Some thoughts on accountability

I recently mentioned that I was changing the organisation that I use for people to give financially to support me. One of the things I said in that post was that for various reasons I don’t have a formal accountability structure for what I do. One of my friends got in touch with me and raised this as an issue, and I thought it was worth responding in full. Because it’s an issue which I’m sure other people will have, I thought it was worth writing about publicly.

Over the last few years I’ve given a lot of thought to institutions and structures and their place in the life of the church. I’ve talked a lot about that on the podcast, and also I have written about them here in the context of safeguarding. However, I have never addressed the issue of accountability directly. If you’re familiar with my work over the last few years, none of this will be unfamiliar to you – however I do want to address the issue of accountability head-on.

What is accountability?

Let’s start with the obvious question first of all – what is accountability?

Accountability is part of a system of checks and balances. Those who have power are held to account to ensure that they are using that power rightly. So, for example, democracy is a form of accountability: the government makes decisions to govern the people; they are held accountable by the people at the next election. (That’s the theory – of course, it doesn’t always work like that and books like The Accountability Deficit describe how accountability has gone astray over the last few years).

Accountability is something which is seen as particularly important in Christian circles. Christians recognise that we as human beings are fallen and fallible, we are not only capable of acting unwisely but sinfully. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that our decisions are open to outside scrutiny.

In Christian circles, accountability is probably used most often in two ways: (1) Ensuring that a pastor is accountable in his ministry and behaviour. There have been many high-profile failures involving a lack of accountability over the years, such as the pastor Mark Driscoll. (2) Ensuring that money is used wisely, e.g. if you give to a ministry you want to know that the money is being used for the purpose you intended it, and not being used for a luxury lifestyle.

In recent years, these two things have often been accomplished by setting up a formal accountability structure. So, for example, a pastor might have several elders in the church who are given the authority to challenge him where necessary. Or financial accountability might be provided by ensuring that money is not handled by an individual but by a small group of people.

Is accountability a Biblical requirement?

If we are good Christian people, we need to ask the question: is accountability a Biblical requirement? For Christians, this is the only question that really matters and the answer should settle the matter. I believe the answer is ‘yes and no’. I know that isn’t very helpful – allow me to explain!

On the one hand, as I have explored many times on this blog (for example in my post about conspiracy theorists), human beings are fallen and sinful. The prophet Jeremiah said about the human condition:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Jeremiah 17:9

Christians should, more than anybody else, be aware of the corruption of our hearts. We should be deeply mindful of the way that sin affects us, and in particular how sin can often flourish in darkness (Ephesians 5:12).

At the same time, Christians need to recognise that the remedy for sin is the Holy Spirit. There are many passages we could look at, but let me pick but one:

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16

Paul says that those who are led by the Holy Spirit will not gratify sinful desires. Those who are godly will do godly things. That’s not to say that anyone is perfect, but rather that they are unlikely to do anything egregiously wrong – such as bully others, or commit fraud, and so on. Christian leaders, in particular, should display the fruits of a godly character (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The implication of Jesus’ teaching about a tree and its fruit (Matthew 7:18) is that healthy trees do not bear bad fruit.

Ultimately, Christians should know that we are all accountable to God. We will all have to give an account of our lives to God – even for the empty words we have spoken (Matthew 12:36). By contrast, those who do not fear God and do not think of giving account to him are the ones who practise what is evil (Psalm 14).

So, Christians should know the power of sin in their hearts – but also know the power of the Holy Spirit to change us and to enable us to walk in freedom. This is not some kind of pipe dream but the basic and straightforward teaching of the New Testament. Given this, what should Biblical accountability look like?

What Biblical accountability looks like

One of the things I don’t like about secular accountability is the culture of fear and suspicion it creates: everyone has to be accountable, because everyone is potentially a fraudster, or a bully, and the like. You can’t trust anyone. This is similar to what I’ve written before about safeguarding.

I think Biblical accountability looks different. Biblical accountability means the most important matter is whether someone is walking with the Lord. You could say that the only form of Biblical accountability is spiritual accountability. The question is, is someone trusting in God? Are they regularly reading the Bible and praying? Are they bearing the fruit of the Spirit? If the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, then we should be prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt unless there is hard evidence to suggest otherwise.

