Busting The Accountability Myth

Accountability is all the rage in Christian circles these days, especially amongst the younger set, most notably the church planting, so-called young, restless, Reformed crew who I spend time with.  And with so much to be accountable about (ok, you’re talking about the Availability, Anonymity and Affordability of the big “P.O.R.N” aren’t you?  – Ed) that fourth “A” seems to come to the fore all the more.  Incidentally I’m not simply talking about the porn thing, but because it appears to be such an issue with Christian young men (and older men), it’ll do nicely as a “for example”.

The reasoning goes like this:

1. I’ve got a problem in such and such an area. 

2. I can’t sort it out myself.

3. A problem shared is a problem halved.

4. There’s something in the Bible about being accountable

5. There’s something in a Christian book about being accountable (think it quotes the BIble).

6. Meeting up with someone to be accountable on my “problem”, will keep me, err, accountable.

7. Let’s find an (older) man whom I assume doesn’t struggle with the same problem I do.

I think that’s pretty much the pattern.  Let me bust the accountability myth for you. The major concern I have is that the Bible doesn’t actually tell us to be accountable to each other.  Not once.  It tells us to confess our sins to one another, but as I shall show, that is an entirely different matter.

Why do I bring this up? Well, because accountability as we have come to understand it and use it presents a number of problems.

Problem#1: Abuse.

I have experienced the negative aspects of being “held accountable” when involved in a rather tight church group in which I was a leader.  Life wasn’t exactly rosy, things were tough, home life was hard, ministry was a struggle.  Then someone came in over the top who pushed the accountability issue – hard.  “You have to be accountable Steve,” they stated firmly, which for them, meant circumventing any decision making I had in the whole matter, and dictating what must be done.  Coming as it was within the context of a group that called for accountability left, right and centre, and having been marinaded in that group for several years, it made me uncertain, unhappy and extremely confused. The churn in my stomach was something that I couldn’t articulate very well at the time, but it is only with the benefit of hindsight that I see the problem was a problem of control.

Accountability (in that context) often goes one way and one way only,  not always, but often, especially in groups that call for it from you.   I felt like the fly caught in the honey jar, in which, in my Christian zeal and desire for church relationships to be deep and rich, accountability looked a good option. However when you enter into that sort of relationship with a group, and there is no to and fro, and no extracting yourself from such relationships easily,  then you are heaping up relational, emotional and spiritual trouble for yourself down the line.

Problem #2: It Isn’t Particularly Effective.

Accountability even when a two way street, cannot do the one that that you, as a person struggling with a particular sin or pattern of behaviour, needs: It cannot empower you to change! In some senses the drive for accountability in our permissive and privatised culture comes from the despair at having allowed sin to dig its talons in and not easily let go.  Accountability seems to be the answer, but as the gospel makes clear, you need to take your sin to God because only God is able to empower you to be transformed by his powerful gospel.

What often happens is that accountability partner become, in effect, your half-way house to God, where you confess that “yet again” you have done this, this and this, but not “this” during the past fortnight.  The accountability partner becomes the demigod who is much more understanding, more forgiving and more able to listen to you than anyone else.  Except of course, that is Jesus’ role as our great high priest, as Hebrews 4:16 reminds us:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Access to the chair in your accountability partner’s office is no match for access to the throne of the holy God who, though hating sin, delights in his children coming to him to confess it!  What a glorious mystery that is! And notice too that we approach that throne “in time of need”, not three days later.  It’s tempting to think that if we slip up we are only three days away from help over a coffee, when in reality help is there for us not after our time of need when we fail, but in our time of need as we struggle against sin.  Accountability could actually allow you to manage sin on a weekly basis rather than  kill it on a daily basis.

Problem #3: It’s not biblical.

Transparency is biblical, accountability is not. James 5 tells us to “confess our sins to one another”, meaning that above all else it Christian community is a two way street of being a transparent people together.  Galatians 6:1 is instructive:

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 

The passage is clear: Being caught in transgression means that someone’s sin has been exposed, not by being accountable, but by being caught out publicly when they thought they could keep it secret!  The next sentence is instructive: The passage does not say keep the other person accountable, but to restore them, and then KEEP YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE! We are not being called to keep watch over everyone else’s shoulders, but on our own lives, lest we too fall. This is where transparency, rather than accountability comes in.   Keeping watch on ourselves means that over time we become a transparent people together. The path to true freedom from sin is living a non-compartmentalised life in which we simply assume that because Jesus is king of all of life, all of life must come under his reign.  Nothing can be done in secret that will not be exposed – one day.  Nothing can be done in one area of life that will not percolate into every other area.

Of all the “one anothers” in the New Testament your would think there would be at least one “be accountable to one another”, but it’s simply not there.  What is there is a communal life that is enriched and deepened by a loving openness that celebrates godly behaviour and mourns sin.

More to say on this one, and there are a number of caveats that I am sure people will point out to me, but in the meantime, over to you!

3 Comments

  1. Hi Essie – in the context of public teaching I think that is what we are to do. The whole rebuke/admonish terminology group is highlighted in Paul’s letters to pastor/evangelists Timothy and Titus – and it is called to be done publicly in 1Tim 2:5, and as a part of the public teaching the scriptures in 2 Timothy 4 and Titus 1. It certainly has the tone to it of allowing the Word of God to do what the Word of God is designed to do in the public setting. Ironically I think that whole accountability thing in a private setting has risen as the role of public expository teaching of Scripture has fallen by the wayside and the pulpit has become a place to showcase the church’s vision, or present five principles on whatever. The safeguard of course is that as you teach the Bible the way Timothy and Titus are called to by Paul, your rebuking will be tempered by your encouraging, your admonishing but your training in righteousness etc.
    It is interesting that few church I know that would advocate accountability partners would also advocate public church discipline in the manner that Titus is directed to. We get a little squeamish about that (for some good reason because of its abuse), but I don’t think that private accountability is a corrective to a poor understanding of public admonition.

  2. Hi,

    I stumbled across your blog googling ‘FIFO Church’ and have taken a likening to your words, I recently pondered the issue of “Accountability” when I attended one of my local churches here in Perth, and saw they where still readily rocking the old “Accountability”.

    I am a young (25) bloke, so my vehicular is such, if you loose me in my adolescent jargon.

    I am weary and have come accustomed to testing new doctrine,

    My first bible was new King James, however for the previous 7-8years I’ve been firmly based in the King James as it corresponds well with the Strong Concordance.

    Most words and phrases are almost inter linear, as such the vocabulary is limited, so when I hear new words that aren’t apart of the King James, Syntax, Alarm bells start ringing.
    This Doctrine needs to be tested.

    Great break down. Took some leg work out of my own studying.

    Never have been one to take part in Accountability, as I’ve always open Bible to see if those things are so.

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