A few weeks back, I took advantage of a free trial of Showtime so I could watch The Tudors, which I remembered from my first viewing as part historical drama, part soap opera.
When it turned out my memory was faulty—it was more soap than history, parts of it too salacious for my taste—I canceled the trial. But not before I noticed something striking about two of the principal characters in the early episodes.
Everyone knows that Henry VIII, usually depicted in his later years when he was as big as an NFL defensive end, was a serial adulterer. Not so many know that when Martin Luther rose to prominence (or notoriety), Henry wrote a refutation of his views for which the Pope gave him the title Defender of the Faith (obviously before he dispensed with the Pope altogether).
Henry’s chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, may have been a prominent churchman, but everyone knew from court whispers that he had a mistress and sons.
So how did these two men seem to glide effortlessly through life despite these serious contradictions?
Basically they were accountable to no one. Anyone who crossed Henry was in danger of execution. Wolsey only had to stay in favor with his king. While Henry’s radiance shone on Wolsey, his peccadilloes (in his own and Henry’s eyes anyway) were overlooked.
If you’ve been in the evangelical church for any length of time, you know how important accountability is. A church doesn’t need to have apostles, bishops, or archbishops to have lines of accountability. Your church may call them Bible study/home group leaders, elders, overseers, pastors, ministers, etc. The essence of all this is that everyone answers to someone else right up to the top.
But what happens when someone like John MacArthur pens a book like Strange Fire? To whom is he accountable? Especially when there has been significant pushback?
Or take President Trump’s adviser, Paula White. Is someone vouching for all the gold-plated promises she makes to her audience? Or Joel Osteen to his?
To whom was the late Rachel Held Evans accountable as she promoted controversial ideas that attracted a significant following? Or former senior pastor Joshua Harris, who wrote an authoritative book on courtship and dating when he was only 21?
The stock answer of course is God. This even seems to have a biblical pedigree: “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:11-12).
But are they really accountable to God? Aren’t they actually begging the question when they (or their diehard followers) say they are? Isn’t that the point?
Do you know which English king the Separatists we usually call the Pilgrims fled from, first to Holland, then to America? King James. Yes, that King James, who lent his name to the most-thumped Bible in history. Things are not always as they seem.
It’s been said that American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep. But regardless of its depth, it’s broad enough in a free and prosperous nation like the United States to support a lot of denominations (about 200 according to one estimate). And of course, within those denominations are scores of individual ministries that produce DVDs, books, podcasts, conference syllabi, etc.
Isn’t it really agreement or popularity we’re talking about rather than accountability? Popularity lends credibility. Many believers are loath to acknowledge this, but that’s the way things work.
That doesn’t mean the bedrock tenets of the faith are casually chucked out the window. Nor does it necessarily mean substituting a soft, no-cost conception of the faith for the genuine article.
There’s a reason that legalism is a noxious weed that is so difficult to eradicate from the faith: It may be rigorous, but it’s bearable, even quite satisfying, in numbers that agree with you and leave you alone as long as you as you stay on the right side of the fence.
When you combine freedom and prosperity with a shallow biblical literacy, you soon recognize the things Paul had to correct in his letters: divisions based on personalities (“I follow Paul, I follow Apollos”); superficial devotion (“tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine”); spiritual conceit (“I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ”).
When believers are accountable to no one but themselves, the church is fragmented, and so is its message. A fragmented church cannot declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).