Evangelical Reform: Who's Gonna FORCE Accountability on Pastors?

Evangelical pastors who care about protecting their flocks already gladly practice accountability measures. The ones who don't care won't allow it. So reform can't happen.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

We’ve been celebrating the conviction of child-porn aficionado Josh Duggar — and reflecting sorrowfully on the broken system of extreme right-wing evangelicalism that produced him. The situation made me reflect on a post I saw last year in Christianity Today. Its writer proposed some ways to stop evangelical scandals at the source. Indeed, evangelicals talk a lot about how to prevent abuse in their circles. But there’s one reason that reform will never and can never happen in evangelicalism: nobody can make the leaders of evangelical groups care about accountability.

(Worshae.) Reform hovers always out of reach. Credit: Worshae / Unsplash

The Cornerstone of Reform: Accountability.

Evangelicals do love the word “accountability.”

Accountability to Jesus is humbling. Real accountability carries a sense of personal humility toward Christ, who we are growing toward, but can never fully reach in terms of character. True accountability leads to wise living, which is a combination of knowledge of God through His Word, and the experience of living that out, to the best of one’s ability. [. . .] Accountability is a constant reminder that we need God’s grace daily to live for Him in our time and culture. [Source]

(Yes yes, but what does that even mean?)

Of course, accountability is absolutely essential to evangelical social structures:

Accountability in Christian relationships is important because it removes the element of isolation from each Christian’s walk. Scripture says that we are best suited to walk out our days with a companion and that having two companions is even safer. Our primary accountability is to Christ. [Source]

Alas, “Christ” doesn’t seem to say anything at all to any of his followers. So it’s up to those followers to police each other, control each other, and punish each other.

And they do. Oh yes, they sure do. Rick Ross describes how this otherwise-good concept gets warped by authoritarians into a “cult of accountability.” In such groups, it’s used for very harmful purposes. And that is the way I’ll be describing it in this post.

But evangelicals can only make accountability happen when their leaders allow it.

When Accountability Isn’t Complete.

Whenever things go hideously wrong in any evangelical group, evangelicals tend to think that The Big Problem Here was a lack of accountability. Had proper accountability existed in their group, nothing bad would have happened because nothing bad could have happened without someone noticing it and addressing it. Scandals, in particular, happen because whoever caused that scandal drifted away from their accountabilibuddies.

Here’s one source placing that exact issue third, after “false prophets” and “pride,” in causing evangelical scandals. Another places that same blame, citing cell phones as an easy way to dodge accountability in one’s personal calls.

And we talked last year about Ronald J. Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In that book, Sider declares (on p. 111) that nondenominational churches are a blatant attempt to dodge accountability from denominational overlords.

It’s important, then, to know that in this sense, accountability means evangelicals bound about by spies and watchers, all willing to call each other out for any missteps or refusals to comply with the tribe’s demands — and punishing each other for transgressions.

Naturally, any proposed reform of evangelicalism’s entrenched problems calls for more accountability.

A PR Agent Considers the Absolute State of Evangelicalism.

Last November, Heather Cirmo considered all the scandals erupting in evangelicalism at the time. Specifically, she recognized that these scandals can hurt evangelicals’ sales and retention rates alike. As a public relations worker in Washington, DC, she’d seen more than a few churches and ministries get “engulf[ed]” in “controversy and confusion.”

So she came up with a few suggestions for evangelical leaders based on her work. She takes as a given that accountability must exist in evangelical groups:

Exposing the truth is necessary and helpful. We have a duty to name and call out sin in our communities, churches, and ministries. [. . .] More often than not, organizations are catapulted into crises almost solely because they had little to no accountability procedures in place to prevent abuses of power.  [Source]

Well, duh.

But don’t worry!

She has a fix!

Fixing Scandals With More Accountability.

Here, then, is her patented five-point listicle for curing evangelicalism of scandals forever:

  1. “All leaders should be faithfully attending a local church.”
  2. “All leaders within the organization should be in relationships in which they are accountable.”
  3. “Prohibit the board from being stacked with family members and friends.”
  4. “Question whether a Christian organization should be named after an individual.”
  5. “Be thoughtful about the organization’s travel policy.”

