December 16, 2017

Christian Community, Friendship and the Quest for Accountability

Humility: True GreatnessI received this book from Sovereign Grace Ministries, not as a review copy, but as a nice gift from a staff member there. This post isn’t a review, but an exploration of one idea in the book- accountability relationships- that I want to encourage.

Twice a week, I meet with a group of men to study, talk and pray together about our journey as Christians. We’ve been reading and discussing C. J. Mahaney’s excellent little book, Humility. (After Thanksgiving, we’re going to read John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life.)

Mahaney’s book is a simple, straightforward exhortation to value and pursue humility. Mahaney is that rare reformed writer with a light touch. His book is full of self-deprecating illustrations and devotional insights based on a Christ-centered/cross-centered focus on the Gospel. Mahaney is a blue-collar preacher, not a scholar, and he speaks with a pastor’s heart and insights. I recommend the book for any group looking for a study of the Christian life that majors on ground-level application.

One of Mahaney’s chapters is about the importance of inviting and pursuing specific feedback from other Christians in an accountability setting. Referring to specific texts from Hebrews, Mahaney makes a clear cut case that holiness is a community project, and not one that is pursued in isolation. The “one another” passages in the New Testament remind us that without the insights and loving assessments of others, we will never see many of our own sins, or many of the underlying issues that motivate sinful patterns of behavior.

Mahaney says that we must purposefully invite accountability relationships, and that we must assertively participate in those relationships. Humility comes when we admit that others, flawed like ourselves, are God’s instruments for our growth in Christlikeness.

There is much talk of discernment, exhortation, confrontation and public correction on the blogosphere these days. It seems that a hundred reformed bloggers have made Mark Driscoll’s vocabulary their personal project, and those who are critiquing Driscoll are applauded as genuinely caring about holiness.

What is the role of interpersonal relationships in a Christian’s growth in holiness? What, specifically, is the value of an accountability relationship? What form should such relationships take, and what hinders such relationships from forming?

Christian community is usually pictured as a gathered, worshiping community. While this is true, the New Testament is full of many other examples of community: families, small groups, house churches, disciples ministering in “twos,” mentoring relationships, relationships by letter, cell groups, mission oriented partnerships, visiting those in prisons, teaching partnerships and so on. Christian community is very pragmatic in form. Whatever the task requires, Christian community can adapt to a form that will facilitate that task.

The Christian pursuing growth in Christian character should seek out a form of community that can encourage such growth. This most usually takes the form of a mentoring relationship with one or two other believers (Apollos learning from Priscilla and Aquilla) or the partnership of an older and younger believer (Paul and Timothy.)

The point of such a relationship isn’t simply the transfer of information. That can be done with a book, a DVD or an iPod. I listen to several hours of teaching and information every day on my iPod Nano, but none of it occurs in any kind of relationship that provides me with an example, a conversation partner, a mentor or a spiritual partner in growth. (I like Alistair Begg, but I don’t think he likes me.)

A friend recently remarked to me that the emerging church he attended before coming to our ministry was constantly pressing for the formation of small groups and accountability relationships. This doesn’t surprise me, as the testimony and influence of men like (hold on to your helmets Slice-fans) Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson and Larry Crabb has convinced many younger pastors that spiritual conversation is an essential component in spiritual growth. I have often pointed out that the critics of the emerging church are missing the point of the coffee bars and foyers with tables for drinks and food. The point is conversation; spiritual conversation where issues of holiness, struggle, growth and discipleship can be addressed.

It is the coffee shop and the pub, not just the lecture hall, that represents the dialogical spiritual growth model Mahaney is recommending. The community of the church isn’t a gathering, but an ongoing conversation that takes place within relationships, as well as under the ministry of servant-teachers. In this sense, the phrase “emerging conversation” is an appropriate term for the ongoing life of the church.

Of course, a place and an opportunity do not mean true growth takes place. The quality of an accountability relationship is critical. The Christian tradition of spiritual direction is unknown to many evangelicals. It is not unusual for a Christian exposed to AA or other 12-Step groups to say that “we need something like that in the church,” meaning an approach to spiritual growth that is mentored, informal, conversational, practical, narrated and transferable. AA has no pastors or high profile leaders, but only a network of people who have been mentored, participated in small groups and walked through the process of learning, understanding and practicing the 12 Steps.

