In a recent post, we saw Ed Stetzer struggle through a season of deep lament, y’all over the exposed hypocrisy of his Christian heroes. He very much saw the issue as one of these individual men’s failings. So his solution to that problem, for himself at least, was to set into motion a battle plan. In this plan, he outlined the steps he planned to take to ensure that he himself would not succumb to an urge that apparently consumes his fellow Christian men. And one step on his plan got a few of us buzzing: he planned to set up “accountability relationships.” So today, we look at Christian Accountabilibuddies, which are totally a real thing that many Christians do.
Accountabilibuddies: The Disambiguation.
An American cartoon series called South Park aired an episode in 2007 called “Cartman Sucks.” In it, Cartman pulls a prank that makes his friend Butters seem not-quite-hetero.
Butters’ homophobic father promptly enrolls the boy in a Christian camp serving up conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is a Christian method of torturing young people suspected of being gay. These barbaric programs try to force vulnerable young people to become–or at least to pretend to be–heterosexual.
No reputable study has ever shown it to be effective or therapeutic in any way. It’s pure snake oil. In fact, it carries many adverse effects–like making those undergoing it suicidal. Nonetheless, Christian parents remain adamantly in favor of this pseudoscience (and yes, we’ll be talking about that affinity of theirs soon).
Indeed, Butters’ father suffers from extreme zealotry.1 And not much plays up that zealotry like fundagelicals’ affection for all kinds of fake therapies.
At the camp in the cartoon, the leaders assign each new boy an accountabilibuddy. They intend for the boys to function as partners in keeping each other from exhibiting unwanted behaviors or speaking about off-limits topics.
“Cartman Sucks” stands tall as one of South Park’s best episodes (in my opinion as well as that of many reviewers). In addition, this story plays up one of its creators’ best talents: finding that one situation that’s one degree off-kilter and mining it for comedy.
In this case, they laced that comedy with sadness. This camp isn’t too far off from actual conversion-therapy camps for kids. And we know that a lot of the kids forced into this fake therapy end up wanting to harm themselves.
Well, we know of one other way that this episode speared reality.
Christians really do employ accountability partners to keep themselves on the straight and narrow. (The VERY straight and the VERY narrow!)
South Park just altered the name slightly to achieve comedic absurdity. They didn’t have to do much to the concept itself.
They only needed to make the name sound a little more ridiculous than it already is.
Christians use the word accountability in a few different ways, and I think it’s useful to know about them.
The first and likely most common way they use it regards how they talk about people who refuse their sales pitches. Often they say that people refuse those pitches because they don’t want to be accountable. Spoiler: Christians mean accountable to their god. They’re so positive that they’ve got all this PROOF YES PROOF for their various claims that literally the only reason anybody could reject their sales pitches is sheer willfulness (see comment 31). And they’re positive that this willfulness stems from an unwillingness to stand before a moral judge who demands that they behave a certain way.
The second most common way I hear them talk about accountability involves children. The Age of Accountability is the age at which a child understands sin. More to the point, the child understands that they are a filthy, filthy sinner. The age varies considerably with the child.2 Once children reach this age, whatever it may be for them individually, they risk going to Hell if they die before conversion.3
And the third most common way I hear Christians discussing the word involves their sex lives. Christians don’t think that it’s enough to be accountable to their god. That, and the implied threat of Hell that accompanies that notion, is not enough to hold them back from unapproved sexual activity. And whoa nelly, the people speaking for their mythical master have outlawed a whole lot of perfectly normal sexual activity. Instead of dealing with the situation in a healthy, mature, boundary-affirming manner, Christians go full-throttle control-freak. They get their fellow Christians to be their accountability partners, to help keep them on the VERY straight and VERY narrow path.
A Brief History of the Idea.
I’ve started looking up Christianese terms on Google Books, to get an idea of when a term or phrase gained popularity. I do this especially when a term wasn’t used in my neck of the supernatural woods. (I was Pentecostal between 1986 and 1994ish, mostly in Texas.)
Interestingly, the phrase accountability partner doesn’t show up much at all in the 1980s. The instances look more related to counseling and substance addiction therapy. (I see one instance in the 1970s.)
