11 minute read

Shame-Killing Churches: A Vision of Real Accountability

Last Updated: June 22, 2021

Traylor Lovvorn
Traylor Lovvorn

Traylor Lovvorn facilitates a weekly recovery group at his church for men wrestling with addiction to pornography and/or sex. He contributes regularly to LifeWay’s Stand Firm devotional magazine for men. Tray is also the "Chief Ragamuffin" of Route1520, a resourcing ministry for churches looking to combat pornography and sexual temptation and addiction.

The following is adapted from chapter 11 of Porn Free Church: Raising up gospel communities to destroy secret sins.

Accountability and authentic community among men is vital for the health of the families that make up our congregations. While we can readily agree on what is important and what our goals should be concerning accountability, being able to move from where we are to this ideal can be tricky.

This article will seek to cast a vision for real accountability and to offer practical steps that will help lead men into community that is both authentic and transparent.

“All We Need Is Jesus”

Maybe you have heard someone say this recently from a pulpit near you. Growing up on a steady diet of this and other well-meaning clichés led me to an isolated and individualistic brand of Christianity that told me I was supposed to be strong and have it together in all areas. This disciplined self-reliance meant that I covered up and kept secret any area where I was not strong and did not have it all together. I was an expert at moving effortlessly between the myriad of masks I used to cover up my weaknesses and insecurities. I felt it was my duty to keep my struggles secretly locked away in order to protect my reputation and to be a good witness to the world.

If the people around me saw me struggling, I reasoned, then that would send a message that Jesus was not enough. I could not let that happen, so the cover-up continued.

Unfortunately, the cover-up taking place in my life was pretty significant. I was exposed to pornography as an eight-year-old and would never be the same because of that experience. The knowledge that viewing pornography was wrong was not enough to keep me from going back to it again and again over the next twenty-two years. Convinced that believers were supposed to experience only positive emotions like happiness and joy while desperately trying to protect my Christian reputation, I stuffed and ignored the painful emotions of sorrow, grief and loneliness.

The more I stuffed, the more I ran to pornography and sexual fantasy to medicate my pain. The more I medicated, the more sin there was to hide and cover up. AsmI continued this destructive cycle, the discrepancy between the picture of what I thought a godly man was supposed to be and who I knew myself to be grew larger and larger. Because I had only heard sex and pornography discussed in the context of big sins to be avoided, I honestly believed that I was the only Christian man struggling in this area and continued to isolate and hide.

Naming the Problem: Shame

The beliefs and feelings that I just described can be summed up in one word: shame.

Dr. David Powlison describes shame as “a sense of failure before the eyes of someone else.” When this “someone else” is a perfect and holy Creator and our perspective is vertical in nature, this sense of failure is healthy in that it opens the door to the Gospel and allows us to see our desperate need for a Savior. But when our perspective is horizontal and we are comparing ourselves to peers and fellow believers, shame turns toxic and leads to a deep-seated unease with who we are that causes us to withdraw and hide.

Any attempts to establish community and accountability that do not account for and address this underlying issue of toxic shame only piles on a deeper sense of failure and drives men further into isolation and away from genuine community.

In the early 90s, a very popular practice in men’s ministry was to encourage men to assemble into “accountability groups” in order to help in their efforts to live godly lives. This was and still is a very important practice for all Christians, not just men. The problem arises when something good—Christian accountability—is implemented in a paradigm of perfection and behavior modification that is fundamentally flawed.

In this paradigm of perfection, accountability groups simply serve as a way of keeping score; a weekly stage to either feel super-proud of our ability to overcome our sin and shortcomings or to get some tough love and moral policing from our brothers when we have fallen short. At any given moment, our feelings range from moralistic pride and haughtiness to despair and despondency. Both of these extremes lead individuals to lonely isolation instead of genuine, authentic community.

My weekly accountability group meeting was always a dreaded event. I did not look forward to these meetings because they served to shine a spotlight on the fact that I was not measuring up to the standard I thought I was supposed to be meeting. Every week I compared my worst with everyone else’s pristine mask. Every week I was left with the guilt of lying and pretending to be somebody I wasn’t. The deep-seated unease and disgust with who I was intensified and I withdrew into even deeper isolation. I was convinced that God was also disgusted with me and my habitual sin and that He was desperately waiting for me to get my behavior in order. The more separated and isolated I felt from God, the more I would secretly retreat into pornography as a way of numbing my pain.

