Community / Spirituality

Loving Accountability or Burdensome Legalism?

Accountability is much in the news these days. Politicians on the campaign trail, for example, claim they will be transparent so as to be accountable to their constituents. Wall Street banks do not need more regulation, Wall Street CEOs solemnly inform the Congress that bailed them out, because bankers are accountable to share holders. Is it cynical of me to admit that most of these claims strike me as being disingenuous (at best) if not downright deceitful?

Being accountable isn’t what we wake up every morning to have—we wake up yearning to be autonomous. Being autonomous is the default mode, being intentionally accountable comes only with wisdom shaped by grace.

It’s risky to be accountable. Performance reviews at work don’t always turn out well, and failing to merit a promotion can be disappointing. Having friends remind me that I have failed to keep a promise is disheartening—I don’t like failing my friends or myself. Realizing as I have that long standing patterns of dysfunction cause me to seek to control events and the people I love is not just humiliating but devastating. Yet the patterns remain deeply entrenched, and so repentance becomes tiresome and shameful since the same things arise, time and time again. I don’t even like knowing these things about myself, so being accountable to you increases my discomfort.

Yet, I have lived long enough to be convinced that I need to be accountable. I am not trustworthy enough to be autonomous. I need to find a safe community within which friends love me enough to ask thoughtful, probing questions that encourage me to keep moving forward in my pilgrimage towards flourishing across all of life and culture as a person made in God’s image and redeemed by Christ. “We are his workmanship,” St Paul insists, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Contrary to popular opinion, in other words, there is purpose to be had in this broken world, shaped for us beyond the horizons of time and space, specifically for us so that all we are and do and feel becomes a reflection, imperfectly but substantially, of nothing less than the very glory of God. Amazing but true.

The stunning reality of this grace is what prompts me to risk accountability in the face of my insane desire to stake myself out as an autonomous being every chance I get.

Mutual accountability can only be sustained in a place of genuine safety, and those are sadly in very short supply. Worse, many of the people who offer themselves as accountability partners are not trustworthy. They claim to be, but aren’t. “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs,” Jesus warned. “If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). Notice Jesus is not criticizing the dogs and pigs here, because they are simply doing what’s in their nature. They are incapable of distinguishing pearls from slop and can be nasty to anyone that throws stuff at them. Rather, Jesus is criticizing any of his followers who give what is sacred and precious to those unprepared to receive it.

Notice the context carefully (7:3-5)—when Jesus speaks of dogs and swine he is referring to people who offer to remove little splinters from other people’s eyes. They claim to be trustworthy, capable of delicate operations, but walk around, Jesus says, with entire planks of lumber lodged under their eyelids. And in case we are wondering what Jesus means, how he measures their untrustworthiness, Jesus names it—the people with lumber are judgmental (7:1-2). We all know the type because being judgmental takes so many forms. They do not listen, so certain that they know what our problem is; they prescribe neat little solutions and steps of action, certain they have the solutions to all dilemmas; they quote scriptures to meet our problem without persuading us they are walking with us through the valley; they are unwilling to be silent, never realizing that presence can be a deep grace; they look on us with concern not acceptance and so make us into a project to be fixed not a person to be loved; their tone is self-satisfied, assured, and patronizing never imagining for a moment the one they call Lord calls them swine.

I am glad for Jesus’ warning because accountability is difficult enough without being violated by people busily fishing around in my eyeball trying to find a splinter. I’m willing to take the risk, but with care to identify pigs and dogs, to avoid as much as possible their abuse.

Safe community is a place where pearls are cherished, not trampled. So, assuming we can find safe community, we can and should risk mutual accountability.

The question is how?
Which brings me to the issue I’ve been considering and want to raise here: assuming we are in safe community how can we lovingly ask probing questions of one another without being too intrusive? Can we craft sensitive questions that encourage each other to grow and mature without being formulaic? Can our community as Christians, in other words, include something of true loving accountability without descending into procedures that are ugly and burdensome?

Some questions—“How are you?” for example—are potentially intrusive but lose their potency by being little more than civil courtesies. Most of the time we don’t expect much of an answer beyond, “Fine,” and most of the time that’s exactly what we get, whether the person happens to be fine or not. That doesn’t make the exercise entirely meaningless, since conversation seems to flow more easily when we can begin innocuously, when we’ve each had a chance to say something aloud. But sometimes the question rises above the level of courtesy to probe more deeply into the things that matter most. Last week when I saw a dear friend for the first time in over a year I asked, “So, how are you?” and because we cherish our relationship and have nourished our friendship he responded by telling me things he’d most likely not tell most other people. It’s a question we always ask one another when we get together, believing as we do that probing into one another’s soul is an exercise that encourages us to keep on keeping on. Such mutual accountability is helpful and rare and risky but precious—and we need it.

