The word, “accountability” can be traced etymologically as being in a “state of testimony or being answerable”, while the Oxford Dictionary, states the definition of accountability as, “the fact of being responsible for your decisions or actions and being expected to explain them when you are asked.” However, in the context of a Christian community, the concept of accountability takes on more then just a mere giving of a statement or audit of one’s actions. Christian accountability in a community has very much to do with the building of trusting and safe relationships, coming alongside someone you trust, someone of deep faith and grounded in the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Catholic Church, who would meet you where you are at, listen to you, exhort and edify you, accompany you in prayer, and provide you with a Holy Counsel as he or she walks along side with you in your daily living of the faith and in your desert days, and especially during your days of battle. A Christian undergoes a form of metamorphosis in a community, from selfishness and individualism to being of God and for God, living his or her life in service of the community and for others. The practice of accountability is very much a part of this process of transformation. The early Church also reports in Hebrews 13:7 , “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith,” and subsequently in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
In 2010, a research conducted by Barna Group of the churches across denominations in the United States of America, revealed that a meagre 5% of the population surveyed indicated that their church had done anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical principles, beliefs and the teachings of the Church in their lives. Logically, this accountability begins at the small group level, where the faith communities are usually at, yet, the people surveyed by Barna Group reported that even at the small group level, only 7% of the time had anything to do with accountability. Surprisingly, the Protestants formed this small percentage of the 7% being held accountable, while the Catholics surveyed showed that there was no Catholic who claimed to have been held accountable by his or her Church.
The issue with accountability is that it involves multi-factorial variables – comprising of spiritual, emotional, and psychological factors. It is easy for something in the mix to turn sour quickly – turning the practice of edification, healing, and restoration, into something that could fatally inflict deep woundedness and damage.
There is also a plethora of reasons as to why the issue of accountability may be contentious and problematic:
- The issue of privacy – there is a misunderstanding in the Christian community that one’s sins only affect the self. People are not comfortable with the sharing of these private and vulnerable issues surrounding their lives with others. Sharing one’s struggles with temptations, habits, vices, and sins is crossing a very personal space and boundary and people are not sure if they can trust their community with that kind of intimate information.
- Accountability becomes an issue when spiritual growth becomes about what I don’t do. Many Christians have the misconception that accountability is a means and the only means of stopping ourselves and others from not doing detrimental and bad things. This enforces the skewed idea that spiritual growth is only seen in the cutting out of negative behaviour, while spiritual growth is in actuality as much about the things done, in relation to the things that are not done. Many of Jesus’s parables brings about the message of the good that was lacking and could have been done, for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the emphasis is on what the person did to help this neighbour, who is a cultural enemy from a traditionally held as deviant tribe, who had fallen into bad times.
- There is a lack of understanding that by virtue of our Baptism and being incorporated as members of one another in the Body of Christ, sanctification is a community project. For example Galatians 6:1-2 reminds us to bear one and another’s burdens, while Romans 15:14, speaks about instructing one and another. There is no instance in the Church teachings or in scripture that tells us to go and figure out things by ourselves. Even the disciples were sent out in pairs by the Lord.
- There is an avoidance of dialogue and potential conflict. With the fear of being confrontational, few people actually call out what is wrong in a community, or even speak about an individual’s wrongdoing, but implicitly encourage the vice or behaviours through silence.
- There is also a problem when accountability partners are absent. Accountability relationships need to be nurtured through time. It is difficult to hold each other accountable when members meet sporadically or infrequently. There is also a lack of conversation about what accountability means for both parties – does it mean a phone call when one is assailed by temptation? Does it mean a weekly face-to-face meetup and check in? When accountability partners do not meet regularly, there is no basis for a trusting, safe relationship to form, and any confession made is superficial, shaky and built on sand at most.
- Spiritual Growth becomes something about what I have achieved through grit and determination. There is no room for Grace to work and we think we managed to fix the problems by ourselves – which could have been easily achieved through a self-help secular group like Alcoholics Anonymous. Some Christians falsely believe that accountability is only for the purposes of behaviour modification. This is not sustainable in the long-run as the psychology behind this behaviour-modification is fear-based or shame-based. Accountability becomes a means to avoid an awkward conversation – I have stayed clean from these taboo sins, I am good. This only address the outward behaviours but not the heart space, or the root causes of certain malaises.
- Christians are also not taught or formed properly in the ways of biblical accountability. James 5: 9 says, “Do not complain, brothers, about one another, that you may not be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.” and then subsequently in James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” Accountability has be rooted in truth, and in love – To confess one’s sins to each other, to love one another and bear each other’s burdens, to pray together in the light of the Gospels and the teachings of the Church, and to encourage each other with the light of Scripture. A lot of the supposed accountability that is happening in faith communities becomes relegated to that of a complaint or rave and rant, or even worse, a gossip session. This leads on to the following point:
- Many Christians have experienced unhelpful, even venomous and toxic accompanying and accountability. These accountability groups became centred on the egos of the other person, and simply did not work for the persons being accompanied. They experienced no change, and ended up worse than when they first started.
- We become trained to conflate love with monitoring and punishment. It encourages us to put each other under constant surveillance and creates an environment that almost encourages us to judge our goodness competitively. The unspoken implication with such scrupulous monitoring is that God does not love us fully. He scrutinises our mistakes and only loves the parts of us that He approves of. This was the lie that Martin Luther believed in and eventually succumbed to. Jayson Bradley, author of What Christians Get Wrong about Accountability writes, “Friendship needs to grow beyond the need to ‘give account’ to others. Because ultimately, giving a report on my bad behavior is not friendship or community. Instead, spiritual friends help each other recognise God’s movement and promptings. They encourage each other to stay connected to the vine so that they may produce fruit. And while there may be times these kinds of friends need to say tough things to each other, it’s always with a sense of humility and love.” True Christian Accountability that is sustainable is more about love than it is about obligation. Real Christian transformation can only happen when we come to an understanding about how deeply and truly we are loved by God. Jesus’ acceptance of us, embraces the whole of us, even our flaws.
- There is a need to hide behind appearances. Many Christians in accountability relationships in order to present some semblance of face, hide behind half-truths or incomplete truths. They live double lives and fear to bring the parts of themselves that they may be uncomfortable with to the light for fear of being judged.
True Christ-like accountability ensures that we understand that we are loved completely. If accountability partners do not trust each other, then this relationship stagnates in how the persons involved can truly be transparent or real with each other. This spiritual friendship needs to go beyond the Giving of an account of my bad behaviour, but has to keep the members of the community rooted firmly on Christ the vine, so as to empower the community to bear good fruit. We are not scandalised that someone in the community has failed to live up to a Christian standard of living, and we do not police our community members so as to reinforce that misconception that our failure diminishes any part of God’s love or acceptance of us.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Barna Research. “National Study Describes Christian Accountability Provided by Churches”. Barna.com
Bradley, Jayson. “What Christians Get Wrong about Accountability”. jaysonbradley.com
Gilkerson, Luke, “5 Reasons Why Christian Accountability Fails”. Covenant Eyes
Gilkerson, Luke, “10 Reasons Why Accountability in the Church is Unpopular”. Covenant Eyes