“No man is an island”, says the well-known quote; a quote thathas been proven time and again to be all too true. People need people. In this article, as we highlight some of the issues of individualism that are seen in the body of Messiah today, we will contend that positive connection is necessary for all believers and that accountability is an essential for all who are called to be leaders in the body.
The spirit of individualism can be a very positive force, taming the “wild west,” boldly going where no-one has been before, breaking new ground for the Kingdom of God and, lead by the Spirit of God, accomplishing things that would be impossible for a larger organisation or group of people to do. Many famous missionaries, such as Gladys Aylwood, were called by God to “go” on their own and served Him faithfully where they were called. However, when individualism undermines submission, authority and righteousness it hinders God’s kingdom. Much of the evangelical and charismatic world is beset by a rampant spirit of individualism. How can this be? It is because individualism has run amok.
Though people profess commitment to one another, submission to authority, and accountability, when there is conflict or an exercise of discipline, the person involved flees. I call this default individualism. It is like a computer. You may change the settings for a specific document, but after this document is saved and a new one is started, the settings all return to default settings. To change the default settings, one must go deeper into the computer program. Many profess submission to authority and accountability, but when they are under pressure or conflict, or when discipline is on the way, the default settings kick in. Default individualism is self-centered. It will take a deeper level of conviction and the work of the cross to bring our default settings into agreement with Scripture!
Individualism does not aid in building lasting marriage, family and community. Lasting relationships in a congregation or community seem less and less possible. Long term unity can only be maintained where there is balanced submission to authority. Today the moral and ethical tone of congregations is low indeed. The central standards are attendance and giving money. People divorce and remarry without biblical grounds and say that God is the God of the second chance. Fallen pastors continue to lead congregations. Members are allowed to be in sin and no questions are asked.
Some years ago, a pastor in an apostolic network was disciplined for falling into sexual immorality. Instead of submitting to the network leaders for a process of restoration, he wrote a letter to the pastors of the whole network concerning the harsh treatment he supposedly received. He claimed that he was leaving the network over philosophical differences. He professed that he would never submit to a man again. Somehow he convinced the local elders of his church to reverse course and receive him back in leadership after only weeks. Then he withdrew his congregation from the network.
Over forty years ago, a group of well-known leaders sought to bring order to the “anything goes” independent congregations and ministries of the charismatic movement. They set up a structure of accountability. Yet, they made the mistake of not leaving adequate room for the leading of the Holy Spirit in the conscience of individuals. The shepherding movement did not last. The reaction was
intense and radical individualism re-asserted itself with a vengeance.
The Crisis of Authority in the Evangelical World
Where are we today? We are facing a crisis of standards in the Evangelical world. This crisis affects Messianic Jewish congregations as well. Here are some facts:
- Any individual can enter a city and begin a congregation. He can declare himself a pastor or an apostle. It is not assumed that he be under an eldership or association. There is no broad consensus that he be truly submitted to other leaders for discipline and accountability. If he has been ordained by some group, then usually this group can not defrock (un-ordain) him. If he has the gifts of great speaking and strong entrepreneurial talents, he can build a big congregation and will draw many away from other congregations in the area. There generally will be little growth from new converts. While such a person fifty years ago would have had a pariah status and reputation, this is no longer the case. There is little conviction among believers concerning the need for qualifications and accountability of their leaders.
- For many there is no court of appeal for a leader who falls into sin, gross incompetence, or abusive behavior. The congregants can only choose to leave, losing all their assets, relationships and friendships built over many years. It is as if the congregation is owned by the leader without consideration of the congregation as an organic community to be preserved. Yet I Corinthians 3:16 teaches that the corporate congregation is the Temple of the Spirit and that those who destroy it are in danger of severe judgment.
- Structures of congregational association are so loose that a fallen or incompetent leader often can not be removed. Professions of accountability turn out to be a sham, for when the time comes for discipline and correction, the leader can often manipulate the board to withdraw from the accountability structure. At other times, those in oversight are simply unwilling to enforce standards and look the other way in fear that they also may someday be disciplined.
- Congregations are more and more run like businesses in competition with one another for the support of the religious public. Who has the most attractive programs and services? However, as pollster George Barna has proven, there is little discipleship, little growth among the lost, little lasting and deep community, much entertainment and a Biblical and ethical illiteracy that is shameful.
The Way Forward
In the face of these facts, what shall we do? Individualism has become a serious and growing malaise, affecting – and hurting – more and more people and congregations. Hurt or abuse is easily transferred to other locations when people see that rogue leaders appear to get away with this kind of behaviour. This should be a red flag to denominations and networks. How can we move forward to remedy this situation? What is God doing in the area of individualism today?
Leaders who are not in proper accountability relationships with other leaders outside of their own congregation can seek to establish these relationships. They can then seek to have their ministries confirmed by and accountable to these associations. Leaders need to educate their congregation members to understand authority and accountability, not only for congregants, but for leaders! No one should join a congregation in which the leader is not himself really accountable! No one who sets himself up in ministry claiming that the Spirit told him to do so should have credibility. Only those submitted to proven authority should be in authority. The statement of “not submitting to a man” is blatant rebellion. Those who will not submit to human authorities are not submitted to God’s authority; Romans 13 makes this abundantly clear. Indeed, no one is ever beyond accountability to authority. All can fall, and all need to be in a place where discipline can be applied.
- A Chain of Succession
In general, only credible and accountable leaders and elders should be able to ordain new elders. Recognised and accountable leaders should recognise and accredit what God is doing in the lives of those who have been properly trained, who have had their calling to leadership tested over a period of time, and who have proven themselves to be reliable and accountable. Only proven elders should start congregations and that only after being commissioned and sent out by other leaders with confirmation of their vision and calling in a particular area or task.
- Trans-local Connectivity
Ultimately, congregations in a city should be linked in mutual connection and real accountability as well. Members who are legitimately disciplined in one congregation should not be able to flee and be received in other congregations. This is an historic standard. It is crucial that we educate believers in ethical and moral principles. If not, many in today’s congregations may fall away.
- Developing Character
We must seek to develop the character of our members and congregations and not merely to teach them how to succeed in their own desires with God’s help. This requires real teaching and investment of time over a period of years, to enable believers to realise and walk in their inheritance as children of the King, while developing humble hearts and spirits that remain teachable as they learn to serve both God and others in our congregations.
I am truly optimistic. Deep changes are coming to the people of God who seek His way whole-heartedly. I fully believe that revival will come and that we will see the Body in unity and sanctified in truth
as Yeshua prayed (John 17).