“Accountability” is one of the key watchwords of our contemporary era. Greater accountability is being demanded of politicians, police officers, and other public servants. How do we in the civilian arena hold those with power and position to the high standard of honesty, integrity, and justice? What powers and responsibilities should civilian review boards have? What does it mean when millions of citizens feel the need to march in protest to make their point?
Ironically, similar questions arise when it comes to the accountability of our United Methodist Church leaders and bishops. Lay people and concerned clergy are often befuddled when church leaders and bishops sometimes violate the Book of Discipline or fail to enforce it. Observers have a point when asking if the “clergy union” sometimes obstructs accountability. It is correct to ask what powers and responsibilities should committees on investigation or trial courts have? How can we ensure bishops pursue the “just resolution” process with integrity?
The primary reason The United Methodist Church is on the verge of separation is the lack of accountability in some parts of the church. We have always had differences of opinion around issues such as the definition of marriage and the boundaries of human sexuality. But over the past eight years, we have had unprecedented levels of actual disobedience to the standards set by our church’s General Conference, the only body that can set those standards for the whole church. And such disobedience has often been ignored, accommodated, or even praised by some church leaders and bishops. The actions of the 2019 St. Louis General Conference were an attempt to restore and enhance accountability to the church’s standards.
Without accountability to agreed-upon standards, there are no boundaries to human behavior. Without boundaries, there is chaos. Regrettably, riots are not the only sign of chaos. Tragically, the chaos of boundary-less behavior goes on every day at a lower intensity in our society, seen not only in racist incidents, but marital infidelity, tax cheating, bullying, abuse of others, and many other manifestations of human brokenness.
Of course, we are much better at demanding accountability for someone else, than we are at demanding it of ourselves. It is much easier to clamor for accountability for public figures than for us to hold ourselves accountable for our own racist thoughts, words, and actions. How often have we thought, “Accountability for others is prophetic preaching; accountability for me is meddling!”
And that is where human brokenness meets the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard” — including me. “There is no one righteous, not one.” Every one of us needs a Savior, for we cannot save ourselves, nor can we live up to the expectations and dreams God has for us.
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus came to redeem sinners, mend brokenness, reconcile relationships, reform attitudes, and change hearts and minds. None of these things can we do on our own. It is only the grace of God working by the power of the Holy Spirit that can transform the world, one soul at a time.
That is the urgent need of this moment. As we rightly speak out against racism and inequity and work for justice and accountability, we acknowledge the impossibility of lasting change without the Spirit of God working in and through us. We can (and should) do what we can do, but until God does what only God can do, the world will stay the same. We work in hope and expectation because we know God is already at work, using the tragedies and brokenness of our time to soften hearts and create changed lives and new systems that tend toward righteousness, rather than exploitation.
This is where accountability returns to the picture. Initial accountability awakens in us the awareness of our need for a Savior. Once we have turned to him and received forgiveness and new life, our need for accountability continues. This Christian accountability, however, leads not to judgment and condemnation, but to sanctification and growing maturity in love. It has a “positive” rather than a “negative” purpose.
“Negative” accountability is when the doctor tells me that I am out of shape, overweight, and headed toward health problems unless I do something about it. “Positive” accountability is when I join the gym and start working with a trainer who holds me accountable to daily and weekly fitness goals. The first accountability shows me the need for change in my life. The second accountability supports me in actually making that change in a sustainable way.
This is the DNA of Methodism, that we would “watch over one another in love.” That we would invite others to hold us accountable, not in a judgmental way, but in a supportive way, helping us to actualize the life of love to which Jesus calls us. The early Methodist class meetings, small groups of about a dozen people, met to share with each other “how it is with my soul.” Not so that I could prove that I am more spiritual than you are. Not so you could look down on me for the pitiful state of my soul. But so that together we can encourage and support one another on the journey toward living in perfect love with God and others.
The Christian life is not easy. Becoming conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ is challenging and painful. We should not expect to do it alone. I am much less likely to skip a day at the gym when I know my trainer is going to ask me next week how many times I worked out. In the same way, I am much more likely to keep striving to live a Christlike life when I know I will have to answer those questions in my next small group meeting, “How is it with your soul? How did your life reflect Christ’s love this week? What challenges did you face in striving to live for Jesus?”
Accountability for others is important, and we should work to make our society more just and fair. But accountability for ourselves prepares us for an eternity with God and helps us to be a channel for Jesus’ transforming grace in this life. Let’s find a way to gather the support, encouragement, and accountability we need to sustain us on this journey.