Accounting for Participation

The Lord’s Table is a table of community accountability. By God’s grace, we have only removed a few persons from communion at our church due to church discipline. He has guarded our flock from gross, ongoing, unrepentant sinners. We have been able to enjoy the sweet fellowship here without too much bitterness.

This is fellowship worth preserving, worth protecting, and that means that not everyone is invited. In particular, when professing brothers refuse to repent from their sin after they have been personally, lovingly, and repeatedly pursued, they may be formally uninvited from participation.

The Lord requires one brother who sees another sinning brother to confront the sinner. The Lord instructs more people to get involved if there is not repentance and, eventually, the (local) church must acknowledge the immorality and discipline the sinner by removing him from fellowship. Those inside the church judge those inside the church. This is part of mutual accountability.

The church gets it wrong sometimes, more often than not by failing to deal with sinners. According to 1 Corinthians 11, God sometimes intervenes directly rather than through the church toward those who profane the body and blood of the Lord by unworthy participation at His Table. God is not mocked even if the church gets it wrong. Death is an even stronger statement than church discipline.

Of course, it is not much of a discipline to keep someone from something that we don’t value or enjoy. Our communion now sets the tone for later. The offender will miss out to the degree that we make much of this meal. We will give an account for how we participated, and it ought to be with righteous rejoicing.

An Accountability Table

The Lord’s Table is a table of community accountability. By God’s grace, our local church has not yet needed to remove anyone from fellowship due to church discipline. He has guarded our flock from gross, ongoing, unrepentant sinners. We have been able to enjoy the sweetness of communion without too much sadness.

This is fellowship worth preserving, worth protecting, and that means that not everyone is invited. In particular, when professing brothers refuse to repent from their sin after they have been personally, lovingly, and repeatedly pursued, they may be formally uninvited from participation.

The Lord requires one brother who sees another sinning brother to confront the sinner (Matthew 18:15). The Lord instructs more people to get involved if there is not repentance and, eventually, the (local) church must acknowledge the immorality and discipline the sinner by removing him from fellowship (Matthew 18:16-17). Those inside the church judge those inside the church (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). This is part of mutual accountability.

The church gets it wrong sometimes, more often than not by failing to deal with sinners. According to 1 Corinthians 11:29-32, God sometimes intervenes directly rather than through the church toward those who profane the body and blood of the Lord by unworthy participation at His Table. God is not mocked even if the church gets it wrong. Death is an even stronger statement about the value of the Lord’s Table than church discipline.

Of course, it is not much of a discipline to keep someone from something that we don’t value or enjoy. Our enjoyment of communion now sets the tone for later. The offender will miss out to the degree that we make much of this meal. We will give an account for how we participated, and it ought to be with righteous rejoicing.

The Protection and Pay-Off of Accountability

Series | Accountability

Still there are those who hate accountability. I guess they don’t want the protection, though I’ve never heard anyone complain about the guardrails on narrow, windy mountain roads that keep their car from slipping over the steep cliff. So what if the car gets banged up, at least they have their life. God-given accountability is like protective guardrails.

Even more than protection, accountability helps us better glorify God by increasing holiness. A lot of people seek out financial input/counsel (accountability) in their investments. They do research to find the sharpest counselors who can help them get the most out of their money. They listen to their advisor, buying and selling to get maximum gain. They put up with a lot in hopes of getting a lot. Perhaps we aren’t willing to put up with much spiritual input because we don’t care much about holiness. We aren’t interested in learning how to invest ourselves to give maximum glory. We’ve got access to our parents, pastors, and friends to help us toward holiness for God’s name sake, but perhaps that’s not the pay-off we really want.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6), especially when they help us walk worthy of the gospel. The sparks and pains of spiritual accountability are important because Jesus didn’t commission us to produce parrots who can repeat what He said. He commissioned us to make disciples who obey what He said.

The Levels of Accountability

Series | Accountability

Accountability is troubling because the natural man hates holiness. Almost no one in our culture promotes accountability–no movie, no music, no MySpace page. We don’t want, we think we don’t need, people pressing into our personal soul-space. But if we’re going to observe everything Jesus commanded accountability is essential.

