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The Power and Purpose of Ecclesiastical Accountability
What is fellowship? Biblically fellowship is an interaction that requires serious commitment, submission and accountability. Enforcing these concepts is not popular in our individualistic culture.

If one were asked, "What are the true marks of a Christian community?" the suggestions would likely include worship, instruction, fellowship and evangelism. While such a response would warrant applause, failing to comprehend the ramifications of each term would render the whole experience futile. This is particularly true of fellowship.

Without individual accountability, the Body functions at far less than its created potential …

Charles Colson notes, "Surveys show that the number one thing people look for in a church is fellowship. But what most modern Westerners seek is a far cry from what the Bible describes and what the early Church practiced." For some, fellowship represents a warm, affirming religious haven that soothes frayed nerves and provides relief from everyday toils. For others, fellowship means gathering together for church events. But the literal meaning of the word fellowship in New Testament language, koinonia, bespeaks "a communion, a participation of people together in God's grace." Colson elaborates, "It describes a new community in which individuals willingly covenant to share in common, to be in submission to each other, to support one another and bear one another's burdens." In essence, "Biblical fellowship involves serious commitment and obligations … True fellowship out of love for one another demands accountability," ecclesiastical accountability.

Koinonia entails a vertical and horizontal emphasis. Viewed in light of accountability, this dual relationship adds a significant dynamic. While all Christians are ultimately accountable to Jesus Christ, they are also accountable to the universal and particular Christian community. Paul's use of the head and body analogy validates this claim.

For instance, Paul declared to the Corinthian church, "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body." Therefore, "you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." These passages provide a foundation for a theology of the Church (ecclesiology) and, as a result, better equip us to understand ecclesiastical accountability.

Paul announced to the Corinthian believers that as the human body is comprised of individual parts, each faithfully performing its specific function, a dynamic unity of purpose is also found in this diversity of being. Individual parts practice interdependency rather than co-dependency.

There is among the individual members of the spiritual Body, the Church, an organic unity in the midst of diversity. Differences are cherished, but in relation to the whole ("the common good"). A definitive manifestation of this organic unity would be ecclesiastical accountability, defined as ongoing interdependence and commitment on the part of the members to produce and maintain spiritual cohesion and maximum productivity through the faithful employment of individual functions in the context of integrity, thus epitomizing the model of koinonia in the horizontal relationship of the body.

Accountability demands responsibility, which in turn demands integrity. Without individual accountability, the Body functions at far less than its created potential, even though this potential cannot be accomplished in isolation, but only through the acknowledgement and practice of organic unity. For this reason, Paul intentionally brought this analogy to its logical conclusion, providing the Church with a greater degree of self-understanding.

The Christian Body experiences koinonia horizontally and vertically. The individuals are vitally connected to one another through the unified, faithful administration of its functions, but this can only be accomplished through its relationship to its source, the Head. Such is the case with the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, to whom we are ultimately accountable.

Accountability has two vitally interconnected dimensions—service and ethics. It is impossible to hold to one and not the other.

Accountability in Christian community demands faithful service to Christ and His Body. In serving, one must conduct oneself in a manner characterized by integrity. Accountability directly influences why and how we serve. Being accountable helps us better understand our obligations and how to conduct ourselves in fulfilling these obligations. It is hypocritical to think that one can work in the Church and pay no attention to conduct. In fact, Christian service requires the complete opposite. Integrity means that we serve others with correct motivations and intentions.

The power of ecclesiastical accountability makes us realize that we have obligations to fulfill with a sense of integrity. In other words, comprehending accountability gives one the power to work and live right, whereas a lack of understanding leaves one in isolation, resulting in a mentality that says, "I believe I'm accountable to no one." When this happens, the inevitable follows—discipline.

… not to discipline one who has erred from the faith is to deny the absolutes of our faith.

Colson comments, "Accountability is a hollow concept unless it is enforced." The idea of enforcement runs counter to the individualism that characterizes society. "No one should expect to join a church (which is a free decision) and then refuse to accept its authority." One can be expelled from the Rotary Club or other groups for not faithfully maintaining responsibilities and/or codes of conduct, "yet when the church imposes discipline … it is charged with everything short of … fascism." However, not to discipline one who has erred from the faith is to deny the absolutes of our faith. The Church's position in society is weakened, validating our lack of understanding of the purpose of ecclesiastical accountability.

The purpose of accountability is to give a personal sense of ownership in a Christian community, thereby providing protection from individual complacency and non-commitment. If we have no sense of ownership in an assembly, a carefree attitude will develop in relation to personal responsibility. We will then begin to distance ourselves from the Church and its functions. Feeling we are not part of the congregation, we will become spectators, rather than participants in the life and work of the Body. However, if the purpose is understood and implemented, then biblical koinonia becomes a reality.

Though people may rank fellowship as the primary mark of a Christian community, they must ask themselves, "Based on my definition of fellowship, am I myself what the Church is looking for?" If they believe the Church to be just another social club, they make a drastic mistake. Biblical koinonia entails much more. To be part of the Church requires a tremendous sense of obligation and commitment. In fact, it demands full accountability, not only to Christ, the Head, but also to His Body, the Church. To be in His Church is to take upon oneself the faithful responsibility of ethical service to others. The power of accountability enables us to realize this responsibility in koinonia, and to adhere faithfully to such with integrity of character. In addition, the purpose of accountability provides the fuel to better understand the importance of ownership. However, understanding and accepting the power and purpose of accountability also means that should I err in my responsibilities in koinonia, then corrective, loving discipline will result. As Colson says, "Without effective discipline, there can be no accountability."


The Body: Being Light in Darkness. Charles Colson. Word, 1992.

Scripture references, New International Version: 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 1:22; 4:15-16; Col. 1:18; 1 Cor. 12:12,27, 7.

Jeff Clarke is the Assistant Pastor at Cumberland Christian Assembly, Hamilton, ON.

Originally published in Good Tidings, November 2001.




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