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Why I don’t believe in Christian Accountability | A Response

January 30, 2012

Earlier this month, Mike Foster wrote an article entitled “Why I don’t believe in Christian Accountability” and it whipped around the web like you might expect. I’ve read it a few times now and I thought it was worthy enough to write a response because it’s such an important topic if we’re going to wrestle through the issues of discipleship mission. Now I don’t know Mike, but I have friends who do and really enjoy him and find him to be an incredibly kind, thoughtful and humble guy. After reading his post, I’m sure he is. To be fair to him, he does have some very compelling things to say in this post, but I think there are a few things he misses that are critical for us.

In essence, this is the crux of his argument:

  • Christian accountability doesn’t work and is mostly toxic for those who participate.
  • It doesn’t work because of lack of grace, bad environments where we are held accountable, we often lie if we want to escape being held accountable (“gaming the system”) and often hurts more people than it helps.
  • Therefore, we should get rid of the whole notion of Christian accountability.

Now before you think he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater (which is how I perceived on my first read), he then advocates for a “different” thing:

  • Instead of “accountability”, let’s be “advocates”, people who are fellow supporters and intercessors. He believes a new word is needed.
  • These “advocates” should demonstrate radical grace, focus on what people are saying yes to (and not just what they are saying no to), prioritize people and not organizations.
  • Lastly, have different environments where people and groups have different levels of access for you to be honest, rather than restricting it to one group and have a “First Call” where there is at least one person who has 100% access to the whole of your life.

First things first, it becomes pretty clear that Mike Foster believes in accountability, he just doesn’t like the word because of the way people abuse it. In the same way that people don’t like to be called Christians and instead call themselves “Christ Followers,” his proposal is probably close to the way that most people would ideally see Christian accountability happening.

What I’d like to do is perhaps push his thought a bit further and add a bit of nuance.

You see, the way that Mike seems to describe the purpose of accountability or advocacy (and the way most people seem to) seems to be making sure you are doing certain things and not doing other things. And there is something I think he taps into. Many Christians approach this life as if there is a giant check-list in the sky of do’s and don’ts. Now to be sure, there are things that we can say are “Godly” and things that aren’t, and we should walk the way of the straight and narrow, but what I’m concerned with is the process of doing so.

The way I hear people talk about it, faith is mostly about doing the right things, as if it’s all about behavior modification, or as Dallas Willard calls it, “sin management.”

But clearly this isn’t the way Jesus thinks about it.

He says, “Most people think about the outside of the cup or dish, but the inside is filthy. I’m telling you to worry about the inside first.” His position seemed to be if you attended to the inside, the outside would certainly follow suit. Over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, he seems to be saying,

“Guys, I’m talking about a new reality! It used to be about just following the rules. But the problem with that is it never got to the heart of things. The issue isn’t murder or lying or adultery. Don’t do those things, but seriously, what are your motivations? What’s causing your heart to take you to these places? I’m telling you that if you even entertain the thought of adultery, you might as well be doing it. A sin is a sin is a sin. Let’s start working on the heart.”

It’s about a new reality for Jesus.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should ignore giant holes in our life like drug addiction, affairs, lying, etc and draw lines in the sand, but I am suggesting the more we focus on orienting the inner parts of our life towards God and his coming Kingdom, the more our behavior will reflect this change.

That’s why Jesus says in Mark 1:
The time has come. The Kingdom is near. Repent and Believe the Good News!

You Repent, then you Believe.

Repent is the word metanoia, which refers to an inner reality. It’s about changing your mind. It’s about re-orientation. It’s about coming to understand reality and setting ourselves to live in it. Seeing things differently.

Believe (often used for the word faith as well) is the word pisteuo, which speaks to a certainty that results in action. It’s not blind faith, it’s a bit like experienced knowledge. It’s saying, “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow so I’ll set my alarm.” The belief results in action. It’s that your actions tell everyone what you believe. It’s not blindly believing that God is good; it’s about knowing that God is good because you’ve seen and experienced his unending goodness and that changes the way you live.

The problem is that we’ve often reversed it and that’s what I read in Mike’s post. We make faith about an abstract reality, something we believe “out there” and repentance is something we “do.” We’ve flipped it!

