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In nearly thirty years in evangelicalism, I’ve heard a lot of talk about Christian community. And I’ve often wondered if the community I’d heard about was a fairy tale because it always seemed to be a mirage, twinkling in my peripheral vision. If I looked directly at it, it disappeared.

There are many reasons evangelicals struggle to manifest the community we claim to value, and I think the constant emphasis of accountability is one of the biggest.

Questioning Accountability

One thing that tells us a lot about Evangelical relationship building is the way we prioritize accountability.

Accountability has been a focus of so many men’s groups I’ve been part of over the years. We gathered together to hold each other accountable to the gospel’s high calling and to openly share our failures with each other so that we could encourage each other to do better.

Now, before you mash the comment button and start rage typing profanities at me, hear me out. There’s nothing wrong with accountability; it’s a healthy part of many relationships. The problem enters when it becomes synonymous with “relationship.”

By elevating the accountability aspect of relationships, we run into some issues:

1. Spiritual growth becomes about what I don’t do.

We tend to see accountability as a means to stop us from doing “bad” things. If my men’s group can help me stop looking at porn, that’s great. But as we celebrate that win, we reinforce the idea that our spiritual evolution is about cutting out negative behaviors. But what if I just replace that time with video games or binge watching episodes of Friends? Those are fairly benign activities, right? It becomes a lot harder to hold each other accountable to what’s genuinely profitable because it’s ultimately different for each of us.

So many of Jesus’ parables focused on the good we left undone rather than the bad that we do. This doesn’t mean that the negative things that we do don’t matter, but it’s a lot harder to hold someone accountable to opportunities they ignore. You’d never ask an accountability partner, “Hey, did you walk by any travelers lying in a ditch today? Did you neglect to visit someone in prison today? Did you neglect to clothe someone who was naked?”

Yet what we neglect to do says as much about our spiritual development as what we keep doing that we shouldn’t. When we reduce holiness to simply “stop sinning,” we become incredibly superficial and miss the big picture of what Christ’s salvation is really all about—transformation.

2. Spiritual growth becomes a something I achieve through grit and determination.

Imagine that I was in your accountability group and I felt that my smoking habit was getting in the way of my relationship with God, so you decided to help me beat it. I don’t want to come and give you a bad report, so over the next couple weeks, I actually do quit. We all praise God for this work, but honestly, couldn’t I have achieved the same ends with a secular group that was holding my accountable?

The fact that this team helped me quit may be laudable, but it’s not necessarily spiritual. This feeds into a problem that we all (particularly men) have—we can fix the problem, and once we do, we’ll attribute the solution to God.

3. We’re trained to see love as monitoring each other.

Ezekiel talks about the watchmen on the wall whose responsibility it is to warn Israel of coming invaders. If the invaders come, but the watchmen don’t blow their horn, then the blood of their kinsmen is upon them. It can screw us up when this is our defining image of love. When we’re embedded in a culture that equates accountability and love, it’s no wonder we believe we love the culture by judging it.

Relationships require more than accountability

Choosing “accountability” as the word that defines so many Christian relationships creates an Orwellian atmosphere.

It encourages us to  surveil each other and creates an environment that almost encourages us to judge our goodness competitively.

I was talking to a girl on Twitter about this who confided that in her teens she went to her pastor about a struggle she was having. His fix was to assign her an accountabili-buddy. She was forced into a relationship built on the pretext of her failure.

The unspoken implication of these relationships is that God doesn’t love us fully and completely, he loves the parts of us that he approves of, and he’s incredibly pissed about our deficiencies. To combat these weaknesses, we need hall monitors to make sure we’re towing the line.

We need spiritual friendships

Real Christian transformation happens when we come to a true understanding of how much we’re loved and accepted. When we begin to grasp Jesus’ radical acceptance, we’re equipped to pursue him in a way that makes us fully human and alive.

As long as we define our relationships by what we shouldn’t be doing, we’re encouraging people to hide their shadow selves from each other and God as they worry about not being accepted.

The problem with many accountability relationships is that they lead to hedging and incomplete confession. People divulge just enough to give the appearance of openness, but they hold back the complete truth. I might tell you that I occasionally drink a little too much, but I won’t tell you just how bad it is.

It’s all about trust

As long as we don’t trust each other, we’ll never be transparent. And we’re going to have troubles when relationships are defined by our need to hold each other to some arbitrary standard.

A true spiritual friendship’s goal is to ensure that we’re loved completely. We’re not shocked at each other’s inability to live up to a Christian standard and we don’t reinforce that failure diminishes God’s acceptance of us.

Does a true spiritual friendship contain elements contain elements of accountability? Of course. It’s just not defined it.

Instead, spiritual friends help each other recognize God’s movement and promptings. They encourage each other to stay connected to the vine so that they may produce fruit. And while there may be times these kinds of friends need to say tough things to each other, it’s always with a sense of humility and love.

Friendship needs to grow beyond the need to “give account” to others. Because ultimately, giving a report on my bad behavior is not friendship or community.