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Why Evangelicals Should Care More About Ecclesiology

August 29th, 2018 | 13 min read

By Guest Writer

By Tish Harrison Warren

A significant way that evangelicalism as an historic movement formed its identity was to unite around a “gospel core” that excluded questions about ecclesiology and church governance. In his (essential!) Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch examines how Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and other leaders in the Second Great Awakening “did not even want to hear the words church government.” They believed that “only by renouncing any institutional forms could the oppressed go free and taste the ‘sweets of gospel liberty.’ ” He adds that, “By their appeal to ‘Bible Government,’ the Christians removed the issue of power and authority from any concrete application.”

These assumptions have flowed downstream, seeping into modern evangelicalism with a now tacit agreement that institutional structures don’t actually matter. As I’ve wrestled with my own (unresolved) questions about what institutional embeddedness should mean in this age of internet celebrities, megachurches, and speaking tours, one thing that has amazed me is that evangelicals on the Right and the Left who agree on very little else theologically often both agree that ecclesiology and institutional structures are unimportant and mostly a matter of personal preference. Institutions themselves are assumed to be, at worst, oppressive and, at best, irrelevant.

But this may be beginning to change. A public conversation has been slowly brewing about institutions, accountability, celebrity, and power in the church. For those following at home, over a year ago I published (in CT Women) what proved to be a controversial piece asking questions about “celebrity authority” and the role of institutions in public ministry. Historian Leah Payne responded to my piece in the following months (also in CT Women) with a look at the role of institutions and celebrity power in historic and current evangelism.

More recently, as we have  watched scandals involving prominent evangelical leaders hit the news, Andy Crouch wrote a tremendously helpful piece on accountability and celebrity power in the church, and Katelyn Beaty offered her insights this month in an op-ed for RNS. As sad as I am that scandal has spotlighted the need for strategic thinking about institutions, I am glad we are having this conversation. It is essential that we address the realities of power, celebrity, and accountability amongst evangelicals–including among so-called “exvangelicals,”  who differ theologically from evangelicals but share much of the formation and assumptions of evangelicalism. We need to decide together that ecclesiology is worth arguing about.

But this is a difficult and complex conversation to have. Questions about accountability, institutions, and power are not simple or straightforward. I’d like to examine, as a bit of a miniature prolegomenon, the latent tendencies within much of white, Western evangelicalism that make this conversation both particularly fraught and particularly needed in our moment of history.

Accountability has an institutional component as well as an individual.

Evangelicals tend to think about accountability individualistically.  When I wrote my piece on how mega-bloggers need institutional embeddedness and accountability, one such blogger responded, “You could have asked me if I had accountability!”  And while I truly believe that this blogger genuinely desires and likely has private, elective accountability (that I could ask her about and she could tell me about) that misses the point about what I think is needed. This leader had been sufficiently formed by evangelicalism (even as an exvangelical) that she understandably defaulted into thinking of accountability as individual and personal as opposed to structural and public.

Growing up in evangelicalism, almost all the conversations I had about accountability were individualistic—that is, that individual Christians needed to have “accountability partners.” I remember awkward weekly meetings with my accountability partner where we dutifully drummed up that week’s sins to report.

Though I don’t have an accountability partner anymore,  I do have close friends who know (way too much) about my sin and struggles. But, as a Christian leader, that frankly isn’t enough. I certainly need private and personal accountability. I would not last long without it. But I also need institutional structures of accountability as well. Evangelicals have thought too long in terms of accountability partners and neglected wise and fruitful thinking about accountability structures.  We need to not only think about accountability in terms of our individualistic pursuit or as an elective group of friends or “community” but, for those of us in any kind of public Christian leadership, we need to think well about institutions, church discipline, and polity. One take away from recent scandals is that accountability is often weakened if those holding a pastor or leader accountable consider him or her a close friend or mentor.

The need for overt and institutional accountability is self-evident with politicians (and there’s certainly a think piece begging to be written on how evangelicals’ tendency toward individualism, populism, and celebrity authority make them easily duped by our sitting president). The need for structures of hierarchy and accountability is clear when it comes to physicians or professors. In each of these fields, institutions exist in part to provide limits to a leader’s power and to provide discipline and censure when that power is abused. When it comes to Christian leaders, we of course need private accountability and transparent friendships, but we also need structures of accountability that are overt, explicit, and public–in part, because the point of accountability is not simply to preserve personal morality but to serve and protect the broader church. We each need to know (without asking) what would happen to our favorite pastor, writer, or speaker if they were accused of grievous sin or error. Having structures of accountability builds trust that isn’t rooted in personal charisma, charm, popularity, or tribe.

Church history can guide us as we try to define good structures for accountability.

