Accountability Groups

Years ago I met each week with five or six Christian men from two regional theological schools. In evangelical parlance it was an accountability group—a meeting that called for mutual reports on how we were doing in our self-designated ambitions to be holy and faithful men. Any reports of moral defeat or felt vulnerabilities in the prior week were welcome—although, to be honest, none of us ever raised any major issues.

Our standard tasks were to say how often and how long we read our Bibles; and (for the married men among us) how often we expressed our devotion to our wives. I had an unfair advantage: I was a bachelor and I always read my Bible for a good chunk of time each day so my report was always a roaring success. The others seemed to struggle. After our reports we went on to discuss cutting-edge issues of theology—probably our real reason for meeting.

All of which led me to ask myself about the accountability function, “What are we doing here?”

The best answer I could find is that we were adapting to a lack of love in relationships that were once motivated by love. What I mean is that we were, I presume, all drawn to faith in Christ as a response to his self-disclosed love for us. John said as much in his first epistle: “We love [God] because he first loved us.” And our married men each spoke the “I do” in their weddings because they loved their brides. But now our first loves were no longer in play so we were replacing the positive motive of love with the negative motive of shame. None of the men wanted to report a failure to be faithful so each continued in report-enforced Bible reading and in acts of marital nobility whether they really wanted to or not.

Before going on let me say that I will never question the need for a man to have another man in his life with whom he is free to share a moral failing and to find support in his repentance—we need to confess our sins to each other. And, as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we need to meet up in order to stir each other to love and good deeds.

But I no longer believe in accountability groups. The best that can be said in their favor is that they serve to ease the guilt of our broken relationships with God and spouses by supporting a pretense that we care even when we don’t. And that is simple nonsense: Christianity and marriages have much more to offer than this!

I finally abandoned my group when I found that they viewed an affective faith—faith as a response to God’s love being poured out in our hearts—as unreliable. They voted, instead, for proper beliefs and for calls to stronger disciplines as a basis for a reliable faith. Love—at least a desire-defined love—is untrustworthy. This was, in historical terms, an answer the Stoics of old would have cheered!

Let me say more. Some of the men in our group were well trained theologians and highly regarded Christian leaders, yet my assumption that God’s Triune love—the love God has as an immanent and eternal bond—is critical to faith didn’t work for them. They initially listened with curiosity to the claims birthed out of my bold Bible reading and by my doctoral work; but, in time, they let me know that my views were “odd” and not as reliable as their own more disaffected faith.

I end by returning to our starting point. I was the only man in our group who continued to thrive in my Bible reading reports. Why? Because I “like” God—which is not something I “do” but is, instead, a response to what I’ve discovered in him. I know he cares for me and the Bible reinforces that certainty.

And with an attractive and personable God in view I come to my daily Bible reading to get closer to the one who loves me. My “first love” has never faded. Instead it grows stronger and my greatest pleasure in life is to find Bible read-through partners who will read through the entire Bible in four months. Right now I have Dan and Matt sharing with me. Not because we want accountability, but because we want God himself.

Or, as David put it in Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see, the LORD is good!”

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10 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    My experiences with women’s “accountability groups” have been very similar! On my most recent journey through the Bible, I was struck with the story of the woman who pushed through the crowd, seeking to touch just the edge of Jesus’ cloak in order to be healed from her bleeding disorder. This echoes my experience in reading through the Bible over and over again…as I have begun to touch just the edge of who God by His sharing of His heart through the Bible, I have been drawn to Him more and more. No accountability group needed! I just long to be with Him!

  2. mw

    Totally resonating with this. A quite similar (if not, same) struggle has left my family in a seemingly endless search for genuine fellowship. Tempted to join you in London, Dr. Frost. I might add that this propositional subversion of authentic relational communion is very much related to the replacement of shepherds with factory managers. I apologize if that sounds inflammatory. It’s not meant to be.

