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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Accountability 2.0

For the last month or so, I've been thinking about accountability and law. From my experience, most Christian accountability groups/relationships are centered on some sort of legalism: have you not done the bad stuff. Some accountability relationships develop very specific questions that are asked at each meeting: Did you have impure thoughts, did you look at pornography, did you read your Bible everyday, did you pray everyday, etc.

The point of most accountability relationships is to keep one accountable for whether or not they have kept the rules. If someone screws up, then the result is shame. If one lies and says, for example, that they did not look at pornography when if fact they did, then presumably more shame follows, because now you are not only a pornographic sinner but also a liar. Trust me: been there, done that.

So, law and shame are interconnected in a traditional accountability relationship. This is not to say that there cannot be some positive accountability, however. One may use law/shame as the opportunity to encourage each other to "pursue God," to cultivate a more virtuous thought life, or to develop life-patterns that avoid coming into contact with particularly tempting temptations. But even the more positive "encouragement" winds up being a legalistic thing: if you fail to move in a positive direction, then you have violated the law.

Regardless of the good intentions of those involved, I find the law/shame approach to be largely ineffective. That is, it just hasn't worked well for me or those I have known. I would suggest that it has worked in some ways and in some situations; but by and large I find that most people struggle mostly with the same things over the long run.

Two quick reasons for the ineffectiveness: First, psychologically it seems as though when we focus on law (the "dos" and "don'ts") it usually produces all the more desire: desire to do the don'ts and to don't do the dos. Most human beings find it innate within them to want to break the law. Whether or not we actually break the law (and to what extent we are lawbreakers) seems to vary from person to person. Also, even if we don't like to think of ourselves as "lawbreakers," we still find the law a poor motivator. For example, reading one's Bible because of obligation somehow drains us and tends to make Bible reading even less desirable than it would be. Making a task (however positive and enjoyable it may be in and of itself) an obligation takes it into a new context that tends to make it tiresome.

The second reason is from Paul's theology. Paul seems to suggest in Galatians 5 that law and desire are linked such that law feeds off of desire and desire feeds off of law. For Paul, there is a law-desire economy at work that produces failure upon failure and ultimately "death." (Also compare Romans 7.) So, I see a good theological reason why law-shame and most accountability relationships are not very effective.

John (aka Ktismatics) comments on the psychological-theological connection:
Sinful desires are created by the law; the law is created because of sinful desires. It's a dialectic that needs to be abolished altogether in order to see synthesis on a different plane, which is the life of the; spirit and the fruit thereof. (personal correspondence)

I think Paul is saying that, within the slave morality of the Law, moral and immoral acts are equally unnatural and non-spontaneous. The Law simultaneously stimulates the desire to self-justify and the desire to transgress. The resulting sense of conflict and futility makes everything an effort. It’s the life of a slave.

But, says Paul, this futility isn’t necessary. Christ set the Galatians free; they’re no longer slaves but heirs. In Dostoevsky’s famous novel Ivan Karamazov concludes that if God is dead then everything is permitted, that all things are lawful. Curiously, Paul contends that just the opposite is true: if the Spirit sets you free then all things are lawful (I Corinthians 10:23). Has the Spirit put God to death? No, but the Spirit did put to death the slave morality of law-desire-transgression that had come to be identified with God.
(Everything is Permitted)

In my previous post on sin, I shared the illustration of thinking of Pink Elephants: if you try not to think of pink elephants, it just becomes all that much harder not to think about them. Hoosier commented on this:

I had lunch with one of my "accountability bros" several weeks ago at which time I told him I no longer was striving to be holy because any sin felt like utter defeat. He was shocked. I told him I planned to enjoy the grace already extended to me. Last week we had lunch again and he told me how down he was because of some struggles. I told him he was thinking too much about not doing it and that pulled him in.
Side note: when you hear pornography mentioned in a sermon, what's the first thing you think about? Exactly, pink elephants.

So, here is the question: Is there a law-less way to cultivate accountability groups?

Perhaps the manner in which we meet is important. Perhaps super secret, private meetings are counterproductive, because it cultivates that sense of shame and the need to hide one's true self (the secret self) from the rest of humankind. What if accountability were moved into the context of small groups/cell groups/house churches? What if Christians had a sense of trust, grace, and maturity such that anything could be shared?

In the fellowship of freedom that I envision, this is possible. The reason is that we are here to set each other free, not to weigh each other down with rules and laws. The point of the life of the believer is not to fulfill the law; it is to live by the Spirit in freedom and grace.