Evangelicals need to reap the long wisdom of the church. As we think (and talk and write and debate) together about how Christian leaders need to deal with power, we must recall that we aren’t the first to ask these questions. The church has been talking about the role of institution, power, and accountability for at least 2000 years, and we ought not neglect her ancient wisdom in our current conversation. In the pages of the New Testament, we see the apostles grappling with the kind of character and oversight needed for pastors and elders; we see church structures set in place to both empower leaders and hold them accountable and also to protect the flock from false teaching.

As early as c. 99 and 107 AD (respectively), we see Christian leaders like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch writing about the need for bishops for accountability over leaders in the church. There is no one-to-one, cut and paste, application here—obviously we live in a different time and culture with different challenges and opportunities. We have megachurches, the internet, conferences, and speakers with private jets and personal stylists, realities that Ignatius and Clement could not have foreseen. Still, we need this long, historic conversation about leaders and teachers, accountability, and power to inform our own.  Stanely Hauerwas said, “I think evangelicalism is destined to die of its own success and it will go the way of mainstream Protestantism because …it depends far too much on charismatic pastors, and charisma will only take you so far. Evangelicalism is constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel and you just get tired.” When it comes to structures and practices to hold Christian teachers and leaders accountable, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

To be clear, I am certainly not saying that all Christian writers or leaders must be ordained or join a hierarchical tradition or find a bishop. (And Andy Crouch’s piece was particularly insightful because he is a lay leader who is nevertheless seeking to think creatively and strategically about ways to serve broader institutions and put overt limits on his own autonomous power.) Indeed, we must  avoid falling into clericalism. But evangelicals are far more likely to ignore any historic conversation about hierarchy, church discipline, and ecclesiology than they are to fall into clericalism. Perhaps the wheel needs to be altered, improved, and creatively appropriated for new circumstances, but let’s not ignore what’s already been invented—and used and refined for millennia.

Matters of ecclesiology are not indifferent or inconsequential.

We have to decide together, as evangelicals, that matters of ecclesiology are not adiaphora or indifferent, even as we acknowledge that different ways of organizing a church or ministry are not sinful. In order to move forward in this conversation, we cannot simply think in categories of good/bad or right/wrong; instead we need to reintroduce categories of wisdom and folly (we’ve so lost these categories, no one even uses the word ‘folly’ anymore).

I do not think there is only one way to arrange church government, institutional accountability, or public ministry. I am not saying that every Christian on earth should have Anglican polity (God knows we have our own problems!), but I do think we need to discuss wise and less wise ways to set up church structures. Do I think it is sinful to have an independent, non-denominational megachurch? No. But do I think that is, most often, a less wise way of structuring church–a way that is more susceptible to all-powerful and unaccountable pastors? Yes, I do.

We can be good members of institutions without giving in to institutionalism.

We, as evangelicals, are wary of institutionalism—and that is a very good thing. As our recent conversations about evangelicals, institutions, and power begin, a storm rages in the Roman Catholic Church as more and more instances of child abuse and clergy cover-ups are unveiled. A few weeks ago, my husband and I stayed up late, grieving, raging, cussing, astonished and angry as we read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury sex abuse report. We are pastors in Pittsburgh, and the many stories of abuse and subsequent cover-ups in our city alone are enough to leave me turning over tables. What is evident is that there are likely hundreds of thousands of clerical sex abuse victims worldwide, and thousands of priests, bishops, and cardinals knew about clergy predators and allowed the abuse to continue. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said, “The cover up was sophisticated. The church protected the institution at all costs.”

If individuals and societies are to flourish, we need healthy institutions. But institutionalism, an idolatry of institutions, where the preservation of an institution is it’s only end, is, in no uncertain terms, evil. Though Christian leaders need to be (overtly) institutionally embedded and accountable, we cannot embrace a kind of institutionalism that overlooks justice, accountability, and the weak in order to gain ecclesial power.

We must seek just and good institutions and systems of accountability, yet there is no ecclesiology, there is no church structure, that will save us from sin.  In the words of Artur Rosman, “there are no silver bullets against the werewolves of faithlessness.” Any institution or system we form, no matter how wise, will be sin-soaked. We do not simply need better institutions; we need atonement.

Yet, because ecclesiology won’t rescue us from bad things happening does not mean that wise structures of accountability are not important for a just and faithful church. And the failures of systems of accountability—even massive failure as we see in the current Roman Catholic atrocities—do not negate the need for structures of authority and accountability anymore than plane crashes render void the need for the FAA. Systems fail, and we still need systems. But we need institutions (that like the FAA) will learn and adjust with each failure, each disaster. We need ecclesial structures that are humble enough to repent and radically so.

