Ask the Pastor: What Does the Bible Say About Accountability?
Don’t forget to submit your Bible questions to us – firstname.lastname@example.org or in the “Question Box” outside the sanctuary.)
Another question submitted this week by a congregation member:
What does the Bible say about accountability?
Great question! There’s a lot to write on this topic, so let me start with a basic biblical overview of some select (and certainly not all) verses of Christian accountability.
GENERAL PRINCIPLES FROM SCRIPTURE
Accountability involves encouragement, mutual care for each other, continual communication, and keeping our hearts right before God. (Heb. 3:13).
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Accountability Involves Attentive Consideration (Heb. 10:24a).
And let us consider how…
Accountability Involves Gracious Provocation unto Love & Good Works (Heb. 10:24b).
to stir up one another to love and good works,
Biblical Accountability involves Loving Confrontation (Rom. 15:14).
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.
Accountability involves Humility (James 5:16a).
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
Accountability involves Righteousness and Prayer (James 5:16b).
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Accountability involves Genuine Concern for the moral and spiritual wellbeing of your friend (James 5:19-20).
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Accountability involves Truthfulness (Eph. 4:15)
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
Accountability involves Confidentiality (Proverbs 11:13)
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.
BIBLICAL ACCOUNTABILITY FOR PASTOR-ELDER-TEACHERS
(For an in-depth look at elders, please see this link from 9 Marks )
Every time the New Testament mentions elders/pastors/teachers, it uses the plural of the word (Acts 14, 16, 20; Titus 1), though a particular number for a church is never mentioned. The qualifications for an elder are dealt with in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Pastor-elder-teachers are accountable to other believers in the church (1 Timothy 5:19):
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Pastor-elder-teachers are accountable to overseers (1 Timothy 3:14-15; Galatians 2; Acts 15):
1 Timothy 3:14– I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
True accountability: to Jesus Christ alone (1 Peter 5:1-5)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
All other accountability for pastor-elder-teachers is “alongside;”–accountability to God is “from above”
Pastor-elder-teachers are accountable in many ways. We are accountable to shepherd the flock of God in the local church. This is a huge responsibility (Colossians 1:28)! This is to not be done under compulsion but willingly. This is not for shameful gain but eagerly. This is not domineering but being examples (Matthew 20:25-28).
We suffer and do good in expectation of glory. We are to humble ourselves so that God will give us grace (1 Peter 4:7-11).
Accountable in teaching (James 3:1 below):
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
James 3:1 discusses the peace-time occupation of teaching, warning that not many should presume to do it because with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility and liability, as well as a potential for failure and judgment.
Men, it is noble to desire to be a teacher of God’s Word and it can appear to be a glamorous occupation, but it will not be on the Day you have to give an account before God for what you taught those under your care.
Watch your life and your doctrine. Do not presume. Do not be hasty. Do not run after this out of your own pride.
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP: THE GATEWAY TO BIBLICAL ACCOUNTABILITY.
Many people say they love Jesus, but won’t commit to a church. They may even like the church, but church membership is not a priority or even a necessity.
The concern with this outlook is that if you don’t love the church, you may not really love Jesus. We have a strong ability to deceive ourselves about our walk with God, and one of God’s means of grace to us in this is the church.
The church is important in God’s plan. It wasn’t a human idea. If we are to be Christ’s followers, the church must be important to us.
What is the church?
The body of people called by God’s grace through faith in Christ to glorify Him together by serving Him in this world. This corporate relationship has been important since creation, through the flood and exodus and establishment of Israel. Jesus is the fulfillment of all that Israel pointed toward.
Church is fundamentally an assembly. The church is the people of God, the new creation, & the body of Christ. Christians constitute the kingdom of God in that we recognize the King and submit to His authority.
What is the church like?
In short, the church is like God. We are to reflect His character: His unity, His holiness, His desire for the salvation of man, etc. This is seen in the church being one, holy, universal, and apostolic.
Could our church be defined as anything other than Christ? Ask yourself about your church, “How are we doing in our unity, in our set-apartedness from the world? Have we given ourselves to understanding God’s Word?”
Your answer to that will reveal more than you know about the state of your church.
How do I know if a church is good?
The right preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Specifically, a church must preach the Gospel—the message that has been preached since Christ to now: that we are created in God’s image, but we are in rebellion against Him. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, came and lived a perfect life, died bearing God’s righteous wrath against sin, and God demonstrated His acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice by raising Him from the dead. Preaching this Gospel is central to a good church.
All evangelical Christians understand that believers’ baptism is a symbol through which we identify ourselves with Christ. Differences on infant baptism aside, all Protestants agree on believers’ baptism.
Scripture isn’t explicit concerning how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted; far more important is the issue of who is allowed to take it. Like baptism, this meal is an identification with Christ’s death and resurrection.
Who should regularly take the Lord’s Supper here?
Church members. The idea of a clearly defined community of people is essential to God’s plan in both the Old and New Testaments. Christianity is personal, but it is not private. Christians have an obligation to attend and ensure that church members’ claims of belief—both their own and others–are being lived out.
Consider the joy of Psalm 84. God’s people don’t need to come to a specific building to experience His presence, but they should yearn for communion with His people.
How does this affect biblical accountability? We have a responsibility to love. Love is the summary of our duties. Scripture fleshes out more of what that means, but love is the thumbnail sketch. Jesus taught that we should show Him to the world by loving one another.
How should a church be run?
Church leadership for a local congregation–not the church universal–is defined in the New Testament. Members of the church are and should be the authority in matters of church membership, church discipline, and settling disputes between Christians (Matthew 18:15).