A New Paradigm

In Luke 8:17, Jesus says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” Eventually, the secrets that I had carefully guarded for years were exposed and my pristine reputation was annihilated. Due to my repeated acting out, I lost my wife and four children and was divorced in 2002. Reeling with pain, toxic shame, and self-loathing, I started attending a new church and attempted to become an anonymous face in the crowd.

During one of the first services I attended at this new church, the pastor said something that God used to begin the process of breaking me out of the debilitating cycle of toxic shame and self-reliance that had brought me to the end of myself. He said, “The purpose of the law is for us to see our need for grace.” At first this sounded like heresy, but there was something deep within my broken spirit that longed for it to be true. As I mentioned earlier, up until this point my Christian experience had always been very individualistic and was based on striving with everything I had to fulfill the law and hide those areas that were less than stellar. But as I scribbled down what he said in my notes, three words seemed to jump off the page at me: “need for grace.”

Because I believed that I had everything I needed in Jesus, it was a foreign concept to me to see that I needed anything, especially grace. I had received God’s grace as a new believer when I was eleven years old, so I felt that I had taken care of that “need” years ago. Over the next several months, God began to break through my unbelief, lovingly revealing that my shame and neediness was the same as Adam’s in the first chapters of Genesis. He showed me that no amount of willpower or discipline would be able to overcome the results of the Fall.

The only answer for the Fall and its resulting shame is the redemptive work of Christ on my behalf. I began to see how I had received God’s free gift of grace at salvation, but then picked up a new law that was based on behavior, duty, and my ability to manage my sin. I had gone from law, to grace, and then back to being shackled by the law. For so many years trapped in this paradigm, accountability had served as the “heavy” that was responsible for keeping me in line.

The day I discovered The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 60, was a huge turning point in my understanding of grace and the Gospel, and it helped me to realize that it is okay to admit weakness.

How are you right with God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.
Even though my conscience accuses me
of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments and of never having kept any of them,
and even though I am still inclined toward all evil, nevertheless,
without my deserving it at all,
out of sheer grace,
God grants and credits to me
the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner,
as if I had been as perfectly obedient
as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do
is to accept this gift of God with a believing heart.

(Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil 3:8-11 Rom. 3:9-10; Rom. 7:23; Tit. 3:4-5; Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8; Rom. 4:3-5 (Gen. 15:6); 2 Cor. 5:17-19; 1 John 2:1-2; Rom. 4:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21: John 3:18; Acts 16:30-31)

My “accusing conscience” kept me hidden and isolated for most of my Christian life and fed my feelings of shame and inadequacy. Although I had preached the Gospel for years, seeing it stated so simply in this catechism question made me realize that I did not really believe the Gospel. Sure, I could spout off facts about the Gospel, but practically, my life had been lived as a moralist and not as God’s adopted son who possessed “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.” This reintroduction to God’s amazing grace allowed me to step out of the paradigm of striving and performing and into genuine community where I began to remove my masks and to let others get to know who I really was.

Healing Community

The fact is, we are all very needy and we cannot live whole, healthy lives in isolation. We were designed by a God who exists in community to live in community. In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Because we are loved as we are, we have the freedom to connect on the common ground of weakness with others in loving, grace-filled community where it is okay to not be okay.

True accountability naturally flows out of this context because we know and trust that others have our best interest in mind and aren’t trying to “fix” us, but remind us of our desperate need for a perfect Savior. To try to manufacture accountability where love and trust is not present will always inflame the legalistic Pharisee in all of us and will result in more hiding and isolation. True accountability is a by-product of genuine, transparent community and was never intended to be “stand-alone.”

Unfortunately, too many accountability groups are like the one I experienced. These groups expose the moralism and behavioralism that is rampant today in the Church. Believing, as I did, that it is up to me to deal with sin on my own, we minimize and gloss over our sin in order to make it manageable. We are forced to put sin into a hierarchy of sorts in order to be sure we are performing well compared to an arbitrary list of behaviors. When we’re not believing the Gospel, we need to think we’re better than we actually are, and we construct all kinds of systems that lead us to that conclusion.

But when the Gospel breaks through and we really begin to believe that we possess Christ’s perfect righteousness, we are free to throw the list out the window and deal honestly with our sin and brokenness. We can begin to tackle the deep root issues that drive our behavior and tell the truth about what big sinners we are. Then and only then do we see what a big Savior we have.

Be a Hard-Boiled Sinner

Martin Luther’s friend Spalatin was living in this paradigm of performance that led him to believe he was a “little sinner.” In this portion of Luther’s letter to Spalatin, Luther encourages him to be a “real, great, and hard-boiled sinner”:

It seems to me, my dear Spalatin, that you have still but a limited experience in battling against sin, an evil conscience, the Law, and the terrors of death. Or Satan has removed from your vision and memory every consolation which you have read in the Scriptures. In days when you were not afflicted, you were well fortified and knew very well what the office and benefits of Christ are. To be sure, the devil has now plucked from your heart all the beautiful Christian sermons concerning the grace and mercy of God in Christ by which you used to teach, admonish, and comfort others with a cheerful spirit and a great, buoyant courage. Or it must surely be that heretofore you have been only a trifling sinner, conscious only of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties.

Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.

If our accountability groups are going to be successful, they must be full of “real, great, and hard-boiled sinners” where our sinful, broken human condition is understood and the solution is not “trying harder” but deeper surrender. Accountability groups using a checklist to be “conscious only of paltry and insignificant faults and frailties” and that promote willpower and discipline to modify our behavior will continue to lead to shame and isolation.

But when the Church begins to connect with weakness and stops trying to impress with strength, we will begin to see renewal and awakening. Paul’s admonishment in 2 Corinthians 12:9, to boast in weakness, can only be understood from this perspective. When we isolate and hide, the Body of Christ doesn’t know how to minister to itself. The wounded parts are so busy hiding that the real needs among us become difficult to identify. To compound the problem, we compare what we know to be true about ourselves with the pristine and perfect mask worn by others, and we walk away feeling woefully inadequate and isolated even more.

James 5:16 speaks to the healing that takes place in the context of loving, authentic community: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

In an effort to provide a context for James 5:16 to be experienced, a group was started at my church about three years ago for men struggling at some level with pornography and sex addiction. Sex addiction, by its clinical definition, is an intimacy disorder. It is impossible to bring lasting healing to an intimacy disorder without involving community and calling men out of isolation. Every week in our group, men courageously take off their masks and connect with one another at this place of weakness and struggle. Rather than spending time beating each other up over specific behaviors or “fruit sins,” men graciously remind one another that they are deeply loved by the Father. In our group we learn to bring the truth of the Gospel to bear on more deeply buried sins and on the profound ways we’ve been hurt by the sins of others.

This one group has now grown into six groups that have been visited by hundreds of men in the last few years. Two groups for women, many of them spouses of the men struggling with pornography, have also been started so that they too have a place for genuine acceptance and healing. Rather than stuffing emotions and pretending that everything is okay, these groups are learning to be open and honest with what is really going on in their lives. The healing promised in James 5 is taking place as these men and women continue to come out of hiding and connect at weakness…realizing that the Gospel makes it okay to not be okay.

Accountability is a very popular topic in ministry circles today. This e-book is one of many resources being written and developed to provide better strategies and practical how-tos on the subject. But no matter how good and how accurate these strategies and plans are, attempting to apply them in a paradigm of performance and behavior modification will be counter-productive and only lead to more hiding and isolation. Men need to be free to connect with one another at an emotional level and to have a safe place to talk about their struggles, fears, and failures. Spending your time as a ministry leader removing the barriers to open and safe community among the men in your church will automatically lead to more accountability. Attempting to force accountability where authentic community doesn’t already exist will destroy what little community you have.

Starting a Recovery Group

Route1520 Recovery Groups offer a safe place for individuals to find support, care, direction, and prayer in community with fellow strugglers. One of the dangers of sex addiction is the secrecy that results when we buy into the lie that we are alone in our struggle with sexual sin. The shame which drives addiction begins to dissipate as individuals allow themselves to be fully known by other members of the group. Our groups provide authentic, transparent community and open discussion around the deep heart issues that drive destructive behavior.

Combining Scripture, prayer, catechisms, and the traditional recovery steps, Route1520 Recovery Groups bring a Christ-centered approach to the recovery process. Believing that individuals cannot change through mere willpower or simply learning biblical principles and trying to carry them out, Route1520 helps men and women take the Gospel of Jesus Christ more deeply into their understanding and into their hearts within the context of authentic community.

If you are interested in starting a Route1520 Recovery Group in your area for sex addiction and/or co-dependency, e-mail us at groups@route1520.com. We offer a comprehensive program for starting and growing Christ-centered recovery groups that include:

  • Identifying and Training Group Facilitators
  • Establishing a Referral Network with Local Therapists
  • Group Meeting Format and Structure
  • Resources for Weekly Group Discussion
  • A Copy of Route1520’s ‘Theology of Recovery’
  • Weekly Conference Call for Group Facilitators

Photo credit: carbonnyc