Accountability and Public Confession

by Robert D. McLaughlin, Christian Counselor

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Can you sit down and list the people that you are accountable to? Most of us have a boss, supervisor, or other person that we answer to at work. Those who are married have to consider their spouses in decisions. Children are responsible to their parents. We all have someone that we have to answer to.

This idea of answering to someone is catching on with many Christian circles. It is common within churches that the pastor is answerable to the church board and to the congregation. Those who are ministers within a denomination often have a hierarchy of church leaders that oversee them and establish guidelines for ministerial behavior. But the concept of accountability has gone beyond that in some groups to include total control over the lives of group members.

What about accountability for the individual Christian? Most would agree that ministers and others in authority in spiritual matters need to have spiritual and financial accountability. The scandals that overtook many tel-evangelists a few years ago illustrates that need. But lay people, you and I, do we need to be accountable for our spiritual well-being to someone else, or to a group? There are many that would say "yes." Some of the groups that have sprung in recent years cite two verses, 1 John 1:9 and James 5:16, to support this view. In 1 John 1:9 we are to "confess our sins", but the context of this verse clearly indicates that we are to confess to God, not to a person or a group of people. Certainly, the context teaches that we are to publicly confess our need for a Savior from our sins, to humbly confess our reliance upon the grace of God through Jesus Christ - but that is not the same as confessing all sins publicly.

James 5:16 encourages us to confess our sins to one another. However, this is in the context where sin may have contributed to an illness. Also, this verse is in the context of all Scriptural teaching. Certainly Jesus' teaching of accountability encourages us to keep these matters as private as we possibly can (Matthew 18:15ff). When Scripture speaks of Christians being accountable for their sins, it is in situations where the sin has become public in some measure by coming to the attention of another Christian who then, out of love, should come to that person's aid (Matthew 18:15, Luke 17:3-4, James 5:19), or where a Christian has sinned against another person and must confess to the other person to make that sin right (Matthew 5:23-24). In some cases, this confession should also be accompanied by restitution. However, there are dangers to those who correct others (Galatians 6:1). There is always the danger that the person receiving correction will respond in anger even if the correction is given in love. However, even in the best of conditions, the person correcting another Christian may be tempted to spiritual pride, to gossip about the weaker person's problem (sometimes masked as a "prayer request!"), to hold a grudge against the weaker person, to unfairly characterize that person's whole personality by that one sin, or to think of ourselves as above all sin because we have avoided that one sin themselves.

Groups can be of use for Christians, but not in the context of telling others our private sins. We are to take our sins to the One who provides forgiveness and inner cleansing. What can a small group provide? It can provide fellowship and support, both in times of good and in times of trial. As indicated in James 5:16, we are to be praying for our brothers and sisters. But, how can we know if we are in a group that is trying to exert too much control?

Groups that act inappropriately often pressure members to confess details about themselves that they feel uncomfortable telling. If there is a dominant leader of the group, this person will often "confess" sins, going into intimate detail, in order to encourage other members to do the same. This is a tip-off that the group is acting inappropriately. Christian leaders can call upon us to turn away from specific sins without singling people out. In general, unless we can see that the failure to confess a specific sin will come between us and another individual or the group, we should resist any pressure to make that sin public. An exception may be when we believe that our confession of sin will help others to renounce that sin and draw closer to Christ. However, that should be as a result of a decision on our part, not the pressure of a group or leader.

We are to forgive others, as we are taught in the Lord's Prayer. We are to ask forgiveness of others when we have sinned against them. But ultimately, we are to confess all sin to God alone. If we follow what Jesus taught in Matthew 18, the only time that a person's sin is presented in front of the congregation is after they have been confronted in private and remain unrepentant.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume IV, Part 6, June 1996.

Copyright 1999 Robert D. McLaughlin. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

Click here for Robert McLaughlin's e-mail address.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.