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R. C. Sproul Jr. talks about being asked by a deacon at church twenty years ago if he had an “accountability group.” When it was explained that this would be ” a group of men who are active in your life, that care for you enough to challenge you when you fall into sin. They watch out for you, support you, encourage you to grow in grace and wisdom.” He responded that he did have an “accountability group” in that case—“It’s just that I call them my friends.” Twenty years later he is hearing the same questions:

When people find out about the loss of my wife, they suggest that I find myself a group, Though I seek to mask my skepticism, it apparently shows through. “Really,” folks tell me,” you need people that you can talk to, that you can be real with. You need people you can count on to be there for you.” The answer is the same. I understand the need. And it is well met in my life, by my friends.

Now I have nothing against accountability, nor accountability groups. I am positively in favor of grieving, and have nothing against groups built around that theme. What puzzles me on both counts, however, is how we have lost what is natural, and sought to replace it with programs. What does it say about the culture, both inside and outside the church, that callings normally born by friends now are met by something so artificial, so inorganic. These groups strike me as the emotional equivalent of a multivitamin. Sure enough many of us are not getting enough vitamin D or zinc in our diets. But isn’t eating a few more veggies a better way to solve the problem?

He goes on to talk about the importance of authenticity, communication, and intentionality:

Institutional solutions to relational problems at least do this for us—they expose our relational weaknesses. If our lifestyles make healthy meals a challenge, we need to change our lifestyles. If the transience and cyber-ness of our relationships make, well, friendship, a problem we need to change how we relate. We need to love near, and serve near.

And if, on the other hand, we have healthy relationships—real, personal relationships where we encourage one another toward righteousness, where we are free to be ourselves, where we talk with depth, and love with sincerity, we yet have this to do- we need to give thanks. We need not create a gratitude committee at our local church to create a gratitude program. No, we need to give thanks. So here I do. I have friends and family that love and care for me and my children. They check up on me. They look me in the eye when they talk to me. They hug me when they see me. They tell me they love me, and joyfully receive my love in return. They mourn when I mourn, as I rejoice when they rejoice. And I pray that they know that I give thanks to Him for them. I have friends, more and better than I deserve.

This is not a critique of accountability, but raises the question of its institutionalization or systematic implementation. For some I think this is necessary and helpful. But it may not be for those who have engaged and active friends who ask good questions and know how to listen well.

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24 thoughts on “Do You Have an Accountability Partner?”

  1. MIke says:

    I like when you said, “but raises the question of its institutionalization or systematic implementation.” I have seen some bad examples of AG’s, which was part of the reason I wrote the following blog…

  2. These thoughts are profoundly, incredibly awesome!!!

    In my church/ministry life we’ve never had much in the way of institutional programming because of the reasons he expresses better than I’ve ever heard. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t program it into existence.

  3. Dave Moore says:

    I have had great “accountability” with some men for many years, but we did not link up because we lived in the same zip code…which is how many churches seem to make these things occur!

    Relationships, if they are good, take time, not the sort of thing a heavily bureaucratized church likes to acknowledge.

  4. Ryan Phelps says:

    “Institutional solutions to relational problems at least do this for us—they expose our relational weaknesses.”

    So what is the answer in the meantime? And by “meantime” I mean “Until Christ comes.” Sproul’s remarks are frustrating insofar as they point out the problem while assuming the solution.

  5. Jake Meador says:

    Had a good conversation with someone from my church about something like this when it comes to small groups: Her comment was really helpful, “Small groups are necessary for a small group of people in the church and, therefore, it’s also necessary that some people for whom they aren’t necessary get involved in them anyway. But they aren’t the be all and end all of Christian community.”

  6. I do have a small group of Christian men from other churches that I meet with once a week for a couple of hours. That’s mostly the only time I see them, and it’s perhaps the most important time I have because of the personal life-line they provide. I have a large number of arms-length associates at church and work, but no close friends aside from my wife who hold me accountable as I see them regularly.

    It would be nice to have, but I suspect that too many men are like me who have no one like that. If it’s God’s will, He will provide. Otherwise, I have no idea how to build that kind of relationship with people. It’s the primary reason I’ve never pursued pastoral ministry.

    1. Nicholas says:

      Jim – – I agree with your comment. It would be wonderful if I had a group of friends who would spontaneously reach out to me and ask about my walk with Christ. But seriously, after work responsibilities and family duties and relationships, what man has the time and opportunity to build such friendships? That’s why accountability groups that meet on a regular basis and for that stated purpose is important and helpful.