Suddenly, the phrase increases in popularity in the 1990s, especially after 1995. I suspect strongly that the 1995 book Sex and the Single Person (written by Bob DeMoss, a onetime Focus on the Family leader), now in at least its second edition as of 2013, helped bring the idea into the Christian mainstream.
I’m also sure that the phrase’s origins in counseling/therapy helped popularize it to a great extent. Starting around then, Christians began to medically pathologize normal desires and tendencies in people–talking about normal masturbation as a real live addiction on par with alcoholism, for example.
Most of these accountabilibuddy schemes focus on preventing unapproved sex, though certainly other focuses abound. Whenever Christians want to stop doing anything and feel like they can’t do it by themselves, these sorts of programs start sounding appealing. (If the idea sounds a lot like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sponsors, it probably should–AA draws from that same wellspring of using faith and magic rituals to overcome medically-pathologized behavior.)
Now, with the internet making it so easy to get content to the public, a search for “accountability partner” turns up over 700,000 returns. Adding the modifier “Christian” after it still brings me 62,000+ returns. It’s a popular concept.
Well, for one type of Christian, anyway.
Who Even Does This?
The Christians who get into the concept of accountability tend to be evangelicals and beyond. This concept is definitely not universal (nothing is in Christianity–nope, whatever you’re thinking of right now isn’t either, seriously). So to find an accountability type, we look to the Christians inhabiting the most authoritarian fringes of the religion.
Authoritarians gonna authoritarian. Power—who wields it, and more importantly who must submit to it–governs way too many Christians’ walk with Jesus. Groups that focus with laser intensity on gaining and flexing power draw in authoritarians like horseflies to bull patties. That whole “accountable to God” nonsense functions as their mating call.
A mythical being certainly works as an ultimate authority source. But he’s not real. Neither is the supernatural threat of Hell that authoritarians bandy about so constantly. That threat works fine and dandy as a cudgel to force compliance regarding supernatural matters. When it comes to real-world matters like unapproved sex, authoritarians need real-world threats.
The Problem With Masturbation (for Authoritarians).
If you ever wondered why so many Christians view pregnancy and fatal STDs as fitting punishments for unapproved sex, this is why. But masturbation carries with it no actual real-world punishments, in and of itself. Out of every single sex act anybody could do, it conveys no physical risk of pregnancy, diseases, or anything else.
In their never-ending quest (maybe NSFW) to stop themselves from wanting to masturbate, Christians set into motion their usual tactics. In fact, you’ll see these in almost all of their moral crusades.
First, they tried to shrink-wrap the whole world. They demanded that people abstain from a long, ever-shifting list of behaviors and foods thought to “inflame” their minds and passions. Meat, coffee, chocolate, spices, and other such foods became proscribed. Vegetarianism came into vogue. Obviously, certain clothing choices became off-limits. And porn was obviously of the devil. Also obviously, none of it really helped to reduce the amount of chicken-choking going on in the pews.
Second, for many centuries, Christians fabricated real-world intrinsic risks to use as threats. They taught–falsely, obviously–that masturbation caused pretty much every single disease and mental illness imaginable. To scare people out of masturbating, Christian leaders have pushed a steady drumbeat of false threats:
- impaired morals
- early death
Unfortunately for them, none of those imagined risks turned out to be true either.
A Threat Authoritarians Can Respect.
Remember how I noted recently that my narcissistic ex Biff only respected clear boundaries he couldn’t finesse? Most authoritarians are like that. They need a threat that will definitely happen if they cross that line. That’s why they love super-strict, super-out-of-proportion punishments for crime. They view these sorts of punishments–mistakenly in many cases—as a deterrent or training tool.
And you know what a really controlling person hates more than anything else? Losing power and prestige in their tribe. (Rich people, as we learned in Trading Places, hate losing their money. It’s much the same dynamic.) Power and prestige are real, not pie-in-the-sky future rewards or punishments.
Becoming known as someone who violates one of the tribe’s oldest, strictest rules could have a very serious impact on an authoritarian. A Christian can get away with a lot, but unapproved sex is very hard to walk back.