Christianity is a distinctly corporate affair. Those who name Christ as Savior and Lord are made “one body,” St Paul claims, a spiritual reality transacted by God’s Spirit for which our baptism as believers is both a physical symbol and divine guarantee (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Once incorporated into this reality, our flourishing and identity is inseparably tied to one another and to the whole. “If one member suffers,” Paul insists, “all suffer together” (12:26) and whether it seems so or not, we are made “indispensible” to one another (12:22). The Spirit dispenses a variety of gifts and callings to all the members (12:11) so that rather than face fragmentation in our differences, we can care for one another (12:25). This is part of what we mean when we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, “…I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints…”

This means that for the Christian, community is essential. We were made for it, and in the biblical creation narrative only being alone was said by God to be “not good” for the human beings he had made (Genesis 2:18). Human beings, created in the image of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yearn for unity but find that disunity and all that flows from it—disagreement, division, envy, disappointment, jealousy, violence—plagues our efforts to come together. When St Paul speaks of the mystical union we have as members of Christ’s body, he is claiming that the shattering of relationships in the fall (Genesis 3) finds its ultimate healing in the redemption of Christ (John 17:21-23; Ephesians 5:25-32; Colossians 1:19-23). The church is meant to be a demonstration of this cosmic reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21), not achieved fully on this side of the kingdom’s fulfillment, of course, but substantially, really (Ephesians 2:14-18). Christian community is so important that Christ warned that the watching world had reason to disbelieve his divinity if we fail to demonstrate love for one another (John 17:20-21).

What I have written here is not new or from a Christian perspective very radical. It is part of what the church has always believed about itself, about what the community of Christian believers is meant to be and demonstrate while we wait for the return of the king.

What I have written is radical, however, in a broken world and in a society that elevates individualism and autonomy to the status of idolatry. I doubt a single day passes that I am not encouraged to be self-reliant, to seek self-fulfillment, to achieve independence, to be true to myself, to find my own way, to claim my right to live my life as I see fit. I may not always be conscious of it, but this is the message that infests the background noise of life, from advertising to casual conversation and even, sadly, in much of the church. Assumed to be true, it is largely unremarked and unremarkable, and part of Christian faithfulness includes the necessity to quietly yet firmly dismantle its supremacy.

All of which leads back to the issue I am raising here: How can we live out something of the reality of being Christ’s body in our broken world? More specifically, I’d like for us to reflect together on some questions we might pose to one another, in love, to help us evaluate our growth towards spiritual maturity, to be accountable to one another—or whether developing such mutual accountability is possible at all.

Questions used in the past
It turns out that questions like this have been developed in the past. For example, in the mid-18th century a religious revival occurred in America that is referred to by historians as the First Great Awakening. (First, because a Second Great Awakening occurred in the early 19th century.) Thousands responded to the preaching of the gospel, and the leaders of the First Great Awakening encouraged the formation of small groups so new converts could meet for prayer, encouragement, study, and spiritual growth.

One prominent preacher involved in the First Awakening was John Wesley (1703-1791). An Anglican clergyman, Wesley became a popular preacher who launched what later came to be known as Methodism—originally a negative term used by opponents making fun of Wesley’s desire to be methodical about spiritual growth. Wesley formed people into “bands” of 5-10 people that met weekly to report on their spiritual progress as Christians by taking turns answering a series of questions:
1. What sins have you committed since the last meeting?
2. What temptations did you face but did not give into?
3. How were you delivered from those temptations?
4. Where else did God give you help or victory to live as a Christian?
5. What have you thought or done which you were unsure as to whether it was sinful or not, or where have you been unclear as to God’s will?
Another prominent preacher in the First Great Awakening was George Whitefield (1714-1770). He formed “societies,” and developed accountability questions as well:
1. Are you sure you are a Christian? Are you sure God’s Spirit lives inside you? Is the Spirit shedding abroad God’s love in your heart? How clear is his witness? Are you enjoying it? Why or why not?
2. What scriptures is God using in your life?
3. In what ways is God helping you overcome sinful habits? In what ways are you becoming more aware of your sins and faults? How are you increasing in your understanding of them?
4. In what ways are you growing in love towards other people?
5. Which fruit of the Spirit are you growing in most and which are you most lacking?
6. Are there certain promises and assurances in the Bible that are particular precious to you right now?
7. Are you becoming aware of certain situation that are dangerous to you and create temptations?
8. Can you recognize the first motions of sin in the heart: pride, lust, carelessness, bitterness, envy, and self-indulgence?