Three Levels of Accountability to God

1. PERSONAL – We are accountable to God Himself.

There is a place for accountability to fellow human beings, and we’ll see that in the last two levels. But this is the first, ultimate, and most direct level of accountability. Every one of us will answer to God. No one–except Jesus for those of us who are believers–stands between us and Him. Answering to one another is part of His plan, but only as that helps us prepare our account to Him.

In Romans 14 Paul gave instructions to leave each other alone over superficial, legalistic things. He did not remove our responsibility to help each other in the pursuit of holiness, but he does remind us that holiness is the primary issue, not secondary issues like valuing certain days more than others.

So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12)

And the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers toward obedience that comes from grace, because,

no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:13)

The same verse is translated in the KJV, “but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” For true believers, though we can’t lose our salvation, we will receive God’s discipline and chastisement if we fail to pursue holiness. Of course, that might be through another person’s rebuke or through some other means, but the pursuit of holy living is paramount and He is the one to whom we must give account.

Knowing our accountability to God provides motivation for accountability to others. It is worse to try and hide our sin from God than from another person. When we ask for prayer, ask for advice, share our burdens and struggles, we are asking others to help us so that when we give an answer to God it will be a good one. Augustine recognized accountability with others as a form of self-watch, so that we might be most ready before God.

2. PASTORAL – We are accountable to spiritual leaders.

Though it isn’t one of the three levels I’m listing here, obviously there is parental accountability. Every child is answerable to his parents. We are also accountable to government, both national and local. But this is primarily a case for the importance of accountability in local body relationships. So as God has given parents authority over their children, likewise, God has put spiritual authorities in the lives of His children.

For example, there are passages that address the sheep and their accountability to their shepherds.

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

The sheep are to listen, heed, and follow the shepherd. They are to respect and obey and submit to their pastors. God gives overseers to His church to feed and protect the sheep and they are responsible to follow.

Jesus clearly explained this system of spiritual accountability that extends to the church and her leaders in Matthew 18:15-17. The process of church discipline is a process of accountability that begins on a private, interpersonal level, then progresses to the leadership level. When one of the sheep is out of line, other sheep do what they can, then the shepherds get involved, then the whole flock.

Part of the reason we are accountable to our pastors is because our pastors are accountable to God for us (Hebrews 13:17 above). There is much at stake, as we pastors are stewards of a very precious people.

Richard Baxter’s book, The Reformed Pastor is basically an extended meditation with application on the one verse:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with His own blood. (Acts 20:28)

It is a great responsibility to care for the health and holiness of those purchased by Christ on the cross. Pastors bear a peculiar burden to teach others to observe everything that Jesus commands. This this is no new accountability that sheep have to shepherds, or that shepherds have to God. Consider the prophets in the OT. Even though the situation was different for a prophet to the nation of Israel, the following functions as an illustration of the kind of work God expects His shepherds to do:

And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.” (Ezekiel 3:16-21. See also Ezekiel 33:1-9, 34:1-6, 16)

Every person in spiritual leadership as a pastor, and anyone by extension who teaches a Bible studies or leads a small group and make disciples, will give an account to God. And though we can’t make anyone do anything, we are responsible to urge the sheep to live worthy of the gospel and worthy of Christ. The sheep are accountable to listen and obey.

The NT is full of actions for pastors to hold sheep accountable to God’s desire for holiness. We are to admonish, appeal, argue, ask, assert, beseech, call, commend, console, declare, demonstrate, discern, edify, equip, feed, implore, inquire, lead, model, pray, proclaim, reason, upbuild, labor and work. Furthermore, the NT is full of actions for sheep to follow their pastors in the pursuit of holiness. Sheep are to listen, follow, repent, do, love, remember, seek, consider, respect, honor. The relationship between the pastor and his flock is one of accountability.

3. MUTUAL – We are accountable to one another.

We are accountable to spiritual leaders and also to spiritual friends. We have responsibilities to our authorities and to one another. This is the level of mutual accountability.

The NT in particular is filled with mutual obligations. For example, as Paul transitioned from our personal responsibility to walk in the Spirit and not in the desires of the flesh at the end of Galatians chapter five, what are believers to do if they see a fellow brother or sister not walking in the Spirit?

