Please excuse the overuse of apostrophes in this post. Given the topic, I couldn’t help it. Or I was too weak to help it.
To put it most succinctly, as pointed out by R. C. Sproul Jr., accountability groups are superfluous because “I have friends.” No, thank you, sir, I don’t need an accountability group because I’ve got trusted friends. In Pastor Sproul’s case the question has come up because of the recent death of his wife. People are telling him that he should plug himself into a group where he can talk, where he can be real.
His answer is, I have friends.
Some of the impulses behind creating accountability groups are healthy and helpful. As versions of parishes or “cell groups”, which a church might use to bring together people who live near each other but wouldn’t normally come together, I don’t have a great problem. But a very common practice, one used by many larger churches in my area, is to allow people to shop through accountability groups until they find one they like. That’s the most thorough way to destroy the church-wide community-building potential of these groups I can think of.
These accountability groups aren’t so much cells or small groups as they are group therapy sessions. They’re places to “be real”.
The impulse to “share” and “be real” is straight up immodest. It’s either that or it’s gossip. We shouldn’t see some of the things you’re trying to show us. First off, I now know more about your wife than I wanted to, and now you’re trying to bare all “spiritually” right in front of me. I don’t want that. We hardly know each other. Shouldn’t you be getting help (not “sharing”) from people you’ve organically come to trust, instead of stripping in this circle of people who share a few hobbies and interests?
Here’s a list of people to “be real” with. And note here that I’m not speaking of praying. Be in prayer. So…who to be real with, in order:
1. No one. This is ideal. Lust? anger? Pray. Ask for forgiveness. Make restoration as humbly and quietly as is right. By God’s grace work to be done with it; deal with the roots.
2. Your wife. There are very few “sharing” or “real” things that should make it past here. She knows your weaknesses and persistent sins. And you probably don’t have to tell her about this or that awful experience you had with someone. But if you do, it won’t be immodest or gossipy the way it would have been at the accountability group. Most accountability-type “issues” should stay within the marriage anyway; it’s your job to protect each others’ modesty and dignity. Why should your wife want other people to know that you’re “struggling with lust”? Or that you’re both having difficulty making little Joshua obey? I’m not suggesting some sort of toxic, oppressive, secret atmosphere. You can see when people live in an atmosphere of grace. Be gracious. And be modest.
5. Your family. To one extent or another. Mostly dad.
4. Your elders. They are charged with your spiritual care, and ought to be keeping things confidential, that is, preserving your dignity, as far as is possible. And they have authority over you, which means that your relationship is charged with real energy. If they tell you to go or come, you probably ought to go or come; at accountability group you’ll just end up going around in a circle of sympathy and “I’ll pray for you.” The same thing happens with your wife. You have responsibility toward your wife and your marriage, which means that when you have a conversation about a “struggle” you’re having, you’ll probably end up having to do something about it.
5. Your friends! And please don’t delude yourself. You’re not friends with the people in your small group. You’re friends with Bill, but you were friends before he joined the small group. And you really like Dave, but you’re not sure he likes you. Oh, and you had the Sullivans over for dinner, but you’re still feeling that one out. You get along with everyone, but you’re not friends. How many people in the world can you trust to truly care about your troubles, rejoice in your triumphs, and work to preserve your honor and dignity? One, two, four people? Not many. Those men are your friends. You can “be real” with them, but you won’t even know you’re doing it.
Being real in an accountability group is difficult, not because of your sinful nature, but because you instinctively feel that it is improper and immodest. The people I’ve listed above all have one thing in common. They have the right to expect that you owe them. We ought to show God’s grace to all, and that’s what it is, grace. Given freely; they ought not to expect it, even though you ought to give it. But you owe those on that list. You owe yourself care, you owe your wife love and provision, you owe your parents honor, you owe your elders submission. Your friends have joined the group of people you owe; that’s what being a friend is. You’ve developed an understanding that you owe them love…be it work, or aid, or advice, or money, or confidence, or whatever. You’ve promised them that, because of your long relationships and affinity for each other.
Are you really going to do that with an accountability group? Just create that bond out of thin air?
Perhaps that’s what we should want. For the bond to be created out of thin air, or should I say, the breath of the Holy Spirit. Because to listen to American evangelicalism, the Holy Spirit is not an exalter of men, but a leveler. We believe, despite all the evidence in Scripture and before our eyes to the contrary, that no “human” relationship ought to be special. We feel guilty when they are. So we pronounce them corban and create artificial relationships. They feel weird and difficult, so we assume they must be spiritual.
But the Holy Spirit is not a leveler. He is the reason that slave and free, Jew and Gentile, barbarian and Scythian, men and women, engineers and poets, trekkers and Star Wars fans, can live together in love. He’s the reason we’re not at each others’ throats, as would otherwise be natural. He’s the reason we can love people we have no business loving.
But he’s also put people in our lives that we have business loving. And it’s okay if you love Jimmy more than you love Johnny. So stop feeling guilty about it, and just tell your friend your troubles.