Accountability Groups: Instruments of Legalism?

Pastor Reeder, do accountability groups foster moralism and self righteousness? Aren’t they fundamentally wrong in that they are focused, not upon Christ and the Gospel and the joy of our salvation but upon a performance, legalistic Christianity?”

Recently some believers whom I respect greatly approached me with that question knowing that I have been in an accountability group for nearly 3 decades and that part of my discipleship ministry is encouraging what I call “a band of brothers” or a “circle of sisters.” A “band of brothers” would be men who covenant together to commit themselves to Christ-centered, Gospel-centered, Spirit-filled relationship of nurture, encouragement and accountability. I was informed that the question was instigated by a recent article they had read which warned of accountability groups becoming instruments producing self-righteousness, false guilt and a moralistic approach to the Christian life. Even more, such groups promote a narcissistic Christianity centered upon the performance of the believer instead of the grace of God, the joys of salvation and the freedom of Christian liberty. Of course, having been in a longstanding accountability group I immediately rose to the bait. Perhaps I was driven by a defensive motivation, but I was actually much more compelled by the fact that, aside from my marriage, the accountability relationship which I have enjoyed for 28 years is perhaps the most Christ-centered, Gospel-driven, grace-saturated, sin-destroying experience in the entirety of my Christian life. So needless to say, this assessment of an accountability group surprised me. It also was a surprise as to how widely this subject is being discussed and the traction it has gained. I thought I would share my response through this blog for those who might be interested.

First of all, to assume that someone in an accountability group is driven by a moralistic approach to Christianity or that accountability groups of necessity produce a self righteous, pharisaical Christianity is in my humble opinion not only unbiblical but arrogant and short-sighted at best. Obviously, I believe Covenantal relationships of accountability are biblical. I am incapable of sharing with you how much my relationship with three men for 28 years has been used by God’s grace to challenge me concerning the sufficiency of the love of Christ and assisted me in staying focused on Christ while warning me of the inevitable markers in my life which display my seemingly unstoppable tendency to walk away from Christ. These men and their love for Christ and their love for me has enhanced, encouraged and propelled me in the joys of salvation by grace as well as the call to responsible living for Christ because of grace. These men, who have had a green light to challenge me, an invitation to comfort me, and a heart to encourage me while surrounding me and periodically shaking me, will probably never know on this side of eternity how valuable they have been in my life by insisting upon my pursuit of the preeminence of Christ in every area of life.

Secondly, accountability groups are simply a mechanism, albeit a biblical one. They are only as good as the integrity of their purpose, content and most of all the participants. For those who would use accountability groups for self-righteous legalism then they need to be rebuked. But the problem is not the accountability group. It is the lack of integrity and/or the inappropriate content of the participants. I am fully aware that Satan can take valid mechanisms–such as accountability groups–and distort them. Look at what he does to distort Christianity through heretical preaching; but I would not dismiss preaching because of the distortions any more than I would dismiss accountability groups and the principle of accountability because of its misuse by some.  By the way, it is intriguing how today’s new found proponents of grace are always warning others against the heresy of legalism but seldom do I hear warnings concerning the heresy of licentiousness. Interestingly, the heresy of antinomianism/licentiousness gets more ink in the New Testament than legalism.  Simply stated, we must forever be diligent in Gospel preaching to blow up the dam of legalism that obstructs “the river of life” while simultaneously cleaning up the creek of licentiousness which would pollute “the river of life.”

Our accountability group was basically patterned on the covenantal commitment that Jonathan and David employed. Most of all, it is simply rooted in a Biblical concept that, along with other such concepts, caused me to become a Presbyterian. The “one another passages” such as, “be submissive to one another–admonish one another–rebuke one another–encourage one another” convinced me to become a very practical Presbyterian. I believe in the plurality of leadership because I know that when one leader is above accountability you may receive the blessings of his strengths but you will also receive the curse of his weaknesses. I know my flock needs for me to constantly be aware of the various ways Satan would assault me and ensnare me because he knows if he strikes down the shepherd the “sheep will scatter.” But another significant reason I am a convinced Presbyterian is that it is the only system I have found where every Christian, every church and every family is accountable to someone and therefore enabled to live out organically and organizationally the “one another” passages. Granted, we very seldom employ the Biblical system of being submissive to one another in a consistent, healthy, vibrant and effective manner. But I would not use our imperfections or those who employ the principle of accountability wrongly as assuming that those who desire accountability and who develop a functional system of accountability must be legalistic moralists. Nor would I assume that a covenantal relationship of nurture and accountability of necessity would lead to a moralistic, pharisaical Christianity.

