Well, that didn’t take long. For all the talk of unity on January 20th (and the gifts to the new president from Republicans and Democrats alike, and Lady Gaga’s memorable national anthem, and Amanda Gorman’s gorgeous spoken word poem, The Hill We Climb), by January 21st there were criticisms of the concept of unity from both the right and the left. From one side came: how can you ask for unity and then roll out an agenda that not everyone accepts? From the other side came: unity cannot be a cover for accountability.
Which takes us to the word of this week: accountability.
What is accountability? What does it mean to ‘hold someone to account?’ And what do we as Christians have to offer to the current difficult national conversation about accountability?
How do we approach accountability – in any role or venue – in a way that does not “take hostage” those we are engaging, let alone those we think have hurt us, our church, or our community? This is a specific challenge, especially in the high-stress environment we are experiencing most every day in our society.
One way of thinking about accountability is to focus on the keeping of accounts. This is the type of accountability we so often see today. Who owes what to whom and how can we use those “debts” to leverage what we want?
But another way of thinking about accountability is to focus on the giving of accounts. What accounts can we give to one another about what is going on—in our society, ourselves, our community, our congregation, our own church board?
Keeping accounts most often leads to scorekeeping. It tends to close down conversations and consideration. Giving accounts, when done with sincerity and vulnerability, can open things up. This second meaning of accountability puts us in relationship with one another and is not at odds with unity but is instead, perhaps, its beginning.
Giving an account means speaking from where you stand and telling what you have seen without the assumption that your experience of reality is the only experience. Giving an account offers a glimpse “behind your curtain” to let others see what you see and why you hold the convictions you hold. Above all, giving an account occurs in community, assumes ongoing communication, opens up conversation rather than closing it down.
Ephesians 5 is a hard chapter to discuss. It contains potentially contentious, awkward, or easily misused verses (“Wives, be subject to your husbands…”). However, in the midst of these verses there are words of wisdom that can re-orient our approach to accountability:
v1-2: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
v15-17, 20: Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time… So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is…giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of Jesus Christ.
And most directly:
v21: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
If we attempt both unity and accountability by majority vote (on our board or in our nation), we will never experience either unity or accountability. If we think “seeking consensus” will get us there, it may well prove to be a fragile truce, not true accountability to one another, let alone authentic unity. If we think we get to unity by tamping down true conflict and ignoring accountability, mostly what we do is light a fuse that will ignite a larger explosion sooner or later.
Being accountable means first that we are accountable to the God who gives us life and redeems us in grace. Ephesians sheds light on this type of accountability. “Offering and sacrifice” is not first of all what we offer one another, but what we offer God. “Wisdom” here is oriented toward discerning – together – what God is saying to us (rather than what our best “conventional wisdom” may be). “Reverence for Christ” means, among many implications, that we offer our reverence wholeheartedly to God and allow that to shape how we then turn to one another… in accountability. None of us lives – and no church board can exist – without the grace of God. That knowledge orients us to be able to give our accounts to one another and to offer to one another – even those who oppose us on “the issues” – the same grace we ourselves are experiencing as made known to us in Jesus Christ.
This may be too high an expectation in the halls of Congress, but Congress is not our first venue. This is first about how we are with one another in worship or around a church board table. This is also about how we are with others in our local community with whom we seek to work for a better, more just society. How are we accountable in those settings?
What is the hardest challenge of “being subject to one another” when we are in a disagreement with those to whom Ephesians is calling us to be accountable?
How can we be faithful to scripture here without being victimized, abused, or taken advantage of? Where are the healthy boundaries of this guidance?
Is this guidance different for women and men? Is it different among diverse communities, those on the margins, those most vulnerable in our society? How does your church board work through that?
How much room are you making for the giving of accounts vs. the keeping of accounts in your regular meetings?