Let’s take a common “accountability” example. For men, you often hear about them struggling with pornography and the usual accountability group or teaching goes something like this: “You struggle with porn? That’s wrong. You need to stop. Stop looking at it.” That’s what repentance looks like in this system. But that’s not how repentance is discussed in the Bible. The real question is WHY. Why can’t you stop looking at it? What inside of you that needs to be redeemed, is causing that behavior?  If we don’t address the inside, we end up with Jesus’ parable: A clean dish on the outside (well, at least most of the time) with something quite dirty on the inside.

But Jesus gives us a fantastic picture of how we should address this. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he closes with the well-known parable of the wise and foolish builder. The foolish person isn’t the person who doesn’t hear what Jesus has to say; he’s the person who hears but doesn’t do anything with what he hears. Both the wise and the foolish man hear what Jesus says, but only one does something with it.

It’s not management of sin, it’s the development of wisdom. The whole of Matthew 7 is about accountability. If you’ve heard the word, you ought to do something about it.

I think it’s incredibly harmful to boil accountability down to a list of things we should/shouldn’t do. That’s behavior modification and sin management, not faith in our Lord Jesus! It should include questions of integrity and character, but it’s missing an important element, an element that Jesus introduces in this parable, the two fundamental questions of Christian Spirituality:

  • What is God saying to you right now?
  • What are you going to do about it?

It’s a posture of recognition that God is speaking to us, he’s inviting us more fully into his Kingdom every single day…and are we going to do anything with that?

  • Maybe God is saying he’s never been more proud of you. What should you do about that? How will life be different in the next week because he’s said that to you?
  • Maybe God is saying you to forgive your Father and now is the time. What should you do about it?
  • Maybe God is saying that job promotion isn’t right for you even though it’s more money. What are you going to do about it?
  • Maybe God has put a vision in your heart for your neighborhood. What are you going to do about it?

God is constantly speaking to us and is inviting us to himself and his unfolding Kingdom. His desire is that the words he speaks deep into us will change the way we see the world around us (Repentance) and result in us living differently (Belief).

What if much of the way we build our structures for accountability revolved around those questions? What if it revolved around the idea that God wasn’t always looking crossly at us, but was reaching out to us, inviting us into a different way of living? What if accountability was more about stepping into the Kingdom because God has spoken something fresh and new to us and we want to make sure we take those steps?

What if it was about the inside changing and then the outside following suit?

As I think about this, one thing comes to mind mind:

  • It would mean people would need to learn to hear God. Most people I meet really have very little idea how to listen to God, hear what he’s saying…much less respond to what he’s asking. But the word “disciple” means learner, in the original Greek. So that’s good news for us! It means we can learn to hear the voice of our Father, even if we are starting off at a place where we hear very little.

Everyone has to start somewhere, right?

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 2:03 pm

    Mike. Right on. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Accountability begins with a whole new approach to the issues of sin and self. Sin management, quite honestly, wears out the Christian. Jesus gives us a better way. Your blog is helpful in getting folks to think outside the sin management box while still holding our lives accountable to Christ. Good stuff!

  2. January 30, 2012 2:08 pm

    Great teaching, thanks for sharing it.

  3. David Scott permalink
    January 30, 2012 2:10 pm

    Thank you for this Mike, you have managed to clarifiy and articulate an attitude I am trying to cultivate, we all start from different places and no two journeys are the same, but that listening and following the steps He has planned for us individually is the way forward. I like the idea of being advocates, encouragers and brothers together on our journey, rather than holding each other accountable.

  4. January 30, 2012 3:09 pm

    I have the same aversion to accountability. It just doesn’t work depending on the source being honest and the partners having the courage to say hard things. I love the advocacy model. Personally, I have always preferred confession over accountability.

  5. Zak permalink
    January 30, 2012 4:18 pm

    Mike, this is a really inspiring post. I would love it if you’d make a related post based on your footnote: How do we learn to hear the voice of our father?

    This will shape some of the teaching for my group soon, as we just hit on the “A” word, and are searching for the right approach. Thank you!

