Accountability – Who Needs It?

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PGA Tour golfer Bubba Watson is well known for his massive power, his pink driver shaft, his left-handed swing, and for twice winning the annual Masters Tournament (including this spectacular shot to seal his first win in 2012). But he is nearly as well known among die-hard PGA tour fans for having never taken an official golf lesson. When he has a problem with a shot, or a consistent problem with his swing, it’s up to him to diagnose it – and he is evidently very good at it, as his results demonstrate.

Bubba Watson Pink Driver

However, Bubba’s independence is not the norm for most professional golfers – or anyone else in almost any other area of life.

External feedback is a key part of the process for almost everything we do. It comes with grades in school; with quarterly and yearly reviews at the office; with sports coaches; with doctors who tell us about our health. The observations of others are crucial to success and improvement.

Consider some of the various valuable services coaches provide for their athletes:

  • They teach them proper thinking, methodology, and disciplines.
  • They listen to their thoughts to make sure they understand what they should be doing.
  • They observe their actions to see if they are lining up with what they know is right.
  • They encourage them verbally to keep striving.
  • They correct them when they’re not doing things the right way.
  • They remind them by their mere presence that there is work to be done and room for improvement.
  • They challenge them to get better and better.

People listen to coaches like this all the time. The best athletes in the world go from “really great” to “best in the world” because they listen – nay, pay top dollar to have coaches do all these kinds of things for them.

Over the past year I have taken up swimming laps as part of an exercise routine. I don’t intend to ever compete in a swim race, but as with any other measurable workout I am regularly searching for ways to improve my speed. I’ve watch lots of videos and read lots of articles. I’ve tested various elements of technique and different drills. In doing all this, and in going to the pool on something of a regular pattern, I have been able to significantly improve upon my times from when I began.

However, I know that if I actually were concerned with getting faster for the sake of racing other people, there would be nothing better for me than dropping the funds to get at least a few lessons from a teacher or a coach who knew what he was doing. I would learn more in a few paid lessons than I would in all my own self-guided YouTube video training.

Enter the Christian life.

While top performers around the world heed, seek out, and pay for coaching, we as Christians often try to live in a coach-free corner and do everything ourselves. For one reason or another, we get into the Christian life and we expect to be able to pull it off on our own, Bubba-style. How does this happen?

  • It happens as church members stay at a distance from others, happy to come together in large-group and even small-group settings, but not wanting to be directly asked about certain issues or to invite people to give feedback on how they are doing in one or more areas of Christian living.
  • It happens as people stay on the fringes and do not want to join a church, happy to get what they want when they want it, but not wanting to make themselves directly accountable to the church and its leadership.
  • It happens as professing Christians simply abandon church altogether – in favor of “family church” at home or just going straight up Lone Ranger.
 Why does this happen? And especially on something so important? If people seek out coaches to learn how to swim better, why do we who have the words of eternal life not seek help to grow in how to live according to them?

I think the truth is that very often we don’t want true accountability, and there are many potential reasons why:

  • It is uncommon to ask for it. The pop psychology counseling movement has placed a stigma on accountability as something that’s only for the extreme cases. For this reason…
  • It is humbling to ask for it. Not only do you have the normal barriers of humility to admit that you need help (not easy in any area), but now there is a stigma that you aren’t just getting help – you “need help”!
  • It often requires confession: you have to admit that you have actually sinned, and are unable to properly fight sin on your own. This isn’t just “I need help hitting a baseball better.” Most requests for spiritual help as Christians carry an implied confession that you are morally deficient. This is hard!
  • We don’t want the challenge. The reason people don’t ask for a tough coach, and don’t ask for accountability from a mentor, is the reason Christians don’t ask for and encourage accountability in their own lives: we are content being mediocre if it means we don’t have to work hard to get better. Sometimes the sofa sounds better than the summit.

  • We don’t want to change. We like the sin that we have, so we keep it from others (we think). The thought of giving it up is worse than the thought of gaining power over it. This is a scary place, but many Christians live in it rather than seek help from others.
  • We don’t want to give up control. Lack of accountability is a feeling – a deceptive one, but a feeling – of independence and lack of constraints. For people who are tired of submitting to one authority after another, especially abusive and self-serving authorities, this can seem like a great release.
  • We are proud and really think that we can do it. We don’t understand how far short we fall – we don’t know what we don’t know.
  • We are ignorant of our need of it. We don’t remember the truth of Proverbs 18:1. We don’t understand the importance of people helping us when we drift (Galatians 6:1, James 5:19-20, Jude 22). We think we can fix it.
This is compounded by another challenge: people are not well-taught about what biblical accountability should look like. In my next post, I want to address this deficiency.

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But for starters, we need to ask: who needs accountability and why?

Who needs accountability? All Christians. No one knows every truth of Scripture, and no one has thoroughly applied all the ones they know. No one can see everything as objectively as they ought, especially compared to an outside observer who is concerned for this person’s spiritual growth and good.

In Paul’s last message to the Ephesians elders – the leaders of the church he spent the most time with among all those Gentile churches he planted – he told them this: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). If elders need it, though having oversight of the church and meeting rigorous qualifications, no one is mature enough to be exempt.

Why do we need accountability? Because for all our good intentions and efforts to follow the exact prescription we have read, there is no substitute for the added benefit of another set, and another church full, of eyes.

Every time we are tempted to think that someone is not to “be the Holy Spirit” for us, let’s be careful not to forget that it’s arrogant and fleshly to stand aloof when a brother is caught in sin, and humble and Spiritual to come to his aid (Galatians 5:26-6:2). We may not “be someone’s Holy Spirit,” but if we refuse accountability we are refusing the one who is indwelt by the Spirit for at least the very reason of helping us when we are in spiritual need.

This is why it’s a pipe dream to try to live well as a Christian apart from the regular fellowship and accountability of life among the church. You can be a diligent as you want; you can watch lots of videos and read lots of articles; you can test various elements of sanctification and different practices. You can pay close attention to your progress.

But nothing can take the place of the other essential element of always having people around who can observe you from the outside.

So who needs accountability? Every Christian. Next time, we’ll take a fresh look at how to overcome some of the obstacles above and make accountability work best in light of biblical instructions and principles.

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