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.