So now that you know what rides on this concept of accountability, let’s look at how Christians get the notion bass-ackward.
Picking an Accountability Partner.
Obviously, “Jesus” can’t be an accountability partner. He’s not real, so the threats associated with him aren’t real-world threats. Therefore, an accountability partner must be a real person. The site All About God tells us the same thing: that a Christian must have a real person to “hold you accountable in your spiritual walk.”
But what kind of person?
At the super-ultra-authoritarian-even-for-fundagelicals site Covenant Eyes, the writer there helpfully offers a series of diagrams regarding finding a properly Jesus-y accountability partner. He also outlines the risks of choosing someone who isn’t Jesus-y enough. (Since he’s selling a very pricy program designed to filter users’ internet, one can guess where he’s heading with all this moralizing.4)
Generally speaking, accountability in Christianity flows from someone of lower status to someone of higher status. Authoritarians would never allow themselves to move in any other direction. Pastors do not ask a layperson to be their accountability partner. They ask another pastor, especially if they can manage to find one of greater power than themselves who is willing to do the job. A man wouldn’t ask a woman; an older person wouldn’t ask a younger one. Whoever that accountability partner is, it’s ideally someone of higher status in some way.
Indeed, that’s exactly the advice we find in a Focus on the Family post on the topic.
Christians pick these higher-status accountability partners because they think they’ll be more motivated to be honest and forthcoming to these people. But these accountability partners also have the power to harm them socially. I’m sure that this reality is not a coincidence.
How It Goes Hideously Wrong.
As we saw recently, handing someone power that they categorically don’t deserve is a disastrous idea. Broken systems like fundagelicalism operate along lines of vastly lopsided power dynamics. One subgroup–the haves–gets all of the power in the group, while the other–the have-nots–become stripped of power. This power allows the haves to push around, abuse, and exploit the have-nots at will, without fear of repercussions. And the haves gain this vast power sheerly on the basis of traits like race, age, gender, sexuality, tenure in the group, and socioeconomic status–not on the basis of demonstrated leadership skill or other tangible qualifications.
Worse, there’s no “Jesus” making Christians into better people than non-Christians can hope to be. Instead, Christians possess and perpetuate a set of highly ritualized behaviors meant to give them a Jesus Aura that substitutes for what would be a very impressive real thing if it existed.
All that means that it’s super-easy for Christians to fake being deserving of the power handed to them. Once they gain that power, it’s very hard to peel it back from them. The other power-holding people in their group ensure that as a matter of course.
And that means that a Christian might seem on the surface like a perfectly awesome high-status, super-Jesus-y authority figure, but could very easily be a complete hypocrite below the surface. As we saw earlier, Ed Stetzer himself had to do a lot of fancy footwork to avoid understanding just why that happens so often in his tribe.
It Gets Worse.
It amazes me that Christians constantly put their trust in each other while fully acknowledging the gossip mills that flourish in most churches. (Indeed, most Christians will admit that gossip is a big problem in most churches. And they still go for accountabilibuddies, pastoral counseling, and other such practices that get their personal information into unqualified hands.)
These accountability partners do not labor under confidentiality agreements. Nothing happens to them if they choose to divulge what has been shared with them in confidence. If they enjoy high-enough status in the group, they can easily justify their decision to gossip by cloaking it in enough Christianese.
I’m sure it’s a shock to those whose trust is violated, every time.
In 2011, a young man under the same basic rules at Mars Hill discovered the hard way what happens to Christians who trust their authority figures a little too much. “Lance” confessed to his leaders some off-limits sexual behavior. And it turned into this huge horrific experience for him. His pastor even ended up calling the father of Lance’s girlfriend. Ostensibly, the goal was to “warn” the father about Lance being “on a path of destruction that could result in the death of his daughter.” Months later, both Lance and the father still felt rattled and upset by the whole experience.
In similar fashion, with all this advice about picking the right accountability partner, it seems clear that much can go wrong with these attempts. And we see hints of what can go wrong everywhere. When you hear a Christian rabbit on about the traits for the right accountability partner, be looking at the opposite traits as a sign of what they fear might happen.
Solving the Impossible Problem.
