Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Special Accountability Groups in the Church: Why they are not Biblical, not Necessary and not Healthy


In the entirety of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation and especially the New Testament (in particular for the church age which derives its unique protocols, doctrines and practices from the NT), you will not find the formation of any kind of special accountability group within the body of Christ established, taught or encouraged as a valid remedy or treatment with regard to one’s Christian life and/or spiritual welfare which includes its issues with sinful trends or weaknesses. Nowhere will this be found.

Nevertheless, you will read about and encounter numerous groups soliciting the formation and maintenance of special accountability groups in the name of helping their brothers and sisters in the Lord to live truthfully and to account to one another so that they do not lead secret lives which often culminate in disaster. Again, this is not found in Scripture as a remedial approach to such matters, yet, we find it in abundance in the church.

There is only one governmental structure in the body of Christ to which one accounts and that is the church government. And each church (either individually or denominationally) has rules for membership (with some novel exceptions for a fractional minority of local assemblies). Those  governments are charged with articulating the membership requirements so that a potential member may make an informed decision as to whether or not he or she is interested in being a member (if for some reason you are attending a local assembly and cannot obtain this information because of either a lack of organizational clarity and expression – meaning they don’t exist - or because you are being treated with suspicion for asking hence, it is slow in coming, I recommend you strongly reconsider joining seeing that you are left to only one thing, the whimsical and arbitrary decisions of whatever form of claimed governmental representatives exist which often result in ugly separation between member and church).

While ecclesiastical membership for each local assembly or denomination varies, it never, at any place or at any time in the entirety of the Bible (again with emphasis on the New Testament) includes the requirement that one belong to a special accountability group for something beyond membership standards and into the details of the execution of one's Christian life, i.e. one's private priesthood. This form of spiritual and personal offense toward both man and God - the special accountability group - is far underestimated by its practitioners.

This is why you should know that groups such as Promise Keepers are doomed to failure. While they have an enthusiastic birth and adolescence, they generally die a slow adult death because they are extra-ecclesiastical structures which include demands placed on believers that interfere with the privacy of the individual priesthood, not to mention the privacy of people’s lives which often encompasses the family, marriage, vocation and leisure choices.
 
Well…what about, “confess your sins one to another”? Yes, I am aware of this and will get to it in short order but first some ground work.

Church Membership/Church Discipline

To belong to a local assembly and/or denomination (basically a formal ecclesiastical body with a government) is to be a member of a church. The premise is no different than belonging to any organization. You agree to abide by the rules of membership. And for the church, God formulated ecclesiastical government with a specific scope which includes objectives, duties, liberties and limits. And this is what is at issue in this matter.

Church government is structured by God for ecclesiastical regulation, not the regulation of the personal and private lives of its members or the private matters of the individual priesthood. The only time a member is subject to ecclesiastically based accountability is when it pertains to requirements for membership. 

Now, each and every church and denomination certainly can differ on those basic requirements which must not be subverted and instead, upheld by its members if they agree to them upon joining (changes for membership after joining not withstanding of course). However, you will find at no place, anywhere in the Scriptures, that one is to answerable to any special accountability group within the church with regard to their private lives and private matters of their personal priesthood which are known to no one but themselves. Again, the only time one answers to the church government is for failing to uphold membership requirements, not for matters of personal privacy or which include sinful trends or weaknesses in their life which we confess to God, 1 John 1:9.

In other words you, as a church member, are innocent until proven guilty for ecclesiastical discipline. End story. No preventive discipline through special accountability groups is prescribed where you have to account for something beyond normal ecclesiastical membership. Again, end story. It isn’t in the Bible. Stop injuring yourselves and others.

That is the limit of church government regulation. It cannot and should not attempt to do more because it then overreaches into the private lives of believers which is not the business of the church assigned by God. It only become ecclesiastical business when anything private becomes public which violates membership codes.

Your Private Life 

Your individual life. The divine institution of the self, which includes self-determination, self-expression and one’s thought life and so on, is given to you by God. You are its sole officer and the privileges and duties of the divine institution of the self are yours from God. They are not anyone's to control except for the individual. Now, it is true that these properties of the self do, at times, acquiesce to other institutions but that is not an invalidation of their general properties, rather a validation of other institutions and their boundaries and our obligation to interact accordingly among and within them.

But these are exceptions to the rule and even in these where some restrictions are placed upon your person that otherwise no one may do so with divine approbation, you still retain much of your individualism. The point being, of course, that God recognizes person-hood or the divine institution of the self and it comes with various divine rights, duties and liberties which are not another’s to take or attempt to rule. This same thing goes for marriage and family.