When there is a focus on meeting the laws and rules, we tend to feel weighed down and unmotivated. We also feel shame and failure. But why do we have to live this way. If Christ has set us free, we are free indeed? It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Fellowship and the Freedom of Self)

There is still a place for a confessional element in a fellowship of freedom. But this purpose of confession has little to do with law. Confession is important and should happen often. Confession helps us verbalize who we are: "I failed with pornography," "I overate and indulged my appetites in an unhealthy way," "I had meaningless sex with a co-worker," "I am having inappropriate thoughts about touching children." All of these "dark" confessions bring to light the direction of our lives, which helps us come to grips with who we are and where we are going. Do I want to define myself as someone who is driven by desires for pornography? Ultimately, it is a drive of the "flesh," as Paul calls it. But the fellowship of freedom is the best context to understand who we are and why we continue to go back to the flesh rather than embrace a life of freedom in the Spirit.

What does accountability look life if we redo the whole thing, top to bottom??? Thoughts or suggestions? I'm interested in feedback on this topic. How can believers make the most of their fellowship and truly grow as people and as spiritual beings? And is it too daring to suggest that nonbelievers might participate in the fellowship (Hint: Augustine's writings might lend support to this possibility)?


samlcarr said...

On any sort of a small group; fellowship, discipling, accountability, prayer and fasting... I have found that it is the group itself that matters more than the purported reason for having the group in the fist place. Groups build relationships and to me it is the quality of the relationships that defines whether the group is a 'good' one rather than say a measure of how many of the stated goals have been met/progressed upon after some X amount of time.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So, perhaps a forced fellowship that doesn't develop along the lines of a natural relationship progression tends, in actuality, to be counterproductive. I've seen that at work.

hoosier reborn said...

Good post J. And I agree with your response on forced relationships....dealing with that in a cell group situation right now.

I was never fond of the term accountability because it is too much like a big stick you expect to get whacked with.

Accountability should look more like encouragement, not from avoiding sin, but in enjoying the walk-expecting God to move in your life-challenging each other to step out in faith. Get the focus off sin and before long it will be gone-experienced it in my own life big time.

Kevin Winters said...

Actually, psychologically speaking positive reinforcement (adding something desirable when one does what is right) reinforces good behavior more than either negative punishment (taking away something desirable as punishment for bad actions) or positive punishment (adding something undesirable after an undesirable action). That's why, for example, speeding tickets aren't very effective: if we were rewarded for every time we went the speed limit rather than only occasionally (if ever for many of us) being punished for speeding, more people would go the speed limit.

I also agree that what I've come to term the 'culture of guilt' has the Gospel all wrong. Fear of punishment and guilt aren't the message, but hope, unity, and intimacy with the divine. Interestingly enough, I had to leave the religion of my youth (sort of; might be more correct to say 'take a break from') and start more Eastern practices regularly (meditation, yoga, examining Eastern thought, etc.) before I'm even *beginning* to break from that habitual and, in my mind, inherently dangerous way of pushing the Gospel.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I like the term "culture of guilt." That describes very accurately the atmosphere and zeitgeist of many churches.

I also understand your need to step away for awhile. I think the stepping away can be very refreshing and stimulating.

A few thoughts about the institutional aspect of religion. Can a religious institution even exist if there is no "culture of guilt"? It seems as though most institutional approaches to faith have to cultivate some sort of legalism. Legalism is usually combined with some sort of superior stance toward the other: "We are better than them because we do these things and/or don't do these other things."

One more thought from Dostoevsky. In the Grand Inquisitor, one of the points is that the religious institution actually relieves the guilt. The leadership provides the structure for human beings to sin without having to carry guilt. But this is still predicated on a culture of guilt, no? You can't relieve guilt without first establishing guilt in the first place. So, perhaps there is something of a dialectic at work: cultivate a culture of guilt, but provide a way out of the guilt that has to do with conforming to institutional standards. Certain sins are worse than others; one can take certain measures (confession, church attendance, tithe/giving, etc.) that are "good" and thus offset the "bad," thus relieving the guilt.

Perhaps many versions of Protestantism are in a horrible position: doctrinally, we do not allow the "good" to offset the "bad," but we also refuse to take a radical position on grace/freedom because we continue to preach the importance of keeping the law and denying the flesh. But this just makes the situation really bad b/c the result is that we keep ourselves in perpetual guilt about our sins without any real freedom. Paul, of course, seemed to preach a life of freedom that leaves law behind.

Kevin Winters said...

Oo, that is a good question. Guilt is part of the human condition, or in the very least the human social condition. The goal, methodologically speaking, is to temper guilt appropriately: not to use it as a means to an end but as a natural extension to the end, for example (speaking from the top of my head...or perhaps speaking out of a lower body part), the realization that guilt implies the possibility of doing otherwise (in some libertarian-type notion of freedom) and, thus, the hope of being able to improve one's life. Thus, I think we can view guilt as an implicit impetus to hope rather than as an explicit means to getting to that end (i.e. laying on guilt trips or being consumed with guilt, which has been my situation for so long).

