Category: Church Government


Every person needs accountability. Regardless of age, experience, or other factors, and because we are fallen creatures, we must be made accountable to help us deal with the sinful impulses that continue to trouble us even after our conversions. The concept of accountability originated with God Himself. The fact that we are created beings necessarily implies that we are subject to our Creator’s authority. In His wisdom, God has established various levels of accountability so that we are never left without this much-needed benefit.

As children, we are answerable to our parents. As adults, we are accountable to a number of sources. For example, as an adult, I must answer to civil authorities for my conduct as a citizen in this society. I am also accountable to Church authority primarily for spiritual oversight. Even if we should manage to remove ourselves from liability to any civil or ecclesiastical institution, we are still ultimately and inescapably accountable to God.

In this post, I want to comment on one particular aspect of accountability, which is the situation you face when you are accused of wrong-doing and the matter automatically becomes the concern of those to whom you are accountable. For instance, as a teaching elder (minister) in a Presbyterian denomination, I labor in the local church, but my membership, and therefore my accountability, rests with the Presbytery. Consequently, in our system of government, when allegations are made against a minister (by fellow officers or church members, for example), his Presbytery is responsible for investigating the matter and rendering judgment. In order for this arrangement to function properly, it is absolutely essential that those conducting an investigation demonstrate a clear understanding of Biblical teaching covering such matters and a steadfast commitment to objectivity. This holds true for all situations in which accountability exists.

As the accused, your one true hope for justice relies on the willingness of those to whom you look for judgment to process all information from both sides in a manner that shows no partiality, one way or the other. In matters in which there are two sides in conflict, the Scripture’s warning is plain:

“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” (Pro. 18:13)

“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” (Pro. 18:17)

These verses provide the opportunity for me to explain the title of this post, The Danger of Accountability. While I may find some genuine encouragement in the concept of accountability, since it applies not only to me, but also to whoever might accuse me of wrongdoing, this arrangement can become extremely detrimental if those to whom we are accountable violate the principle found in the two verses above (as well as many other passages in the Word, of course). This is the danger of accountability. If your circumstances are not given a completely impartial analysis, you may find that your relationship of accountability actually works against you and against a just resolution.

If those in authority fail to demonstrate absolute objectivity, regardless of the nature of the charge or the “evidence” offered, then your cause is lost. In situations where one person accuses another, those with the responsibility of rendering a judgment are in a critical position. Should they allow themselves to be persuaded, even in a minor form, one way or the other, based upon the initial information they are given, the process is corrupted and, in the case of an innocent man, a great injustice is in the works. The fact is that we are rarely as careful as we should be when it comes to hearing reports about others, but when the well-being of another person is in your hands as one responsible to judge, you must maintain neutrality until both sides have been examined.

This isn’t just a matter of human fairness, it is a matter of obeying the Scriptures. Since that is the case, if the Word is not kept in a situation like the one I’ve described, then the one acting as an evaluator has transgressed in a most harmful manner. In his failure to remain objective, he has sinned against one of the parties in the dispute. And let’s not overlook the involvement of the one who presented the initial “evidence.” It’s almost a certainty that his manner of presentation was characterized by repeated assurances of his regret for having to bring the charges, his concern for the good of his “brother,” an exaggerated declaration regarding the reliability of his “proof” and the righteousness of his cause. But this is precisely the kind of situation envisioned in the verses quoted above.

God has given us unmistakable guidance because of the danger that we would be tempted to believe the first report, especially if it is presented as just depicted. Due to our fallen natures, we cannot rely on our ability to remain unaffected by a presentation. In fact, we should assume that we will be unfairly persuaded unless we are dedicated to remaining completely unbiased having been forewarned by God’s Word.

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1 Peter 5:1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.

When you consider the qualifications for the office of elder, found in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1, you might conclude that a man who met those requirements would never have to be exhorted regarding the mistreatment of the people under his care. Yet, Peter does exactly that in this passage. He contrasts two attitudes, which in turn produce two opposite patterns in a man’s service.

The first attitude or perspective is summed up in the word “shepherd.” This term brings to mind a diligent, yet gentle guidance, which includes protection and provision. A shepherd knows the characteristics of his sheep and knows best how to lead them; he knows the various temperaments found in a sizeable flock. Therefore, he is just as effective when working with one sheep as he is when working with the entire group.

This image of shepherd and sheep is found throughout Scripture to convey the nature of our relationship with God. An elder serves on behalf of Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd. He is charged with the task of caring for those who belong to Jesus. An elder’s primary goal, therefore, should be to imitate Christ in his relationships to a congregation. A description of Christ’s treatment of His people would include attributes like forgiveness, patience, self-denial, and unconditional love. This is the pattern to which an elder should strive to conform.

Peter adds that an elder should shepherd the flock of God willingly, which indicates his heartfelt regard for those in his care. He does not occupy this position for the sake of personal gain. Moreover, because of the importance of his calling and the subjects of his attention, an elder should approach his duties with eagerness. The Greek word translated as “eagerness,” refers to an established point of view that determines behavior. The writer is saying that a man who would be an elder must come to that position with a conviction concerning the high calling of the office and a sure awareness of the tremendous weight of responsibility he will have to carry.

This implies that a man seeking to serve as an elder should have a firm understanding of all aspects of the office (qualifications and duties) before he actually begins to serve. He must be a man who realizes that he will be looked upon as an example of Christian maturity. The requirements given by the apostle Paul, which were mentioned earlier, underscore these truths and are, therefore, absolutely essential when it comes to a man’s eligibility for this pivotal office.

It has always been my personal conviction that the spiritual vitality of a congregation will never exceed that of her elders. If the Biblical qualifications are rightly applied, only the most stable and capable of men will occupy the office of elder. If this is the case, the congregation has a spiritual standard that not only assures them of competence, but also, in part, defines the goal toward which every member should strive.

The second attitude or perspective set forth in this passage is represented in the phrase, “lording it over.” The term used here refers to raw power utilized to subdue others and make them subject to your will. The relationship envisioned here is not shepherd to sheep, it is master to slave. Everything said about the elder who sees himself as a shepherd of Christ’s people finds an opposite and destructive characteristic in the second perspective given by Peter.

Whereas the former description pictures a man laboring as an under-shepherd of Jesus Christ, this second description presents a man seeking to advance himself by demanding obedience and loyalty from the people. Life under this man’s rule is filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Due to his sinful ambition to glorify himself, this man will create his own standard by which the people under him are judged, rather than look to Scripture. In large part, he functions autonomously and responds even to the mildest criticism with overwhelming verbosity and threats designed to silence anyone daring to raise a question. At all times, this man assumes the role of superior to inferiors and obliterates the image of the humble shepherd giving himself for the sheep.

The harm done by an overbearing, self-righteous elder cannot be overstated. Instead of serving in the place of Christ as an under-shepherd, this man uses his authority to secure his position and insulate himself from all challenges. This way of thinking inevitably involves the abuse of those for whom Jesus Christ shed His blood. It makes a mockery of the humble and tender Savior who set aside His own glory so that He might rescue those trapped in sin.