A popular fad within North American (non-Catholic) Christianity in recent years is the notion of “Christian accountability” or “accountability partners”. Many claim that a Christian “needs to be held accountable” or “needs an accountability partner”. Under “Christian accountability”, you, as a Christian, are supposed to disclose regularly the sins you committed to your “accountability partner” or “Christian accountability group”, who in turn shall “hold you accountable”. The underlying message being preached is that salvation through Jesus Christ is insufficient, for somehow “Christian accountability” is a mandatory part of being a Christian. While some have already begun to raise legitimate criticisms and objections to this practice, there have been insufficient attempts to address its errors using a Bible-based approach. As a result, “Christian accountability” proponents can easily claim “the way you describe Christian accountability / accountability partners is inaccurate, and the way we do it is OK”. This post aims to use what the Bible says to demonstrate that the concept of “Christian accountability”, regardless of how it is practised, is contrary to Biblical teaching, and is therefore heretical. See also my earlier post “Thoughts on Christian Accountability, Discipleship, and Las Vegas”.
As the concept of “accountability” entered common everyday vocabulary beginning the mid-20th century, it and its related words therefore only appear in newer English translations of the Bible. All quotations from the Bible in this post are therefore from the New International Version (NIV).
God first used the concept of “holding someone accountable” in the Book of Ezekiel:
When I say to a wicked man, 'You will surely die,' and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. (Ezekiel 3:18)
Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, and I put a stumbling block before him, he will die. Since you did not warn him, he will die for his sin. The righteous things he did will not be remembered, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. (Ezekiel 3:20)
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes the life of one of them, that man will be taken away because of his sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for his blood. (Ezekiel 33:6)
When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. (Ezekiel 33:8)
In these passages, God ordered the prophet Ezekiel to warn the people of their evil ways. If the people did not repent from their sinful ways, God’s intention was that they will die. However, had Ezekiel failed to deliver the warning to the people, thereby depriving them the opportunity to respond, he would also die because God would have considered him responsible, i.e. accountable, for the people’s deaths (“a life for a life”, under the Law of Moses).
Here, we can see how God uses the concept of “accountability”. God has the authority to do all things, and He delegates some specific authority and responsibility to a subordinate person in order to carry out a task. In Ezekiel’s case, the prophet received the authority to speak on God’s behalf to deliver a specific message. In return, Ezekiel was accountable to God for performance of the task. Failure to perform the task as per God’s expectations would result in corrective or disciplinary action commonly known as “being held accountable”, which in this case is death.
The disciplinary nature of “holding someone accountable” is further affirmed by God in a later passage:
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:10)
Here, God is speaking about the Jewish religious leaders, who were delegated by God to care for the people. Unfortunately, they chose to abuse the people and failed in their delegated task. Therefore, God “held them accountable”, i.e. disciplined them, by revoking their delegated authority and denying them further opportunities to abuse the people. This was achieved by the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In summary, God’s view of accountability is the delegation of authority to a subordinate person in order to achieve one or more tasks, and the failure of the subordinate person to complete the task(s) would result in the person being held accountable through disciplinary measures up to and including termination (i.e. death). The secular corporate world interprets accountability in a similar manner, as illustrated in this graphic:
As clearly seen in the graphic, those in a lower rung are accountable to those in higher rungs, and those in higher rungs have authority over those in a lower rung. Accountability is fundamentally hierarchical, and cannot exist in the absence of hierarchy and authority. What the graphic does not show is that God is always in the top rung, He has authority over everyone, and everyone is accountable to Him:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. (Romans 3:19)
Having given His Law through Moses, God has asserted His authority over every person and has provided us with His expectations of what we should do with our lives, i.e. our life tasks. Since no human person has ever satisfactorily completed all these tasks, i.e. fulfill all the demands of the Law of Moses, everyone is to be held accountable to God and receive the prescribed disciplinary action, i.e. eternal termination (death). The Good News is that Jesus Christ, Son of God, became human and walked on earth, so as to take our place in being held accountable to God, and as a result anyone who believes in Jesus Christ will no longer be accountable to God the Father for his or her sins (John 3:16).
Now that we have defined accountability and its components, we can now ask these questions: If, because of Jesus Christ, not even God the Father will “hold us accountable” for our sins, is anyone qualified to be an “accountability partner” and “hold us accountable”? Can one Christian “hold another accountable”? Is “Christian accountability” even possible, if Bible teachings are followed?
The answers are clearly no in all of the above. As discussed, in order to “hold someone accountable”, one must have authority over the person “being held accountable”. But Jesus rebukes such authority claims among Christians as follows:
Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26)
The message of Jesus to the proponents of “Christian accountability” is clear: among Christians, no one is greater than another, and no one has authority over another. There is no hierarchy and there are no authority claims between (non-Catholic) Christians. It is simply impossible and contrary to Christ’s teaching for one Christian to be “accountable” to another, as a Christian. Of course, if a Christian’s employer, for example, happens to be a Christian as well, the Christian employee would be accountable to the Christian employer, but only as an employee. The Christian employee is not accountable to the Christian employer as a Christian.
