Let’s Talk About Accountability

“not as in my presence only
To whom should we be accountable?

From time to time words and ideas creep into our conversation which, with use, become so familiar and ingrained that they seem completely correct and above examination.  Yet when examined carefully in the light of God’s revelation, they may not be correct, in fact, may be an error.  One of these words and the accompanying idea is “accountability.”  Before you stop reading and reject what I am about to say, consider the concept and the way in which it is used today.

The presupposition is that in order to be men of integrity, men who keep promises, we need to find someone to whom we can be accountable, who will look over our shoulder to see if we are true to our word.  Through the years I have taught this and practiced it.  Now that it has become popular in Christian circles, I find that the idea needs to be reexamined in the light of God’s Word.

The individual in the New Testament who first comes to mind as one who can be relied upon to show us the way in this matter is the apostle Paul.  As the apostle to the Gentiles, the wise master builder who laid the foundation of the church regarding Christian conduct, the one who refuted any practice inconsistent with the calling of every believer, Paul would surely have expressed his opinion on the subject of accountability.  In fact, he did it in a very specific and direct manner.

Writing to the church at Philippi from his Roman imprisonment, he exhorted the believers:

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for {His} good pleasure.[1]

Paul knew that it was impossible for him to exercise control over the church or any individual members at Philippi when he was so many miles away.  This is obvious.  However, what is not so obvious and deserves careful consideration is that Paul never assumed he could control others by his presence nor did he ever attempt to do so.

During his third missionary journey while engaged in a successful teaching ministry at Ephesus which lasted nearly three years, Paul kept his eye on the church at Corinth and the trials they were experiencing.  During this time, he wrote 1 Corinthians and possibly one or two other epistles seeking to help them through their difficulties.  At one point he even suggested that he would travel to Corinth to be physically present with them so as to be a blessing to them and receive a blessing from them.  However, he changed his travel plans and went on to Troas and Macedonian instead.  He was severely criticized for this and accused of vacillating and not being true to his word.[2]

It would be natural for Paul to go to Corinth to personally inspect the situation and to make sure they were obeying the exhortations communicated in his letters.  However, he explained that he did not want to go there himself because he did not want to lord it over their faith.  He wrote:

But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.  Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm.[3]

This statement deserves careful examination in light of the present emphasis on accountability.  The text in Philippians sheds light on Paul’s attitude toward the Corinthian church and its relationship to his leadership.  The key term in Philippians 2:12 is “presence.”[4]  This term is found twenty-four times in the Greek New Testament.  Of those, eighteen occurrences refer to the return of Christ to the earth.  The remaining seven, which do not refer to Christ’s return, are found only in Paul’s writings.  Careful examination of the context of each occurrence of “presence” demonstrates that the term means far more than merely being physically present.  The emphasis is on the relationship of the one present toward others and the effect of this physical presence upon them.

For instance, Paul referred to the coming of Fortunatas, Achaicus[5], and Titus.[6]  In each of these instances, it was the joy and comfort because of their coming and presence with him to which Paul is referring, not their physical presence alone.  When referring to the coming of our Lord, the term is of tremendous theological importance.  His coming is going to effect a change in world events like the presence of no other man in all of human history.  In every verse where “coming” occurs regarding Christ, this emphasis can and must be observed in order to gain the full impact of what the writer is saying.

When using the term other than of the coming of Christ, Paul is drawing out for the reader a connotation often lost in the English translations.  This is especially true in Philippians 2:12. In fact, to emphasize his meaning, Paul uses a play on words in Greek when he writes, “not in my presence (parousia) only,  but now much more in my absence (apousia).”  To Paul, what was important was not simply a proper response on the part of the Philippian believers, but that this proper response should ultimately be to God and not to him.

Every parent understands this principle when raising children.  It is important for the child to obey, not only when mom and dad are present but when mom and dad are absent.  The proof of successful discipline is when children obey when their parents are absent.  For Christian parents, it is an indication that the child understands that he or she is accountable to God and not to the parents only.

