Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Dreaded A Word: Accountability in the Church

A person in our community recently sent an email my way. Preparing a presentation on the topic of accountability within the Church, this person asked if I might have some thoughts on the subject. This is the off-the-cuff response I gave. (It isn't profound. But what ideas might you have? Share them in the comments section):
This question is very important and usually neglected. So, I'm really impressed that you're tackling it as a topic for discussion!

In complete honesty, I get uncomfortable with most discussions I hear these days about accountability on the part of believers to one another. Some Christians appear to advocate and at times, practice a smug self-righteous that doesn't seem at all like Biblical accountability, which is meant to be mutual. The human penchant for smugness has made many churches forget about this subject altogether.

Yet, the New Testament makes it clear that we in the Church are accountable to one another. When we're unrepentant for sin toward others in the fellowship, Jesus gives a process by which correction and reconciliation can happen, for example. (Matthew 18:15-20) The whole reason Paul wrote First Corinthians is the spiritual arrogance that displayed by some believers in the Corinthian church, an arrogance that caused them to simply ignore, not only God's will about personal behaviors, but God's desire for believers to live in relationships of love with others. That's what First Corinthians 13 is really about.

This notion of mutual accountability is really rooted in the new and different relationship we have with God through Christ. Peter says that all believers are priests. (First Peter 2:9-10) And Jesus says that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, etc. In addition, Jesus condemns the notion of a spiritual hierarchy or of spiritual elites, in Matthew 24, most notably. The New Testament generally conveys the notion that all believers receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8) and that God gives us the community of the Church so that together we can discern and do the will of God.

The big council at Antioch in the early Church was designed for the purpose of getting together, hashing out the question of how "Jewish" Gentile believers in Jesus needed to become, and then prayerfully deriving a solution from the process. Accountability inheres in this procedure. Unless the Church thought that believers were mutually accountable, they would have simply taken a "to each his/her own" attitude. But they didn't do that. What we say about Christ, how we proclaim Him, and what we do in practicing our faith are just three of many issues for which we Christians are accountable to other Christians. Christians are meant to live in a relationship of dependence on God and interdependence with other followers of Jesus.

To avoid the coercion of Pharisaism though, Paul reminds us to speak the truth to each other "in love." If that advice were more universally practiced, accountability within the body of Christ would not be fearsome at all. We could trust each other. We would know that the fellow believer who confronts us isn't out to destroy us, but build us (and the body of Christ) up and is willing also to admit that they could be wrong in their criticisms and judgments.

A pastor once shared his personal philosophy with me. "Mark," he said, "if I err, I try to err on the side of grace."

That makes sense to me. In our Small Catechism, Martin Luther starts out by explaining the meaning of the Ten Commandments. He has this penchant for putting positive spins on all the "thou shalt nots," demonstrating God's underlying positive intent for us in each commandment. When it comes to the command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," Luther says:

"We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way."

In other words, God wants us to do more than avoid lying about others' actions and character; God wants us to be our neighbors' advocates, just as Christ has been our Advocate.

If this is to be true of how we behave toward our unbelieving neighbor, it must surely be true of those who confess Jesus with us.

We are accountable to one another as believers, I think. And the very first element of that accountability, it seems to me, must be a willingness to forgive, to love, and to share grace just as we've been forgiven, loved, and graced by Christ.

I hope that this rather rambling bit of on-the-fly writing makes sense...and that it helps.

Blessings in Christ,

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