Another corrosive effect of “Christian accountability” is its requirement for Christians to continually focus on their sins, so as to have material for their “accountability partners” to “hold them accountable”, instead of focusing on living the new life in Christ. The fundamental nature of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ is described this way in the Bible:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17)
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24)
The person who believes in Jesus Christ is no longer the sinner who needs to be “held accountable” in judgement. Rather, the Christian is someone who is a child of God who lives by Christ within. Since there is no longer any sin within the Christian, there is nothing to be “held accountable” for.
To those who still believe that “Christian accountability” is somehow useful in living the Christian life, the Bible provides this warning:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)
In other words, the human teaching of “Christian accountability” is a useless time-waster at best, and in most cases is life-destroying legalism.
The cunning proponent of “Christian accountability” may respond by claiming that some Bible passages support the concept, namely:
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. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
Analyzing the passages, however, would result in this error to be refuted, as these passages are not describing “Christian accountability”. In the first verse of the Galatians passage, the instruction is to restore the brother “caught in a sin” (note: the sin remains external to the brother, i.e. the brother never became a “sinner”), and there is no mention of “holding the brother accountable”, or discussion of disciplinary measures. The Apostle Paul also emphasized that this restoration be done gently, or else one may be tempted to – guess what – “hold the brother accountable”! In other words, Paul is in fact warning against “Christian accountability” in this verse!
For the second verse, the instruction is to “carry each other’s burdens”. However, the “accountability partner” does no such thing, for the “accountability partner” is there to remind and point out to the person “being held accountable” all about the latter’s burdens: how heavy they are, how awful they are, and how much the person needs to be “held accountable” for them. The “accountability partner” never lifts a finger, let alone carries another’s burden. The correct action, as instructed by the Bible, is to help each other with burdens, with the ultimate aim of passing them to Jesus Christ.
In the James passage, note that there is no “holding someone accountable” associated with the mutual confession of sins. After hearing the confession, the response as instructed is to “pray for each other”, and not “hold each other accountable” or imposing any disciplinary measures. In other words, the confession is in fact for the benefit of the confessor, so as to experience grace demonstrated. There is no “accountability” going on.
In summary, “Christian accountability” is legalistic human teaching that violates the teachings of the Bible, and any claim that Christians need “accountability partners” or “to be held accountable” is heresy.
There are two further practical objections against “Christian accountability” that have not been given adequate exposure. While they are human considerations, they are still useful in demonstrating that “Christian accountability” is a dangerous concept that destroys lives.
First, for the average Christian who is to be an “accountability partner”, are you truly prepared to handle what you may hear? Even those who profess to be Christian (and told to sign up for “accountability partners”) have done shocking acts. Are you prepared to respond, for example, if you hear of child sexual abuse? Never mind the moral (and possibly legal, depending on jurisdiction) requirement to report to the police, are you ready for how hearing that would affect you? Yes, child sexual abuse does occur among those who profess to be Christian – just ask the Catholic Church.
Even if what you heard as an “accountability partner” is not as serious as child sexual abuse, would you be able to refrain from gossip, especially if the matter disclosed involves people you know? Suppose the disclosure you heard is of a person having an affair, and you know this person’s spouse, would you inform the spouse? If you do, are you prepared to “be held accountable” for any negative fallout, including divorce? If you do not, are you prepared to “be held accountable” by the spouse for covering up the affair? Hold no one accountable, lest you be held accountable yourselves!
This leads to the second practical objection. Most “accountability partners” are average Christians without any formal training in counselling, and not subject to professional regulation. In other words, any church that requires Christians to have “accountability partners” is requiring people to disclose their private psychological matters to amateurs in environments with little professional oversight. This is a legal liability accident waiting to happen. In a lawsuit for damages against such a church, the plaintiff’s argument would probably proceed like this:
1. This church requires people to have “accountability partners”. Those who do not have “accountability partners” are labelled “bad Christians”.
2. These “accountability partners” are mostly amateurs who have little training in counselling and are subject to little professional/regulatory oversight.
3. The actions of these “accountability partners” in response to private intimate information disclosed by the plaintiff resulted in damages.
4. Since the church failed to provide adequate training and oversight proportional to and required by such an intimate level of personal disclosure, the church has failed in due diligence.
5. Therefore, this church is liable, or legally “accountable”, for damages.
I’m sure there are more than a few lawyers who will be happy to take on such a case on behalf of a plaintiff. In fact, my guess is that when God decides to shut down this heterodox practice known as “Christian accountability”, He would do so via such multi-million dollar lawsuits.
My prayer is that this post would save at least one person from this false teaching of “Christian accountability”. Even if only one person is saved, it would have been worth it.
May those who seek to “hold others accountable” be “held accountable” themselves! To God be the glory! He shall have the last word:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)