I do not want evangelicals to give up a wise and good suspicion toward institutionalism, but neither do I want us to live in an anti-institutional reaction to it.  We can—and must–embrace institutions and can–and must– never allow mere preservation of an institution to be our end. The end of healthy institutions is flourishing; the end of the church is, not herself, but the glory, honor, and goodness of God.  Between institutionalism and anti-institutional individualism lies the difficult work of faithful, humble, and accountable ministry.

Sometimes the boring things are the most important.

Talking about structures of accountability and finer points of ecclesiology is hard for evangelicals and exvangelicals because it is, frankly, kind of boring. As evangelicals and as Americans, we like a thrill. We like moving emotional services. We like the adrenaline of a ‘movement.’ We like hashtagging our just causes. No one goes into ministry or is drawn into the church because we want to sit around and talk about church polity, hierarchy, or accountability.  I seem to be talking about this a lot lately because of things I’ve written on it, and even I mostly hate talking about this stuff.
But one thing (among the many) that we can learn from recent evangelical scandals is that, while it’ll never be marketable, oftentimes what is most important for a church—and for the pursuit of justice—are things that are boring, even procedural.

The things that can make or break justice and integrity in a church are the adiaphora and ordinary stuff of HR policies (yawn!) or the way elders are selected (snoozer!) or the procedure to follow when someone brings charges against those in leadership (an article on this would never go viral!). These are the finer points of institutional change that will never get evangelicals lifting their hands in praise or using fire emojis. And this is the stuff of pursuing faithfulness over the long haul as a community and an institution. We as Americans and as evangelicals are addicted to flashiness and trends and the topic of the day, to the gleaming excitement of revolution; we don’t want to bother ourselves with the boring necessities of policy, church governance, and procedure.  We have to, as a church, become far less addicted to our own adrenaline and far more faithful in quiet, boring and even bureaucratic ways. This is about as un-American and unevangelical as you can get. And it’s essential if we are to be faithful as a church.

Evangelicals seem to have a particularly acute problem with celebrity and branding.

Lastly, we as evangelicals have to look squarely at our long and complex history with celebrity, power, and the market.  Current celebrity evangelists, speakers, bloggers, and megachurch pastors cannot be discussed without talking about the relationship between power and market forces. And American evangelical leaders have embraced “celebrity authority” and market forces for a long, long time. Historian Harry Stout writes that in George Whitefield, one of America’s first evangelical preachers,  “Charity, preaching, and journalism came together…to create a potent configuration – a religious celebrity capable of creating a new market for religion.” In the Second Great Awakening (as we threw off institutions to embrace the ‘sweets of gospel liberty’), we also furthered a “celebrity pastor model” as individual charismatic leaders wielded huge influence with little to no oversight. Worship became an entertainment spectacle—complete with pastors breaking chairs and sliding across the stage on their knees to whip up a rock star frenzy. WR Ward describes Francis Asbury as an “entrepreneur in religion, a man who perceived a market to be exploited.”

What this market model resulted in—and still results in—is a hesitancy for evangelicals to question methods or institutional structures as long as a particular person’s ministry seems to be “bearing fruit,” and by bearing fruit we typically mean getting a lot of attention, making converts, and bringing in numbers.
Celebrity pastors and leaders with great charisma and popularity, who lack institutional embeddedness and accountability, are as much a part of our heritage as altar calls and tent revivals. (And abuse of this power is also as old as the movement itself.) If we are to walk wisely and faithfully into the future, we have to be honest about that heritage and critique it.  We have to address the power (and as Andy Crouch pointed out, the idolatry) of celebrity and how, as evangelicals and as Americans, we’ve all been raised on this model of leadership since birth. It’s the water we swim in.

For every celebrity pastor or speaker, there are systems of money and power around him or her that are bigger than any one “personal brand.”  I am not saying that any individual person or leader is working out of a motivation for money or market share or popularity or brand building; I am saying that when Christian leaders become a brand, there are systems that would exalt and protect their brand over all else. There are systems that seek to maximize power without the limits of institutional accountability. There are systems that seek to maximize profit without regard for the long-term flourishing and faithfulness of the broader church. Systemically, consumerism infects the church—both on the right and on the left.

I don’t actually know how to combat these systems, except to seek to create and hold to institutions that curb the power of the market and that witness—however feebly— to a better, more humble way of human flourishing. To build such an institution—such a church—will require men and women who understand systems and our own heritage and history, who intentionally and overtly embrace institutional structures that limit our autonomy, marketability, and power, and who together seek to build something larger and truer than our own brand.

Tish Harrison Warren is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life(IVP) and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Vanderbilt and The University of Texas at Austin, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA.  Her work has appeared in The Well, CT Women, Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, The Point Magazine, and elsewhere. She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.

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