  3. Dave

    I agree completely. Sadly, for those who are seeking Him, the basic desire for God is not satisfactorily found in the Word so we march around trying to “do” faith rather than “breath” faith. Trouble is, it is hard to find people in your neighborhood that want to do this with you… too risky, too many questions bubble up, takes too much time. I’m seeking it out anyways.

    You are an inspiration and an encouragement. Plain Dave:)

  4. mw

    After thinking a bit longer on the content of this article, a couple of questions came up that I couldn’t put aside. The first, I suppose, is the question of our being drawn to faith in Christ as a result of God’s love for us. Is this really what John says? Correct me if I’m wrong (sincerely), but it seems to me that most people enter into faith out of fear rather than of love. In His Gospel proclamation, Jesus frightens us with the consequences of not submitting to His rule (e.g. Luke 19.27). Did He do this to make us love Him or, instead, to cause us to run to Him in fear? I love Romans 5.5 as much as anyone. But Romans 5.5 has a precursor in Romans 5.1 – specifically, “having been justified.” In other words, the love of God is poured out within the hearts of those having been justified. Indeed, we love God because He first loved us, but is it our existential experience of that love that initiates faith or could it be something else, namely the desire to be saved from destruction?

    It’s an important distinction because, when we encounter a lack of love in an alleged believer, the root cause may be another source than what we otherwise might presume. In the case of the alleged believer – in particular, one who reveals a lack of interest in God or in His Kingdom – rather than wondering at their lack of love, it may be more productive to direct our attention toward the authenticity of their faith. (At this point, I’m tempted to enter into a monologue on the church’s revision of the Christian faith, in exchanging the Messianic faith of the first century disciples for the “saving faith” of the Reformation. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that the above mentioned accountability group is deeply committed to Westminster.) For instance, have they ever truly responded to the fullness of Christ’s Gospel proclamation (e.g. Matthew 16.13b-27) or have they possibly put their trust in an impostor? Additionally, might we know them by their fruit? Thus, it may be more productive to examine the faith being claimed than to wonder why this faith isn’t producing the love the Bible promises.

    My other question is about quantity vs. quality. I’m sure, Dr. Frost, this issue has been raised with you on a number of occasions. I hope you won’t mind one more. Let me make it personal: I entered the seminary with dreams of reforming the Church. I wanted to make a difference. I had been in ministry and seen much that contradicted what I read in my Bible. I hoped that a seminary education would prepare me to address those contradictions. But, by the time I graduated, the path to church ministry had been closed off. To our surprise, we were suddenly small business owners (against our will). Shortly thereafter, we had our fifth child. We also homeschool our children.

    So then, despite our daily and constant pleas to our Father in Heaven for greater Kingdom involvement, we find the majority of our time taken up with somewhat mundane tasks. Now, I do not consider raising our children and tending to our marriage a mundane task. Yet, our desire is for God’s Kingdom. We long to be more fully involved in the kinds of things Jesus said His disciples should do. A big part of this desire is simply to know God’s Word better and better, in order to know Him (and all that pleases Him) better and better. In fact, if I had my druthers, I’d be in my Bible ten times longer every day than what I am. But I don’t have my druthers. I have a small business (that God won’t release me of). I have a family to tend to. And, though I daily feed them and myself from God’s Word, I simply don’t have the time to get through the entire Bible in four months. Even so, when we gather as a family each night to discuss the next passage in our progressive read through, we usually come away – from this relatively limited time spent in the Word – with something deeply influential and worthy of further meditation and reflection. This being the case, I wonder then, if it’s so much a matter of the amount of ground we cover as it is the amount of ground we allow to cover us. Just a thought.

    Thanks for all you do, Dr. Frost. In particular, thanks for provoking us to fruitful thought and “growthful” dialogue.

  5. Ron Frost

    MW raises an important question: what is it that motivates a living faith in Christ? The Bible offers a clear answer but I find that many of us aren’t quite getting it: “For God so loved the world . . .” He repeats this as a regular refrain to reassure us: “For the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever”. In 1 John 4 the author repeats the critical truth that “God is love”.

