The following post is from Michael Overman. Michael is interning with us this year while working towards his Masters of Divinity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. You can check out his blog at findingthebalance.net.
Sin. It’s a short word that comes with a multitude of definitions, interpretations, and responses. It’s riddled with dogma and doctrine, and more often than not, is spoken with a certain harshness. It’s a word that, most of the time, I don’t enjoy speaking. I avoid it. I feel as if the impact of its being spoken to me and at me has done more harm than good, caused more harm than redemption. Yet it’s a word that sometimes needs to be used to explain the presence and existence of certain phenomena in our world.
Sitting down for lunch with Andrew Marin, founder of The Marin Foundation, my field placement for this academic year, we talked about many things. We talked about how he has decided to talk about homosexuality and sin. We talked about relationships. We talked about my recent decision to leave my denomination to pursue ordination elsewhere. We talked about our marriages and circles of friends, what made for healthy friendships, and what made for broken ones. We talked about God. We talked about love.
One topic in particular came up, and after sharing my insights with him, Andrew asked if I’d be willing to write a post rehashing them, and so here I am, listening to some Shane & Shane, drinking coffee while my cats scamper around the apartment, thinking about and writing about this topic: accountability.
As a gay man who has spent most of my life in a Baptist church of one branch or another, the words sin and accountability have been spoken at me many times, specifically pertaining to my sexual orientation. Former friends and church members have spoken of their “responsibility” and “obligation” to hold me accountable for my sin, spouting off any number of scriptures that give them the right to do so. A significant number of individuals who took on this role, well, they didn’t know me, at least not very well. They’d taken little to no time getting to know my heart, my interests, or my passions outside of their Sunday morning interactions with me. These people believed that their identity as a “Christian” obliged them to point out, admonish against, and correct the sins they witnessed in other Christ-followers, regardless of their relationship status with those persons. Based on their interpretation, it’s hard to argue with them.
There was and often is something missing though that I believe is a key component to effective and holy accountability: mutuality. There are struggles I face from time to time that I want to overcome. More often than not, I recognize ability to win those battles alone. And so what do I do? I turn to someone I know, someone I love, and someone I trust to hold me accountable. This is the key. Accountability has to be welcomed by the one being held accountable. Yes, there are times when someone we love might be faltering and not asking for our input, but in those cases, the relationship that already exists often grants a certain level of permission. When you’ve built a relationship with someone that centers around love, respect, and mutuality, then sure, hold those friends accountable, but only so far as they allow you to do so. When that permission is revoked, then you no longer have that right.
Holding someone accountable to anything without relationship runs the risk of damaging that person in a deeply intimate way. Furthermore, holding someone accountable to a standard with which they disagree stands a chance of doing more harm than good. We’re all called out to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Even Peter is given a vision in which he’s told not to call profane what God has called clean (Acts 10:15). When it comes down to the wire, sin does have grey areas. Some things are sinful for some and acceptable for others. And once a person has worked out and wrestled with certain parts of their life, we are only entitled to hold them accountable insofar as they allow us. Anything beyond that, and we’re no longer truly acting out of love and grace. Anything beyond that, and we’re no longer living out the true Gospel message.