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?