    What, then, of those who aren’t ‘drawn’ to God by his love but who profess a ‘faith’ as their duty-to-God because they’re afraid of his eternal judgment?

    Let me ask a different question: Should a woman marry a man she doesn’t care for or respect because she’s afraid she might face life as single person if she says no to his proposal? Or should a person pretend to find an employer delightful who is actually unfair and arrogant simply because he holds the pathway to promotion?

    Let me link these lesser examples to our way of thinking about God: is his character the basis for our faith; or is our faith selfish, based on what we expect to get out of him?

    I used this post to challenge the latter assumption. By extension I think any “fire insurance” view of God actually has a different God in view than the Triune Lover found in the Bible. The true God warns of judgment, of course, but that judgment ultimately revolves around our response to the Son (as in Psalm 2 and John 3). His real ambition is to have us respond to his love as he expresses it by sending the most attractive and compelling object of love imaginable: his Son.

    Let me comment, too, on the ‘quality versus quantity’ idea as it relates to to Bible reading. My point in reading about 35-40 minutes each morning (which sets up the 4-month average pace) is this: it’s the sort of heart-exposure time that gets me realigned with his Heart. I’d love to spend more time and sometimes I do. Sometimes I read for 2-3 hours. My point is that He’s a very real companion and a real relationship takes time. If I was married, for instance, would my wife be satisfied with ten minutes of my listening to her each day, even if I tell her “My dear, I see this as high quality time! I’d give you more but I’m really too busy for you.” It’s a bit of devotional logic that just doesn’t fit a living relationship.

    Hope that’s helpful.

  6. Kinga

    I am not a theologian so I will write very simply. I read more times your last post, Ron. It made me think how I see this problem.

    I think I agree with you. I compared my relationship with God with other relationships from my life. I realised again, every time when I really loved somebody (whoever was that person) I didn’t find difficult to spend time with him/her. Actually I longed for. I was ready to make sacrifices, nothing and nobody could stop me. I was ready to pay the price to be with that person.

    But other time, when I wasn’t really interested or I lost my interest, the relationship became a burden. It was easy to explain even to myself why I can’t/don’t want to do such and such things. It became a duty type relationship and wasn’t anymore a love one.I remember a very good friend of mine long years ago shared with me how she got up night after night for months to spend time with God because she was very busy during the days and couldn’t spend quality time with Him. She longed after Him much more than anything else. She paid the price, even a busy life style couldn’t stop her. It’s a heart issue thing. It’s not just how much time I spend but why do I spend? Because I love Him or because I don’t want to be different from a group of people?

  7. mw

    I don’t want to beat this topic to death, but I’m just not seeing the notion of “personal attraction” or affection present in the initiatory call of the Gospel. Even in Psalm 2 (referenced above), the historical context is that of the threat of destruction via the Son (contextual son: David; prophetic Son: Christ) – e.g. “Kiss the Son, lest He become angry and you perish in the way.” In the John 3 passage (also referenced), again it seems to be a matter of recognition and response – not a recognition of attractiveness or desirable relationality/companionship, but a recognition of Jesus as the true Christ and the appropriate actions attendant to such recognition (cf. esp. v.36).

    On the other hand, I do indeed see the heavily attested fact of our being drawn into deeper affection for both Father and Son, by the Spirit, once finding ourselves in Christ, through a GENUINE response to the FULLNESS of His Messianic proclamation; but to compare the initiation of the relationship to (modern!!!) betrothal, I think is putting our theology ahead of the biblical testimony. As I just exclamated, keep in mind the fact that, for millenia, in many cultures (even today) bride and bridegroom were arranged by parents (symbolically, God the Father?), the two expected to submit in obedience to this arrangement, if I’m not mistaken. In such circumstances, it may be in the context of the already established union that bride and bridegroom are drawn into love for one another. Or, perhaps it is during the already established betrothal period, post arrangement.

