Hammond, Accountability and Legalism

The pastoral scandal in Hammond has sparked many conversations about why these disasters keep happening, what the phenomenon says about independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches and ministies, and what ought to be done to fix whatever exactly is broken. The idea of accountability has figured prominently in several of these conversations.

But if IFB and other branches of Christendom1 are going to use accountability effectively, we’ll have to arrive at a clearer understanding of what accountability is, what it’s limitations are, and where its real value lies. My aim here is to make a small contribution toward that end.

Defining “accountability”

For some, accountability has an almost magical power to keep all bad behavior from happening. Whenever some kind of shocking sin comes to light, their first and last response is “we need more accountability.” In these cases the term “accountability” tends to be defined vaguely if at all. At the other end of the spectrum, some argue that accountability is only something that occurs in response to wrongdoing and that has no power to prevent it (see the conversation here, for example).

From what I’ve seen, though, most understand the idea of accountability in a more nuanced way.

Merriam-Webster2 defines accountability as follows.

: the quality or state of being accountable, especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions accountability>

On “accountable,” the same source provides the following:

1 : subject to giving an account : answerable accountable for the damage>

2 : capable of being accounted for : explainable

Other dictionaries have similar entries, such as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “accountable.”

1 required or expected to justify actions or decisions.

2 explicable; understandable.

In ministry settings

In my experience, when people speak of accountability in church and ministry settings, they usually have one of two things in mind.

  1. Structured diffusion of power
  2. Personal mentoring or discipling relationships

In the first case, it’s common to hear the sentiment that if only IFB (and similar) pastors were forced to make decisions jointly with other pastors or elders, these leaders would be less vulnerable to the temptations of power. In this case, advocates use the term “accountability” for diffusion of a leader’s decision-making authority.

In the second case, many are confident that we’d see less of this sort of pastoral failure if all Christians—but especially leaders—had close, mentoring/discipleship relationships with people who ask them tough questions about their walk with God, their marriage, their family life, the temptations they’re struggling with, etc.

A third group sees the solution as a combination of both of these forms of accountability.

What these understandings of accountability have in common is limitation on a person’s ability or willingless to act independently. In one case, he is structurally prevented from at least some independent actions. In the other, his conduct is restrained by the anticipation that he’ll be expected to defend it.

Some limitations of “accountability”

At this point, I feel like joining the crowd shouting “Vive la accountability!” But we need to temper our expectations.

First, accountability can never be comprehensive. Unless we’re prepared to handcuff every pastor to a practically sinless accountability partner who watches his every move, he’ll be able to find ways around any accountability mechanism if he really wants to. And unless the accountability partner is also a mind-reader, the leader being monitored will still be free to be as internally proud, malicious, greedy or lustful as chooses to be.

Second, there aren’t any perfect accountability partners or perfect elder teams. When you take a pastor who is a sinner and join him with another pastor and rename them “the elders,” you now just have two sinners instead of one. And yep, the math works all the way up to infinity—or at least up to the total number of men who can be enlisted to be elders. As a safeguard against a naïve confidence that multiplicity is inherently more righteous than individuality, consider how many “bishops” worked together at Trent to reject the doctrine of salvation through faith alone.

Third, there seems to be a character trade off here. If our accountability method actually prevents a leader from committing a particular sin, we have to conclude that he would have committed it without our accountability program. If we weren’t looking over his shoulder or forcing him to share decision-making with a group, he’d freely choose to do the wrong. If that’s the case, what sort of leader is he? What sort of Christian is he?

The real value of accountability

Some of the conversations about events in Hammond have included an interesting irony. Some of those who passionately oppose “legalism,” and broadly devalue rules, are equally passionate that IFB leaders need more accountability.

Don’t see the irony? Let’s see if I can help.

Though it may not seem so at first, accountability and what many like to call “man made rules” are two species of the same genus. As such, their value and limitations are almost perfectly parallel. In some cases, rules—and the penalties connected to them—really are accountability measures.

But this is not a vote against accountability. It’s a call to understand that the value of accountability is ultimately inseparable from the value of rules.

  • Both rules and accountability measures are external restraints. They cannot, by themselves, change a person’s heart.
  • In other words, both rules and accountability are limited to regulating conduct, not affections.
  • Both rules and accountability measures involve human discernment and judgment. (People are accountble to someone who is not God.)
  • Both rules and accountability measures can become objects of pride or refuges for people engaging in superficial conformity to standards.
  • Both rules and accountability can be poorly devised and executed, and can be counterproductively excessive (in both quantity and quality).