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)

There is no room for arrogant, unkind, impatient accountability. But there is also no room for silence, indifference, or inaction when confrontation is appropriate. Sin is serious. The sin of a Christian reflects on Christ, it steals personal joy, and if a person persists in a pattern of sin, there is reason to suspect their eternal destiny.

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

Admonish. Encourage. Help. These are all very messy things. They are viewed by some as meddling. But we are to rebuke the lazy and slothful. We are to stir up the timid and nervous. We are to aid the feeble and tired, and this is all toward the goal of helping them observe everything Jesus commanded.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 22-23)

No matter how much we talk about community and relationship and authentic Christian living, it is not loving to leave someone in their sin. Unconditional love is demonstrated when we confront and get rejected and mocked. Not confronting when it is necessary is conditional love, on the presumed condition that they will respond negatively. Failure to confront at that point is really love of ourselves.

For those of us on the receiving side, don’t forget that hating correction is stupid (Proverbs 12:1). Mutual accountability is there for a reason: to help us walk worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Built-In Accountability Repellent

Series | Accountability

A person is accountable when they are required or expected to justify their actions or decisions; they are responsible, liable, answerable.

Schools give account to parents for how they educate. Teachers and administration must be able to justify their decisions. Banks give account to their investors. They are liable to protect the money entrusted to them. Employees give account to their employer. What they do is a reflection on their boss and the organization. Players give account to their coach and to their fellow teammates. What an individual does impacts the larger group.

Spiritual accountability is another way to say that there are certain expectations (namely to walk worthy of the gospel and worthy of the Lord) in the Christian life. Therefore we are required to give an account, to answer for our decisions and our actions. The final account is before God Himself and in the meantime He has provided a check-and-balance system in the church to keep the individual members safe as well as cause them to grow stronger.

That seems helpful. So why would anyone hate accountability? I think it is more than that accountability is sometimes hypocritical or judgmental. I think we react negatively toward accountability because we’re born with a built-in repellent to it.

Three Reasons We Naturally Hate Accountability

I tried to make the outline personal, because this is personal. That’s the point. If it wasn’t personal it wouldn’t bother us so much. Of course, if it wasn’t personal, it wouldn’t do us any good. That’s the trouble. And I don’t think hate is too strong. Accountability is a nuisance, a bother, and a headache. We cross to the other side of the street when we see it coming. Why?

1. We are naturally self-centered.

Thinking about ourselves first is inborn. No one has to teach us that. Love of ourselves is in our genes (2 Timothy 3:2). In being so consumed with ourselves we’re not built to appreciate outsiders. We’re not wired to ask someone else to troubleshoot our system or encourage them to help keep us in line.

So we do everything we can to avoid accountability even though there are great dangers in isolation. Solomon said that the person who isolates himself rages against all sound wisdom (Proverbs 18:1). And in the body of Christ we cannot get away from the other members without harming the body. The body is no place for selfish members.

We live in a day that magnifies the individual. We like community as long as the community doesn’t have any expectations, and we certainly don’t value a confronting community. Because we are naturally self-centered we naturally hate accountability.

2. We are naturally proud.

It is not only natural to think about ourselves, but to think highly about ourselves. Pride is characteristic of every person, regardless of whether it is displayed externally or just thought internally. Pride originates in the natural heart (Mark 7:21-23) and defiles a man.

Proud people don’t like authority, they are their own authority. Proud people don’t like to be told they are wrong, they know they aren’t. Proud people don’t like to stand at the receiving end of discipline and correction, they just like to give it.

We live in an era that magnifies self. Humility is a virtue we esteem in others. Because we are naturally proud we naturally hate accountability.

3. We are naturally worldly.

Love of self is not the only inherent thing in humans, love of the world is also innate.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

In a sense, we are more at home walking in a manner worthy of the course of this world rather than walking in a manner worthy of the gospel. Sinners follow Satan and live in the passions of their flesh. Our nature was once like the rest of mankind, pursuing the present world. Love of the world and the things in the world causes compromise and settling for less than gospel-worthy living.

What this really means is that we don’t value holiness. We are not very concerned with being pure, blameless, spotless, or righteous. It isn’t easy to pursue sanctification and separation from the culture. It is easy to be satisfied with conformity to this world. The mold of the world is comfortable and we dislike the discomfort that comes when the mold is confronted.