Christian, are you relating to others at TVBC (or whatever church you may be attending / a member of currently) closely enough to make this possible?
Paul’s assumption in Galatians 1 isn’t that Christians can sit in judgment on matters of doctrine. His assumption is that they must make such judgments in the context of the local church. There is responsibility all around—for teachers as well as hearers—to support good doctrine and reject bad doctrine.
In 1 & 2 Corinthians, the whole local church is called on to enact discipline—it is not only a matter for elders and leaders.
What is the church for?
To serve as an example of Christ to those who are not yet believers, to commend the gospel to them. To instruct, encourage, and nourish believers – a place for us to spur one another on to holiness.
Recall Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:29:
everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.
Look around–Jesus was telling us the truth.
The true church ultimately exists for God and His glory. The church is the mirror reflecting the divine character in this world.
Do you want to be part of that reflection in Christian accountability?
ACCOUNTABILITY THROUGH CHURCH DISCIPLINE.
Are we to live as Christians on our own or do we have an obligation to each other? What’s the nature of our responsibilities to each other and to God? Merely to build each other up or also to speak out in response to wrongs?
This is where church discipline comes in. In fact, church discipline is an indicator of the harvest to come from our churches. It is the biblical prescription for accountability.
Several questions come up about church discipline:
Is all church discipline bad?
On the surface, I believe, it seems so. In today’s 21st century culture and context, we think of discipline as a punishment.
We do need discipline for shaping, correcting, challenging, and breaking us. Let’s be honestly-raw and let us admit that.
However, much of church discipline is positive, shaping people as they’re growing in the Lord, relationships, the family, and the church.
What does church discipline involve?
When any person says “church discipline,” most people mean corrective discipline.
Christ clearly calls us to rebuke people for sin—to judge ourselves and others in the church, though not in the final sense as God does.
If we can’t say how a Christian shouldn’t live, how can we express how one should live?
If we really want our churches to grow, we need to make it harder to join and also to practice corrective church discipline. That is, by closing the front door and opening the back door in our churches rather than vice versa.
In 1 Cor. 5:10, Paul says:
I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.
Paul makes a clear distinction between the church and the world. There needs to be some kind of difference evident in our lives. Membership in the church is to reflect membership in the body of Christ. This is why being a church member is so important in the biblical context!
What does the Bible say about church discipline?
Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3 For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, 6 for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives. 7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline– which all receive– then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed instead. 14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness– without it no one will see the Lord.
Discipline is fundamentally a positive thing. God Himself disciplines us and commands us to do the same to each other. The congregation has a special responsibility and competence in this area.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
It seems this (church discipline) is what the early Christians did.
1 Corinthians 5:1-11 (especially verse 11):
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one.
Why mark out that one especially? Because that one is deeply deceived.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted
.How to restore someone who has been in sin.
Other passages on this topic:
We see that God cares about our understanding of truth, our lives, how we live together. All are important and are legitimate areas of church discipline. Paul may seem harsh, but this is what Jesus taught.
How have Christians handled church handled discipline in the past?
Looking at the broad view, most churches practiced it. Baptists in Georgia in the early 1900s, for instance, excommunicated 2% of their members per year and yet grew at 2 times the population growth of the area.
The take-away, among many, is that if our lives don’t back up our words, we make it harder for people to hear the Gospel. When biblical church discipline declined, the distinction between the church and the world blurred—and everyone suffered in accountability as a result.
Does our church practice discipline?
Our local church is concerned with church discipline and has established rules for dealing with each other.
What are the matters for such serious treatment? Some examples could be:
- Violation of moral law.
- Matters concerning the reputation of the church.
- Severe absenteeism (particularly significant as an indicator of declining spiritual health).
- Opposing the statement of faith.
- Starting discord and disunity among members.
- Or any conduct inappropriate for professing Christians and decent citizens.
Part of the regular business of the church has been sticking our noses into each other’s business for the glory of God. Not to be a gossip, not to be a rebel-rouser—but to keep one another accountable to the Lord and His Word within biblical principles.
Okay, Darin, so why should we practice church discipline? Again, pastor, isn’t this harsh?
Imagine Christians comforted in their sin but never corrected. Well, honestly, does this not describe many of our churches today? Is there any other way to practice what Jesus taught?
Why practice it? Not to be angry or vindictive, certainly, and it is not our role to know the final fate of someone. Rather, because we want to see good come in the Lord for them and the church. We should practice church discipline for several reasons.
- For the overall health and vitality of the church before God.
- For the church’s witness to the lost and dying world.
- For the benefit and good of the person(s) being disciplined. Out of love, like a parent to a child in a sense, for that person.
- For the good of other true believers—so they can see the serious nature of sin.
- Ultimately, though, for the glory of God and the praise and honoring of His name. We’re to be holy (see 1 Peter 1 and Hebrews 12!), not to “rep” ourselves but God’s name. That’s the foundation of all true New Testament churches.
In short, the church must enforce church discipline (not pastors or elders alone). It should mean something to be a member of a church—for God’s name’s sake.
What if we don’t practice church discipline?
If we can’t say what something isn’t, we can’t say what it is. We need to love each other, those outside (whom our witness affects), and God. We need to be holy as He is. We must actively care for each other, even to the point of confronting one another. We must sow the seed of speaking the truth in love in order to bring about a good harvest.
Discipline happens in both the Old and New Testaments. God expects His children to be holy. Discipline is inextricably bound up in the idea of church as presented by Jesus. A true church is only for sinners – repentant sinners.
That is a “brief” overview of church discipline.