by Peter Ditzel
I used to do some freelance editing for a man who ran a Christian publishing, Internet, and speaking ministry. A few years before his death, he found that he was unable to, in good conscience, continue his membership in the church of which he had been a member and elder. Soon afterward, “Christian” forums had threads about him that went something like this: “Did you hear that so-and-so is no longer under the accountability of a church?” “What? Do you mean that he’s not under a church covering?” “This is outrageous! How can he continue his ministry while being unfaithful?” “Well, all I know is that as long as he’s not under the authority of a church, I’m not listening to him any more.”
Here is the question I want to answer in this article: Does the Bible teach that Christians are to be accountable to, covered by, or under the authority of a church, a pastor, someone called an “accountability partner,” or any other member of the church? Notice that I am not addressing either church membership or attendance, as such. I will address that subject in another article. Right now, I simply want to address the question of accountability to a church or member of the church.
Accountable, Yes; But to Whom?
The Bible certainly speaks of accountability. Matthew 12:36, for example, speaks of the accountability on the day of judgment of those who speak idle words. In 1 Peter 4:4-5, we read of those who run riot and speak evil of Christians giving account “to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.” Notice from these two verses that being accountable to someone is the same as being under someone’s judgment. In other words, those who are accountable to God are subject to His judgment–He judges whether what they have done is right or wrong. Keep this in mind as we continue.
So far, we have determined that the wicked will be called upon to give an account of their works to God, and that their being accountable to God is the same as being subject to His judgment. But what about Christians? Romans 14:12 tells us about Christians: “So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” We Christians are to give an account. But to whom do we give this account? Do we give it to a church? No, we are to give an account to God. Notice the verse that immediately follows: “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). So, these verses say that we are to give an account to God, but we are NOT to judge one another. That doesn’t sound like being held accountable to a church to me. In fact, Paul is teaching against the idea that we Christians are to be judging one another, which is another way of saying that he is teaching against the idea that we are accountable to one another. And, since the church is the assembly of Christians, we, therefore, are not accountable to the church.
Now, some of you are no doubt wondering about discipline. Surely, the Bible does teach what has come to be called church discipline (the term itself is not found in the Bible). But it is largely misunderstood. The overriding principle behind church discipline is that it is practiced in response to specific actions. That is, church discipline has nothing to do with the practice of accountability in which a member is always accountable to another member or members or the entire congregation or the pastor for how the member lives his or her life.
One of the most often cited Scriptures regarding church discipline is Matthew 18:15-17. I have always thought that this Scripture addresses church discipline. In fact, as I write, there are still articles on this website that I have written in which I cite this passage when discussing church discipline. But, as I studied this matter of accountability, I recently came to see that Matthew 18:15-17 has absolutely nothing to do with church discipline. It is merely instruction on how two brothers in the Lord are to handle a situation in which one commits some offense against the other.
Notice that they are first to speak alone. If this does not work, then they are to speak with one or two more witnesses. If this is also unsuccessful, then they are to bring the matter before the assembled brethren (the church). The purpose for each of these steps is to bring about reconciliation. There is absolutely nothing in these verses about accountability, judgment, or discipline. Christ’s final statement, “but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican,” is an instruction to “thee,” which is “you” in the singular. This is not an instruction to the church; it is an instruction to the offended person. Jesus is saying that if the person who has offended you does not hear the church’s admonition to reconcile, then you are to treat him as a stranger. That is, rather than continue the antagonism, it is better to simply stay away from each other. This is not an instruction to disfellowship or excommunicate anyone. Nothing is said about that at all. It is simply instruction on how to avoid further contention.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul indicates that for specific, gross, public sin, we are to stop associating with the sinner. In verse 5 and in 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul also speaks of delivering the offender to Satan. We don’t know what this means, and it may have been something only the apostles could do. Its point, however, was the destruction of the flesh, apparently meaning the destruction of the person’s sinful carnality.
In Titus 3:9-11, Paul tells Titus to “avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain” (verse 9). Then, continuing the same thought, he tells Titus to reject [paraitou–literally, “beg off from”] after the first and second admonition someone who is a heretic (a schismatic or causer of division or someone causing a party spirit). In other words, Paul is telling Titus that if someone continues to want to debate with him over the law, for example, after warning the man about the unprofitableness of such questions, Titus should simply stop responding to the man’s questions. Don’t continue to lock horns with such a person. By asking about such carnal matters, he shows himself to be self-condemned anyway. These instructions to Titus are for one-on-one personal interactions, and they can be useful to any Christian. I have used them myself in dealing with people who want to argue with me over Sabbaths, Old Testament feast days, clean and unclean meats, and other legalistic matters. I give them a couple of chances, but if they continue to argue, I stop responding to their questions. But these verses in Titus say nothing about church discipline.
On the other hand, Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us…. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15). The Greek for “disorderly” in this passage is a military term. The picture is of someone who gets out of ranks. When that happens, we are to withdraw ourselves from following or accompanying him and get back into rank ourselves. We are to have no company with him but still consider him a brother.
Again, notice that these Scriptures are to be implemented only after actual gross transgressions. There is nothing here of continual accountability to “accountability partners” (something completely unheard of in the Bible), the church, or the pastor. We are accountable to God.
Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel