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.
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.
Why the distaste for accountability in the church?
There could be, of course, many reasons why formal accountability is uncommon. 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 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 motivating one another to love and 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. 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 accountability. For some Christians, their accountability partners and groups simply did not “work” for them. They experienced no change. 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.” 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 most sense in a 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 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 this well.