And she ends her post thusly:

The world is watching our good deeds as well as our bad ones. Our response to failures and our dedication to preventing them will speak volumes to the culture about the hope that we have in Jesus, and our dedication to his righteousness.

(That last linguistic Christianese somersault just means Jesus aura evangelism. Basically, she thinks if Christians start following their own rules consistently, people will totally mistake this behavior for divine goodness.)

I’m sure she means well. These aren’t terrible suggestions, except the first perhaps. Evangelicals would take that as a demand that they willingly enter cages. And church attendance doesn’t mean anything in terms of control anyway.

All that said, all that understood, though, she’s missing a very important point completely.

Evangelical Leaders Don’t Want Accountability.

If evangelical leaders wanted to run operations that carefully set their accountability front and center, they’d already be doing it. Often, it seems like evangelical hucksters start their scare-quotes “ministries” precisely because it’s the easiest, fastest way to achieve unilateral power over others that they can possibly access.

Successful secular businesses can ask a lot of questions about what their leaders do. Are these expenses really appropriate? Is that business trip really necessary? Does this person really need an assistant? Why is this person suggesting this new employee? Is this management position really something we need, or is it a sinecure for the boss’ idiot son? And employees and leaders alike can get into a lot of trouble if the answers get found to be less than satisfactory.

Of course, that’s not always the case.

After Enron went toes-up, analysts spilled a lot of ink on the company’s lack of accountability. Their ostensible watchdog, a CPA company called Arthur Andersen, faced the same scrutiny. Apparently the whole cabal of high-end CPA companies have problems along these lines.

As loosey-goosey as the business world can be at its worst, though, evangelical ministry is a billion times worse at its best. And if evangelical leaders really wanted to change that, they could. After all, they’re the only ones in their dysfunctional groups who have the power to do anything differently.

They just don’t. The best we’re gonna get out of them is a pretendy game of them acting like they tooooootallllly want to reform, toootallly, yoo guize! Meanwhile, reform always hovers perpetually on the horizon, somehow never coming into arm’s reach.

Who’s Gonna Make ‘Em?

In truth, the actual big problem here is that nobody can force evangelical leaders to do anything. That’s part of the design of their broken system. It’s a feature, not a bug. It’s why evangelical men want to reach leadership positions in the first place. And it’s also why those same men oppose any measure that allows women any personal power at all — abortion laws, voting rights, no-fault divorce, you name it.

Heck, the entire Conservative Resurgence — that hyper-right-wing takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention — happened because evangelical men got their panties twisted into knots at the idea of women becoming pastors in churches they considered theirs.

In authoritarian groups, their rules are specifically designed to create a crazymaking lose-lose proposition for all members — except the leaders. Leaders can safely ignore their cattle chutes and mazes and safety-helmeted lockstep marches.

In fact, ignoring the group’s rules marks someone as a leader (or someone heading straight for the top levels). Following rules becomes a sign of weakness. Leaders measure their power by the number of people who can order them around — and the number of people they in turn can order around.

And they all ache to have nobody capable of ordering them around.

The Call of Accountability Will Go Unanswered.

So if you wanna tell evangelical leaders that now they need to be beholden and accountable to people they regard as their inferiors, you’re gonna be talking to an empty room before too awful long. They won’t do it. Nobody can make them.

And that’s the whole point of becoming an evangelical leader. That’s why Mark Driscoll walked clean away from Mars Hill rather than submit to restoration, with that process’ emphasis on evangelical-style accountability.

Remember this, always. In the main, healthy accountability is a good thing. And if evangelical leaders wanted it, they could certainly make it happen. They could keep it from becoming the cultish kind that Rick Ross identified, and run with healthy rules for healthy groups.

They just don’t. There’s a reason why they don’t, and that reason nestles in the heart of authoritarianism. That’s why nothing can change in evangelicalism, and why nothing ever will.

Don’t try to reform a broken system. All you really can do is walk away from it.


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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...