What We Got Wrong About Accountability

Have you ever been part of an accountability group or had an accountability partner before? Well, the whole thing is a flop. It doesn’t work.

What really happens after someone asks to be held accountable is that as soon as anything serious is brought up, the person flees from all accountability and responsibility. Everyone wants to be accountable until it goes against what we want when we want it. It’s similar to that pesky personal trainer when you’re trying to lose weight. You’re about to eat an Oreo cookie (okay, maybe a whole box of Oreos), and that late-night text message arrives: Don’t even think about it.

Our reaction is to ignore the advice and indulge in what we want because it’s going to make us feel really good.

Accountability groups and accountability partners always seem to turn out the same way. Good, heartfelt attempts are made by both parties, but eventually, it turns into a guilt-tripping situation on the one hand or a performance-driven thing on the other.

What we get wrong in our attempts at holding others accountable, and our attempts to be held accountable is the power of the gospel. Accountability groups will always and only be guilt-driven unless the gospel is what creates, forms, shapes, and sustains the “accountability” that is happening between two or more people.

In much of Christianity today, the thing missing from accountability situations is the doctrine of absolution. The free, undeserved, unearned pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins in Christ is rarely a big part of the accountability models we see today.

Instead, we’re beaten down and overburdened by the trick question “How many times did you beat your wife” in all of its different forms. For the dating relationship, it sounds like “Did you have sex?” To the single guy or girl, it’s “Have you looked at dirty images lately?” For the married couple, it’s, “Have you lusted after anyone who wasn’t your spouse?” For the dudes trying to hold one another accountable in college, it’s a combination of all of the above (minus the spouse part).

In every situation, though, it’s focused on our cumulative failures and is hardly—if ever—offering a pronouncement of good news. Instead, it’s a perpetual situation of bad news. The holier partner in the contract is left policing the behavior and immorality of the weaker sister or brother.

Without the gospel of grace, it’s a pretty nasty thing. What we need now, and always, is the ability to readily confess our sins to one another in mutual accountability and to offer one another the most profound words this side of heaven:

God forgives you in Christ. And he loves you.

Have you ever heard those words out loud from an accountability buddy or group before? I haven’t. And I’ve been in them for decades, from junior high through college, in men’s groups, and even now as a minister of the gospel. Those gracious, loving, compassionate words of God’s condescension (not condemnation!) toward us don’t seem to exist in the Everyday Christian Vocabulary Book. But they should.

In the Bible, James urges all of us to do this regularly, though. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:13a).

The only news that can free any sinner from the heavy burden of God’s holy law is news that someone else (Jesus) has done what we could not do. Because of that life-giving, law-slaying news, we can now hear commands like flee sexual immorality not as guilt-driven incentives to earn God’s favor, but as the loving, freeing, pardoning words of an Already-Well-Pleased Father who has done everything to free us from sin for someone (God) and something (redemption in the church & mission to the world) so much better, grander, and lovelier.

Nicholas Davis

Rev. Nicholas Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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