A Christian Worldview: Authority, Autonomy, and Accountability

When an assembly commends a man to the grace of God for the work to which he is called, is that the end of its responsibility? When the commended worker leaves his secular work and becomes a full-time worker for God, is he now free from any accountability to his commending assembly? Are workers, whether in North America, or in a foreign land, free agents? Are they accountable to no one for actions, teaching, and behavior?

What of relationships between assemblies, and between the assembly and workers? Does the Word of God guide in all these areas?

Assembly Relationships

One of the basic tenets which the Scriptures teach is that of the autonomy of a local church. There is no higher court of appeals than the local assembly according to teaching found in Matthew 18:16-17. One assembly does not dictate to, intimidate, or coerce another. There is no Scriptural basis for one assembly to “discipline” another. We prize fellowship between assemblies, and must do all we can humanly do to maintain those ties, but we recognize the responsibility which that assembly has to the risen Lord. The autonomy of the assembly does not mean an assembly is infallible; nor does it mean that the concept of autonomy cannot, at times, be abused. We must remember that the authority does not reside in the elderhood, but in the Word of God which they handle. Decisions cannot be made which flagrantly violate Scripture, and then be justified by an appeal to autonomy. It is the Lord Who walks in the midst of the lampstands Who adjusts testimony, and not a worker or a neighboring assembly (Rev 1:12-13).

Fellowship between assemblies is a precious, yet fragile commodity. In a perfect world of spiritual men and women, there would never arise problems and breaches between brethren. But human nature, with its pride, assertiveness, aggression, and defensiveness characterizes each of us, with the result that an assembly with “strong” leadership may loom as a threat to a neighboring assembly when there is a difference over an issue. Brethren must be aware of the potential for the loudest and most strident voices to carry the day rather than the truth of God.

Elders from surrounding assemblies as well as servants of the Lord must respect the autonomy of an assembly. If they feel that the assembly is moving in a less than Scriptural path, they can graciously point it out to the leadership of that assembly. But they must not intimidate or threaten in any manner; they must not succumb to the temptation to publicize and polarize. The responsibility for the decision must lie with that assembly leadership. No assembly in Revelation 2 or 3 was told to correct the problem of a neighboring assembly. Each stood in relation to the Lord. The decision which that assembly makes may define your movements and measure of fellowship with it, but the leadership answers to the Lord.

Workers are not in control of assemblies. In mission fields where fledgling works need the support and guidance of a mature worker, a missionary may be required to guide the assembly for a period of time. But his goal ought to be the independence of that assembly and its ability to function without him. Wisely, our brethren who labor in new areas do not commence a testimony unless there is already potential for indigenous leadership among the believers. In areas where assemblies have been planted and testimony has been established for a period of time, the full responsibility to the risen Lord for the spiritual character of the assembly is on the shoulders of the leaders of that assembly. They may ask, at times, for advice from full-time laborers or other assembly leaders, but advice must be viewed for what it is – advice, and not control.

Those who have been placed by the Lord in roles of leadership must bear the responsibility, even if it sits uncomfortably on their shoulders at times. They must lead in the assemblies where God has placed them. That means far more than signing letters of commendation, assigning people to tasks and consigning some to the back seat. It means leading in the true sense. Christian love mandates that I always act toward another with a view to that believer’s best interests and not to protect myself and my popularity. It is the flock which “He has purchased with the blood of His Own” (Acts 20:28, Darby).

Responsibility to Workers

Every commending assembly bears a responsibility to someone it has commended. The servant who has been sent out by the assembly is essentially an extension of that assembly. As such, the assembly has a financial obligation toward the worker and there should be both individual and collective exercise from that assembly in that regard. The leadership of the assembly also has the responsibility to shepherd that individual. Everyone needs shepherd care, even the shepherds! If in a foreign land, the missionary should expect periodic visits from some of the overseers to discuss the work and its character. These visits can be a source of great encouragement and refreshment to the missionary. If the worker resides in North America, the leaders of the assembly continue to have a responsibility to shepherd and to monitor the character of the work in which the brother is engaged. The Book of the Acts does not envision lone-ranger type missionaries or preachers who are not linked with, or cared for, by local assemblies.

While not an easy or pleasant task, if the behavior of a full-time servant is causing division, or if his actions are inconsistent with the character required of him, the leaders need to take that individual in hand and speak to him in the same manner they would deal with one of the believers in the assembly. If a servant of the Lord makes his home in your assembly, then you are accountable to the Lord for leading him in such a way that his service is being used for the Lord, and that he is developing, as he ought to be, in his spiritual life.

Since for both financial reasons and logistics, many elders are not able to visit a missionary in his field of labor, would it not be wise to have an interview upon return and discuss the nature of the work and any problems which have arisen? In the event that either doctrinal issues or personality problems have occurred, it is a great resource for a worker to be able to say that he is following the instructions of his commending assembly as to his movements and associations. The interview would also serve to give the commending assembly and its leadership more accurate information as to the needs in prayer. While financial considerations are important, that is not the totality of the responsibility which elders have to the worker.

Responsibility to Workers at Home

Workers in North America face a different set of circumstances. This may be complicated when a servant who has been commended by one assembly now resides in another area and is in fellowship elsewhere. In a sense, each assembly has a responsibility toward that servant, both financially and spiritually. The original commending assembly should be in contact periodically and, if occasion allows, make time for reviewing the character of the work and the needs of the work so that they can pray more intelligently, as well as inform the assembly of the needs. The assembly in which a servant currently resides should also have a keen interest in the work’s progress and in any difficulties which may arise. Should there be the rare occasion when correction of some sort is needed, the two assemblies should be in communication and move together. The welfare and spiritual good of the servant must always be the foremost consideration when correction or guidance is given. There is a feeling abroad among some that men must be “put in their place,” or “cut down to size.” Such should never be the motive of those dealing with a worker. He is one of the sheep in the flock which God has committed to your care (Acts 20:28; 1Peter 5:2-3); He is also God’s servant. That does not exempt him from your shepherd care, but stresses that your goal is to advance his usefulness in the work. Personal feelings must never enter into your handling of one of God’s own. It must never degenerate into a battle for “control” or “one-up-manship.”

Responsibility of Workers

There is a reciprocal responsibility on each worker. He is accountable to his commending assembly. To move independent of the assembly – to disregard its advice and shepherd care – is to act in an independent spirit.

The movements of men in the Book of the Acts reinforces this accountability, as Paul “rehearsed all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27). Similarly, they traced the source of wrong teaching back to the assembly which supposedly had commended the teachers (Acts 15:1-4). Again, he ends his second missionary journey with a report to the local assembly (Acts 18:22). He viewed himself as moving in fellowship with the commending assembly (Acts 13:1-5) and as accountable to it.

Even a shepherd in God’s assembly is subject to the other shepherds. No individual is above the authority of the Word of God in the hands of those who care for the assembly, neither a shepherd nor a full-time worker. When counsel or rebuke is needed, motives, of course, must be examined in the presence of God. The manner in which care or counsel is given must be in grace. Yet, it must be addressed.

Leadership can be wrong. In the case of misguided leadership, how is a believer or a laborer to respond? How did the Lord Jesus respond to wrong judgment? He submitted Himself to the wrong treatment and “committed Himself to Him that judges righteously” (1Peter 2:23). He did not vindicate Himself, nor did He avoid men’s judgment, but submitted to it. He is still waiting for the day when God will ultimately vindicate Him before all. But He did not “lose” by leaving all with God.

Let us value the wisdom of God in establishing autonomous local assemblies. Let us see His wisdom in requiring accountability of every believer, regardless of sphere of service, and let us seek to align our activities with the Word of God and in fellowship with our brethren.

Relationship of Workers to Workers

It would be ideal if, accompanying a letter of commendation, there were a simultaneous extraction of all competitiveness, pride and feelings of insecurity. But reality, as we all know, is a very harsh fact of life. We are all still a few yards short of heaven and the ultimate change. Men who labor in the work of God have, as their primary responsibility, their relationship with the Lord. They must “beware of the barrenness of busyness,” which can creep into the life of all who are busy in God’s service.

They are also responsible to the assembly which has commended them, as outlined above. But they must also strive to maintain genuine and sincere fellowship with those with whom they labor. Although uniformity is not the goal, unity in the work of God is vital. A mutual respect and care should mark all who labor together, as it should mark all believers.

Men who work closely together soon learn to value each other for the strengths and assets which they bring to the effort. This is true of overseers who work together for the good of the assembly, and of servants who labor for the salvation of souls and the upbuilding of testimony.

If there is a mutuality of respect and care, it means that workers do not control other workers, either by criticism or by un-Christ-like interaction. If an older laborer thinks a younger laborer needs guidance, he is wise to offer it in a gracious and Christ-like manner. If he feels a brother is wrong doctrinally, it is his responsibility, to “not strive, but be gentle” (2 Tim 2:24) in his private approach to the brother. After that, it is his responsibility to advise the commending assembly, and then leave it there. That assembly is responsible, and must deal with it. Nothing is gained by pressing the send button and flooding the inboxes of believers, communicating the problem to all from coast to coast. The more emotional and vituperative the language, the more polarization ensues. Irreparable damage is done both to the worker and to the work of God. It is certainly not fulfilling the law of love. We must speak the truth, but it must be in love (Eph 4:15) – not a sentimental love, but an attitude which always seeks to do the best for another in the best possible manner.

Would there not be enhanced value to the work and honor brought to the Lord Jesus Christ if, rather than actions which lead to division, we were to “follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom 14:19)? This should be our goal whether we are believers in the assembly, overseers who lead the assembly, or servants of the Lord who serve the assemblies.