Thirdly, I do find it interesting in our glorious day of recapturing the Doctrines of Grace that some grace-enlightened have appointed themselves as the “grace police.” Without being invited they have decided to become an accountability group for others, and without knowing the hearts of others they suspect that those who commit to an accountability group must actually be “closet” legalistic moralists instead of simply desiring Christ-centered nurture, grace-saturated encouragement and discerning accountability. The fact of the matter is they just might hate sin because they know the sinfulness of sin and the effects of sin, not only in their lives, but in the lives of others including their family and those to whom they minister. When I see people serious about hating sin because they love Christ, who first loved them and graciously saved them, I prefer to assume that their hatred of sin is grace-driven, not narcissistic. Could it not be they realize Christ has loved them and because He has first loved them, they now love Him? Also, could it not be that because of their love to Him they desire to keep His commandments? In other words, they have been called fully and freely by grace so they now desire to “walk in a manner worthy of their calling.” They are aware that they have a heart prone to wander. Therefore, they are not so arrogant as to dismiss their need of accountability nor the blessing of input from those who love them in Christ and desire to keep them focused on the love of Christ.

I thank God publicly for those committed to warn me of the death traps of sin and who propel me to the joys of loving Christ and “growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.” I thank God for those who love me enough to warn me against legalism while not allowing me to be drawn into the snares of licentiousness and antinomianism. I know I have that accountability in the formal relationships of family and church but I am also grateful for the opportunity to covenantally commit to my “band of brothers” who take the time to know me and love me enough to be a friend that will wound me even when I don’t know I need it, encourage me when they know I need it, and nurture me to rejoice in the fullness of my life in Christ.

So, I think I will keep my accountability group as we nurture, encourage, admonish, rebuke and exhort one another since these are simply Biblical commandments and I don’t think I have a greater grasp of grace than the Christ who put these relational commandments in His Word. Yes, I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I know in an amazing way God actually uses me in the lives of these men from whom I have learned so much. I think I will keep my accountability group because I know my wife and children as well as my flock desire me to do so and would probably be deeply and rightfully concerned if I was so arrogant as to use the Doctrines of Grace to put myself beyond the need for accountability. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I have in my life men who will not let me thoughtlessly develop that secret life of licentiousness, nor the legalistic life of moralism, nor the arrogance of thinking that I don’t need accountability as I descend into the ignorance of assuming that it might be a hindrance to my joy and freedom in Christ. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because in it I have men who realize the Bible warns of TWO Gospel errors, not just one. Legalism, yes. But also, licentiousness or antinomianism. They realize there was a reason the Holy Spirit inspired the content of the books of Second Peter, Jude, Hebrews and I John, as well as the needed warnings against legalism in Galatians. I think I’ll keep my accountability group since the freedom I have in Christ is not the absence of accountability but the joy of accountability. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I know that Satan is subtle, sin is insidious and while sin is always a personal matter in its commission it is never a private matter in its effects. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I want to love my Savior and I want to hate my sin and my Savior has informed me that I need brothers in my life to accomplish this. I think I’ll keep my accountability group because I want to see Christ and because I know since I have died to sin I don’t want to sign any secret peace treaties with sin. Yes, I think I’ll keep my accountability group and I’ll keep teaching others to employ accountability groups like the one that has blessed me because it is a divinely designed means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit and the Word of God work on me, in me and then, through me.

I guess I am an incurable convinced Presbyterian who has been graciously saved to enjoy the liberty of Christ and now knows the blessing of submission to Christ by pursuing submission and accountability to others…who realizes that the joy of salvation also brings a sober unrelenting call to Holiness of life for the One who saved me…who has a Savior that has done much to save me from my sin, not to make much of me but to free me from sin to make much of Him…who in Christ Jesus desires to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man…” who has known the blessings of being pointed to the joy of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone by “friends who are closer than brothers”…who has been warned of the sinfulness of sin…who by God’s grace will keep seeking the encouragement and nurture of my brothers and sisters to hold me accountable for the glorious joy of desiring to die daily to self and sin and live for Christ who has set me free to be accountable to Him through others.

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