This is the first in a series of thoughts on good questions to ask leadership at a messianic congregation you’re considering attending or becoming committed to.
Who are you accountable to? Who are those persons accountable to? What is the leadership structure? Is power invested in one person? Is there an umbrella organization governing or in some type of relationship with the congregation? If so, what type of relationship is there between you and the larger organization’s leadership?
Accountability is a major issue. If the leader of a congregation isn’t answerable to anybody, then they can pretty much do whatever they want. Of course, they’re still accountable to God, Who will take care of things in due time. However, most pastors will be unofficially accountable in a number of ways beyond even that, whether there’s an accountability structure or not:
- If they fling power around or make unwise decisions on a regular basis, it’s doubtful that many people will stick around. Sheer lack of numbers will hold them accountable.
- If they run afoul of civil law, those authorities will take action.
- They could also develop a reputation among other believers in the area as someone to stay away from.
Messianic congregations can be vulnerable to a lack of an accountability structure. They typically are started by one or two people since the movement is still so disorganized and dispersed. Often these leaders have their pet theologies or perspectives and won’t tolerate others coming alongside them in leadership who may not share the same emphasis. They will frequently be elevated by ardent admirers to a prophet-like status, which doesn’t help in convincing them that they need more accountability.
A leadership structure with authority focused on one, possibly two, people can be a problem. For one thing, it tends to breed stagnancy. Even if there’s input from others, there’s never a chance that the congregation will go in any direction other than the direction the one with the power wants it to go. God has given us different gifts (1 Corinthians 12, Ephesian 4:11); an authoritarian structure doesn’t allow those to be exercised. In the event that a member does something that isn’t sinful but displeases a leader, that member can still be pretty well shut down. So an additional question might be: What is the congregation’s disciplinary practice? Where is it outlined?
I’m not saying, though, that churches ought to be democracies. Some kind of representative republic type of structure would be nice so the membership has a say. But there’s a profound difference between a church founded by one person who retains ultimate power and a church that hires its pastors. In the first case, the congregation is mostly an extension of one person. In the second, the church has a more diversified, and stronger, structure by keeping the power out of the hands of one person.
Don’t get me wrong: I realize that in many places and times, God has put one person in charge of something. Moses, David and Abraham come to mind. Yeshua is obviously now King of Israel. But unless a person is clearly gifted with authority from God, I don’t think we should treat them as if they are.
Umbrella organizations, like denominational structures, can be helpful or not. Mostly they’re helpful. For instance, they provide an accountability structure that can oversee finances, teaching, moral behavior and competency. They also, in some instances, can cause problems by going off on an unbiblical path themselves or restricting local congregations too much as they try to grow and serve their members or community.
But in the messianic movement, there are also often “good old boy” networks … even “good old girl” networks, with the growing number of women teachers. Just because a local pastor or rabbi is in some kind of accountability relationship with an umbrella organization doesn’t mean there’s real accountability there. Yet even if there’s a friendship—and there has to be some kind of positive fellowship going on—that doesn’t always mean that the higher authority will take a hands-off approach to the local authority. But it sometimes can.
It’s important, therefore, that there’s a definite appeals process be set up which wouldn’t involve one of the pastor’s friends.
Next: How did leadership become part of the messianic movement and where have they received their education?