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!”