Spiritual accountability and discipline are slowly becoming extinct within church communities Here are some reasons why:
1. A Desire for Comfort and a Fear of Conflict:
Confrontation is awkward, messy, and just plain hard — so few do it. Additionally, churches and spiritual communities are intentional about creating a sense of peace, encouragement, happiness, and joy — even if it’s a façade.
Identifying sin, exposing immorality, admitting the truth, uncovering corruption, and acknowledging failure contradict the image many churches are trying to portray.
In reality, Christianity was never meant to be comfortable or easy, but in a society obsessed with self-gratification, pleasure, and comfort, churches too easily succumb to an attitude of placation and appeasement instead of responsibility and intervention.
Unchecked sin causes havoc and devastation. And while discipline and accountability can be misused, not using it at all can cause widespread harm. Current and recent abuse scandals within Christianity reveal the importance of confronting sin for what it is. They also show the sobering results of avoiding conflict and accountability for the sake of keeping up appearances.
Accountability and discipline go both ways and isn’t exclusively meant for pastors or those in leadership to punish those “beneath” them — everyone is responsible. Often it’s those in leadership who need accountability the most.
2. A Culture of Unlimited Choices and Options:
The reason churches emphasize comfort so much is because discomfort leads to parishioners leaving congregations.
Many spiritual leaders perceive spiritual accountability and discipline through the lens of church retention and attendance — and it’s not a pretty sight.
In a world inundated with options, where endless venues vie to satisfy our entertainment, food, clothing, education, and social needs, churches are no different, and if Christians become upset or discouraged, they can simply pack up and go someplace else — and many of them do.
As Christianity has become more diversified and nuanced, a competitive market has developed in an effort to attract believers — and their money — to various churches, communities, institutions, and organizations. This has resulted in a type of consumer spirituality, where Christians are treated like customers and Christian institutions are managed like businesses — customer service and satisfaction is prioritized above all else.
Unfortunately, keeping customers satisfied — and loyal to the “brand” — leads to pastors and churches that will do almost anything to keep attendees from becoming upset. The allure of other church options causes people to quickly leave and try someplace else if they feel offended or discontent — never to return. “Church-hopping” is often just another name for “shopping,” where customers are continually looking for a better product.
3. A Fear of Legalism and Fundamentalism:
Sadly, many churches in the past (and present) have wrongly implemented “church discipline” and “accountability” to serve their own sinful agendas. There are numerous accounts of weaponizing church authority and using guilt, shame, fear, embarrassment, and terror to manipulate, abuse, control, hurt, and destroy the lives of countless victims.
Church history has been stained by varying degrees of legalism and fundamentalism, and today’s churches will do anything to avoid such labels — even if it means abandoning the practice of discipline and accountability altogether.
Pastors, mentors, and spiritual leaders quickly learn that discipline (even advice) can quickly be interpreted as legalistic or fundamentalist by those who are upset, hurt, or feel wounded. Such accusations and stigmas are hard to defend and can cause church splits, vicious interpersonal conflict, and irreversible damage.
Since discipline can so easily be seen as legalistic, it’s becoming something Christians completely avoid.
4. The Rise of Spiritual Ambiguity:
In the past, morality was often — but not always — structured into clear and concise categories of right and wrong. People could get excommunicated for getting a divorce, receiving an abortion, their views on homosexuality, drinking alcohol, political beliefs, and a litany of other things that are no longer considered nearly as controversial.
In a postmodern world where people are starting to realize that they don’t have the market cornered on truth, ethics, and what constitutes as being sinful, Christians are starting to be less judgmental and more focused on grace.
Spiritual ambiguity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that absolute truth or sin no longer exist; instead it’s resulted in spiritual leaders being more thoughtful and careful about confronting others.
New information, changing ideals, theological maturation, and the evolution of Christian beliefs and doctrines have influenced what we now understand as being right and wrong. As this process develops, things that were widely assessed as “sinful” in the past are being reevaluated as acceptable, while new convictions that weren’t previously perceived as bad are being labeled “sinful.”
The disagreement, complexity, and overall ambiguity of what is and isn’t considered sin has resulted in Christians being more cautious and tentative about identifying it in others.
5. Changing Church Structures:
Traditionally, churches were built to include positions of deacons, elders, bishops, priests, and councils for the distinct purpose of facilitating the oversight and practice of confession, self-disclosure, and discipline. But as churches have become less formalized, the platforms for confessing and confronting sin are disappearing.
Megachurches attempt to compensate by organizing small groups and providing numerous ways to socially engage beyond church services, but these communities often lack any type of authority willing to confront sin. Small group leaders are usually trained to be facilitators instead of pastors, and few are bold enough to call out someone living in sin.
Smaller churches are abandoning the practice because the last thing they want to do is lose the few people they have left — fearing that they’ll attend elsewhere.
Since churches rarely provide platforms for confession, they also rarely provide accountability.
Overall, the loss of accountability and discipline can lead to believers who are susceptible to self-righteousness and an ineffectual lifestyle.
Ironically, it can also result in Christians who are more judgmental towards those beyond Christianity. Instead of holding ourselves accountable, it’s much easier to point the finger at the rest of society, and to be the accuser instead of the accused. To avoid our own sins, we often distract ourselves by focusing on the sins of others.
The challenge for the modern church is to responsibly implement the practice of discipline without abusing it, to gracefully and lovingly help people grow in their faith without being legalistic or abusive or accusatory, to challenge and inspire people through relational support and encouragement instead of abandoning and isolating them.
If we cannot helpfully sustain one another, how can we expect to love the world around us?
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com. He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, Redletterchristians.org , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.