A Barna Group telephone survey of Christians across the United States reveals some interesting facts about the state of accountability in the church: Only 5% of people say their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their lives.¹
For those who are held accountable by their church community in some way, the most common approach to accountability is through a small group. But even so, among those who attend a small group, only 7% say accountability is one of the functions of their group.
Is accountability in the church really that important?
If you do not see the importance of accountability in the church, you are among the majority of Christians in the United States. But I want to convince you that accountability is important for the church, and even necessary for us to carry out our God-given mission.
Accountability, correctly understand, connects directly to Jesus’s command to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). This is not some optional program or methodology for some believers. Properly understood, accountability is part of the blueprint of the church. The lack of accountability in the church signifies a problem that church leaders must address.
Why the distaste for accountability in the church?
There could be, of course, many reasons why formal accountability is lacking in today’s churches. But as I survey the landscape, these are the reasons I see.
1. People hate conflict.
The Barna Group states church leaders don’t often engage in accountability (either through following up on members’ tasks, home visits, or church discipline) because they don’t want to be confrontational. The same is true among church members. Few people want to call out others on their sin.
2. Christians do not understand that sanctification is a community project.
Many texts in the Bible assume or state outright that one of the ways we grow as Christians is through gospel-centered conversation with one another. The New Testament places great importance on motivating one another to love and do good deeds (Hebrews 10:24-25), bearing each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:1-2), and instructing one another (Romans 15:14). Many Christians are never taught that sanctification is a community project.
3. People like their privacy.
Accountability is about confessing sin to one another, but few today like the idea of divulging their temptations, sins, and the state of their heart. This is far too personal for some.
4. Christians are not taught (seriously) about biblical accountability.
We need a proper understanding of what biblical accountability really is. James 5:16 is not a suggestion but a command. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Moreover, this is a command tied to our health as Christians. In this text James mentions cases where personal sin leads to a serious physical or emotional illness, calling for the elders of the church to administer healing. Before we get to that point, however, we should be in the practice of the regular “preventative medicine” of confessing our sins to each other and praying for each other.
5. Christians falsely believe accountability is only for behavior modification.
Some reject the idea of accountability because they believe it is all about fear or shame-based change. Accountability for them is about staying away from certain taboo sins so they can avoid an awkward conversation in the future. But the Bible says there’s a kind of conversation we can have that actually addresses the heart—not just outward behavior (Hebrews 3:13).
6. Some Christians have experienced unhelpful (or hurtful) accountability.
For some Christians, their accountability partners and groups simply did not “work” for them. They experienced no change. In some cases, overbearing leadership or spiritual abuse was disguised as “accountability.”
But what if we used this excuse for anything in which we engage: listening to sermons, praying together, taking communion, engaging in service projects? We don’t give up on any of these things because at times they don’t seem to “work,” or are done badly. Rather, each time we strive to do them better, with a true heart, and with careful thought.
7. Christians falsely believe accountability in the church is only a crutch for when things get really bad.
Often we seek out accountability when things have come to a head in our lives when we are facing a grave consequence. But the various “one anothers” of the New Testament are not just for those facing specific consequences for their sin, but for all Christians.
8. Christians are not discipled.
Accountability makes the most sense in the context of discipleship: being personally mentored, guided, and directed by spiritually mature individuals, and in the context of a community of disciples. In a church culture that makes true disciples, accountability is the most natural thing in the world.
9. Christians lack quality friendships.
Accountability is also most natural in a gospel-centered friendship. We need the kind of friends mentioned in the proverbs: men and women who stick with us through thick and thin, who aren’t afraid to confront us, and who compel us to do what is right. Accountability is not only giving an account of my sin to another but receiving an account of God’s grace in return from a Christian friend.
10. Christians have not tasted gospel-centered accountability in the church.
The gospel of Christ is what guides and protects good accountability. Informed by the gospel, a good accountability partner will not be condemning, but gracious. Informed by the gospel, a good accountability partner will treat sin seriously because Christ took sin seriously. A good accountability partner will use the eternal promises of the gospel to motivate us to a higher standard. As Christians, we need to be taught how to do accountability partnerships well.
“…few today like the idea of divulging their temptations, sins, and the state of their heart.”
I find the contrary when I see people lining up to to open themselves up on Ophra, Dr, Phill or Dr. Oz. Thee is one thing that these talk shows cannot you do is give absolution. That only comes from God.
Like I said: “few.” Hundreds have appeared on these shows. Millions more are in the church. Plus, these guests don’t reveal “the state of their heart” the way they would to a trusted friend.
Thanks, Luke, for your insightful and encouraging words. You are a blessing to those of us who practice routine gospel-centered accountability.
I know what we’re doing is foolishness to some people–even to some Christians, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
We’re beginning “Coming Clean” in our group this week. Thanks again, Luke. We appreciate your wisdom and your resources.
Hi. I am trying to study the Bible and many of these related issues, and I have a few questions. I am not trying to be rude or offensive, but I am looking for answers. Maybe some of you can help….
It seems to me that much of these topics would depend on whether or not the Holy Bible is in fact, God’s Word. After all, if it were unreliable in some parts, how could I trust the rest? I’ve considered that it is possible, but I am researching some of the most obvious objections, particularly in the area of sexuality and the nature of the Biblical God, here are a few examples:
*Old testament Law:
When a women is having her menstrual cycle she’s “unclean,” and if a man touches anything she’s touched during her menstrual cycle he’ll become unclean as well and have to purify himself before God.
If this and many other commandments are in God’s word, why would a believer not follow them today (assuming that your God is unchanging)?Jesus said he fulfilled the law (Matthew 5), and many Christians say things like homosexuality and premarital sex, ect. are still wrong today – but other laws in the Bible are considered archaic – why is that?
*In Genesis 19:8, “Righteous” Lot offered the unruly crowd his own daughters to be raped.
*In Genesis 19:34-36, “Righteous” Lot and his daughters got drunk and had sex.
In light of this, I find it interesting that Yahweh said Lot was one of the only righteous men left in Sodom. But my question is this – is incest and attempting to sacrifice your daughters a lesser crime than that of the people of Sodom whom Yaweh chose to kill because of their lifestyle?
*Many people in the Bible such as King David and Solomon had more than one wife (and “concubines”, whatever those are), and Yahweh did not have a problem with it. Why, then, is it today considered sin to have more than one wife if it was ok back then?
*Lastly, I have the hardest time with this scripture:
” ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:2-3)
*I’m sorry, but I have a hard time understanding a God who did this. How can a people or nation love their neighbor (as Yahweh commanded), yet say “hey, we’re going to go kill everyone in that city down to the last helpless infant because our God said that piece of land belongs to us!”
Please, understand that I don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful. I know that covenant eyes and related ministries really cares about people and I agree that pornography and such things are dangerous. I also plan on doing more research on the Biblical God. One author I really plan to study more is Paul Copan, because I hear he has done a good job of explaining the Bible and defending the Christian God.
Thank you for hearing me out, and I appreciate your comments or advice.
This is very off-topic, but I’ll shoot…
Uncleanness Laws were given to Israel as a way to distinguish them from the rest of the nations. Uncleanness signifies something ritually unclean (not fit for involvement in tabernacle/temple services). When Christ died for the sins of the world, he became the one final sacrifice. No more ritual sacrifices are needed, thus the need to distinguish between clean and unclean is unnecessary. Paul wrote, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14).
Christ’ law is now our law. Just as Moses was a lawgiver, so was Christ. To say we are no longer under the law of Moses does not mean we are not under the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).
To be called “righteous” in the Bible does not mean perfection. Righteousness is about a habit of life that distinguishes a person from the surrounding world: a righteous person live “justly” (another way to translate it) before God. This clearly does not mean perfection. A single author in the Bible can call a person “righteous” while admitting their faults. The problem is not with the author but with how we often misunderstand the author’s terms.
Polygamy is never labeled a sin outright in the Bible. This is because it is not a matter of being a sin, but being unwise. Not all matters of behavior fit into the categories of moral and immoral. Other behaviors may be moral, but simply not best (or unwise). Such is the case with polygamy.
Canaanite genocide is only problematic if we (1) assume God doesn’t have the right to kill anyone at any time, and (2) God has no right to use human instruments to execute judgment. Both are untrue.
I’d be happy to elaborate, but like I said. This is really off-topic of this post.
Another reason for the lack of accountability may be, relating to no. 9, that the transience and busyness of American society means that few actually know each other well, and thus struggles of any sort are rarely given in a serious context. My husband and I teach a singles’ Sunday school class; the prayer requests are often about jobs, education, and (of course) geographical move possibilities, but almost never about spiritual struggles (lust or otherwise.) What can churches and/or smaller groups within churches do to help to form such necessary friendships, when many (especially in urban areas) move from city to city and job to job with such frequency? It would certainly help us to be better teachers/leaders to our class.
Thanks for the question, Kristina.
I think it has to start with both good teaching and good modeling. Talk about what good accountability looks like from the Scriptures, and model it through the way you confess your own struggles. That’s a start.
Another thing to consider is the context. Sunday school class may not be the best place for genuine accountability to take place. I find accountability can only be established when there is a mutual agreement among the people involved. People have to purpose to meet together specifically for accountability. If the Sunday school class is just where people are going by default, there are no group norms that include accountability. If you wanted to turn your Sunday school class into that, you would have to steer the boat that way.
The e-book mentioned above might be a help. Download it and tell me what you think.
Accountability is not a one-way street. A big reason why my church is not very good at it is that they don’t want to be held accountable themselves.
Are you talking about accountability for the church as a corporate entity? For leadership? If so, yes, both can be true in a local church.
“Not all matters of behavior fit into the categories of moral and immoral. Other behaviors may be moral, but simply not best (or unwise). Such is the case with polygamy”
This is interesting. You said some action may be moral but not best. Technically would that act still fall under moral or immoral? In other words, you seem to have labelled an action as moral while at the same time saying it was neither moral nor immoral in that sentence. Could you explain that more clearly?
Sure. There are many things in the Bible that are commanded. These fit into the category of moral/immoral. Then there are other statements in the Bible (for instance, in the wisdom literature of Proverbs) that fit into the category of wise/unwise.
For instance, if I walk on a notoriously dangerous street at night, unaware of that I’m possibly placing myself in harm’s way, this is unwise. It is not immoral.
In the case of polygamy, there are plenty of stories in the Bible that suggest that taking on multiple wives is enmeshed with potential problems. It is never called a sin, but it would fit more into the category of lacking wisdom. (Of course, at times it is also immoral, not because polygamy itself is wrong but because the motives of the people engaging in it are wrong.)
Luke, thank you for this, it is an excellent list of the cause for a distaste for accountability. I fully agree with you. I would add that the lack of accountability is part of a greater problem within Christianity in our days.
Most Christians today are luke-warm, having a hard time living out true faith in a real and living way. One luke-warm Christian gives way to another, especially if there is luke-warm people leadership. Christianity isn’t a religion of a book we call the Bible, it’s reality and it’s life.
The ones who are walking a life of true-faith, trusting in Jesus’ righteousness and abiding in Him continually, these sort of people are the key players, the ones who will and long to engage in true accountability.
I believe we must take it a step further though, accountability is necessary, yet the call is to be making disciples. When those walking in faith begin to LIVE LIFE along side of and LOVE their neighbors (those God puts near to them in life), then accountability is more naturally developed in Christian love, and making disciples becomes a powerful relationship that is not only focused on conversion and sin avoidance, but a growing faith in our Lord through the word as well.
Right, accountability is more naturally a part of discipleship. Exactly.
And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:5-8 ESV).
I suspect this scripture implies that if the Biblical God exists and the Bible is His inerrant word (which I believe is possible), He had always willed marriage be one man and one woman, and polygamy seems to go against that will. Could it be possible that Yahweh allowed polygamy for a season, but never really intended it in the long run?
Also, I disagree with the notion that my statements are off topic. If we are talking about accountability to God, doesn’t it make sense to try to understand why the Bible is likely his word that we will give account to?
Yes, we need to know what to give an account about. Do you struggle with polygamy or ritual uncleanness? Is that why you’re asking? Just trying to understand why you chose the examples you did.
I agree that as far as the paradigm of marriage goes, two great examples are given in Scripture: Adam and Eve, and Christ and the Church (or God and Israel). These are clearly monogamous. As far as the ideal goes, monogamy is the pattern.
But since polygamy is never called a sin, it is not best to call it one. It creates complications for reading Scripture that don’t need to be there. If I am a missionary going into a culture that practices polygamy, and then men from that culture start becoming Christians, I’m not to counsel them to divorce all their wives (except the first one) because polygamy is wrong. Rather, the counsel should probably be: Don’t take on any more wives. As Christianity grows in that culture, the unwise practice of polygamy will likely be reduced or vanish entirely (as it has in many cultures where Christianity became the dominant religion).
I have to agree with Skeptic and disagree with you on their being a biblical prohibition against polygamy. His quote from Mark
And Jesus said to them, ”Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’7 ’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:5-8 ESV)
… says so much to support the view that God established a moral prohibition defining marriage as one man and one woman.
Christ (God) in reference to the subject of marriage is quoting his father God who said in specific terms that leave no room for interpretation or redefinition.
I don’t see how it can get any clearer than the author of Genesis quoting -God-, and to later have God’s Son (God) cite it, repeat it, reinforce it ANNNDDD explain that God tolerated much in His people and their hardness of heart. He says, “I put up with this for a season, for a reason, but I refer you back to what I said in Genesis.”
One of the things that strikes me reading Genesis all the way through is, that excepting Joseph, pretty much the lot of them were out and out skallywags. I should be ashamed to have them in my faith ancestry excepting that God Himself was in relationship with these men who, despite being disobedient in some areas, were His vital instrument in others.
For this reason, Genesis is a very difficult read for me, and I have to keep reminding myself that I needed Grace because I exhibit the exact same ‘hardness of heart’ that separated me from God. He had to reach down across the gap and pull me across, because I would never make it on my own… and that it’s nowt but arrogant hubris for me to judge these men whom God led and blessed and had relationship with.
To be honest, when I read Skeptic’s first post, I myself was skeptical. It looked word for word like a cut-n-paste reiteration of a laundry list of arguments that I encounter over and over and usually not from people who -want- to see them explained and reasoned, and who often just reject a good response because they started with the presupposition that there could be no good response, or just as often, this person believes the stuff I’m debunking, so he’s already an idiot and nothing he says is worthy of consideration… and in the cases of receiving an undeniable rebuttal, forgetting the truth and continuing to believe what they believed before posing the question… often to the same person who previously set them straight. My personal experience favorite is a friend who has asked on at least three separate occasions, “Oh, and what is God’s most important command?” having been told that it is to “love your neighbor”, and upon being shown scripture to the contrary, stating that God’s primary command is to Love the Lord your God with every single bit of you, the wind would go out of his sails and he’d quickly trim and try another tack. His sincerity in discussion came into question for me after the second and third time that we corrected his misapprehension.
My initial skepticism has been countered by your ongoing and seemingly sincere conversation with Luke. I apologize for my initial skepticism (Cynicism is not a positive attribute). Thank you for exploring these topics, on topic or no.
Too many Christians rely on the concept that only faith in Jesus is required for salvation when the Bible teaches that faith without works is dead, that one expresses faith and love of God by keeping His commandments and that repentance is not merely confessing one’s sins but forsaking them. If your pastor condemns sects that preach such Biblical truths, look elsewhere for guidance.
Well I thank you all for your advice. I admit I am not overly worried about polygamy or Old testament rituals- although I find it interesting how there are parallels between Jesus and the old testament. I’m not sure yet, and I ask these questions because I want to see if there are rational explanations for apparent contradictions or errors in the Bible- it looks like you’ve given me a few.
I guess I’m still seeking God, whatever He, She, or it may be. Its just that there’s so many different ideas out there with no full explanation or evidence. Lately Ive been reading some of the books by Rene Descartes, who seemed to be in the same boat as me. One thing I will say is many people I know make fun of the Bible and reject it without even taking the time to study it. I don’t want to do that. I think I’ll cgeck out that Biblical counselling link on the last comment, because I am finding increasing evidence that Jesus really was God in the flesh.
Thanks again for your time.
I remember when I was in college I went through about two years of serious doubt about Christianity, despite growing up around church. There were times I felt I could no longer call myself a Christian because of my doubts. It was a very soul-searching two years.
For me, what really helped me was to see the power and changed lives of those who followed Christ. I thought of the very flawed by willing men who followed Christ and how years later, they were performing miracles and touching other people’s lives with Jesus’ message. Yes, I knew Jesus has been raised from the dead, and yes, I studied all the prophecies he fulfilled, but what really helped me to see his divinity was how his power lived on after he left (and still lives on today). The more I ran into evidence of this power, the more my faith was strengthened.
God be with you in your journey of discovery.
Just read your article and your right on!! We just did a podcast on how to be accountable with another brother in Christ. I think you have covered to reasons why guys don’t like to very well. The benefits of having a friend to answer to is much needed!
Thanks for making the world aware of the need.
Thanks Mark and Mike!
Covenant Eyes 40 day challenge is the best support I’ve ever gotten! Thankyou.
So good to hear this!
These are great & all but for me the reason I dont tell others my personal struggles is because the last time I shared, not everything, but just a few things with someone I thought I could trust they went & told other people. So at the time some of my secrets were just out being passed around people most of which I didnt even know. & of course as we all know when information is passed from person to person the true story is completely lost in the sea of confusion & rumors. So needless to say I have a hard time trusting anybody with everything, Ive shared alittle here & there but I still dont feel like there is anybody other then God I can share everything with.
So sad to hear what happened to you. This is one of the risks of any confession—gossip, slander, and rumors. Knowing what you know now, what are some signs this person wasn’t trustworthy?