    Additionally, we must keep in mind that bride and bridegroom are a reference to Christ and the Church, not Christ and the individual. The Church, composed of the individually established covenant members, is betrothed or married to Christ (I understand positions vary here). As far as I can tell, Scripture never presents the individual as the one betrothed to Christ, except in the context of their already established membership in the Bride of Christ.

    Appreciate all the introspection and reflection this article (and subsequent responses) has generated. Thanks to everyone. I apologize if I’ve tried anyone’s patience.

  8. Jim Rosser

    Christianity is the only “religion” that exist to have fellow(friend)ship with God. That fellow(friend)ship is based upon what He has done to make that fellow(friend)ship available. We have so fallen away from this fellow(friend)ship that when God extends his hand, we grovel before Him not feeling worthy of His fellow(friend)ship. Being in fellow(friend)ship with God does not give us the same pride or braging rights as being a friend with a person who others might think important. Our response is to disciple ourselve and accept His hand, by showing Him how devote and spiritual we are. If God always seems angry because we don’t live up to our expectations, no wonder we find it difficult to say, “Abba, Father”. And Christ died for this? True fellow(friend)ship with God can happen because we have been released from the bonds of our guilt. Just enjoy Him, like a close friend.

  9. R N Frost

    I’ll try to wrap up my commentary on this post with a final reflection. If any other voices want to pitch in, feel free.

    The comments of MW have circled back to the common question of what place human initiative has in salvation. Which is where everything seems to turn in the church and her response to Christ. It’s a reasonable instinct but also a place where we may miss the Bible message because it seems counter intuitive in a fallen world.

    Our participation in Christ is, indeed, the basis of salvation. We are called into the corporate life of the body of Christ by our union with him through his Spirit. But we first enter that status from the place of our spiritual independence . . . from our sinful individualism if you will. Faith, then, is our repentance from that sinful autonomy as our hearts are drawn into a loving dependence on God who “is love” after having lived in our sinful independence. In Galatians 3 Paul points to the “promise” being fulfilled in the singular “seed”.

    The deeper question is how saving faith works: how do we enter the communion God in Christ? Do we offer faith to an anxiously waiting God as an act of obedience? Not if we’re dead towards God. Death is another label for our fallen independence from God, the God who is life and gives life. We were all dead in our sins and in that death there was no basis in us to seek life: a corpse may need life but it doesn’t know it or do anything to accomplish a self-resurrection.

    The next question, then, is how sin/death is defined. Is death something less than “real” death, e.g. just an illness, weakness, etc.? Or is it a death of our loving bond with God where humanity once stood “in Adam”? Is it an autonomous self-love that leads to disobedience to God; or is death/life just our act of either choosing to obey or to disobey? The former view is held by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Sibbes, Edwards and from my reading of the Bible it’s what I share with them. The latter was what Pelagius, Erasmus, and legions of others presume.

    Pelagius, in particular, believed that we can “choose to love or not to love” which Augustine called “absurd”. I’m with Augustine: we love because we are loved and the Spirit opens our hearts to receive that love. As Luther put it, we then have faith as a concomitant of experiencing God’s love. We, then, are passive as we are brought into union with Christ. He draws us from death to life by his love. The ultimate point in contention, then, is whether God made us as dependent responders or as independent, free-will, semi-autonomous choosers. In response we need to stay with Jesus who said, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Independent branches are sent to the fire.

    In Galatians Paul made it clear that, contra MW’s view, what saves us is what also sanctifies us. There aren’t two different motors in us: one that accomplishes salvation (our independent choosing); and one that carries us onward (our love). There is just one: “faith working through love”.

    The picture Jeremiah offers us is a good place to wrap up any support for free will: “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (2:11) Living water is what God offers freely. But only as the Spirit pours his love out in our hearts. Until then we insist on trying to earn heaven by our own efforts.

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