Why Accountability Groups Often Fail

You don’t have to read the news for long before running across stories of prominent Christian leaders who have fallen into immorality. Quite often the scandals involve sexual sin, but sometimes they relate to financial misappropriation or just plain dishonesty. One recent illustration is the pastor in Pennsylvania who was caught lying about his supposed history as a Navy Seal. The sad tale of Bishop Eddie Long is an example of the more commonly reported pitfall of sexual failure. And it isn’t only pastors and leaders who fall — ordinary Christians fail as well, with equally tragic consequences for their families and communities. It just doesn’t usually make the national news.

Anytime something like this happens, there are those in the Christian community who ask,” Why was nobody holding this man or woman accountable?” The belief is that if he or she had been in small group of people who asked tough questions, then this devastating fall might not have happened.

There is some truth in that assumption — in fact, I am in an accountability group with two close friends. None of us wants to be another example of failure, so we meet weekly to ask hard questions and pray for one another. We also keep in touch throughout the week in case there are struggles that require immediate prayer or counsel. I believe in Christian accountability.

But such groups don’t always work. I have known several people who were in accountability groups, but for some reason the group had no effect on their behavior. What goes wrong in such cases? I have a few ideas:

  • The composition of the group isn’t right. In order to work well, the group has to be composed of people  you respect but who you don’t fear too much. There needs to be a little bit of fear about confessing your sin, but not so much that you’re tempted to lie on a regular basis. If you’re too impressed with the members of your group, you’re not likely to be honest. On the other hand, if you feel too comfortable then confession will just become another ritual with no teeth. (I think this is probably why many groups fail when a high-profile member is involved — nobody wants to upset the famous guy by holding his feet to the fire).
  • The group only meets once a week to confess failures that have already occurred. And it often happens in a shallow way. One member admits to looking at pornography last Tuesday and the others shake their heads and express sympathy without exploring why this happened and how it can change in the future. No mechanisms are put in place to help the struggling brother or sister before the failure occurs. The most effective groups keep an open line of communication throughout the week. My group has a standing agreement that if one of needs prayer, we can text the other guys at any time of the day or night to ask. It helps keep the accountability constant even when we’re not in the same room.
  • The group doesn’t trust each other. If there is any worry that the information shared in the group will be passed along to outsiders, people will quickly clam up and the group’s effectiveness is destroyed.
  • People simply lie. Even in the best groups, I’m convinced that people lie sometimes. Nobody is completely honest with himself, much less with other people. But the best groups learn how to stifle the temptation of self-protection in order for the long-term spiritual benefit of accountability. As the old adage goes, “Confession is good for the soul, but bad for the reputation.” Those who value reputation over spiritual growth will ultimately lose both.
  • Trust and accountability take time to develop. I’ve been meeting with the same group now for nearly five years. It probably took one or two years before we developed enough trust for it to work really well. Most people give up on the process too quickly and decided that the whole exercise is a waste of time. I’d encourage you to keep with it for the long haul (if possible) and you’ll begin to see the benefits.

I’d love to see dramatic stories of failure disappear from the news. I’d love it if Christians were known for honesty, transparency, and moral purity. I think accountability can help that process if it is done well and if the people involved are serious about it.

What suggestions would you give to an accountability group? Anything you’ve seen work well that you’d like to share?

[Image via http://storyfanatic.com/articles/story-analysis/the-pacific-vs-band-of-brothers]

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Why Does the Bible Restrict Sex to Marriage?

Since I minister to college students, the question of sexual behavior outside of marriage comes up quite frequently. Our cultural environment views the concept of abstaining from sex until marriage as a laughably old-fashioned idea. Most people believe it’s impractical at best and unwise at worst.

Conservative Christian students often struggle deeply with the issue. They’ve been told that premarital sex is wrong but they haven’t always been told why it’s wrong. Many have also been left with the impression that sexuality is inherently evil. Although the Bible contains clear prohibitions against sex outside of marriage (Heb 13:4;1 Thess 4:3-8) it also contains a number of passages celebrating sexuality in the appropriate context (Proverbs 5:15-23 is a great example).

[NOTE: When I speak of marriage here, I am referring to it as a primarily religious institution and not a civil one. The question of whether the government endorses a union is secondary to the question of whether God endorses it. Although the ceremonies and symbols vary between cultures, two elements remain the same: marriage is a lifelong commitment, and it is made in the presence of God and the community. There are almost always formal ceremonies of one kind or another to ensure accountability — marriage is not a private institution, but is also not a governmental one. It’s an agreement entered into by two people who publicly agree to be accountable to the Lord and to others to fulfill their vows].

So if sex is a good thing created by God, why does He limit it to the context of marriage?

First, because marriage (including its sexual aspect) is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph 5:22-33). And Christ has promised to never leave nor forsake His people (Matthew 28:18-20). Sex creates a bond of physical oneness that implies spiritual and relational oneness also (Gen 2:24-25; 1 Cor 6:15-20). When we create that bond and then rip repeatedly rip it apart, we’re misrepresenting God’s steadfast character. The New Testament never places expectations of purity on those who don’t know Jesus, but for those who do it is critical for this reason.

Second, sex is about more than merely pleasure. Unmarried couples can certainly find pleasure in sex. However, they cannot experience the character transformation and depth of relationship that occurs in the context of a lifelong commitment (see 1 Cor 7:3-5). It’s easy to please a person for a night or a week, or even a year. It’s much harder to practice selfless love for years on end, in the  midst of physical and financial and spiritual struggles, when there are children tearing through the house or your spouse’s dirty laundry on the floor. But for those who practice that selfless love over time, there is a joy in the relationship that spills over into the sexual arena and includes much more than physical pleasure. And the process of finding that joy changes us into the image of Christ.

Finally, sex creates families who need stability. Even with birth control, the possibility of pregnancy still exists (I can introduce you to several parents who were diligently using birth control). As much as we try to separate them in our culture, sex and procreation are still closely connected (Gen 1:27-28). And the ideal environment for children is to have two parents both actively involved in their lives (see this article about a study on the topic). I say “ideal” (not “only”) because I know the Lord is gracious, and there are single-parent and divorced homes in which children grow up to know Jesus and are very well-adjusted. But two parents present is the ideal. This is most likely to happen, of course, when the parents are married and have previously made a commitment to raise their kids together.

So the bottom line is that God is not anti-sex. Nor is He out of touch or cruel. Instead, He wants us to experience relationships of true love, joy, and purity with Him and with one another. He wants our lives to be genuine reflections of the character of Jesus. In the area of sexuality, this is best accomplished when sex remains inside of marriage.

What are your thoughts on this issue of sex outside of marriage? Have I forgotten anything?

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Once Saved, Always Saved?

I had the privilege this past weekend of speaking to the congregation at Grace Bible Church on the subject of eternal security. Most Christians wonder from time to time if they can lose their salvation, or whether it is secure. Is it possible for a person to believe in Jesus but to later fall away to such an extent that they will no longer receive eternal life?

I realize that there are some tricky passages in the New Testament on this issue (if you’re interested, I’ve addressed a few of them in sermons on Hebrews 6, Hebrews 10, and James 2), but I do believe that the Scripture clearly communicates that our salvation is secure. Why?

Here are four key reasons why those who have trusted in Christ for eternal life can be sure that they will never lose it (to get the full impact of these points, you really need to read the passages I’ve linked in parenthesis):

We didn’t earn it in the first place (Ephesians 2:8-9). If salvation is a truly free gift, then we can’t possibly pay for it by works we do before or after we believe. If the presence of sin or the absence of good works could make me lose my salvation, then it isn’t really a free gift. It would amount to receiving a Christmas present and then getting a bill for the price of the gift. Grace that requires payment — at any point in time — is not truly grace.

Jesus paid for all of our sins (Hebrews 10:11-14; Colossians 2:13-14). Old Testament priests never sat down, because there was always another sacrifice to be made for sin. Jesus made one sacrifice for all time — for everybody’s sins past, present, and future — and then sat down when the work was finished. If my future sin or disobedience can cancel Christ’s work, then His death and resurrection are not as sufficient as the Bible says they are.

God preserves our salvation (Romans 8:31-39; John 10:27-29). God’s character is such that He always keeps His promises. If He has promised to give salvation to those who believe, He will do it! If He has promised to forever adopt us as His children, that means we are forever His children. Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ — and Paul includes “any other created being,” which includes…me! Because of God’s perfect character, nothing can separate us from the life He has given us in Christ.

The Holy Spirit guarantees our salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). God’s Spirit lives within those who have believed in Christ. Ephesians 1 says He is like a seal, or a down payment guaranteeing that God will give us the inheritance He’s promised. When you and I became believers, something fundamental changed within us, and we can never go back to who we were before (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Holy Spirit is proof of that change, and a guarantee of the eternal life to come.

Why does this matter? Because the best foundation for spiritual growth is not fear and paralysis, but security. When I confidently know that my eternal destiny is secure, I am free to love and serve Jesus from gratitude and joy, instead of resentment and fear. I think that’s why John wrote of the importance of knowing that we have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).

Questions or comments about the doctrine of eternal security?

[Image via istockphoto.com]

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Has Texting Replaced Conversation?

I’d really love to get input from college students on this one:

Last week I was in a cell phone store looking at options, since my current service contract expires in a week or two. I got into a conversation with the salesman — a senior in college — about texting. I do use text messages on a regular basis, but am not considered a heavy user by any means. I probably send 200-400 messages each month.

The salesman mentioned off-handedly that last month he sent 10,000 text messages.

