I found myself recently in a discussion about the role of accountability in discipling students. The discussion centered around the place accountability has in disciplemaking, and some of the tension we feel in attempting to engage in it with students. I get this tension. But I think it’s a healthy tension. Before we dig in, humor me as I define accountability as I see it. I define spiritual accountability as:
The process of sharing your actions, and taking responsibility for their results, to a person, or people, who are personally invested in how these actions impact your spiritual identity.
Now, there seems to me to have been a sort of fixation in church/small group culture on the negative aspects of accountability, namely, holding students accountable for their personal sin. This is indeed an aspect of accountability. But my definition also includes the positive aspects of accountability, namely, holding students (positively) accountable for actions that we’d consider good or righteous. Both are important.
So now that we’re on the same page, let’s think about what accountability looks like, and how we might be better practitioners of it.
Accountability that is godly and healthy is an organic part of authentic relationship. It can’t be forced. And it can’t come first.
We can’t force accountability. By its very nature, accountability is vulnerability. And vulnerability happens most frequently in the context of authentic relationship. We can’t force accountability on students where there isn’t a relationship in place. And not just any relationship. I would question the motives of someone who tried to introduce real spiritual accountability into a relationship that wasn’t longstanding. (I don’t have a specific timeframe in mind; but you know it when you see it.) Forced accountability isn’t accountability. It just doesn’t work.
Second, accountability isn’t mission critical. Follow me here . . . I’ve been deeply immersed in the world of youth ministry for almost 15 years. I’ve heard numerous youth ministers over the years talk about their “accountability groups.” While I understand the heart behind this terminology, it drives me crazy. By making accountability a top-level behavior, it elevates it to a place of prominence that seems out of balance in the way the Bible speaks to spiritual development. James makes the most explicit instruction to confess our sins to other people, but outside of his words, the references are few. On the other hand, there are innumerable references to being accountable to God for our sin. Accountability to each other is important. But it is not top level.
And yet Godly accountability is important. Godly accountability flows out of Christ-centered care for one another, and is chiefly concerned with wanting the other person to experience the fullest possible relationship with God. How do we make sure our accountability is in line with this?
First, we have to make sure the relationship is there.
When James says in James 5:16 to confess our sins to one another, his original audience would have been the persecuted body of Christ-followers who made up the Jerusalem church. Knowing what we know about their circumstances, we can only imagine how closely these believers lived with one another, and how strong the relational ties were. In that environment, your sin would deeply impact me, and vice versa. Accountability, in this case, was almost an organic by-product of Christian community.
We can’t have accountability outside of relationship. But when a solid relationship has been built, when trust is present and proven, accountability is an important aspect of the disciplemaking relationship.
Second, accountability has to be tied to holiness, with the standard being Christ-likeness.
The ultimate purpose of accountability is that we would spur each other on to Christ-likeness. The imitation of God Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:1 should be our goal. The personal holiness that Jesus and Peter both call us to should be our guide. Christ is the standard. Actions that draw us away from Christ and close to Christ should be disclosed, and their impact discussed. Any thought of stopping one action, or continuing another should be done not with any legalistic sense in mind, but with the desire to more Christ-like.
Third, and most importantly, we have to allow ourselves to be held accountable just as we hold students accountable.
I know I’ve already alluded to this, but it’s important. Not only does it help students see that we, too, struggle with sin and righteousness, but hopefully it shows them what this aspect of a mature Christ-follower’s spiritual journey looks like. Our struggles and our victories should point to the results of the effects of spiritual growth they can expect to see in their own lives.
Finally, accountability has to want the best for our students.
Galatians 6 holds one of my favorite passages in Scripture. Here Paul says “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2). This is a picture of the heart behind healthy, Christ-centered accountability. It seeks the best for the other person. Gentle restoration. Helping with the spiritual burden. If accountability with our students doesn’t look like this, we’re not doing it right.
Is accountability easy? No. It takes time. Is it always comfortable? Definitely not. Does it come natural? No. Vulnerability is hard. But accountability is an excellent way to knit us to one another, and to encourage each other in godliness.
Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by Jean-Francois Gornet.