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.
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
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.
- Structured diffusion of power
- 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.
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, 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.