More questions, asked more recently
Others have formed their own list of accountability questions. For example, Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan includes some questions that small group leaders might choose to use with their members. “Press the issues” being discussed in the group “home to people’s hearts in a loving, but direct manner,” Redeemer’s Fellowship Group Handbook suggests, using questions such as these:
1. How has God been working in your life lately?
2. Are there things you have been convicted about? How did the conviction come about? What steps are you taking to deal with those things?
3. What have you heard in the sermons recently that have been particularly convicting or comforting?
4. What areas of obedience have you been working on?
5. Where have you recently experienced God’s kindness and love in your life?

Then, in a lovely piece on the meaning of the period of the church year leading up to Easter, “On Keeping a Holy Lent,” Craig Higgins, a Presbyterian pastor in Rye, NY, includes a series of questions. Though specifically intended to help Christians reflect on their spiritual maturity and growth during Lent, they fit well into the category of accountability questions we are considering here:
1. Have I been fervent in prayer? Was there warmth? Access?
2. Have I prayed at my stated times? With my family?
3. Have I practiced God’s presence, at least every hour?
4. Have I, before every deliberate action or conversation, considered how it might be turned to God’s glory?
5. Have I sought to center conversations on the other person’s interests and needs and ultimately toward God, or did I turn them toward my own interests?
6. Have I given thanks to God after every pleasant occurrence or time?
7. Have I thought or spoken unkindly to anyone?
8. Have I been careful to avoid proud thoughts or comparing myself to others? Have I done things just for appearance? Have I mused on my own fame or acclaim?
9. Have I been sensitive, warm, and cheerful toward everyone?
10. Have I been impure in my thoughts or glances?
11. Have I confessed sins toward God and others swiftly?
12. Have I over or under-eaten, -slept, or -worked?
13. Have I twisted the truth to look good?
14. Have I been leading in my home, or only reacting to situations?

Higgins appends to his list of questions a series developed by Jack Miller (1928-1996):
1. Is God working in your life?
2. Have you been repenting of your sin lately?
3. Are you building your life on Christ’s free justification or are you insecure and guild-ridden?
4. Have you done anything simply because you love Jesus?
5. Have you stopped anything simply because you love Jesus?

There are other lists of questions available, and you may know of them, but this is a sufficient sampling for our purposes. The issue at hand is whether questions like this can be part of the mutual accountability that is developed as part of our community as Christians.

An encouragement or a burden
It seems to me that being in meaningful community where we are lovingly accountable to one another as members of the body of Christ is both a human need and a biblical mandate. That much is easy. Much more difficult is determining how to accomplish this so our efforts help one another flourish rather than become one more burden in a life where burdens tend to be the norm rather than the exception.
Some of us, for example, grew up in situations where questions like the ones I have listed above were used not graciously but as legalistic warnings to conform. The person who asked me repeatedly, “Did you read your Bible today?” may have believed they were encouraging me to maintain a spiritual discipline. What it produced in me, however, was guilt and a deep distaste for a routine I had been taught to make a part of my life as a Christian. A specific practice had been developed, and conformity to that practice became a measure of spirituality. No exceptions were granted, at least none that I ever heard of, and failing to maintain the practice meant my spirituality was in doubt. After a while questions like this became emblematic of a faith that seemed burdensome rather than freeing, an open attempt to exercise control by manipulating in me a sense of shame over falling short of what was expected.

Tone is important, but it goes deeper than that. The question, “Are you right with God?” is one of the most important questions imaginable, but it can be posed not just for blessing but also for curse. Sometimes it sounds more like a scolding, a not so thinly veiled suggestion that something is wrong, we need to fix it, and our interrogator knows how that can be done.

Some of the questions developed by John Wesley and George Whitefield simply would not be appropriate in many—if not most—small groups in existence today. What sins have you committed since the last meeting? Can you imagine asking the members of an average Christian small group to take turns answering that one? Most church groups are not safe enough to involve that sort of honesty, even if some of the members were willing to answer it.