Sadly, many evangelical pastors have no idea what such conversational accountability relationships would be like and have no idea how to promote such relationships among their congregations. The preference for preaching as the only way to facilitate spiritual growth doesn’t grow out of the primacy of preaching in the New Testament- that’s obvious. What we need to see is that many pastors have no idea how to walk with men in a mentoring, conversational relationship because their conception of discipleship is one of Jonathan Edwards or Arthur Pink locked up in a study, rather than Richard Baxter going house to house or Jesus camping out with his disciples.

Accountability relationships are more than just opportunities for conversations. They are commitments between Christians who trust each other and give one another permission to speak to levels of truth that casual relationships pass over. Such relationships can’t be easily constructed. They can’t simply be scheduled or assigned. In a very real sense, they must be born of the Holy Spirit and the providence of God. I would suggest that the first step in accountability relationships should be to pray that we would be guided to the right persons, and that we would see those persons in the light of the need for confidentiality, honesty and compassion.

Beyond that, we should be willing to be such a mentor and friend to others. The door to being the one benefiting from a spiritual friendship may be the willingness to be a friend to others. It is that “two way” aspect of praying that should constantly remind us of the qualities needed for a friendship to become a tool of the Spirit in shaping character.

It is certainly true that most of us avoid accountability relationships because there is no one we would trust with our secrets, failures and struggles. Contemporary evangelical spirituality values outward demonstrations of piety, not interpersonal honesty where we confess our sins and ask for advice in our struggles. We are supposed to confess our victories over sin, not our struggles with sin. Holiness, for most evangelical Christians, is a state of arrival, not a journey of response to the Gospel. We want triumph, not lessons. Abiding in Christ is supposed to result in “victory.” The “fruit” of the Christian life is suppose to come in lives where all the major problems have been resolved, and we gather to pray for further victory, for strugglers and for what Joel Osteen calls “God’s Favor.”

The focus of evangelical spirituality in America works against accountability relationships, and even when those relationships occur, it works against true honesty, repentance and the pursuit of humility. For the Christian seeking real spiritual maturity, choosing an accountability group or partner will be a serious, intentional and an “out of the comfort zone” assignment.

This speaks clearly to the need to develop friendships, and a good pastor will invest time in teaching about friendship, and in making it clear that having the right friendships is a key to spiritual growth, holiness and a balanced Christian life. The “wounds of friend” are the substance of good exhortation and admonition. The idea that exhortation should come from strangers or church members with whom we have little actual relationship is naive, and counter-productive to the development of real accountability.

It would be wise for us to remember that a congregation needs to foster a culture where there are friendships, where those friendships are designed to help us move toward Christian maturity, and where there is time and place for such relationships to happen. If there are activities every night at the church, there will not be time for Christian friendships and conversations. (Unless you want to spend a lot of time talking in the parking lot.) A “Friendship Retreat” each year would be a good way to set an agenda for Christian relationships of accountability.

I believe that accountability is only one aspect of Christian friendship, but it is important enough that every Christian should be answering these questions: Do you have Christian friends who have permission to confront you, exhort you and encourage you on the way of holiness? Do you have regular conversations where those matters of behavior and motivation are on the table? Do you, as Mahaney, suggests, assertively and actively participate in those conversations, or do you avoid any conversation that leads to seeing your need of repentance and change? Are these relationships a matter of prayer, especially if you do not yet have Christian friends that will watch over your soul?

Let me close by saying this is important for pastors, and more difficult for pastors than for other people. Pastors often have few friends, and sharing struggles with members of their own congregations is often not wise or prudent. If you have a pastor, talk to him about this aspect of his life. Do the elders and staff member function as an accountability group for one another? Does the church understand this will mean spending “non working” time together simply being friends? Is the church prepared to let its pastor be a human being, have regular relationships and experience the benefits of correction?

Many thanks to C.J. Mahaney for writing a very useful book, and I hope other Christians can work with some of these ideas to promote friendships where accountability and many other good things grow.

Comments

  1. Funny you mentioned AA. I’m going through a major crisis in my life and found the church ill-equipped to deal with me. I returned to the 12-step program because of a yearning for a place where sinners just share their lives and stories, no one has it figured out and people just weep with those who weep.

  2. Sleeperguy says:

    I have noticed over the years that men in general have very few real friends, those that go beyond the level of discussing sports and work. We have an even harder time establishing real accountability partners to ask us the tough questions. I believe we are all too busy with “living” to slow down and live, grow, fellowship. It is vital that we somehow make the effort to find at least one guy we can rely on to keep us accountable and for us to keep someone accountable as well.