Marriage. Marriage is an administrative or governmental construct for the relationship of its officers, i.e. the husband and wife. Within the government of marriage the relationship functions. Many men and women have romantic relationships but until they are formally married, they are not under or operating within that governmental structure, i.e. they are not married, again though they may have a relationship. 

Two Marital Officers and Only Two. So in speaking about marriage which is a divine institution, God reveals that it has two officers. Not one, not three and not two plus the local church or local government or your mother-in-law. Just two. The husband and wife.

What is the point of all this? Well, it isn’t to argue the doctrine of marriage, per se, rather to demonstrate that it is a matter of privacy and the divine establishment of proper authorities in marriage, whether it involves a Christian or non-Christian (but here we have in view the Christian). God set up only two officers in a marriage.

Never, ever, anywhere will you see anything in Scripture about the church or some ecclesiastical representative being licensed or permitted to interfere with or attempt the regulating/management of marriage relationships. The most the church has been assigned with regard to this is teaching its congregation and making public declarations of doctrine on the matter and that is it. It is at liberty to make private counseling available if both parties agree, but apart from that, the objective of the church must not be to interfere with marital relationships which are enterprises belonging to and regulated by its two officers and they alone.

The only time a marriage becomes relevant in this context is if within the marriage someone becomes subject to ecclesiastical discipline for something such as serial adultery. But even then, the church is not involving itself on behalf of the marriage, rather as an ecclesiastical authority and on behalf of the church with respect to that person’s membership in that local assembly and his or her failure to uphold a moral code, not a marital code.

Family. This, too, is an area of privacy for believers and non-believers. Apart from someone violating a clear ecclesiastical membership regulation or criminal law, family regulation is not something anyone but that family must account to within and among themselves in the family government structure designed by God and subsequently, before God.

You will never find, at any place in the Scriptures, any such thing as answering to an imposed or strongly encouraged special accountability group/person for how a family government is practiced. Just like in marriage, as long ecclesiastical standards for membership are not being violated such as incest and so on (which makes a person subject to ecclesiastical discipline) the church, by way of its main government or some special accountability group under the guise of spiritual/family welfare, is not to insert itself in such matters and usurp the family government established by God.

The family has two officers, a husband and wife and then, among the children, as they mature, they too are vested with authority to act on behalf of the family. And if that family only has one parent, then it has one officer, not two with the church choosing to step in as a substitute for the other officer who is not present. That isn’t taught in the Bible. The church can and may charitably do many things for single family heads but attempting to take an authoritative role in the family administration is not one they are permitted.

As a side note, if anyone is going to have any imagined privileged or implied right with regard to a single headed family and its administration it would be other family members, first. That is quite the biblical pattern but even those cases have many special conditions and limits apart from the single family officer accepting special conditions.

I have said all this rather demonstratively, again, to qualify a rebuttal to the accountability proponents. Most of what goes on in the life of another has been declared “off limits” to you by God simply by way of divine design. But for whatever reason, many seem to think they know better than God.

Something Very Unhealthy I Found

I understand the sincerity of these special accountability groups. However, they are vested in pietism which assumes we are answerable to other humans for things intended for the private judging of ourselves before God. In fact Paul wrote about this stating that we ought to judge ourselves that God not judge us with regard to sin, 1 Corinthians 11:31. It does not prescribe a special accountability pow wow where others judge us and we are to account to them, rather to God who does the judging.

In many places in Evangelicalism/Protestantism (the former more than the latter) ecclesiastical or church discipline is woefully misunderstood and/or mishandled. That is not to say there isn’t room for differences but the differences, in many cases, have morphed into the affirmation of the micromanagement of private lives and the formation of illegitimate and ultimately damaging special accountability groups as if, under the guise of church discipline, preventive discipline or community spiritual welfare we must confess and answer to humans, things intended for us to confess and answer only to God.

Now to my example.  At Christianity Today in an article posted in 2008 by Ed Stetzer, here, he talks about accountability questions which appear to meet with his approval. Some go back as far as John Wesley. And certainly no one is disputing whether these questions are ones we can and should ask ourselves, rather, are we required and can we rightly be compelled to answer to community interrogations about things of which are indicated in Scripture we are answerable to God in the privacy of our priesthood?

Here is one of the lists he gives which comes from Chuck Swindoll:

Chuck Swindoll's Pastoral Accountability Questions:

In his book, The Body, Chuck Colson lists the questions used by Chuck Swindoll.