The truth is, I believe this is the only kind of accountability that we see described in the New Testament – and it should be the norm for churches. Christians are not meant to be (in fact, CANNOT be) isolated individuals, but part of the church. I often try to make this point in my videos on Understand the Bible. We in the Western world have become so atomised and individualistic, we need a complete mindset change.

In general, I believe the church should be sufficient for accountability. In the church we should confess our sins to one another (James 5:16); encourage one another to do good (Hebrews 10:25); and generally love one another (2 Thessalonians 1:3) – among many other things the New Testament mentions. If we really love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we should be ready to correct them when they need correcting. No matter what, we should be encouraging them to put their faith and trust in the Lord day-by-day.

Part of the reason I think we in the church are so obsessed with accountability, in its secular form at least, is because we simply don’t know what the church should be like. We just can’t envision how it could be different. The church today bears so little resemblance to the church of the New Testament:

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.

Acts 2:44-47

I defy anyone to read that and say their church even comes close to how the early church was! Of course, those days were special – the church was in its infancy and needed a great blessing from God in order to survive and grow. At the same time, I think what we read in these verses is not some idealistic, totally unattainable version of church. Rather, it is something that we should be aspiring to. Part of the problem with the Western church at the moment is that it is content not to disturb the status quo, and we end up with churches with very little spiritual life. Don’t you find it hard to believe that churches can think a ten minute chat over a cup of coffee after a service is fulfilling what the New Testament calls “fellowship”?

Don’t you find it hard to believe that churches can think a ten minute chat over a cup of coffee after a service is fulfilling what the New Testament calls “fellowship”?

I should say, I am not saying here that churches should eschew all formal accountability structures of any kind. Rather, accountability should first and foremost be relational and spiritual – and it is precisely this kind of accountability which is lacking in the church at the moment.

Secular accountability has its problems, too

I think it’s worth making the point that secular accountability structures have their limitations. When I cast my mind back over the public failures of Christian leaders during the last few years, the problem has often been blamed on a lack of accountability. However, is that really the case?

Accountability is not simply saying, in the words of Sergeant Wilson from Dad’s Army – “Are you sure that’s wise, sir?” Accountability needs people who are going to be firmer. Proper accountability requires love, wisdom, good judgement, and so on. To put it bluntly, good accountability requires people who are spiritually healthy. You can see this principle in action in just about every ‘accountability failure’.

Earlier on I mentioned the example of Mark Driscoll. One of the problems at Mars Hill seemed to be a culture of intimidation and bullying. This is something which I’ve noticed in other leaders too, for example Mike Pilavachi and Jonathan Fletcher. When people did raise questions to the leadership, they were ignored. What failed – was it ‘accountability’, or was it a problem with the people involved? Were the people who were supposed to be keeping the leaders accountable spiritually healthy themselves?

I suggest that a church with a leader who ignores Jesus’ clear teaching about servant leadership (Mark 10:43-44) has a very serious problem, in that they have not really understood the gospel message (Mark 10:45). If a church leader bullies and coerces, are they living in line with the gospel and displaying mature Christian character? And, if not, how did they get into the position of being a church leader in the first place? And – the million dollar question – would more of the secular kind of accountability really do anything in that situation? As I argued previously about safeguarding, what we need is more people who are spiritually healthy and godly. If we had that, accountability (and safeguarding) would take care of itself.

One of the problems with formal accountability structures is that they can be gamed and abused. If someone is sinful in one area, they are more likely to be sinful in another area too. People who are inclined to bully or commit fraud, for example, are less likely to have scruples about lying. I can think of examples where accountability groups have existed, and yet someone has been doing something they shouldn’t – simply because they didn’t own up to the truth.

In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a lie. Let me give you a couple of examples. Soul Action – a charity linked to Soul Survivor – donated £53,000 to a charity led by one of their trustees. This is a charity overseen by the charities commission, who have to publish annual accounts, who have a board of trustees. If you explore the links on that blog you’ll see that this is not the only strange thing about Soul Survivor finances. Unless someone has the bravery to step up and say “I think this is wrong”, all that accountability is worthless.