We live in a time that magnifies fitting in. We don’t value standing out. And because we naturally fit better with the world we are naturally opposed to those who hold us accountable to live other-worldly.

So disliking, disdaining, detesting, disapproving, and despising accountability is natural. Even for those of us who have been born again, who are not natural but spiritual, we still fight against these tendencies toward self-centeredness, pride, and worldliness. We need each other’s help to do so. Accountability is one ingredient in God’s saint-making recipe.

The Trouble with Accountability

Series | Accountability

Jesus could have made our job as Christians a lot easier. All He needed to do was tweak His commission a little. He didn’t need to cancel the entire assignment, just make a minor adjustment. If only He would have said something like,

As you are going, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything I said.

That’s close to what He said in Matthew 28:18-20. And if that was all He said I think we’d get less grief. We can dunk people under water; in our culture that’s no big deal. It’s also not horribly difficult to tell other people the things that Jesus taught, especially if that’s the only thing involved. We can talk about Jesus. We can write books about Jesus. We can create web pages and publish podcasts and make His message known. That’s relatively easy.

But that isn’t what Jesus said. Jesus didn’t call us to teach people what He said. He commissioned us to teach them to observe all that I have commanded. Making disciples involves more than acquainting people with the gospel it requires training them to live it. John Piper wrote it this way, “Teaching people to parrot all that Jesus commanded is easy. Teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded is impossible.”

We must always talk about the free nature of the gospel, forgiveness, and justification, but we must also remember that true faith produces obedience, fruit, and good works. Though there is nothing we can do to earn salvation, it still changes everything we do. I heard Steve Lawson compare it to joining the Army: it’s free to join, but it will cost your life. So those who believe the gospel are also called to live worthy of it.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27)

…so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him (Colossians 1:10)

We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God (1 Thessalonians 2:12)

Walking figuratively expresses a person’s conduct or pattern of life. And in Greek the word worthy envisions a balanced scale, indicating things that are equal in worth or commensurate. Every believer is obligated to live and behave worthy of the gospel, worthy of the Lord, and worthy of God. This worthy walk is not limited to our private pursuit, it is our Lord’s commission: to teach people to observe everything He commanded.

For both of these things, personal obedience and teaching others to obey, we will give an answer. In other words, we are accountable.

Accountability gets a lot of bad press these days. It is almost a dirty word in modern Evangelicalism. As I surfed the internet researching accountability I found one site that refused to spell out the whole word, putting a dash after the A-. If my cursory findings represent the prevailing attitude, then many professing, evangelical Christians do not want to be held accountable to anything by anyone. Some are so extreme as to call any kind of accountability un-biblical.

It is not remarkable to me that some people don’t like accountability. What is remarkable to me is the increasing number of Christians and churches who are happy to discuss Jesus, the gospel, and the Bible, some of whom even use the word sin and talk about the cross, yet seem satisfied with mere acquaintance with the truth and pay no attention to obedience. In one hand they’ve got great theology about, and exciting worship of, Lord Jesus, but they’re free to do whatever they want with the other hand. That is not walking worthy of the gospel of Christ.

And it isn’t like these accountability haters isolate themselves into seclusion. Many of these same people love to talk about community. They pursue love and relationship, but not repentance and purity. These groups may be built on nothing more than common experiences and acquaintance with Jesus, but not on following the Lord’s commands. In the name of love and in hatred of legalism they teach but eschew confrontation. But Christian “community” that doesn’t aim at holiness is harmful, not helpful.

Maybe they had a bad church experience with an overbearing, Fundamentalist Pharisee. I agree that hypocritical, impatient, unkind, judgmental, self-righteous, legalistic, prejudicial, and/or ignorant accountability is no good. Job’s friends were wrong and their unkind assertiveness was ugly. But, and this is key:

accountability does not equal judgmentalism and those who hold others accountable are not by definition arrogant, overbearing, big-headed, spiritually abusive jerks.

My goal in the next couple posts is to build a basic, biblical framework for thinking about accountability in our community pursuit of holiness, so that we would embrace the personal benefits of accountability (as it helps us to observe all Jesus’ commands) and so that we would be equipped to explain those benefits to others (so that they will observe all Jesus’ commands).