Christian Accountability: 5 Reasons It Often Doesn’t Work
I have a friend who really likes porn. He also really loves God. Odd, I know, but more common than you think. He lives a duplicitous life, binging and purging, crying to God for forgiveness, and hoping against hope that each binge on Internet porn will be his last.
I’m one of his “accountability partners,” and I can’t help but feel that I stink at my job. As much as I feel like accountability should “work,” it just doesn’t—not in his case.
Accountability groups and partners are not magic pills. While I have seen accountability play a crucial role in personal growth and holiness in many instances, there are many accountability pitfalls.
Here are five ways accountability goes bad:
1. When accountability partners are absent
Accountability partners need to be people who follow up on their commitments. All too often we hear stories of men who pledged to be an accountability partner for someone else, only to find that person falling down on the job again and again.
Often both parties are at fault. The one holding accountable often commits to something vague and undefined, and the one held accountable often leaves the idea of accountability elusive. Both parties need to have a very clear picture in their minds about what accountability really entails.
2. When accountability groups are programmatic
When we read through the “one anothers” of the New Testament, one cannot help but see the organic, family dynamic that is meant to exist in the church. We are called to an earnest love for one another (1 Peter 1:22), devoted brotherly affection (Romans 12:10), single-minded unity (Romans 15:5), eating together (1 Corinthians 11:33), bearing each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and having the same care for each other (1 Corinthians 12:25).
But often our approach to accountability is programmatic. We simply don’t have the quality of friendships that are both close and spiritually meaningful, so we search for it in forced and sometimes awkward settings.
The church, of course, should offer support groups and discipleship models. “Program” is not a four-letter word. But these programs should never be the end goal.
R.C. Sproul, Jr. says,
[W]e have lost what is natural, and sought to replace it with programs. What does it say about the culture, both inside and outside the church, that callings normally born by friends now are met by something so artificial, so inorganic. These groups strike me as the emotional equivalent of a multivitamin. Sure enough many of us are not getting enough vitamin D or zinc in our diets. But isn’t eating a few more veggies a better way to solve the problem?
3. When accountability partners are confession-centered
Christian accountability partners and groups often make confession of sin the central activity. We often believe confession is the very point of accountability: giving an account of ourselves.
This is exactly what our uneasy consciences want: we want to get something off our chests. We feel better when the secret is out.
As therapeutic as this might feel, we need to be careful that in our confession of sin we don’t trivialize sin as something that resolves itself with mere honesty. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life, says one of the best ways to ruin your accountability group is by making “your accountability a circle of cheap confession by which you obtain cheap peace for your troubled conscience.”
We are commanded to confess our sins to each other, but in the same breath, the Scriptures call us pray for each other (James 5:16). Only as we make God central to our accountability does confession have the power to heal.
4. When accountability partners are obedience-centered
Some Christian accountability groups are militant about sin—a healthy attitude in its own right. Members want to see others grow in holiness, so this becomes the focus of the group: questions and answers that deal with moral performance.
The problem is mere rule-keeping does not itself get to the heart of why we sin. This is one of the great lessons Paul teaches again and again. Merely knowing the law only aggravates our lusts (Romans 7:7-12). Merely following rigid ascetic regulations “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23).
Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, gives a solution for this kind of moralistic accountability.
I’m all for accountability—but a certain kind. The accountability we really need is the kind that corrects our natural tendency to dwell on me—my obedience (or lack thereof ), my performance (good or bad), my holiness—instead of on Christ and His obedience, His performance, and His holiness for me. It sometimes seems that we can’t help ourselves from turning the good news of God’s grace into a narcissistic program of self-improvement. We try to turn grace into law, in other words. We need to be held accountable for that!
5. When accountability partners forget the gospel
Whether you slide toward being confession-centered or obedience-centered, both tendencies have removed the gospel from the center of accountability.
When we make our groups all about confession, with no expectation of change, we trivialize the very sins that were nailed to Jesus on the cross. When we confess the same sins week after week, say a quick prayer, and go home, we merely highlight the cheap peace we feel from refreshing honesty, and we forget to comfort each other with a testimony of God’s grace. We forget to speak about the grace, hope, and eternal promises of the gospel in a way that comforts us and stirs us up to love and good works (1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11; Hebrews 10:24)
When we make our groups all about obedience, we only reinforce our tendency to center our identity on our performance. This either drives us to rigid moralism or hiding from others and ourselves the evil that lurks in us. In these groups, says Dodson, we “produce a ‘do more, try harder’ moralism that robs us of the joy and freedom Jesus paid dearly to secure for us.”
In short, we need a model of responsive accountability. As a good accountability partner, I need to not only hear an account of my friend’s sin, but give an account of God’s grace—a grace that not only saves us from the guilt of sin, but also from the grip of sin.