Good question Luke. Now that I think about it. The person in question while claiming to be a christian & or spiritual, it never reflected in the way they lived their life. Honestly just by observing you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference between that person & someone else who just wants to walk their own path.
Don’t let this bad experience deter you from getting honest with others. There’s risk with any kind of transparency with other flawed human beings, but as Christians we are called to enter into that risk. The risk is far smaller with people who’s lives reflect the fruit of Christian character.
Little story; Three young men, all twenty range , all have been raised to know the Lord, oldest one gets the others into drinking and drugs as they grow up. One godly mother finally gets mad at this whole mess, tells them in no certain terms that they are all walking hand in hand on their way to hell with out a care for the other one. The response was, I am not accountable for what they do. From what I see here is selfishness, no one wants to be accountable for any or all actions that they do in this day and age. Many times it starts right in the church not teaching the word of God, to scared to step on some toes, might lose their pension. Thank you for all the scripture thru your message. Keep teaching accountability, the young people need to hear it.
Too many times accountability is used as a means of control and manipulation of others. I am not a greater or a lesser to any human on the planet, yet if I am accountable to someone that puts me in the lesser position. I think the better word is Loyalty. No matter what is done or not done I will be loyal to my friend/fellow christian. This not mean I agree with his/her decisions or rescue them from consequences. But I choose to stand by him/her no matter what, and they also have the option to do the same for me.
This whole new approach to accountability has troubled me for quite some time. My husband and I attended a church where small groups were a must and so called “accountability” was a huge deal. I left a women’s small group after one of the older ladies called us to confess in sexual sins if there were any. I was silently begging God to not let this happen as I did not need to know such details of these women’s lives. That is an extreme example. Other issues that bothered me that the “accountability” resembled control in some areas, when a woman was simply told what to do in her situation without actually looking deeply into it. One young lady said “my mother always told me that if whatever your husband wants you to do isn’t a sin, than submit and do it.” That was her response to what one of the small group members shared. And due to the lack of time we had to move on to the next subject because we still had to squeeze in prayer requests and the prayer where everyone has to pray individually.
That’s NOT accountability. That’s not descipling. That’s not fellowship. If someone has an issue and is willing to share, they must share it with someone who is actually wiser, possibly older (older women must teach younger women.. etc) and someone who is spiritually mature. Every group meeting I’ve been to, had no Bible study whatsoever, and the accountability time had taken a big part in it. How are we supposed to know what’s up if we barely touch God’s word?
And the last straw was the fact that the “accountability” turned into pretty much keeping a score card on how much we are serving our church and each other. That was the last group my husband and I attended and that’s when we gave up. Let me put it this way: a noble man leaves and before he goes he gives 10 minas to 10 servants. Each one gets a mina. They all get together, form an accountability group, share ideas of how they can multiply those minas and how they can make sure at the end everyone has equal profit. Is that how it all went down?
I am convinced that the term accountability is misused in small group settings. Yes, we need guidance, yes we need to build up one enother, stir up one another, confess our sins? Yes. Whom to confess our sins to? That’s a good question.
I prefer accountability in either one-on-one settings, or in small groups of individuals who are voluntarily meeting for such an express purpose. And yes: accountability to a mentor is preferable overall. I agree. I think the kind of accountability you’re describing here is very uninformed.
Authentic Christians doesn’t need an accountability partner because we already have the best dwelling inside us. if you listen to Jesus, through your Holy Spirit, you will never choose the wrong path.
You must learn to turn your life/possessions/concerns over to Jesus, and not worry about them anymore because they are in the most capable hands ever.
Working on stopping bad behavior through self-effort is doomed to failure every time because you’ve taken Jesus out of the situation., Just like trying to obey the 10 commandments, its legalism and that has no place in a grace-filled life.
Jesus Himself said He could do nothing on His own, John 5:19 says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
Also in John 5:30, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”
If Jesus could do nothing on His own how can we think we know how to do things better than Him ? This is why we turn control of our lives over to Him and that eliminates the ‘need’ for an accountability partner’.
Hello Michael, we too agree that “behavior management” is a recipe for disaster. But, your assertion that “authentic christians don’t need an accountability partner” seems to depart from multiple encouragements from Scripture to the contrary. Galatians 6:1-2, “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. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Emphasis mine). 1 Thessalonians 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Can God work powerfully in our lives through other people? Absolutely. I don’t believe that dependence on other trusted “iron sharpens iron” believers does anything to diminish my dependence on God. A cord of 3 strands is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).