  7. That’s an excellent comparison, and a very interesting post.

    I’m wondering what the delineation is between accountability groups and, say, the elders of a church? Is there a degree to which accountability is institutionalised in the appointment of elders? It’s not a good thing to strip the church of all its institutions, is it? Christ recognised that we needed communion, for example, because he knew our forgetfulness.

    My own church has stopped small groups (where bible study was the focus) and replaced them with “discipleship environments” (with a more outward, invitational and social dynamic, and bible study as one aspect of the whole). The idea is that people will study the bible anyway, but they won’t necessarily get invested and involved with their communities outside of the church.(Anyone think this change sounds risky?!)

    Churches are inclined to institutionalize those things which its leaders believe are being overlooked. Is this a valid approach? It can end up becoming legalistic and controlling if unchecked. How do we keep it in check?

    I think the answer is to recognise what the ideal is. Ideally, people will pray without needing a prayer meeting to attend, and people will be accountable without having accountability groups. They will arrange to meet together and pray and worship without needing an official invitation.

    But making such things officially available to help the weak brother is worthwhile, so long as we don’t require people to take their vitamins when we know they’re getting their vegetables.

    Just some thoughts, I’d be happy to hear anyone’s responses to them.

    1. I’m not sure I follow you. For example:

      “But making such things officially available to help the weak brother is worthwhile, so long as we don’t require people to take their vitamins when we know they’re getting their vegetables.”

      In this context, in what way are you saying that a brother is weak or strong? I’m weak in many ways and at least somewhat strong in others. Yet even then my strength is not my own but God’s. But there are times when it is good to delineate “strong” Christians from “weak” Christians.

      1. Hi Jim,

        I’m not trying to suggest that categorically some are strong and some are weak. I mean “in the places where we have weaknesses, the church can sometimes help us to make up for those weaknesses”.

        Certain practices of the church only make sense as “institutions”, because they are of a corporate nature. I think the point Sproul is making is that we should not rush to create a programme or institution whenever we see a weakness, as though that will correct it: it may in fact foster it.

        The solution to so many of our weaknesses is having Christ magnified, so I think the risk is that the church attempts to replace Christ in the life of the Christian, by creating programmes and meetings.

        One thing I’ve found is that it’s very easy for churches to put on so many different types of events, meetings, groups, social gatherings etc… that the Christian can feel like he has no time left to run the affairs of his own life, to shepherd his family, or engage with his friends. There is also a burden of guilt created, because “there are brothers and sisters serving to bring you this event, and you haven’t even signed up?! For shame…”

        If we make something an institution when really it just needs to be an informal, temporary, naturally occurring thing, then we risk burdening the church.

        The church in Acts noticed that the poor and helpless were being overlooked, and created a programme to deal with it. Paul shows that he was in one accord with the Jerusalem church leaders when he talked about remembering the poor, the very thing he was keen to do. This wasn’t a relational issue though, it was an issue of immediate, urgent physical need.

        I run an optional bible readthrough group for
        people in my church, but I can attest to the frustration it causes when I feel people are not engaged. I see something eminently worth doing, and I put effort into making it as easy as possible, and people often respond with indifference. This isn’t a reason not to do it, but it’s a reminder that transformation of hearts is what my church really needs, and only the Spirit can do that. It’s a reminder to me that what I need is not a more effective, personalised programme, but prayer to God: something that Christ has made so “convenient” that I don’t have to go anywhere special, be with anyone else…I don’t even have to open my mouth!

        I think it calls for real wisdom to discern what the needs are in your own congregation, whether you are responsible for meeting those needs, and how best to do it, without tending towards putting our faith in institutions.

        1. Thanks for that clarification. I agree with you.

  8. DM says:

    I’m not sure that I understand what Sproul/Taylor mean by “institutional” accountability groups… Is a small group of guys who self-organize (i.e., not official “church programming”) but meet weekly for 2 hours to talk about life and ask each other deep/accountability questions an institutional accountability group?

    At any rate, regardless of how we define an “institutional accountability group,” I can’t say that I am on board with Sproul’s critique. Even the most “institutional” accountability group, done right (with proper leadership), can take men who were not previously friends and turn them into fast friends. Furthermore, sometimes an “institutional” program (or at least intentional discipleship by someone that might not be considered a close “friend”) is necessary to teach people how to “do” accountability (i.e., how to open up and be vulnerable, the fruitfulness of vulnerability and accountability, how to challenge/confront a friend, etc.). I would agree that the ideal situation is to have overlap between your accountability partners and your “friends” that you spend social time with, but for most people in the marketplace, that is more complex than it may seem to people in vocational ministry. Most of my day will be spent working with people who are not at all interested in my spiritual life. I come home to a wife at night. Probably the majority of my routine “friendship” time occurs in “institutional” settings (which I would am defining to include self-arranged meetings).