People are different, with differing pasts and various experiences that help shape who we are today. A set of questions that for one person is a wonderful encouragement to live a more intentionally thoughtful lifestyle that helps integrate thinking, doing, and feeling could for someone else be an annoyingly intrusive burden that churns up feelings of guilt and threatens to engulf them in conforming to things that feel legalistic. Consider one of the questions in Higgins’ list: Have I prayed at my stated times? Some people could receive that as a healthy challenge to become serious about the discipline of prayer, while others could hear it as a way to get everyone to conform to a certain set practice that doesn’t necessarily fit their personality or where they happen to be at this point in their pilgrimage.

Developing good questions
The solution is not to stop using accountability questions, but to shape questions that are life affirming within a group that cultivates safety and grace. A small group that reflects loving care for its members is a rare and precious space in our fractious and fragmented world. In such a setting accountability tends to naturally develop, as members share their hearts and lives ever more deeply, and increasingly want to encourage each other flourish as Christians. As we get to know one another, discussing this issue and constructing a list of questions to use can be a lovely exercise where members listen to each other and commit to continue building into each other’s growth towards spiritual maturity.

Ransom has been part of this process, and so it is not simply a theoretical exercise. Over the years people have come and gone from the groups that meet regularly in Toad Hall. Some join the group as non-Christians, others with some measure of faith already intact, and all arrive with baggage, some good and some not so good. Compassion is not a static thing, but vital, always listening, eager to be certain it is received as grace, always mutually intentional, perhaps an interruption (as accountability always is) but never intrusive or burdensome, but freeing.

Some of the questions we have used in Ransom are these:
1. Where did you see surprising displays of beauty and grace (in nature, relationships, art, or daily life) since we last met?
2. What has brought you life in the past week?
3. What hindrances to flourishing as a person have you been encountering personally?
4. Have you enjoyed any moments, intentional or accidental, of quiet restfulness in the midst of all the busyness of life?
5. Is there a song that has especially resonated with your soul over the last few months?
6. Is there anything in the Bible that has recently brought a flash of clarity, some bit of insight to some part of your spiritual pilgrimage?
7. Do you have dreams or hopes (or maybe doubts or fears) about your spiritual growth over the coming months about which you would allow us to pray?
8. Which fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) that does not come naturally to you does God seem to be trying to develop in you?
9. Are you carrying a burden or feeling the weight of concerns that you’d be willing to let us know about?

I do not include Ransom’s list because we believe it necessarily better, nor do I think that every group should use them. I include them simply because over time we have found them generally useful. Your group is different from ours, so your list will need to be your own.

We would encourage you to be part of a small group where you can find intentional, safe community and some measure of accountability in your spiritual life. Over 4 decades of life together Margie and I have found we need this setting for all sorts of reasons, the primary one being that our small group has consistently been the source of encouragement to keep on keeping on. Life has a way of producing unexpected potholes when we yearn for a bit of clear progress, and having people around to who care enough to listen and pray has been a grace. It has never been close to perfect or smooth, or even particularly noteworthy, but the combination of prayer and sharing, eating meals together, Bible study, and compassionate listening has been a source of life.

I need my small group to spur me to spiritual maturity. Sometimes we use questions to help accomplish that goal. It isn’t always comfortable, but I wouldn’t want to live without it.


1. What comes immediately to mind when you hear the term “accountability”? Why is this?

2. What process do you use to evaluate your life? How did you get started with the process? If you have no process for periodic evaluation, why is this?

3. What areas of life especially seem to require periodic evaluation and adjustment to keep them in proper balance? What aspects of modern life, society and church seem to regularly intrude on our flourishing as a person?

4. What specific questions would you include in a personal inventory for yourself? Which, if any of these questions would you be willing to introduce into a community for the sake of mutual accountability? Which would you definitely exclude? Why?

5. Are there evaluative questions from your childhood or background that now seem to haunt you as a source of guilt? Why or how did they become so counterproductive?

6. How do you respond to the idea of using evaluative or accountability questions about spiritual life in a group setting? Why?

7. Do you think accountability is helpful for spiritual growth? Why or why not?

8. Describe the conditions a community needs to meet to allow mutual accountability. Which of these conditions are most difficult to achieve and maintain? Why is this? How do you establish a basis for real accountability? What needs to be present to allow accountability to be helpful instead of burdensome? How should a group begin? What safeguards can be in place?


Wesley, Whitefield, and Redeemer from Fellowship Group Handbook: A manual for leaders and coordinators (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church; version 2.0, 1997), part 3.9; self-examination and Miller from “On Keeping a Holy Lent” (1998) by Craig R. Higgins