1. Have you been with a woman anywhere this past week that might be seen as compromising?

2. Have any of your financial dealings lacked integrity?

3. Have you exposed yourself to any sexually explicit material?

4. Have you spent adequate time in Bible study and prayer?

5. Have you given priority time to your family?

6. Have you fulfilled the mandates of your calling?

7. Have you just lied to me?



Let’s Examine the List

Of course, the most startling portion comes at the end, being asked whether or not someone has lied to their special accountability partner or group. This, in my view, is the summation of all that is wrong with special accountability groups (and if you are unaware, the form of questioning above is precisely the format used by polygraphers when conducting polygraph examinations on suspected criminal offenders!) :
  • It assumes the worst. It does not receive the person as able to be honest, rather presumably as a liar.
  • It nullifies the purpose of the previous questions which makes the exercise one of contradiction. Why are the previous questions asked if the person being questioned cannot be trusted to answer them truthfully in the first place?
  • The structure of the questioning demonstrates the real objective which isn't whether or not someone rightly fulfilled all the other questions, rather to catch the person in a lie since they cannot be trusted to answer honestly.
  • Following this, it inevitably creates liars of the subject. Why? Because most importantly they aren’t biblically answerable to such special accountability groups or persons. Hence, they instinctively will deceive because such divinely protected information is wrongly being forced out of them in the name of caring for one’s spiritual and/or moral well being.
I believe the list can go on but it makes my point. I understand what interrogation is and that is what this form of questioning is and it does not belong in a healthy environment and certainly not an ecclesiastical one and clearly not one in the name of spiritual welfare. It is based on the  presumption of guilt. Egregious to say the least.

But more offensively, it assumes that such questions and personal revelations are information that other believers - under the guise of special accountability which is nowhere in the Bible - is theirs to be had. No, no and no!

This destroys genuine trust, genuine forgiveness, and genuine grace. It assumes the worst and attacks the privacy of the individual priesthood. It, at no time or place, belongs as any form of questioning imposed or encouraged as valid, by one believer to another in the name of spiritual welfare. 

What about, “Confess your sins, one to another” in James?

Some will cite James 5:16 which instructs us to confess our sins, one to another and my answer is, then do so. If you have sinned against someone the Bible prescribes, consistently, that you confess that sin to that person. Notice? It says nothing about sins being confessed to others which you have not committed against them. This assumes an offense against someone, not simply an arbitrary and indiscreet revelation of all your sins.

Caveat: Private and Pastoral Confession

I do have one caveat to all this which really isn't a caveat, just due diligence. None of what I am saying has in view voluntary confessing of sins to those against whom we have sinned or the voluntary confessing of sins to others in our solicitation of their help and especially, pastoral confessions and its subsequent help.

But this is strictly voluntary and always with a self-determined confidant, never out of compulsion or by way of assigned confidants. Further and with respect to the pastoral confession, its objective, while for some is with the hope of making the sinner deal more effectively with a weakness, true pastoral confession (which is a private confession) has in view forgiveness and encouragement, not interrogation and not necessarily prescribing some regulative behavior and answering for it.

Hence, there is recognized, to some degree, this aspect of personal revelation but as has been long understood and practiced within the church, historically that is, such confessions are first and foremost restorative and contexts of absolution, not punitive and managerial.

Conclusion

This is not a treatise nor anything comprehensive on the matter, rather a brief push-back. Let me be clear, though. I am not asserting no such questions need be asked, they do, but to ourselves by ourselves in answering to God.

It may seem noble to form these special accountability groups but in my view, they are frankly forms of crusadership mentality which force men and women to account for things that are not our business. How often someone prays, reads their Bible, how they deal with their finances, and lives out their priesthood and private life is not the business of ecclesiastical accountability. And even then, when ecclesiastical accountability action is warranted, there is a church government and process in place designed and prescribed by God to deal with such matters if someone's life is so out of order it merits ecclesiastical discipline.

In my view, groups who practice special accountability as I have covered are practicing abuse, not remedy. It makes liars of men and women and needlessly humiliates them in forcing confessions and admissions not ours to righteously pry out of them through piestic interrogations and peer pressure.

If you want to join a group and voluntarily bare your soul, that is your decision. However, at no time and at no place should anyone be interrogated in the above manner in an ecclesiastical setting and certainly not as a prescription for spiritual care. Information of this kind should not be solicited nor tactics employed to extract it.  As well, the assumption that we are ever accountable to one another in this manner is simply unbiblical.

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