Guys, let’s face it. If a pastor’s accountability isn’t in the local church, it’s probably not real accountability. It might give the illusion of accountability so he can traffic in the vocabulary without the entanglements of the substance.
Here’s the problem: Not everyone is clear on what they mean when they use the word “accountability.” Let me suggest four values we should seek to experience in accountability within a plurality of elders in a local church: intentionality, self-disclosure, approachability, and appeal.
Below we’ll look a bit at each of these values. But first, there’s one overarching principle we must never overlook. The secret underlying the kind of loving accountable relationships where elders grow more in love with Jesus, their wife, and their ministry, is humility.
Humility is the oil that lubricates the engine of plurality. When one considers all of the polity options God could have chosen for governing churches, I suspect he chose plurality because he loves humility. And plurality can’t work without humility, because in plurality, God imposes a governing structure that can’t be effective without embodying humble values. God loves unity, so he calls us to plurality where we must humbly persevere with one another to function effectively.
God loves making us holy, so he unites us to men who will make us grow. God loves patience, so he imposes a way of governing that requires humble listening and a trust that God is working in the lives of others.
God has decided the church will be governed in ways that value both the ends and also the means. That is, God values decision-making, but he also values the way we relate to each other in the process. We often think what’s “best” in church polity is what’s most efficient, easiest, or most effective way of doing something. Instead, God’s best way is whatever is the most beautiful way.
The standard of beauty is God—the interplay of his own unity, diversity, and harmony.
God throws together diverse men with different gifts who have strong opinions—and then insists upon their unity. This does not always look or feel “beautiful.” But God still charges elders to lead the church. As they lead, they are also called to grow in their exercise of authority as they remain mutually accountable and responsible to one another. The only hope for such a dynamic to exist in a group is for us to make humility our aim.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word. (Isa. 66:2)
God made healthy plurality depend on accountability because he loves humility. Now, to the four values of accountability.
This means I will have some defined, regular, and consistent context in my life where guys who know me can encourage me, pray for me, and understand my patterns of temptation. It’s saying, “I love my wife enough, my family enough, the church enough, and fear God enough, that I’m actually going to define the contexts for my accountability.”
Rather than sharing in a generic manner, or in vague generalities, or using amoral words to remove any sense of my own moral agency, I’m going to ensure they know me all the way down to where I’m most tempted. This way they can pray for me, encourage my growth, and ask how I’m doing.
We must press down into all the areas that could potentially detonate our family or ministry—and define when and where these will be discussed. That’s intentionality.
Self-disclosure brings forth humility by making it your responsibility to humbly open your soul to those to whom you are accountable. Fellow elders are not prosecuting attorneys cross-examining your life. Instead, you are a witness to your own life, sharing truthfully, freely, and happily with little or no provocation.
In Christ, we have God’s self-disclosure (John 1:18). Jesus is God moving toward us making himself known. Self-disclosure stems from the incarnation by communicating that we too want to experience deep community. We move toward one another by making ourselves known first. The burden is on me to disclose my joys and struggles.
This small distinction in how we view self-disclosure results in a far more gracious approach to accountability and respects the believer’s relationship with God. Behind this value is a confidence that God’s work in our lives propels us toward an honest life before him and one another. Placing the accent on our disclosure creates an arrangement where accountability is not rigged to find sin or that places us in the role of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it’s transformed into a context to trust God’s Word and encourage the exercise of humility. When I make self-disclosure my responsibility, it’s easier for others to ask me questions about my soul, my marriage, my parenting, my ministry, or to share their heart for me.
Ken Sande helpfully describes the importance of conducting ourselves in a way that makes us approachable, generous, and easy to talk to—even if our conversation is about something hard. He says when we live humbly, resonate with openness, and become more Christlike, we gain “passports” into others’ lives. This is an important concept for anyone who wants to experience genuine, meaningful, and fruitful accountability.
Simply belonging to a group is not a passport into others’ lives. A passport authorizes you to enter and travel in a foreign land. Similarly, as we’re intentional, self-disclosing, and approachable with one another, we gain passports into the lives of the other people in our group. These passports are earned bestowals of trust that come when others feel they can trust us with their own self-disclosure and with the care of their souls amid their struggles.
If you want to experience real accountability and helpful feedback from others, you will need to be known as one who is approachable and trustworthy.
This final value recognizes that accountability is hard and sometimes needs help. Maybe the experience of fellowship breaks down due to a conflict that can’t be resolved, or maybe one person in the group feels permanently tagged by something they’ve confessed. Maybe it’s something more serious: You seem to be caught in sin and the group feels unable to help, or your wife feels trapped by some pattern of behavior you’re exercising in the home and just doesn’t know what to do.
The value of appeal says, even before we start our group, we’re agreeing a plea for help may be necessary, and we’re defining the person or group within the church to whom we will appeal.
Appeal says that seeking outside help is not betrayal or slander, but is sometimes necessary when sinners are trying to help each other.
Appeal says we are agreeing up front we will not allow our homes to become tightly controlled, closed systems; that our wives can appeal to others for help if they feel the need.
Our cycles of accountability can be appealed if something becomes an albatross. The value of appeal anticipates that sometimes we are blind and need help and in that moment, we are far less likely to want to seek it. So we agree now to protect ourselves (and those we love) then.
Elders need humility like engines need oil. Without out humility, breakdown is inevitable. An important way to pursue humility is through accountability. Brothers, value accountability and learn to see it as a vital cog in the engine of a healthy plurality.