Let me give one more example. Seeing as I’ve mentioned him before, Mark Driscoll has been in hot water several times:

In March, World Magazine reported that Mars Hill Church spent at least $210,000 with a firm that sought to get Driscoll’s Real Marriage book on the New York Times best-seller list.

Over $200,000 with a firm to get Driscoll’s book on the best-seller list. Do you think that was a good use of money? Do you think the people who gave to Mars Hill knew about it, and do you think they would have approved? But – here’s the thing – approval must have come from the church leadership. I’m sure it can’t have been Driscoll’s decision alone. Would more formal ‘accountability’ structures have helped in that situation?

The point I’m trying to make here is that formal accountability is no guarantee of godliness. In fact, secular accountability structures often don’t work as intended because people find ways to get around them. If the leadership team of a church or an organisation have too much faith in a leader, they won’t challenge him or her – even if there are accountability structures in place.

As I have said before, and I say again, the only thing that will ensure proper accountability is spiritual accountability.

Accountability and me

Let me bring this back to me and my situation. How does all of this apply to me?

Firstly, let me talk about being theologically accountable in my online ministry – Sacred Musings and Understand the Bible. Something which is important is that both of these ministries are public. I don’t do anything behind closed doors. If I make a mistake or a theological error, it’s out there in public for someone to respond to. I hope that I don’t make any egregious errors, but there have been occasions where people have disagreed with me and I’ve been forced to either defend myself or change my mind.

I hope that my ministry here is accountable to you, the reader – I do not desire to stand ‘six feet above contradiction’ but invite people to comment and air their views and disagreements, and people often do.

I do appreciate that an online ministry is difficult to assess in the terms that I spoke about above: if you only know me through my videos / podcast, it may not be easy to see if I am bearing the fruit of the Spirit. You can’t see how I am with my wife and children, or friends, for example. But I hope that you can see at least to some degree how the Spirit is working in my life.

Secondly, about being financially accountable. It is possible to give to Understand the Bible at the moment, although it is too small at the moment to require registration with the charities commission and publish accounts etc. (Most of the money has come from me). There may come a time when UTB grows and needs trustees, accounts, etc – but it’s nowhere near that stage just at the moment.

The vast majority of what people give comes directly to me (see my previous update). I appreciate that we as a family don’t publish accounts, nor should we have to! I hope that people who want to give do it on the trust that we are not using the money for lots of foreign holidays, new cars, etc – but simply for the daily needs of life. I appreciate that there is a degree of trust involved – those who give have to believe that I am a trustworthy person and will use the money responsibly. At the same time, I hope that I am open and honest enough in my online content for people to see that I am someone who is trustworthy.

Finally, I said earlier that the most important kind of accountability was spiritual accountability in the context of a church. Since we left our church last year, we have started a new church in our own home. Although things have started slowly they are slowly beginning to pick up. One thing which we have been deliberately trying to do is cultivating the kind of church which Acts 2 talks about. We are open and transparent with one another, we seek to share our lives (1 Thessalonians 2:8) and not just talk for five minutes over coffee after the service. I think it’s fair to say that, when it comes to spiritual accountability, I have more of it now than I have ever had before.

Although there may be less formal accountability in terms of structures, there is certainly spiritual accountability – and that’s the kind which matters the most.

Conclusion

I do appreciate that giving your hard-earned money to someone else is a difficult thing to do at the best of times, especially to someone from the internet. At the same time, I hope that I have been able to provide you with some reassurance. There is no way of giving which is ‘risk free’, and there will always be people who are deceitful and con artists. But the Lord knows the truth, and at the of the day he is the only one person I am aiming to please:

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Romans 14:4

I’m not saying “don’t judge me”! But rather, judge me not by formal accountability structures but whether I am sincerely trying to submit to and follow the Lord. He is the only one who is able to make any of us stand.


Comments

2 responses to “Some thoughts on accountability”

  1. Liz Kilbride avatar
    Liz Kilbride

    That sounds very reasonable, I think the established church have become far too cumbersome and worldly.
    I think we need to be wise and prayerful in our giving, then trust that God will use our gifts.

    1. Hi Liz, thank you, I’m glad we’re on the same page! I agree, the church seems to not be able to look beyond secular solutions. If we are wise and prayerful, as you say, I think we won’t go far wrong!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related posts

Get new posts by email