Of course, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board figured out the whole solution to the problem of bad accountability partners. In a paper uploaded to their site, we find this blanket reassurance:
Believe that God wants you to have such a person in your life more than you want it. He will not lead you to the wrong person.
Oh, well, there you go. If Christians pick the wrong person, obviously they’re the problem. Their god wouldn’t steer them wrong, by definition.
So there you have it.
Yes, accountabilibuddies are a thing in Christianity. A lot of Christians really do this! And it’s a big indicator of an impossibly big, even dealbreaking problem in Christianity.
What Accountabilibuddies Should Tell Us, Firstly.
When you hear about accountability partners, first and foremost you should be wondering why the threat of Hell isn’t enough to make Christians behave the way they themselves want to behave. Remember, this practice is mostly an evangelical thing. The practice draws very much from evangelical church culture and uses existing evangelical power structures (and beliefs about power itself). Thus, the Christians who like the idea also tend to believe in Hell and all that nonsense. But somehow, belief in Hell doesn’t produce a major behavioral change.
I totally rewrote my entire relationship with food out of a terror of contracting Type 2 diabetes. And I did it almost immediately upon realizing the health risks I was running. But Christians–who believe Hell is as real as that terrifying disease–can’t stop doing something they claim to know for 100% sure is a real risk they’re running?
Secondly and Ultimately.
Second, however, you should be wondering why Christianity’s social and behavioral rules aren’t already enough to help someone modify their behavior. Accountability-loving Christians think that their social rules and ideas work for all humanity–in other words, that they are universal and beneficial for all people. That’s how these Christians rationalize their desire to push their rules on everybody, even non-Christians. (Prime examples: abstinence-only mis-education; churches as a source of education in “Christian morality,” which I guess is true, just not the way they want it to be.)
However, we consistently see that Christians themselves do not exhibit the behaviors they say should flow from their social rules. Not only does Jesus not change anybody for the better through supernatural means, but their totally earthly, non-supernatural rules don’t result in better groups or individual people. And accountabilibuddies shows us that truth. They can’t change their behavior by themselves, so they must create this whole other system to handle that. And the system they’ve devised is so full of pitfalls that even their loudest cheerleaders for it must issue an abundance of warnings and cautions for how to do it.
Ultimately, the fringe Christian idea of accountability partners becomes an indictment of the religion’s supernatural and earthly claims. Unfortunately, the idea has proven to be a long-lived fad. As the religion’s leaders grow more and more desperate, we can expect to see more and more Christians sucked up into this blatant power-grab.
NEXT UP: The rising tide of Christian snake oil medicine flows similarly from a whole slew of erroneous beliefs and misplaced faith. When we hear people rabbiting on about aw, what’s the harm of religion, well, this is part of the exact harm religion inflicts on believers. We’ll look at some of the weirdest new medical fads coming out of Christianity–and why it’s only getting worse. Later, we’re tackling two related topics: what predisposed me to belief in my younger years, and the red flags I ignored to become–and remain–fundagelical. See you next time!
1 Butters’ father turns out to be a closeted gay or bisexual man who visits gay movie theaters and bathhouses on the down-low to have sex with men. His mother finds out and tries to murder Butters, with the intent to kill herself afterward. When his father stops her, they decide that since Butters is definitely dead, they should lie to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions. They both also later prove all too comfortable with the idea of murdering people to benefit their “resurrected” son. So… They represent Peak Fundagelicalism, I guess. (Back to the post!)
2 Remember that thing I talked about years ago in one of this blog’s very first posts? When I was about 8 years old, I came home from Catholic Sunday School in absolute hysterics. A well-meaning nun had told us all about the Crucifixion. Of course, she’d made sure to tell us that all that suffering was our fault. A great many Christians would likely say that day was the day I hit the Age of Accountability. (Back to the post!)
3 Christian adults get very touchy when people ask logical questions about this policy, like why they don’t want to murder all babies or abort all fetuses, rather than take the risk of raising them past the Age of Accountability and them going to Hell. I never find their answers satisfying, but bless their li’l cotton socks, they do try. (Back to the post!)
4 Nice and short: See this SBC Voices blog post criticizing Covenant Eyes. (Back to the post!)
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