For better or worse, and it’s some of both, the blogosphere is a free-for-all. Where the Christian blogosphere is concerned, some Christians think that Christian blogs ought to come under the supervision of the church. Speaking for myself:
1. Just as the (Christian) blogosphere is a just a bunch of people, the church is just a bunch of people. As we know, churches and denominations can be every bit as irresponsible as blogs and bloggers. Some of the worst offenders are mainline denominations. As well as some independent megachurches. So I think idea of ecclesiastical oversight or supervision only pushes the problem back a step.
Rather, I think the most we can hope for is a system of mutually accountability. That includes churches, but it's a two-way street.
We all need people to help keep us in check. But they need us to help keep them in check as well. The challenge cuts both ways.
The problem with hierarchical accountability systems is that supervisors or overseers are not incorruptible, and once the hierarchy is corrupted, the system is irreformable. Indeed, hierarchical accountability systems tend to hasten their own decadence since accountability in a hierarchical command structure is fairly unilateral: top down. The laity answers to the hierarchy, not vice versa. This has been the ruin of the high church tradition, viz. Anglicanism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy.
Mind you, I don't object to pastors having ruling authority or disciplinary authority. But pastors are answerable to their parishioners, and vice versa. As well as to other pastors.
Likewise, I don't object to a church looking over the shoulder of a Christian blogger. I just think that everyone should be looking over his shoulder. The more eyes the better.
2. I don’t think we can ever get around the bedrock principle that if someone (say, a church officer) says, “Follow me,” he needs to be going in the right direction. If he’s going in the wrong direction, he has no right to say, “Follow me!”
3. There’s a practical tension on the issue of authority. I think some authority structures (e.g. male headship, parental authority) would exist even apart from the Fall. And, absent the Fall, there would be no practical tension.
4. But due to the Fall, there’s more need to police human behavior. And yet this generates a practical tension since authority-figures are also fallen. And sometimes it’s necessary to police the authority-figures.
I don’t think there’s a logical solution to this conundrum. I think what makes it workable is that, in the providence of God, common grace keeps it from degenerating into complete moral gridlock.
5. We can see this tension in the Bible. OT prophets challenge the corrupt authority-structure in the OT. They are speaking as outsiders.
6. In the NT, the necessity of authority structures is acknowledged, but the abuse of authority and necessity of resisting illegitimate authority is also acknowledged.
7. At the scriptural level, the tension is practical rather than logical. And God leaves us with a way of doing the right thing.
8. In the high church tradition, the tension is both logical and practical. There is no principled solution to the moral gridlock which the high church tradition precipitates.
9. You do have a concept of church office in the NT. It isn’t purely egalitarian.
10. At the same time, the NT is full of warnings against false teachers. So the laity must also exercise some initiative. It isn’t purely hierarchical.
11. I also think we need to make some allowance for the difference between the epistemic situation of the ancient church and the epistemic situation of the modern church.
In modern times, the laity has far more access to information than in times past. And it has access to the same information as the clergy.
The situation of a modern pastor is someone different than a 1C disciple of an Apostle. Nowadays, clergy and laity are both limited to the same source and standard of information: the Bible.
12. A lot of ruling elders are by no means expert in theology, exegesis. or ethics. They may have a two-year seminary degree. Beyond that they’re family men, holding down a full-time job, either as private businessmen or someone’s employee.
One can’t appeal to church office as a trump card. There’s no substitute for getting it right.
The Protestant Reformers had to break with the established church. Catholicism was irreformable.
13. There is also a kind of sanctified wisdom which isn’t captured by book learning. Some elders have it, and some don’t. Some laymen have it, and some don’t.
For example, letters soliciting advice on ethical questions or questions of practical piety had a habit of landing on John Murray’s desk. Even if the letter wasn’t addressed to him, it had a way of ending up on his desk. He wasn’t the only church officer at Westminster. And some of his colleagues were more erudite than he was.
But he had a knack for that sort of thing. Pastoral tact and judgment. One could say the same thing about Ed Clowney.
14. So, to me, it’s not a choice between egalitarianism and authoritarianism. Rather, it’s more of a meritocracy.
An accountability system is no better than the accountants. And some accountants are better than others. We can’t eliminate the human element, and the need for personal discernment.
In the high church tradition, the authority-structure takes precedence. But I don’t think we can abstract the authority-structure from the character or competence of the concrete authority-figures who fill the slots.
Institutions are necessary. I’m fine with the institutional church. But institutions are often no better, and frequently worse, than the individuals or organizations they supervise.
So it still boils down to case-by-case evaluation. In the providence of God, there’s a dialectical tension between the individual and the institution. Sometimes the individual corrects the institution; at other times the institution corrects the individual. We see this in Bible history and church history alike.
God exercises sufficient restraint on the extent of evil such that we don’t get to the point where totally corrupt institutions trump the individual, or totally corrupt individuals trump the institution. We can always fine a way to do the right thing, but we can’t predict, in advance, the direction that will take—be it individual or institutional.
So I don’t view an accountability system in unilinear or unilateral terms.
15. Finally, it’s possible to disagree with your pastor (to take one example) without being insubordinate. One doesn’t have to be confrontational. Or make a public scene.
To take a trivial case, if I disagree with something he says in his sermon, I might send him a private email in which I politely express my dissent. Or I might keep my opinion to myself. I’m not tearing him down in public or subverting his administrative or disciplinary authority.