Small group praying "Accountability" was all the rage during my college years at Pepperdine. A lot college students felt they needed to be a part of "accountability" groups to help them deal with various sins of commission or omission—from pornography addiction to a failure to pray enough. The idea at the time was that living out the faith before others and confessing to what we had or hadn't done would give us the little extra boost we needed to do the right thing. Did it work? To some extent. Over time, it seemed that how the group functioned was vitally important in determining it's effectiveness.

In yesterday's sermon, I told the following story:

Our behavior can be changed by even subtler levels of scrutiny. At the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, a psychology professor named Melissa Bateson surreptitiously ran an experiment in her own department's break room. Customarily, faculty members paid for coffee and other drinks by dropping money into an "honesty box." Each week, Bateson posted a new price list. The prices never changed, but the small photograph atop the list did. On odd weeks, there was a picture of flowers; on even weeks, a pair of human eyes. When the eyes were watching, Bateson's colleagues left nearly three times as much money in the honesty box. So the next time you laugh when a bird is frightened off by a silly scarecrow, remember that scarecrows work on human beings too. (Source: SuperFreakonomics, Kindle Edition, sect. 1931).

The hypothesis of this particular experiment was proven true. If the GEICO commercial eyeballs are watching us we are more likely to act as we should. It will make us behave more honestly. We know that police presence can keep the crowd from rioting and a crossing guard standing on the corner can make cars slow down. Some believe this is often the most important thing–the regulation of behavior. The idea here is what matters most is that we do as we should. In the spiritual realm, this brings "accountability" to the fore. It's somewhat hard to argue with this. But, not impossible 🙂

At what cost does all this happen?

There are many Christians who believe strongly, as I do, that "accountability," when performed rightly, is something helpful to the Christian walk. The question is, "How do we know when we've moved from "accountability" to new legalism—something that requires we be in certain groups or do certain things to which we're not called by the Scriptures? Where does healthy Christian community cross over into the kind of community that might begin to require the "circumcisions" of our day?

Surely there must be a place for confessing our sins one to another, bearing one another's burdens, and praying for one another's spiritual well-being. However, it seems to me that it really isn't that far of a leap from there to a sort of spiritual codependency or new legalism in which people play an inappropriate role in another person's life. How do we know when we cultivated dependency that renders Christians incapable of thinking and behaving in a Christian manner without the availability of such support systems? If a Christian cannot act in a Christ-like way outside the influence of their "accountability" group/partner, how much actual transformation has happened? Do such accountability situations allow for proper transformation of the heart?

Is proper behavior is in fact evidence of a transformed heart? It certainly can be evidence. Jesus says you can judge a tree by its fruit and if we love Him, we will obey His commands. However, as the Pharisees teach us, we are fully capable of being white-washed tombs that look wonderful on the outside but inside are full of dead men's bones.

What say you? Where have you seen accountability at it's best, and where have you seen it at its worst?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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4 thoughts on ““Accountability”

  1. Accountability must be two-way street that includes honesty, confession, prayer, encouragement and results in desire to live for God rather than just live to please accountability-partner. Three cautions: 1) Must not become a power-play that is used for leverage 2) Must be trusting and confidential 3) When I begin to be more concerned about partner’s life than he is or than I am about my own, I’ve crossed the line.

  2. True accountability, like true Christianity (according to Chesterton), hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and never (rarely) tried at all.

  3. The confession part is just not optional if we are going to be obedient to the word. Even groups like AA have seen the power of “openness.”
    In my experience most young Christians that don’t have some sort of “accountability” / discipleship just don’t make it. The devil, the old lifestyle, and the flesh, are just too strong for their spiritual maturity. It’s hard for us “lifers” to relate. Co-dependency in this case is in some ways essential. Much like our kids who completely depend upon us to provide for them- most young, feeble Christians will need someone alongside them. Navigating the minefields of life.
    For us older guys: Accountability is only effective when welcomed. Imposed or assigned accountability will result in dishonesty, legalism or frustration. When two “friends” decide together to help each other be the best for the Lord that they can be- nothing better- and we fulfill the 50 plus “one another” commands of the Lord.

  4. Accountability works best when it is volunteered and is only part of a bigger relationship with God. When a person has know communication and relation with God outside of an accountability group and/or small group, this becomes the grounds for establishing an unhealthy dependency.
    Grace and peace,