Actions Generate Accountability image

Actions Generate Accountability

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The challenge of theological accountability is something I've been thinking a fair bit about recently. A huge amount of contemporary theologising takes place in unaccountable, indisciplined formats (like this blog), and away from accountable, disciplined contexts (like local churches). The result is that, when all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done. And the reason that is true - the reason that the erosion of institutions leads to a high level of rhetoric but a low level of actual activity - is the connection between action and accountability, as my friend Matt Anderson points out here. The whole article, on the subject of prudence in Comment magazine, is well worth reading.

Media, with its necessary emphasis on novelty, plays a disproportionate role in the evangelical self-consciousness and it has led to a shift in the evangelical community from one embedded in (admittedly ad hoc) institutions, to an amorphous network. The orienting and disciplining function of the traditions passed along in these institutions has been suppressed in favour of the broader, amorphous, media-centric world of “evangelicalism.” The publishing houses and conferences that compose this trans-denominational network create an intense gravitational pull for leaders that few resist. The rise of bloggers and other forms of democratized media—the benefits of which I have enjoyed—have exacerbated the problem. Now, just anyone can enjoy the subtle pleasures of denouncing others in front of an audience—a privilege once reserved for pastors and professional writers—without bearing the burden of acting institutionally, unlike those pastors and professional writers. Writers delivering such denunciations from the digital heavens (as it were) have no responsibility for their accuracy, and no ability to shape behaviours or beliefs—in other words, no discipline. In a sense, institutions force us to develop prudence.

That point deserves and demands clarification. Churches—both local congregations and denominations—function as corporate bodies: they make decisions and create new realities through those decisions. In other words, they act. As such, deliberations and pronouncements within ecclesiastical communities necessarily have a materially different quality than those that exist independently of them. A blogger or author of a book is under no obligation to render a judgment on the subject at hand—philosophical suspension always remains a possibility, even if the form of their life presumes or demands a verdict. Or, as is more often the case, bloggers do render judgment, but they lack the means to make that judgment effective and are accountable to no-one but their readers. Deliberation can proceed apace without being encumbered by institutional limitations, and so it is possible to engage in a Socratic dialogue World Without End. But within the evangelical world, the more frequent effect of such “conversations” that are untethered from an institutional reform or decision is the occasionally strident, dogmatic rhetoric and denunciations of anyone who might disagree with a particular view. And if someone untethered from an institution reaches a conclusion, no one else is obligated to follow his account.

Writing opinions is easy: making authoritative pronouncements within an institution that establishes a reality for other people to live within is hard. Those institutional responsibilities can inculcate an additional gravitas within those who are called to fulfill them. Such a heightened responsibility can make us more attentive to the uncertainties that are inherent in any particular decision, and attentive to our need for prudence. The stakes for deliberation within institutions are much higher than they are outside of them, if only because institutional decisions can be harder to reverse. An individual who repents may make a decision to do so—but institutional decision-making gears grind more slowly, partly because the work of persuasion needs to be done. But it is just such constraints that demand prudence, and the willingness to be circumspect about one’s approach. Prudence is ordered toward action, and the less evangelicalism’s public rhetoric is intrinsically tied to institutional actions, the less we will need to account for the limits on our grasp of how best to navigate the world.

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