Accountability in the Bible: Good Preventative Medicine

Often people in the church treat accountability as a last resort, not a lifestyle.

Accountability is a buzz word among Christians—perhaps an overused one—that sounds like a great idea, but for many it isn’t very practical. One survey found that even among those who regularly meet with a small group from their church (formally or informally), only 7% say accountability is one of the functions of the group.

How can we cast accountability in a new light for God’s people? Is accountability in the Bible, and what does it actually look like?

Accountability in the Bible

Accountability in the Bible Includes Confession – James 5:13-16

While the word “accountability” isn’t a Biblical term in the strictest sense, the concept of believers meeting together for confession, prayer, and encouragement is found all throughout the New Testament. We see this clearly spelled out in James 5.

The text posits a scenario where a believer finds himself sick. Here is James’ prescription: “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (v.14-15). The elders of the church—those charged with the spiritual wellbeing of this individual—come to this person with a three-pronged approach:

  • Prayer – Ask God to lift the cause of the ailment.
  • Medicine – Oil was (and is) believed to have medicinal value.
  • Confession – While sin might not be an underlying cause of the problem, it might be. Implied in the text is that the elders probe to discover what unconfessed sins may be the driving cause of illness.

But then James makes a sudden shift in subject: he is no longer talking about meeting with elders, but mutual confession among church members. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (v.16).

Why is this James’ concluding thought? Because if unconfessed sin can be the cause of spiritual and physical malaise in our lives, it makes sense that the church practice routine “preventative medicine” by confessing sins to one another—allowing no secret lives to develop.

Today, advocates of preventative medicine stress the need for good habits in our lives that make it harder for diseases to take hold: proper hygiene, balanced nutrition, proper balance of vitamins and minerals, plenty of water, routine exercise of the heart and lungs. For James, mutual confession is an essential vitamin we need to take on a regular basis.

We need to engage in regular accountability, not just when things are going wrong, but all the time. We need to engage in relationships where we specifically discuss the details of our deepest sins and weaknesses to receive help, encouragement, and challenge.

Accountability in the Bible Includes Prayer – James 5:16-18

“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (v.16).

While prayer without confession can be surfacey, confession without prayer places no dependence on God who is our ultimate Healer.

As his example, James chooses none other than Elijah, the fierce prophet of ancient Israel. But instead of highlighting Elijah’s uniqueness as a prophet, he stresses the prophet’s humanness. “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (v.17), a man subject to the same weaknesses we all have. In other words, we all can learn to pray like Elijah, because he was a weak human being just as we all are.

James confidently asserts that prayer is strong, able to accomplish much. However, James is not teaching this about just any kind of petition.

  • Persistent prayer is powerful – James asserts that prayer has power “as it is working [energoumenē]” (James 5:16). The expression means a righteous man’s prayer is like an energy working inwardly—prayer keeps putting forth energy until the petition is answered. Elijah emulates this kind of persistence in his prayers. Three times Elijah prays for a widow’s son to come back to life (1 Kings 17:21). Seven times Elijah sends his servant to scan the horizon for signs of rain while he prays (18:43). Elijah’s faith is tenacious and tireless when answers to prayer tarry.
  • Fervent prayer is powerful – James writes that Elijah “prayed fervently” (James 5:17) for the drought and the rain. There is intensive force to James’ language—the text reads Elijah “prayed a prayer,” an expression of repetition that denotes force. Elijah’s prayers were zealous and earnest. Stories of Elijah’s life demonstrate this. Elijah seems fully engaged with his prayers. While he prays he stretches his own body over a deceased boy, desiring to imbue his own life with the boy’s (1 Kings 17:21). The words of his prayer for the boy are deeply personal: he is not just any boy but the son of “the widow with whom I sojourn” (17:20). After the contest on Mount Carmel, Elijah hides his face between his knees in humble reverence, showing full-body engagement with his prayers (18:42). Elijah’s prayers are truly heartfelt.
  • Righteous prayer is powerful – James specifically mentions it is the “prayer of a righteous person” that sees results (James 5:16). The Hebrew understanding of “righteousness” was to live in conformity to God’s covenant requirements. Not only was Elijah righteous in an ethical sense, but also his very prayers were informed by God’s covenant promises. Elijah’s great lament was that “the people of Israel have forsaken [God’s] covenant” (1 Kings 19:10, 14). Elijah’s prayers for drought and rain are based on God’s covenant curses and blessings (Deuteronomy 11:16-17; 28:12). He prays using God’s covenant names (1 Kings 18:36). He was confident God would answer because He knew God’s promises and knew God would never break them.

This is the kind of mutual prayer we need in the face of our personal weaknesses and sins. We need people who can get on their knees with us…

  • people who pray with faith and are energized within to see God do something within us,
  • people who are fully engaged with their prayers out of deep compassion for us,
  • people who know God’s covenant promises and pray according to them on our behalf.

Coming Clean

Mutual accountability and prayer: these need to become part of our regular diet as Christians. This is the high calling of friendship in the church.

For a lot of us, we’re not looking for accountability in our lives until things have gone horribly wrong—and, of course, this is a great time to start. For many men and women I know, the sinful crisis they face is a nagging slavery to lust or pornography. If this is you, you can download our free e-book, Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability.