SECOND OPINION: How are Christians accountable to each other?

One of the most vexing issues in Christian life is the question of accountability.

At every level of Christian community, the question arises. We know that Christians are accountable to God for their lives and will one day actually give an account (Mt. 25:31-46; 1 Cor. 4:4, 2 Cor. 5:10). But are we accountable to each other? Which others? Are you accountable to: your pastor? Fellow church members? Fellow Sunday school classmates? All members of your church? All Baptists? All Christians everywhere?

And, if the answer is “yes” to any of these, how is this accountability exercised?

It might be helpful to begin with those relationships in which accountability seems clear, and then move from there to the gray areas.

I know that I am accountable to God for the entirety of my life. Even though I trust Christ for salvation, I do not presume that this frees me from accountability for the conduct of my life. Quite the contrary -- it heightens my accountability as one who has publicly confessed to serve Jesus Christ as Lord of my life.

As a Sunday school teacher at a particular local church, I know that I am accountable to the church leaders who appointed me to this role, and to the members who choose to attend the class. I am accountable to them for the fulfillment of my specific duties in this role -- most particularly competent Bible teaching, but also a measure of pastoral care for the little community under my charge.

As a teacher at McAfee School of Theology and Mercer University, I am likewise accountable to the dean, provost, and president, to the students, and in a sense to my colleagues. I am accountable in a specifically Christian sense because of the nature of my work, but also in a general “workplace” sense like anyone else who has a job that comes with specific accountability relationships.

As a husband, I am accountable to my wife for the conduct of my life in every area that relates to her and touches on her life -- which is nearly everything. I am accountable to my children for a number of specific responsibilities, as I am to my parents for other responsibilities and my sisters for yet others. As a citizen I have certain responsibilities for which I may be held accountable.

I can think of only one biblical category that can encompass all of these types of accountability and yet can set some coherent limits on them: the category of the covenant. So my tentative thesis is that we are accountable in every relationship in which we have explicitly covenanted with a person or a community for the fulfillment of specific promises and responsibilities.

We do that explicitly at weddings, baby dedications, baptisms, ministerial installations, and in starting work at most jobs. We even do it implicitly in many instances in which our conduct affects the well-being of others. One might say that a restaurant has a covenant with its customers to serve them clean food, and a car company has a covenant with its customers to offer them a road-worthy vehicle.

Still, this leaves us with a number of murky and unresolved questions of accountability. Am I accountable as a church member to every other member of First Baptist Church? Am I accountable as a Baptist to all other Baptists? Am I accountable as a writer to everyone who reads my columns and books? Am I accountable as a Christian to all other Christians?

Errors abound on all sides, leaning either toward hyper-accountability or toward non-accountability. Probably many of us have known Christian friends or fellow church members who believe it is their God-given role to correct us for our faults on a regular basis. Here the words of Paul resonate: “it is a very small thing I should be judged by you or any human court. I do not even judge myself…It is the Lord who judges me” (I Cor. 4:3-4). Paul here says that while servants of Christ are indeed “stewards of God's mysteries,” their master is God, and only to God will they give an account.

On the other hand, probably many of us have also known of cases in which outrageous stuff is going on in a family, church, workplace, school or nation -- and no one is holding anyone to account. This silence may be occurring in the name of personal freedom, or a commitment to non-judgmentalism, or fear of a confrontation, or in a diffusion of responsibility in which no one is accountable to anyone else for anything. Paul himself was certainly unwilling to accept that the congregations he founded would be characterized by such laxity (I Cor. 5).

One possible solution for us is to do better in clarifying on the front end what vision of accountability, if any, will characterize our relationships. If we voluntarily covenant together -- in a friendship, or a congregation, or a workplace -- to have X level of accountability to each other, related to Y matters, exercised in Z fashion, then uncertainty about accountability can be diminished.

I am coming to believe that only when we covenant together about how accountability will work in a relationship should we expect either to hold others accountable or to be held accountable ourselves. Otherwise, all accountability is left to God alone -- who alone can be trusted to get accountability right, in any case.

David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University. This article is distributed by ABP.