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Evangelical Confessional Booths and Accountable Asceticism

June 6, 2005

Put ten bucks in the jar. When I recall some of the popular discipleship disciplines I espoused and practiced in college, I shudder. Did I really think that they were biblical or even helpful? If one of the guys I was discipling caved into a particular sin he was “being held accountable” for, he had to put ten bucks in the jar. Sometimes the accumulated cash was put in the offering, other times it was used to celebrate “not sinning” over dinner. Somehow, this practice was supposed to motivate holy living.

Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, one which frequently occurs within the context of what evangelicals call “Accountability Groups”- gatherings in which brothers and sisters in Christ meet together to encourage one another in their journey toward holiness, toward Christ-likeness. Ideally, these groups promote Christian obedience through enforcing biblical standards while also providing an environment of grace in which we experience the pain of confessing sin and the joy of conquering sin. Put more positively, accountability groups typically seek to foster personal holiness and faith in Christ through corporate confession, discussion and prayer. A noble aim.

Asceticism and Confession

Although the aim of accountability groups is good, the practice is often misguided. Accountability groups often smack of asceticism. Failures to trust and cherish God are punished through graduated penalties (an increased tithe, buying lunch or coffee for the “partners,” or unspoken ostracism from one’s peers). Instead of holding one another accountable to trusting God, we become accountable for exacting punishments on one another. The unfortunate result is a kind of legalism in which the healing of confession and the power of God’s promises are substituted by peer prescribed punishments. As a result, our motives for holiness get warped. Confession in such contexts is relegated to “keeping from doing it,” making the discipleship a duty-driven, rule-keeping journey.

Alternatively, accountability groups often devolve into evangelical confessional booths from which we depart absolved of any guilt, fearing merely the passing frown of our fellow priest. I confess my sin, you confess yours. I pat your back, you pat mine and then we pray. Accountability groups become circles of cheap grace through which we obtain cheap peace from a troubled conscience. This approach to holiness backfires and we begin to take Christless comfort in the confession of sin (ours and theirs). Confession becomes divorced from repentance, reducing holiness to half-hearted morality. Accountability becomes a man-made mix of moralism and cheap peace.

Don’t get me wrong; confession is good and biblical: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Js 5.16; cf. 1 Jn 1.9) It’s a means of grace for spiritual healing, not something we do in order to regain God’s approval. The only approval we need was purchased at the Cross. Furthermore, getting the darkness out into the light is communication with our Lord and is a holy act itself. The problem is that we often lose sight of holiness and our motives become sub-biblical.

Motivation for Holiness

With accountable asceticism, the main motivation for not sinning is punishment or embarrassment. The idea is that we will refrain from sinning because we don’t want to lose something or to be embarrassed by confessing our sin to a friend. The confessional booth empties the power of holiness by hollowing its motivation. Earnestness for holiness is replaced by ritual regurgitation of our sins. Whether we drift to the confessional booth or accountable asceticism, what is common to both is a subverting of the seriousness of sin and a forsaking of holiness, severing the genuine joy of Lord. In short, we substitute righteousness for ritual.

So what’s the big deal? What’s at stake in our distorted forms of accountability, in a hollowed pursuit of holiness? Well, for starters, our relationship with the Trinity gets short-circuited. The Father isn’t trusted, the Son’s sacrifice is sold out, and the Spirit is slighted. In addition to trivializing the Trinity, we settle for the fleeting pleasure of peer approval or cheap peace when we could have the “pleasures forevermore” in our relationship with God (Ps 16.11).

In order to avoid the confessional booth mentality and ascetic accountability, two things are necessary. First, we have to take the threats of Scripture seriously. When God says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12.14),” he means it! Gathering together to remind one another of the imperative of holiness is good and necessary. Second, we need to be reminded of the powerful and precious promises of God (2 Pt 1.4). God’s promises aren’t meant for measuring; they’re for trusting. His promises are the path to true pleasure. They are the way to worship. God himself is bent on pursuing our pleasure through His holiness: “but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness (12.10).” Did you catch that? The infinite God of the universe is committed to our good, even in discipline! He pursues our true pleasure, knowing that when we trust him we become like Him; we become holy. When we trust in His promises, God is glorified and we are satisfied. Our happiness is bound up with His holiness.

So the next time we gather together, believe the warnings and bank on the promises. Scripture motivates us for holiness with both the pitchfork and the carrot. Encourage one another to not settle for second-rate pleasures, but to pursue the happiness that comes with holiness. Of course, be sure to listen, learn and love, praying for one another so you will be healed. In doing so, we will escape the evangelical confessional booth and axe ascetic accountability, jointly embracing happiness in holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.

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