So those who see rules as unfortunate necessities that ought to be kept to an absolute minimum ought to believe—based on all the same arguments—that accountability is an unfortunate necessity that ought to be kept to a minimum.

Real value

But there is genuine importance in both rules and accountability.

Since not sinning is always better than sinning, both rules and accountability measures have value in keeping believers from harm they would otherwise suffer and in preventing dishonor to the Lord’s name that it would otherwise suffer. Since a believer’s spiritual vitality is always harmed more by sinning than by not sinning, both rules and accountability measures can be instrumental in helping Christians thrive. Both can help develop good habits. Both can help prevent the suffering of victims. Willingness to submit to both can be, along with other things, a measure of godly maturity. Both can limit believers’ exposure to temptations.

At the same time, both are less necessary for the strong than for the weak. The more genuine godly character a believer has (that is, the more God has deeply changed him) the less need he has for external restraints, whether these take the form of imposed rules or imposed accountability.

So, in the case of pastors, the more accountability we say a pastor needs, the less confidence we are claiming to have in his character. If a congregation believes its pastor needs someone looking over his shoulder all the time, that congregation should either rethink its estimation of the pastor’s character or replace him with someone who is the kind of man described in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

Would “more accountability” have prevented the devastation in Hammond and other places? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, sensible accountability measures (whether structured or informal) are vital in order to help good men remain good men and grow into better men. At the same time, no set of accountability measures, however ingenious or numerous, can serve as a substitute for genuine godly character.


1 Let’s not forget that sex and money offenses by ministry leaders is a problem in congregations and ministries of all sorts whether independent Baptist, independent something else or not independent at all (including, famously, the Roman Catholic Church). For a small sample take a look at this depressing Wikipedia entry.

2 Web version. Accessed 8/14/12.

Aaron Blumer Bio

Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.


I agree with you that structure does not necessarily mean accountability (if Schaap had elders, couldn’t they be “yes men” just as easily?), and while he needed accountability, that accountability needed to come from within as much as without. He was hiding, evading, etc., and that was the real problem. While we are all accountable to the Lord for our actions, and ought to treat our lives as such, that accountability ought to drive us to be more forthcoming about what is going on inside us.

As pastor of a small church, I find it important to “over-communicate” about what is going on in order to make sure to hold myself accountable. I also seek out strong Christian men to fellowship with in order to stay sharp and faithful. If we allow our lives to be an open book, God is more fully able to trust us, as are men. What is needed is more personal accountability, which is seen through increasing transparency.

Aaron makes some excellent points, and helps bring clarity to what is oftentimes obscured in vague and undefined terminology.

However, I am uneasy with equating “man-made” rules with human accountability structures. Yes, they may serve much the same purpose, but the difference is that human accountability is Biblically taught, whereas extra-Biblical rules are denounced by Christ as pharisaism.

True, human accountability structures do not guarantee perfection, nor does the Bible encourage us to think that they will. But surely the way forward is to endeavor to make our practice of Christianity as Biblical as we can, recognizing that perfection must await the final consummation.

G. N. Barkman

Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall”

No amount of accountability, rules, or transparency could have stopped that train wreck!

Have to run to a meeting but a couple thoughts on this…

However, I am uneasy with equating “man-made” rules with human accountability structures. Yes, they may serve much the same purpose, but the difference is that human accountability is Biblically taught, whereas extra-Biblical rules are denounced by Christ as pharisaism.

First, where is “accountability” biblically taught?

Second, what was the actual error of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned?

One the first, we have structures and principles that we apply in our concept of accountability, and certainly church discipline is a form of accountability. But we are also commanded to apply Scripture (which, as I’ve explained elsewhere, requires that we make at least some rules). A quick example is Peter’s imperative that we “be holy,” and Paul’s that we live “soberly, righteously and godly.” Both of these are too broad to be obeyed at all without human beings supplying details in the form of application. These applications will often be rules.

But specifically on the second question, where does Jesus specifically say “I condemn the practice of man made rules”? He doesn’t do that. He condemns them for using​ rules to hide disobedience, maintain appearances while robbing widows secretly. In Mark 7 He condemns them for attaching God’s authority to their rules—in fact, for contravening God’s authority through particular rules.