  9. aaron says:

    Sounds like he’s (sproul) making a lot of excuses for not doing something. And it seems like God has used people around him to communicate the need for some kind of accountability. Simply by reading the article, for me, its as if he’s screaming for the need to have more accountability in his life.

    1. DM says:

      Actually, I agree. I hope and trust that he does actually have accountability in his life, but his attitude toward any kind of structured accountability mechanism is pretty frightening. At best (if Sproul is in healthy accountability relationships), his view only justifies the excuses of so many who need, but refuse, vulnerable accountability. At worst, his view is indicative that he is living with secret sin. I fail to understand why an influential man who knows and appreciates the value of accountability in his life would undermine the institution of “accountability groups” like this.

  10. I guess the bible is prescriptive about loving and preferring one another, but not about setting up accountability groups. Sproul is saying that he has people that he is accountable to, because he has people who love him. It’s very hard for churches to set up “love groups” (the mind boggles), because these things happen naturally where the Spirit of God is at work.

    If there is genuine love, there is accountability, but if there is accountability, there is not necessarily love. He is taking issue with the idea that accountability is presented as a greater purpose than loving friendship.

    Accountability is the seatbelt, but loving friendship is the car. If a person needs to get somewhere, you want to know if they’ve got a car, not seatbelts.

    1. aaron says:

      Yeah..but after I get in the car with them; I might ask them to put their seatbelt on so I may ‘love’ them longer if we were to be in an ‘acident’.

  11. James says:

    From original: “a group of men who are active in your life, that care for you enough to challenge you when you fall into sin. They watch out for you, support you, encourage you to grow in grace and wisdom”

    I have that in my local church every Sunday when we meet for worship and bible study therefore I do not need to pursue institutional accountability with individuals. I am challanged by the preaching and those who I talk to before and after the service and in bible study watch out for me, support me, and encourage me to grow in grace and wisdom…

    sounds good in theory

    The fact is that if I do not intentionally ask others to ask me hard questions and to be held accountable to ask me those questions (by having set times when we meet for this purpose) it just will not happen.

  12. Jimmy Reagan says:

    My first thought is why would we feel the need to tell someone who lost his wife what he ought to do? Wouldn’t it be better to let them know you’ll pray, or perhaps listen to them?

    The points about “institutional groups” are well taken. That’s not to slam accountability groups, but to remind them of their mission.

  13. Chris Evans says:

    Sproul is arguing that having an accountability group could excuse us from being more vulnerable/accountable in our other relationships.

    Researcher Brene Brown gave a memorable talk at TED about how vulnerability is key to relational health and how shame always tries to get in the way of that vulnerability.

    1. DM says:

      Maybe I just don’t understand what he means by “institutional” accountability groups, then. But even so, his warning would have been better stated as your paraphrase (i.e., “Be careful that you do not neglect vulnerability and accountability in your closest friendships just because you are in an ‘accountability group’ with other people. In fact, I would suggest that accountability will be most beneficial when it happens in the context of close friendships.”).

  14. I wonder how many Christians in the local church really have these deep, intimate friendships. It seems to me that in our culture there is a lack of them both inside and outside the church. Americans can be awfully independent and alone. Not sure what the answer is but do know the pain of the problem.

    1. I think for guys especially that “aloneness” springs from a combination of busy schedules, laziness, social inexperience and an entertainment culture. To break out of that, I think that we need to schedule time to meet up with people for a beer or a coffee or whatever.

      If other guys are like me, the problem is a lack of proactivity. If someone else invites me to come round for dinner or something, I’ll put it in the diary. But I’m rarely actively thinking about how I can schedule time to meet up with people. But it’s only once you’ve done that, that you become friends.

      I think another thing to avoid is meeting with people just when you have something specifically to discuss/argue about…like some theological issue. The message that needs to be sent out is “I like your company, and am willing to give my time to be in your company”. That kind of thing is tremendously affirming, and paves the way for real accountability and support and discipleship and the rest.

      Seems really simple to say it, but we’ve got to arrange to meet up with people we know!

      1. You have some great points here. You’re missing at least one category in your first paragraph, though: socially inept. That would be me. Some day I’ll figure out how to do the last thing you said and have a full-time ministry teaching other men how to do what you said.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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