10,000! Assuming a person is awake roughly 16 hours each day, this equals around 20 texts an hour. One every 3 minutes.

When I mentioned this to a friend, he told me a story of a student who recently sent 20,000 texts over the course of a single month.

At the risk of sounding like an old man, what’s going on here? Has texting replaced ordinary face-to-face conversation for many students? I know some people are insanely fast with the texts, but it’s still hard for me to imagine sustaining any real discussions with people if I’m pausing every 1-3 minutes to send a text. (Not to mention the time I’m on Facebook, Twitter, email, and surfing the web aimlessly).

I’m really not anti-texting — like I said, I use them relatively frequently and they’re a convenient way to send information when a phone call or face-to-face conversation just isn’t possible. Texting isn’t evil in itself.

However, I do wonder if the high volume of texting has replaced meaningful conversations for many students. If so, I would be concerned for a couple of reasons.

First, spiritual growth and discipleship require time and intentional relationships. It’s hard to imagine Jesus effectively training His disciples to walk with God via text messaging (“ILU discs! FRT! Pray hard!”) It’s tough to imagine the Sermon on the Mount with multiple interruptions — “Hold on, I need to get this.” Discipleship is a slow process that requires real conversations and physical presence.

Second (and this relates to the first issue closely), profound thoughts are not expressed in just a few characters. There are funny texts, informative texts, and even “I love you” texts. But I’ve never heard anybody say, “That text really got me thinking about my life today.” I realize that texts aren’t made for the purpose of deep thought — I just wonder if the proliferation of texting has crowded out other forms of communication. If so, then there simply isn’t time and energy leftover for real discussion — as the phone salesman said to me, “Texting is pretty much how I talk to people.”

So here’s my question for you guys: Do you find that texting is your primary means of communication with others? If so, do you think that affects your ability to sustain deeper conversations? Why or why not?

As a bonus question of sorts, do you think too much texting contributes to spiritual and relational shallowness?

[Image via http://www.beantownbloggery.com/2010/09/no-more-texting-while-driving-starts.html]

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Is It Better to Stay Single?

My previous post on the subject of dating raised a number of questions, but I felt this one from Hayley merited a separate post:

What is your opinion on remaining single for all of this life? It seems to me that most evangelicals assume marriage to be a prerequisite to real life. As if remaining unmarried is miserable. As the single life is a sub-par life, an un-alive life.
However, the New Testament seems to encourage Christians to remain single. But either way, God is supposed to be our fulfillment (and indeed is the only One Who can fulfill); and yet, we concentrate so much more on finding a spouse. I have a theory that we think singleness is miserable only because we do not seek God half as much as we wish for a mate.

The New Testament passage Hayley refers to is 1 Corinthians 7, particularly verses 25-38. Paul is answering a question from his readers in Corinth about whether it is better for an unmarried woman to stay single or to get married. He acknowledges that the Lord doesn’t command one way or the other, but his personal opinion is that the unmarried are better able to direct their attention to God. Married people are naturally concerned with the needs and desires of their spouses and children, and so they have a tendency to be distracted from God. On the other hand, he acknowledges that it is better for a person to marry than to “burn” (v. 9), presumably with sexual passion and lust.

Other passages in the Bible, however, seem to praise marriage as a wonderful relationship created by God. This is certainly the case in Genesis 2:18-25, in which God creates the woman to alleviate the man’s loneliness. In addition, Ephesians 5:21-33 discusses the beauty of a marriage that reflects the relationship between Christ and the church.

So what’s going on? Does the Bible encourage marriage or singleness?

The answer is both and neither. With regard to singleness, Paul encourages those who are able to remain single and avoid lust to do so in order to better focus on the Lord. But marriage is not a sin, and for many it is the better option because it allows them to avoid “burning with passion” and gives them an opportunity to reflect the unselfish love of Christ. Each person is called to determine before God which state He wants them in, and to remain content in that state. Single people aren’t better or worse than married people. Married people aren’t better or worse than single people. Both have a critical role in the Church and in the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

Here are a couple of questions for those trying to sort it all out:

Is my decision to marry or remain single motivated by fear or discontent? Some people (not all) stay single because they fear commitment or intimacy. Some people get married because they fear loneliness. None of those are good reasons for such a critical choice.

Will marriage or singleness better allow me to glorify the Lord? If I remain unmarried, will I truly focus my energy and attention on the things of God, or will my passions run out of control? If I get married, will I unselfishly express the love of Christ or will I lose my focus on Christ and His kingdom? Every decision should be processed through the grid of God’s Word and our responsibility to obey and proclaim Him.

Question for you: If you are a person who plans to stay single, are you willing to share with us how you arrived at that decision and why it was the best choice for you to pursue the Lord? If you are married (or hope to be), can you share why you chose marriage and why you feel it is the best choice for you to pursue the Lord?

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