For an exploration of the Pharisees’ real problem, see:


One aspect the linked piece doesn’t delve into much is the fact that it’s really doubtful much genuine comparison can be made between born again saints and the consciously truth-rejecting Pharisees. The Ph. were not Christians with too many rules. They were sons of their father the devil who only used rules to manipulate other people.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Good article Aaron. Some basic rules regarding counseling, being alone with a member of the opposite gender, driving in a car alone with the opposite gender, being accountable for your time, all help protect against sin. When leaders are breaking those kinds of rules, the likelihood of foul play greatly increases.

Schaap had forecasted his own deficient character by both publicly writing and preaching sexual non-sense (blasphemous sacrilege) regarding the Lord’s supper, by promoting Jack Hyles’ books, image, statue, mural after lengthy books and articles had already been published detailing Jack’s heterodoxy and heteropraxy, and by grossly exaggerating the size and scope of the ministry. Doran was on target when he pointed out the small crowd that gathered at the Wednesday night service to be informed about the biggest event in the church’s history—less than 10 percent of their regularly boasted numbers.

Though IFB’s are not a denomination, there is no excuse for any IFB church or pastor to have maintained ecclesiastical partnerships with Hammond PRIOR to this recent scandal. That’s a level of accountability that should have been invoked. Yet, Sexton invites Schaap twice to be a keynote speaker at his FRIENDS conference. I don’t blame Sexton for not knowing the future, but I do blame him for not knowing the past. It was willful neglect. If biblical separation is simply based on labels rather than doctrine and practice, this is the kind of non-sense we end up with.

Pastor Mike Harding

like the article aaron. My point would be that we can’t isolate this to IFB. This is humanity in power. men in power with the ability to manipulate and take advantage of opportunities often do just that. it happens every day in the halls of organizations labeled christian or secular. those of the faith should take steps to provide accountability and possibly prevent such disasters. yet God’s annointed and the man on whose throne Jesus will sit also fell into grave sexual sin.

As to your question regarding accountability biblically. I think that’s a semantical issue. “Accountability” is simply biblical discipleship and fellowship. It is maintaining biblical relationships that are spiritual and deeper than affinity based interaction. Hebrews 10:24 - 25 mindset.

Here I go again with the draw of personality, but it seems obvious that the power-monger types are drawn to sins that exert power over the vulnerable. We all have temptation and we are all capable of great sin, but it is the STYLE of sin that is most disturbing, taking advantage of minors or barely adults.

Christians want to believe that there are leaders out there who exist on another level of humanity; the more “elevated” a leader is (big church, church members only know the person from a distance, etc.), the easier it is to believe that person is at some higher level (not just godly, but almost of another species). It is easier to believe this about someone if you have little personal dealings with him; his wife or kids, however, may have a completely opposite opinion. We know of great Bible teachers/speakers whose wives have left them and whose kids hate them. But to the person in the pew, that leader is a saint among saints.

That’s why people are of the “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos” mentality today. Some leaders include power-mongers (in some circles, esp. the IFB of the Hyles ilk), while others have proven more consistently godly but are still viewed as above humanity and mesmerize their fans (like Piper, MacArthur, etc.). The popular myth —embraced by drooling Christian fans — that big name leaders can be on such a high plane nurtures the egos of even the most humble leader, much more so the egotist. This is where we need to nip the problem, but people are SO BENT on seeking out and following this person who has discovered the “spiritual secret” —and supposedly has it all together — that they often undervalue the (sometimes more) godly Christians in their own life. The fame thing is hurting us. As a matter of fact, some of the godliest Christians may even be afraid to speak publicly. We give too much credit to good speakers, strong leaders, and the musically talented. Those do not equate to godliness.

And Aaron’s point about what we want to do in our heart (vs. outward constraint) is valid. His thoughts sort of reminded me of I Timothy 1:8-11. How you interpret this passage has bearing on your view of accountability:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

"The Midrash Detective"

The “one another” passages in the NT involve and require accountability. The plurality of elders in the NT implies accountability among pastors, as well as church discipline (which Aaron mentioned) which gives the procedures to confront and rebuke sinning elders. It seems to me that relationships within the local church, as the NT describes them, are loaded with accountability requirements. We wouldn’t miss it too far by saying that is the essence of church membership.

