Accountability, everybody says they want it, but how many really have it? Webster defines the word as "subject to giving an account." Giving account conjures up all kinds of mental images, some of them good and some of them dangerous. Right up front, let me be straightforward. In my whole lifetime, there have been some people to whom I have felt mandated by both Scripture and the Spirit to submit both my personal life, and my calling, and they have abused that right. Some by talking inappropriately about privacies with other people. And, others by projecting themselves onto me rather than helping me understand how I can be more the person that God wants me to be. Nonetheless, I am convinced, more even today then at any other time in my life, that I need both accountability and a group of men to whom I submit that accountability.
In Ephesians, Paul sets a framework for accountability thinking. "...and be subject to one another in the fear of Lord." (5:21) I choose a verse in Ephesians that has given fits to many exegetes of Scripture. Paul clearly calls for submission on the behalf of someone to someone. In an ideal world, God did design the church to have a unique kind of interpersonal distinctive relationship ethos, and some form of accountability was in that design. Whatever else many have said about the meaning in and around this passage, it seems to me that at least two things are clear in regards to accountability. One, subjection to one another comes within the domain of prior subjection to the filling (indwelling) ministry of the Holy Spirit. Submission begins with willingness to be in "accountability" to the Holy Spirit. In this, I recognize the center place that God hold's in my life. Second, within God's sovereign place in the center of my life, I chose to give someone else unlimited rights in my life. In the same context, Paul then expands the argument, though clearly changing the particular applications, to husbands, wives, children, fathers, slaves and owners.
What kinds of unlimited rights am I referring to?
First, how I should invest, or order my life.
This is precisely the call Paul makes to believers in Ephesians 5:15-16. It is healthy from time to time, to stand back and take a good, practical look at how I have ordered my life.....my lifestyle. Since I have been rescued from the ignorance of my past by the blood of Christ, my lifestyle should progressively express the light of the Gospel invading every part of who I am and what I do. No one can tell you what that means precisely, except for the clear abstention mandates of the New Testament. Since there are no "rules" to grace, our lives are an odyssey of greater and progressive change that Grace has made possible, and the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, in the midst of the people of God, begins to work in me and my way of life. The results of this process are a growing integration into me of the interpersonal qualitative distinctiveness’s of Jesus. i.e. the fruit of the Spirit, etc.. Building strong and open trust relationships with a few other Jesus followers, can help me overcome the blind spots in this process.
Second, how I treat my spouse.
This is the context immediately following the call to subject ourselves to others. (5:22-25) My married life is the closest interpersonal refraction of what I say I believe about Grace, the Word, and the Spirit in my life. Not only am I listening to God on the subject, but healthy counsel from others who love me can make me more sensitive to the areas where God wants to build the relationship between husband and wife.
Third, how my family interacts with each other, and ultimately with God.
Again, this is the context in which we find the call to subject ourselves. (6:1-4) None of us are born parents. It is something everyone of us has to learn to do. We learn to be good parents for the nurturing of our children, but also to the display of Grace incarnate in the most basic of societies building blocks. We grow as parents, the children grow as whole people, and grace is shown to be the foundation from which extraordinary concern, love, forgiveness, etc. emanates. Not that we are ever perfect people, or even perfect parents. But that having been born into Grace by the regenerative power operative in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we show growing qualitative distinctiveness in our family life and lifestyle. Accountability to a tight group of others not only keeps this calling in focus, but opens me up to loving and constructive counsel from others a little further along the path.
Fourth, how I honor my work commitments.
Ephesians 6:5-9 has some potentially very broad ramifications when its principles are brought across 2000 years and applied to our present context. Who am I? What are my strengths and my weaknesses? What kind of arena has God prepared for me and my spouse to serve Him in? Am I learning the appropriate disciplines that will honor God and build my effectiveness in that calling? Are we growing in that calling: growing in faithfulness, efficiency and effectiveness?
Of all of the possible areas where accountability has the potential for good, this may be one of the greatest. This is the culmination of my reason for living, how I carry that out, and what fruit God ordains to result from it. It extends for the greatest part of my life. Accountability in this area is imperative. Accountability that is ultimately: willful, measurable, constructive, and corrective. Bathed of course in prayer and love, a tight group of others to whom I willfully commit my dreams, expectations, progress and adjustments, can mean the difference between the lone ranger lifestyle that may or may not be effective, and, a growing experimentation of the diversity of personality, giftedness and calling that God weaves into each of His children, but wants to weave together with others for the most effective demonstration of His Grace possible in human flesh. (John 13:35)
There are at least two faces to accountability. The first, and most important, has to do with that which is IN ME. To be short and specific. Am I willing to be "measured" against God's standard, realizing that it is a grace standard, and not a law standard? Or maybe better put, it is a love standard, and not a standard that gains me any righteousness. Do I have an open heart, one that is willing to be spoken to by other maturing believers, and the occasional immature or even non-believer? Can God use other people to speak into my life things that He may indeed be wanting to speak and uses other people to speak, albeit it imperfectly? Also, see Proverbs 27:4,6,9 and 17 in relation to this topic.
