillet you were always meant to be — which suits your abilities very well and should give you great joy.
Now, imagine that you protest: I’m an American skillet and I have the freedom to be anything I want to be! Kind of silly to think that way. You are what you were made to be. You can’t make yourself into a car or a cat. You’re a skillet — made by the greatest skillet craftsman ever, to be used by the greatest of chefs to make the greatest of meals. This is freedom.
But some of us prefer being really bad shovels to really good skillets, because we don’t trust the Maker to have made us right. We know what it’s like to be a shovel. And maybe we’re jealous of the shovels that really are shovels.
The issue goes away when the skillet finally submits to being used by the Maker as a skillet. He’ll inevitably learn that his fear of the fire and of failure disappears and is replaced in the sheer joy of doing what he was always meant to do — and doing it very well indeed.