  6. January 30, 2012 4:19 pm

    Mike

    Right on! I was coaching a person a few day’s ago who heard God’s voice. Their request in the session was to “hear God’s” voice. As we talked and she read… she reflected … She ans. my questions….then she heard God’s voice. She said… “I get it now! Wow, all these years…I am the sinner.. I am the one in the dark. We stopped, we prayed, she made a committed to an “action step” to respond to His voice. I can not wait to hear what happen this week.

    Yes lets teach them to hear!

    Bruce

    • Zak permalink
      January 30, 2012 4:40 pm

      Thanks, Bruce! That is a wonderful testimony!

  7. Dave Hockney, Jr. permalink
    January 30, 2012 4:47 pm

    Great post! All of us need to learn to listen. It is part of the rythms of life that God set up for us.

  8. Cheri LaMunyon permalink
    January 30, 2012 10:14 pm

    Thanks Mike!, and of course this is perfectly timed as we are pushing our women’s huddle to lead new huddles. This will be shared with them and discussed at our next gathering. Great stuff as we hold them accountable to lead and move out! (FINALLY)

  9. Ian permalink
    January 31, 2012 4:06 am

    Great instruction Mike. Can we have some more please on the “hearing from God” part…how do you do it?

  10. January 31, 2012 8:39 am

    Reading Rick Joiner’s ‘There were two trees in the garden’ really helped me to understand that I will never be good enough for God by behaving right but whole-heartedly embrace the joy and freedom of Him cherishing me as a wonderful failure devoted to Him, and that only though HIM are all things made possible. By trying to behave right I felt like a failure BUT by embracing my failure I feel wonderfully right! Thank you Jesus.

  11. January 31, 2012 10:07 am

    A gracious appraisal of Mike Foster’s argument and, you rightly say, he has a point. I know that accountability works as through IN (Wesley Charism based Network) I have been able to address issues in my walk with God and with others. It seems to me a bit like the ‘heavy shepherding’ argument of the eighties/nineties. Some of us need to be kept on the narrow path through the wisdom, maturity and hard love of others. This is open to abuse if the person to whom we look isn’t wise, mature or loving. When Christian community becomes the personal power play or place to dominate for those who do not live by grace then, whatever we call it, there is a pitfall. Accountability, when mutual and carried out in sacrificial love, carries all the hall marks of mutual advocacy and vice-versa. In our flawed human institutions we are subject to the temptations common to the world but when we are centered on Jesus we are overcomers as he has overcome the world. Peace to you Mike. Keep up the excellence of grace!

  12. January 31, 2012 1:09 pm

    That is absolutely wonderful! Remain blessed x

  13. January 31, 2012 5:15 pm

    Augustine didn’t overcome sexual addiction through accountability or advocation. But if we’re going to be advocates, this is what we should shoot for:

    “Augustine identified the exact center of his battle as his inability, not to control his sexual passions, but to enjoy God more than sex. He reports his search ‘for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy You.’ Freedom came for Augustine when he encountered God, when he met God in a way few Christians in our generation have experienced…

    Notice carefully what it was that transformed Augustine’s life and empowered him to involve himself productively in Christian community. It was not teaching, exhortation, an untangling of internal dynamics, or a healing of emotional wounds. It was an encounter with God that provided more pleasure than sex…

    The cure for sexual addiction and for every from of slavery to something other than God is worship. Not the dull worship of rote routine or the shallow worship of contrived excitement, but worship that creates deep pleasure in the One who receives it and the one who gives it. Only a thrilling, soul-pleasuring encounter with God that generates more pleasure than sin will free us from our addiction to sin.” ~ Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb

    If accountability or advocacy isn’t leading us into a deeper longing for God, then it’s a soul-killing endeavor and it needs to be scrapped.

  14. February 3, 2012 5:03 am

    I like this.
    It speaks to me of more of a spiritual formation / spiritual direction approach – two concepts I sincerely hope do not go the way of commodification like “accountability.”

  15. February 3, 2012 9:50 pm

    Shon

    Your words are wonderful and I can tell they come from a person who has encountered the love of God in a powerful way. And it did not come from being accountable, but being honest. Augustine was honest and one of the great writers who “share his story”. In his confessions he shares his anxiety, his confusion and out of it we get a gift of personal experience of God’s grace.

    Finding a safe place for His love to flow over us. That is what is so great about Mike’s Huddles… this stuff really happens.

    Bruce

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