Accountability: necessary or a poor substitute?

OK it’s time to sharpen the knives and light to fire as we approach this sacred cow, either for it or for me depending on your reaction.

I’ve heard a lot, and read a lot, about the importance of accountability. About our need for an accountability partner who helps us in the battle with sin. And I can see the wisdom for that, it stops us hiding, it recognises the reality of ongoing battle with sin. But here’s my concern with this, we are masters as defaulting to programmes and structures rather than living open lives and developing deep friendships in community. We’re masters at taking a good idea in scripture and trying to codify it so it becomes less than it should be. We’re almost pre-programmed to avoid honesty and instead reveal a little bit of ourselves at a time to some but all of it to no one. So should everyone be accountable to someone? Does everyone need to have an accountability partner? Or is there something different, something better?

I’m not trying to be difficult but I am slightly concerned with where this trend seems to take us in terms of friendship and the church. In many circles the idea of accountability seems to involve a 1-2-1 relationship where you give someone authority to keep you accountable, or where you may share that accountability between the two of you. I have no doubt that sometimes these relationships are helpful and tremendously fruitful. But I also have no doubt that sometimes they’re not.

We are avid mask wearers. We are adept at chamleonising (I know it’s not a real word but work with me here!). We love to fit in, to blend in. We’re very good at hiding behind things, we have been ever since Adam and Eve first hide from God and each other. We do it naturally because we want to be liked, to be accepted, because we are made to seek out love and welcome and like everything else we have a fallen tendency to seek the right thing in the wrong place or way.

Accountability can be helpful for some in ameliorating that tendency. It can be helpful in providing someone safe to talk honestly with about struggles as they learn to trust and open up to others. But I worry about the tendency to make what is good for some necessary for all. For many a wider community of disciple making disciples is much better. It is after all what a church should be, a place where we speak the truth in love to each other – that truth being the gospel with it’s naming of sin and call to repentance and pointing us to Jesus by grace. It’s constant teaching that weekly, and more than weekly, shows us Jesus again and again and again, not spectacularly but faithfully, and which seeks to apply that to one another lives.

What if, for some, an accountability relationship is forestalling fully taking part in that sort of church. What if it is becoming the place I’m honest so that the rest of the time I can keep the mask in place. I’m not calling for spiritual, emotional and confessional incontinence in the church, but for the church to be a community that is so grounded in the gospel that we can be honest and share our struggles and our joy in grace discovered again. Where we are sharing with one another the encouragements of our life lived in Christ, as well as the struggles, and not just in ones and twos but in the wider church – after all largely the church seems to be on a starvation diet of encouragement.

Accountability can be helpful. It is necessary for all of us but maybe not in the formalised, 1-2-1, way we so often think of it. What if our current way of doing it is no longer helping but hindering?

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