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Why "Accountability Groups" Make Us Liars

One of the chief vehicles for dishonesty in my own life has been my involvement in “accountability groups.”

For those who have been spared them, an “accountability group” is a single-sex, small-group Bible study on steroids. A group of friends arrange for a time each week to get together, ostensibly to encourage one another by upholding standards of personal righteousness in a confidential context.

Instead, the members spend most of the time picking each other apart, uncovering layer after layer after layer of sin in a coercive and sometimes even competitive fashion. You confess your sin to your friends and they to you, and at first it’s a relief. Light shines into dark corners, and you pray honestly for the first time in ages. You may even find yourself a bit less drawn to whatever behavior brought you to the group in the first place.

As the weeks wear on and you find your victory was more shortlived than you had initially hoped, perhaps you start to embellish or hold back in order to concoct some narrative of improvement. Or perhaps you remain entirely truthful, but your friends begin to doubt your sincerity.

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Soon nothing is enough; no matter what you unveil, they look for you to uncover something deeper, darker and more embarrassing than what you’ve already shared. You start to embellish in the other direction—making things seem worse than they are to satisfy the probing inquisitiveness of your friends. Eventually everyone is investigating one another, and no one is telling the truth.

Well, I can’t stand those groups!

Setting aside the obvious objection that Christ settled all our accounts, once for all, such groups inevitably start with the narcissistic presupposition that Christianity is all about cleaning up and doing your part. These groups focus primarily (in my experience, almost exclusively) on our sin, and not on our Savior. Because of this, they breed self-righteousness, guilt, and the almost irresistible temptation to pretend, or to be less than honest. Little or no attention is given to the Gospel. There’s no reminder of what Christ has done for our sin—cleansing us from its guilt and power—and of the resources that are already ours by virtue of our union with Him.

These groups thrive, either intentionally or not, on a “do more, try harder” moralism that robs us of the joy and freedom Jesus paid dearly to secure for us. When the goal becomes conquering our sin instead of soaking in the conquest of our Savior, we actually begin to shrink spiritually. Sinclair Ferguson rightly pointed this out:

“Those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on our spirituality, that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about itself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety [be] nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.”