As to Christ saying “no man-made rules,” I agree that no statement of this exact nature is recorded. Perhaps you are correct, that it is only the abuse of human traditions that is denounced. But I cannot help thinking that when we multiply “man-made” rules, and defend the right to do so, we are heading down the slippery slope that Christ denounced. It seems to me that we should take the position that, although some extra-Biblical rules will be required in certain situations (think Acts 15), our goal is to keep them to a minimum, teach our people to obey everything Scripture requires, but be suspicious of extra-Biblical requirements, and help them to godly maturity where they can make wise and Christ-honoring decisions in areas of Christian liberty.

G. N. Barkman

I guess in fundamentalist circles, everything turns into a discussion about following rules….[sigh]

I don’t think people are talking about rules and structures, per se, when they criticize IFB power structures. I think they are criticizing a culture that holds pastors as a special privileged class. Many IFB leaders rule are more akin to tyrrants (Mark 10:42-45) than the types of older, wiser, guides, shepherds, and teachers we find described in the NT. I think Mr. Vaskicek is RIGHT ON in this regard.


I agree that Mr. Vasicek wrote an excellent comment to which I am in full agreement. Consider that the very nature of tyrants is that they are a nation of men and not a nation of laws. Our current administration and many in congress think they are above the laws of our country, above the Constitution itself. Good pastors have healthy policies that they follow regardless of what circles or denominations they serve in. A Child Protection Policy is essentially rules.

Pastor Mike Harding

[Mike Harding] Though IFB’s are not a denomination, there is no excuse for any IFB church or pastor to have maintained ecclesiastical partnerships with Hammond PRIOR to this recent scandal. That’s a level of accountability that should have been invoked.

Out of curiousity, during the 11 years of Schaap’s “pastorship,” how many official warnings about him/his ministry were sounded by the FBFI, via resolution or otherwise?

My wife is my best accountability partner. Sadly she was discouraged by a church member from holding me accountable. My wife is a great helpmate and I used her in a sermon illustration as I told how she pointed out sin in my life and how I realized I was wrong.

After that message my wife was given a note from a lady rebuking her for confronting her husband. My wife showed me the note and explained that she had read these same ideas in the Debbie Pearl book (which this lady promotes).

This led to me asking questions about the book Created to Be His Helpmeet by Debbie Pearl, and I realized that instead of teaching women to be their husband’s helpmeet they were being taught to enable his sin in much the same way the church in Hammond has been taught to enable their pastors.

Pearl teaches it is wrong for wives to hold their husbands accountable for sin. They are taught instead to enable their husbands and to cover their sins. She even promotes sinful attitudes of husbands as assets. This sounds a lot like what happened in Hammond.

We have spent much time warning about Hammond over the past few weeks. We need to warn about Debbie Pearl as well. We also need to value our wives and the accountability they can and must provide.

Again, our ultimate accountability is to God. However, if there is a person who I can be accountable to so that I don’t have to face God about some “blind spot” or known sin, I ought to do that. There are structures in Scripture for sharing of power and wise use of power, which have been ignored by Schaap and FBCH. There are lots of abuses of power.

It is dangerous to have the “super-leader” syndrome in lots of contexts, including business and ministry. The cues of many larger churches seem to come from the business world in this regard, where as long as the “bottom line” looks OK, the management must be good. Lots of short-sighted ministry is being done on this model today.

Does it help to be accountable to men? We should not fear it. Is it necessary? We ought to have enough sense of accountability to God to not get into this kind of gross sin, especially if we are “spiritual leaders” of any sort.

Very good insight from Aaron Blumer. The implied pressure in the IBM, which is hard to define specifically as to who is included in this title, not to humbly address the issues involved. It is much safer to confront those dangerous “conservative evangelicals”, especially if they are Calvinistic, rather sins in some of the IBM churches. Thank you for the courage to address this and I am greatly encouraged by the many wise comments.


[Mike Harding] Though IFB’s are not a denomination, there is no excuse for any IFB church or pastor to have maintained ecclesiastical partnerships with Hammond PRIOR to this recent scandal. That’s a level of accountability that should have been invoked.

Out of curiousity, during the 11 years of Schaap’s “pastorship,” how many official warnings about him/his ministry were sounded by the FBFI, via resolution or otherwise?

Probably about as many as there were about his predecessor.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan