We need someone in our lives to get in our face and tell us what’s what. In Christian circles we call this the accountability partner. Rebuke is healthy. But what they don’t tell you is that this can get out of control real fast.
Every biblical friendship that steered right was steered by godliness: Naomi and Ruth, Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, the Twelve and Jesus. Every friendship gone wrong was grounded in carelessness: Job and his buddies, Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve. If only Adam had tackled Eve to the floor as she was going for the apple, action-movie-style, and avoided all the sinful mess.
But accountability gets dangerous. The danger is in gaining a certain power in calling out a person’s sin. When you are given the responsibility to constructively criticize your friend’s sin, it’s easy to start looking for little things like that’s your job. The filter can get so tight that it becomes more about preference than promoting growth. Like all spiritual disciplines, it can be abused.
Many years ago I had an accountability partner that went down the path of critical power-madness. He saw more and more negative in me until I could hardly do anything without some remark over the sinful implications of my actions. And I went the other way: I was less and less willing to call him out on anything because I wanted to play nice. It would only look like I was fighting back.
I neglected his spiritual growth because I was so reluctant to get into a back-and-forth tango over what amounted to legalistic minutiae. Much self-doubt and fear lingered in everything I did: I was paranoid that I’d be called out for the smallest infraction. The friendship fell apart and deep hurt was marked by deep judgments that never quite disappeared.
There was a time when I spoke out against accountability partners every time the subject surfaced. I didn’t want anyone to experience the same hurt I had. I even tried to purport that there was no biblical precedence for an accountability partner. Rebuke was just a last resort, I said. Admonishment was only for the mature, I claimed. Truth was to be spoken in love only if it sounded loving, I said.
Though I am still wary of accountability partners, I feel accountability is a non-negotiable must. I’m just not sure we should even have a term like “accountability partners,” as if that’s all Christian friends are to do. It’s not like we have sing-together-on-Sunday-partners or must-pray-together-in-the-back-room partners because that’s encompassed by the entire relationship through Christ. It’s part of a much larger dynamic of serving, confessing, encouraging, teaching, and yes, rebuking and correcting.
To specifically label a partnership for the sole purpose of straightening them out is a danger on its own. We tend to emphasize that part of it without grounding it in grace. Yet we also often emphasize “grace” over honest rebuke, letting each other off the hook, and that in the long run is even more destructive.
There are warning signs of crossing the threshold. If you’re called out on some trivial concern — the color of your jeans, the one button on the top that’s unbuttoned, your tone of voice in reply — or you’re called out way too frequently, that’s a sure sign of getting power-drunk. That’s rightful cause for revoking the rebuking privilege for at least a little while. And if there is no rebuke nor a whiff of care in either direction, time to man up and stare truth down the barrel. No one likes the deep end but you can’t learn to swim in the shallow.