I guess I should say here that this idea (again, possibly spoken from one of two bodily orifices) stems from my recent immersion in Buddhism and its (or at least one school's) notion that liberation is implicit in every phenomenon, even in sin and 'dirty' things. The question is how we then appropriate it, how we 'hold' it: with an open hand or we clench it with an iron fist (which I think is an apt description of those who think guilt is the greatest thing since deconstruction...oh, wait...sliced bread ;o) ). In short, I don't think the problem is guilt itself, but rather our orientation to it.

Emily said...

Jon -

I really appreciate these last two posts.

Kevin -

It seems like you are a Christian but are looking to Eastern religious views and practices to give you freedom and guidance. Did you get the impression that this would help you follow Christ better? What's your thought process on this?

Kevin Winters said...


First, let me say that I'm undecided at this exact moment on my religious status. As it relates to Christianity, though, I'm something of a minimalist when it comes to Christian doctrine. I think the Evangelical fixation on orthodoxy is misguided as it relies explicitly on extra-Biblical principles (particularly metaphysics). As it relates to 'Biblical purity,' doctrine is important but not in the sense of systematic/philosophical theology. So to fixate on it, in my mind, is actually un-Biblical (insofar as the Bible itself is a source of authority; within my own tradition we believe in an open canon).

With that openness (but not relativism) in mind, I believe that Eastern thought has a better and more developed psychology and anthropology than Christianity, with its neo-Aristotelian metaphysic which is all-but put on par with the canon itself (i.e. it seems to be practically unquestionable). I do believe, however, that this anthropology can be coherent with the message of Christianity, though it does not allow for some theories of atonement (particularly the substitutionary theory, which has no ontological correlates for its terms [though I think this is the case even in the neo-Aristotelian metaphysic]). It does require a strong notion of theosis/divination, definitely stronger than general Evangelical approaches allow. It also requires, I believe, a different view of God and judgment/punishment. But that's about the most I can go into it right now.

ktismatics said...

A particularly paradoxical aspect of the "culture of guilt" is that it turns one's focus inward: are my motives right, am I making progress in overcoming my besetting sins, why do I keep doing this, etc. On the other hand, sometimes one has to wonder what Christianity has to offer besides morality to distinguish itself from the secular "culture of happiness."

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good point and parallel, K. Both the popular versions of Christianity and self-help/self-esteem seem to promote a weird sense of narcissism. On the one hand, the self-helpers say, "You need to be happy with yourself (about what you have or have not done)," while the Christian version says, "You need to be guilty (about what you have or have not done)."

Jonathan Erdman said...


Could you expand this thought a bit:
Thus, I think we can view guilt as an implicit impetus to hope rather than as an explicit means to getting to that end (i.e. laying on guilt trips or being consumed with guilt, which has been my situation for so long).

You also mentioned that guilt was not the problem, per se, but that the orientation toward guilt was the important factor. Could you flesh this out a bit?

To me, guilt implies a law (I could be wrong about this, though). For example, guilt is usually guilt about doing or not doing something. It is a failure to meet a standard, or the overwhelming feeling of missing the mark. But what is "the mark" or "a standard" if not some sort of law?

Kevin Winters said...


I don't know how guilt requires an explicitly given law. I, as you might assume, think that the appearance of the Other, in a Levinasian sense, is prior to the giving of any explicit law. This is the beginning of our accountability, not because we are accountable to a set of prohibitive propositions, but because we are accountable to the Other (both human and divine).

On my statement on orientation: I think the culture of guilt is grounded on seeing guilt as a means to an end, i.e., "I induce guilt in order to (hopefully) bring about change." What I am proposing is that guilt be seen as something that we must see deeply into (using some Buddhist turns of phrases again). This will allow us to see the hope that is inherent in guilt that will then provide the conditions of change.

What I'm trying to find is a way to talk about this in terms of a structured whole rather than a simple causal process (as seems to be assumed in using guilt as a means). Guilt is not a mere means to an end, but is situated within an open world that implicitly requires hope and freedom in order for it to exist. By taking this situated orientation to guilt, I think we can retain the notion of guilt while divesting it of its causal status in this culture. Guilt is not a causal means to an end, but a call to righteous living, something that draws us out of ourselves into a new relationship with our failings.

This is still something I'm trying to work through (when I take the time to think about it), so it's still rather raw. But hopefully you can see at least my aim in the above.