The second face of accountability has to do with whatever "listening" I may have with or owe TO OTHERS. In this sense, accountability is always vertical, never really horizontal. Accountability has many levels or nuances in relationship to differing groups of people. We might say, as Bobby Clinton says in his book on mentoring, there are many levels of accountability, just as there are many levels, or different types of mentoring. I owe one thing to a boss for whom I work, and something very different to a close circle of counselors to whom I willfully commit active "listening" about certain areas of my life. The one is an institutional kind of accountability and we might call the other a relational kind of "listening." This relational accountability has much more to do with my stated values, and with those values that God has set down in his word that describe the qualitative distinctiveness of his children. In both cases, isolation from any thought of encouragement or rebuke from others can be very dangerous for me as an individual because it leaves me listening to God and his word all on my own. Such listening can very easily become consumptive, distorted by my own blindness’. We need not look far in the NT to see such challenges to us as fellow followers in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Gal 6 and Hebrews 10:24 are just two of many verses in the NT that would lead us to some kind of qualitative "listening" to each other, or especially to others further along the path than we are.
How can we achieve such accountability?
There are excellent books on the subject that can detail more of the pragmatics and nuances of application. (see Bobby Clinton's book on mentoring ) But, I see three foundations necessary to build into my consciousness before I would even be willing to risk accountability.
- Dealing with God's place in my life and allowing HIM unqualified access to the inner dimensions of my life. If I do not have intimacy and accountability with Him, I can hardly have it with others.
- Finding another mature believer(s) to whom I can entrust the outward expressions of my life. I say outward, because no one can truly see your inner motivations, except for the Sprit of God. But, the outward expressions do model to a certain degree the values that I have set in my heart. Accountability to others for those outward expressions can lead me to the joyful discovery of roots in my inner being that God can and will change to His glory, my healing, and the molding of new outward expressions as demonstrations of His resurrection power. (Hebrews 4:12-16)
- By choosing to sensitively respond to the compassionate giving and receiving that ought to go on in the body of Christ. I recognize that this "ought" does not always exist. But, I can learn to chose how I respond to what people do and say. The more all of us can learn to chose an ultimately positive response/reaction to what people say and do, the sooner we will see more local bodies living out the interpersonal qualitative distinctiveness that God has ordained for Christ's people.
What kind of people are we looking for when we say accountability?
People who understand grace. Not just that we have received grace in our Lord Jesus Christ. But, as Paul says to the Galatians in chapter two, we are called to live in grace. Many people to whom I could my commit myself in accountability have so regimented grace, that they have in effect restored the power of the Law to those who have been freed from the Law, through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. cf. Romans 6. Rather than referencing my life to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ that the Spirit wants to work in us, they will project the Law on me and want to enslave me once again to that from which Jesus has liberated me.
People who practice the grace disciplines. People who know how to use the Scriptures to nurture their own intimacy with God the Father. People who know how to come boldly into the presence of the Father and to talk with Him. These kinds of people can consistently turn me back to the One to whom I also need to relate, and from whom I receive the mercy and grace to continue growing into the person He wants me to be. cf. Hebrews 4:12-16
People who are ahead of me in their walk towards eternity. In this regard, certain people will serve us in one regard and perhaps not as effectively in another. For example, one person may have demonstrated greater strength in the parenting role, but not as much strength, in regards to my need, in the area of who I am and where I best fit in God’s service. Finally, we are looking for people who know how to keep confidences. Loose tongues can undue all of the good that may have come from the advice, counsel, rebuke, encouragement that they have given.
Having said all of this, it is important to also add two more qualifiers. First, such "listening" should never be coerced. It is possible, as in the case of a slave, to coerce such forced listening and response. But, within the relational accountability to which I am referring, it should never be forced on the individual. I chose to listen to others because so many admonitions in Scripture lead me in this direction. Just look at all of the passages in the book of Proverbs that indicate the necessity and safety that comes from the wealth of counselors. Second, I have chosen the word "listening" as a more appropriate description of what I mean by accountability because what I do with the words spoken to me by those who I embrace as a having a vertical right to speak into my life, is solely up to me. Even those who usurp a right that I have not willfully given to them by speaking (many would say criticizing) into my life, speak words that I still must take before the Holy Spirit of God, in the light of the Word of God, and measure for any seminal accuracy. Those who abuse the right that I have willfully given to them by gossiping, reacting rather than encouraging or rebuking, or using such information to their own political ends, must be dealt with as in the presence of the resident Holy Spirit, in the light of the Word of God, to see again if there is any seed of truth in their words or actions towards me. God's sovereignty always supersedes men's actions in my life, even when they judge me incorrectly or worse, use information to hurt me.
In the final analysis then, when I listen to others, whether I have invited them to speak into my life, or whether they usurp a right to speak into my life, or whether I am forced by some type of servitude to respond to their power, I listen:
- with sensitivity to the Spirit of God resident within me testing any seminal truth in what is said,
- in the light of the Word of God that becomes the final arbiter of what God wants me to be,
- with an open heart that wants to hear all that God wants to say to me,
- embracing God's sovereignty over all that comes my way.
Listening is a characteristic of the heart!
All of us need to learn more about joyfully subjecting ourselves to giving account! And it is never too early to start.