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Spiritual accountability

In last month’s issue of Beacon Lights, I noted a recent sermon on Ephesians 5 that described three different characteristics of faithful church members. Such people are sober, they sing the truths of God’s word to one another, and they submit to one another (vv. 18–21). Last month the value of singing was discussed at length. This month we consider the importance of mutual submission among members of the church. This spiritual practice, I am convinced, is something we haven’t done very well in the Protestant Reformed community, which is why it is good to hear more about it as we seek to grow into spiritual maturity. 

While the idea of submission within certain kinds of relationships is a common theme in our churches, the concept of mutual submission among fellow believers is something less commonly discussed. To submit to someone else is a voluntary act of putting oneself under another’s control or authority. And although this act is a calling within relationships where one person is given specific authority by God (employment, marriage, parent/child), Ephesians 5:21 makes clear that every Christian ought to be characterized by an attitude of spiritual submissiveness to other believers. This is what we mean by mutual spiritual submission. 

There are two concrete ways that mutual submission is exercised in the church. The first is through acts of self-sacrifice or service to other believers. Rather than thinking only about our own best interests, we are called as followers of Christ to actively pursue the good of others (Phil. 2:5–8). This humbling of oneself elevates the interests of other believers and makes those interests a bigger deal than our own. What would church life be like if everyone lived this way? Imagine what a contrast this would be to the world around us! Is this how you would characterize yourself, your family, and your church? 

The second concrete way that mutual submission shows itself is through the spiritual practice of confession. Because we often associate this activity with the Roman Catholic Church and its sacrament of penance, most Protestants aren’t especially faithful in following the biblical admonition to “confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (James 5:16). Notice, however, that this passage doesn’t command that we confess our sins to a priest (or even a pastor), but to one another. The implication is that we not only ought to confess our sin to God, but that we should also be doing this with fellow believers who are our spiritual peers. 

What James seems to have in mind when he talks about confession is something we might also call spiritual accountability. This term is helpful because it emphasizes both parts of mutual submission that were explained above. When believers hold each other accountable, they are serving one another in humility and confessing their weaknesses and sins in a way that exposes them before each other and before God. This practice is extremely humbling and leaves no room for pride. It takes time and effort. And it is an important part of the Christian life that is far too often neglected. 

One evidence that we are lacking in the practice of mutual submission can be observed through a disturbing trend I’ve noticed among members of the PRC who have come to realize that their life is not right with God and seek to change this pattern. In regret for their actions, they look for a “fresh start” in life, which often means leaving the PRC and going to a new church in another denomination. The question we need to ask is why so many people—especially young people—feel the need to find their “fresh start” somewhere other than the church in which they were raised. 

It’s easy to point our fingers at the one who has left as being insincere in his or her repentance or to quietly whisper about how shameful sin can be, but this trend probably says as much about our denominational culture as it does about the people who leave. Is it possible that we so value a life of external “perfection” that we forget the joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner (Luke 15:7, 10)? Are the expectations of personal holiness so high that when someone fails, they are effectively shamed out of fellowship in the church? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then we have a problem. 

The problem we have is serious because it’s a gospel issue. The heart of the gospel is that God grants forgiveness to those who truly acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sins and trust in the atoning work of Jesus Christ to cover them. The gospel is not found in ignoring sin or sweeping it under the rug so that everyone else around us can be convinced we are pious Christians. Perhaps the rug of secrecy will cover our sins before the eyes of our community for a time, but it certainly won’t hide those sins from God (Ps. 139:1–12; Jer. 16:17–18).  

I’m worried that somehow, we’ve lost the practice of the gospel despite our preaching. I don’t doubt that most readers of Beacon Lights have had enough catechism training to be able to describe the gospel message and the sovereignty of God in salvation quite well. But how many of us are putting this knowledge into practice? When it comes to the sins of others, are we more likely to confront that sin biblically or are we more likely to shame one another for dropping the spiritual ball? When it comes to our own sins, are we more likely to confess and truly repent of them or are we quicker to cover the sin with a cheap denial? 

The reality is that we can’t do this alone. Sin is so pervasive and deceptive that we simply cannot run the race of faith as individuals. This is why God has given us the church and fellow believers as partners in the practice of mutual submission. Two believers working together will always be better than one person struggling through the muck of sin and temptation on his own (Ecc. 4:9–12). When one is weak, the other is strong. When one is wounded, the other can heal. When we confess our sins to one another, we can also be brought to God’s throne of grace to receive mercy (Prov. 28:13).  

The apostle John had stern words for members of the early church who were falling into the same trap we seem to be caught in. 

If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:610) 

Walking in the light involves an honest appraisal of our own weaknesses. When we walk in the light, we experience fellowship with other believers and the knowledge that we are cleansed of our sins in Christ. When we deny our sins by failing to confess them and living a lie, we won’t have these experiences.  

It’s time for a change of culture when it comes to spiritual accountability. I can guarantee you will find out who your real friends are if you try to implement it in your life. And when you find those true spiritual partners, I can also guarantee that your life will be far more joyful than it has ever been before.