"Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
– Galatians 6:2
Once upon a time I had to sign a conduct form as part of an application for health care from a Christian "insurance" co-op plan. On the form I filled out every year to renew membership was a list of unhealthy behaviors from which my family and I had to promise to abstain. (Not all of them were sinful things like illicit drug use or immoral sexual behavior; some were just things considered a risk to our health.) And then there was a place where a church officer had to sign to vouch for the veracity of your statements. Two of my fellow elders at the time signed off on the application.
Back then, it occurred to me that if I were to cheat on my health care plan, it was likely that nobody would ever know. I could break my committment and the powers that be would likely be none the wiser. And yet, I also knew that if I were to cheat on my pledge, it woudln't just make me a liar, but would make my elders liars too. Since they had vouched for me, I would be pulling them into my dishonesty, unwitting participants in it. And it would of course make me a liar to them. So even though they never really asked me if I was really keeping my promises on that form, they signed it with the assumption that I was doing so, and therefore their vouching for me became a facet of our relationship.
When we think of accountability relationships (or accountability “partners”), we often think of all the ways someone might keep a weaker brother responsible for his actions. But we rarely talk about how the one being held accountable might live in such a way to not make his accountability-holder have to feel like a jerk. This runs through issues of church discipline and the like, as well. The focus is so much on gentleness and directness and loving rebuke for those sinning — which is a necessary focus, of course — that we sometimes neglect to remind people that walking in repentance and integrity is a good gift to leaders (Hebrews 13:17) because it keeps them from having to enter conflict. Us folks under accountability can take real burdens off those holding us accountable by striving to act right.
I know there are some overbearing, pugilistic pastors our there. But most pastors I know are the kind that hate conflict and prefer to do whatever they can to avoid it. When they do take the risk of engaging conflict it is because fidelity to Christ and his gospel, and thus his church, is at stake. It is not a fun thing at all to have to confront brothers and sisters, to hold them accountable, to present them with their sin, even to have to discipline them should they refuse to repent.
That aspect of familial love is tough. It crushes the hearts of those who love us. But in the end they know it would be a failure to love if they failed to call us to account. Not to mention, it just breaks the hearts of those who love us when we engage in sin that brings disrepute to Christ and his church.
Having been on the pastoral side of this relationship, I know just how wearying, gutting, downright hurtful it is when someone I care for puts me in the position of having to confront their sin. And now that I'm on the other side of that relationship, it is a serious factor in how I think about the pursuit of personal holiness. I don't want to put my family, my pastors, my church, my employer(!) in the terrible spot of having to discipline me.
Our pursuit of holiness is personal, but it is not private. The sins we nourish in the dark will eventually be brought into the light, where suddenly we discover that things we did alone now involve others. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is in fact one way we also love our neighbor as ourself. When we pursue God through the disciplines of personal holiness, we are refusing to put our friends to the test.
Maybe your accountability partner receives your Internet logs each week to hold your online surfing habits under inspection. When you go where you shouldn’t online, you’re not just sinning against God, you’re sinning against your brother by putting him in the difficult, undesirable, burdensome position of figuring out how to confront you, rebuke you, and restore you in ways that bring glory to God and joy to you. He will do that, because he’s committed to do it (and you asked him to). But isn’t it better to work at making sure he’s not having to be in that position?
We are looking for grace from our accountability-holders. But we ought also to be looking to how we might give grace to our accountability-holders. Maybe we ought to strive for holiness and integrity in our lives not simply out of personal religious ambition but out of relational mercy, out of a desire to not make religious cuckolds of our friends.
If I were writing to them, I'd be of course encouraging them to show you the great grace of God, reminding them that repentant sinners are joyfully received by the embrace of Christ. But since I'm writing to you, I should encourage you to show your friends the great grace of God, reminding you that repentance is how you joyfully keep the embrace of the church unshaken.
An upright life is a grace to others.
"Outdo one another in showing honor."
– Romans 12:10