It is at this point that we begin to see the danger of the present emphasis on accountability.  When we live only to give an account to men and fail to recognize our obligation to give an account to God, we place men in the place of God and hinder the work of God in our hearts.

Someone might object and rhetorically ask, “Well it is not wrong to help an individual develop the discipline of obedience, is it?”  Expressed in those terms, it is hard to refute, and I am not seeking to do so in this article.  However, unless clear teaching and careful guidance are provided, the individual will develop the habit of obeying only when he or she knows accountability to another person other than God will be required.

We run into this problem often in everyday life.  We obey the speed limit only if we think a policeman is present.  We watch our diet only if we know that the doctor is going to require us to get on the scales.  Children learn to obey their parents only until they go away to college.  In each case, obedience to men has been substituted for obedience to God and this is wrong.

Paul would not accept the teaching regarding accountability to men today even for a moment.  Consider what he wrote to the church at Corinth: 

Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ– I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!  I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh.  For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.  {We are} destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and {we are} taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.[7]

It is obvious from this that there were individuals at Corinth willing to insure obedience by their physical presence and assumed authority even though Paul was not.  In fact, the Corinthian believers were quicker to choose their leadership and reject Paul’s.  Paul wrote:

For you, being {so} wise, bear with the foolish gladly.  For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face.  To {my} shame I {must} say that we have been weak {by comparison.} But in whatever respect anyone {else} is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself.[8]

Over and over Paul expressed abiding confidence in the ability and willingness of the Corinthian believers to respond appropriately to God’s Word.  In fact, this is what motivated him to risk rejection by sending a severe letter in the first place.  His written rebuke which preceded 1 Corinthians was based upon his love for the church and his unfailing belief that when they saw the will of God in his letter they would obey, not him, but God.  He wrote:

Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences.[9]

This principle was explained more fully in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he wrote:

But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

  This is what we need to emphasize.  Our accountability is to God and His Word.  Any true believer will have both the desire and ability to obey God who is at work in his heart through the inner working of the Holy Spirit.  Accountability to men must never be substituted for the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Paul saw genuineness in the Corinthians.  Therefore, he did not want his physical presence to ever be a substitute for the Holy Spirit’s ministry.  Concerning them he wrote:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?  You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.  And such confidence we have through Christ toward God.[10]

Confident in that ministry, Paul wrote God’s Word to those who would readily respond, not to those who were openly disobedient.  The disobedient individuals needed to be rebuked by the Church itself and not by Paul.  Paul’s letter was motivated by his confidence in the genuineness of their faith in God.  He wrote:

"So although I wrote to you {it was} not for the sake of the offender, nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.[11]

This same concept is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  He wrote:

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another.”[12]

Does this mean that we should not form relationships where one individual mentors another?  Absolutely not.  Paul, himself was willing to teach from house to house[13] and saw the need to teach individually and corporately:

. . .proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ.[14]

 But he did this in a way so as to never place himself between the individual and God.  Every believer must be taught accountability to God and not to men.

Joy in ministry is found, not in seeing the responses of others to us, but in seeing the responses of others to God in Christ Jesus.  This distinction is not merely semantics.  It goes to the heart of the doctrine of salvation.  Anything less is a different gospel than the one Paul preached.  Paul’s gospel and the gospel of Jesus Christ teach that when a person accepts Christ as savior it is to God and God alone that accountability is to be rendered.  To substitute accountability to men even for a moment is to short-circuit the power of God in the heart.  On the other hand, when we encourage each other to be accountable to God we experience together the joy of seeing the power of God at work in our lives.  Paul wrote:

But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.[15]


[1] Philippians 2:12-13

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:13-17.

[3] 2 Corinthians 1:23-24.

[4] parousia.

[5] 1 Corinthians 16:17.

[6] 2 Corinthians 7:6, 7.

[7] 2 Corinthians 10:1-6.

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:19-21.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:11.

[10] 2 Corinthians 3:1-4.

[11] 1 Corinthians 7:12.

[12] Romans 15:14.

[13] Acts 20:20.

[14] Colossians 1:28.

[15] Romans 6:17.