When a history of secret sin is suddenly revealed in the life of a Christian leader, the results are catastrophic. Families and victims are devastated, ministries are destroyed, and the reputation of the Lord Jesus is maligned. Unfortunately, what we see in a public failure is often repeated dozens of times in situations much closer to home. As we try to make sense of a ministry collapse, we’re prone to ask how it is possible that accountability was avoided for so long. Why does accountability seem, so often, to fail?
For one, we simply neglect to ask others about the condition of their spiritual lives. We assume that close friends or spiritual leaders are walking faithfully with Christ — so we don’t ask. Paradoxically, the more “successful” or seemingly mature a Christian is, the less often he may be engaged in true spiritual conversation.
“When we are consumed with our own thoughts, we fail to draw out the concerns or insights of others.”
But the main reason accountability fails is because of its separation from robust spiritual care. Being “accountable” has become equivalent to meeting regularly or scoring well on a checklist of questions (often focused, at least for men, on sexual purity). Gnawing doubts about the goodness of Christ, deep anxieties about broken relationships, or a faith-threatening worldliness are unlikely to be unearthed with such a narrow focus. If our “accountability group” isn’t addressing our needs and vulnerabilities, while also giving us a false sense of security and spiritual health, maybe we should just get rid of our accountability group.
Deeper than additional protocols, accountability groups, or purity ministries, our church needs a recovery of the spiritual discipline of “holy discourse” (Joanna Jung, The Lost Discipline of Conversation) — a kind of meaningful, spiritual conversation that runs through all our relationships in the church.
Purpose of Holy Discourse
The Puritans considered holy discourse alongside meditation, silence and solitude, prayer, and fasting as a basic discipline in the Christian life. They pointed to Malachi 3:13–17 as biblical rationale for spiritual conversations — what they often called the practice of “conferencing.”
Malachi relays how some of God’s people had grown disillusioned with walking in faithfulness before the Lord. They complained, “What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? . . . Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape” (Malachi 3:14–15). The response of the faithful, however, brought God’s blessing:
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” (Malachi 3:16–17)
The Puritans inferred that this conversation was a regular practice outside of the weekly service of worship (the KJV translates verse 16, “then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another”). Rather than being a time of formal instruction from the priesthood, it was a time when ordinary saints conferred with one another, edifying and encouraging one another to walk in God’s ordinances.
The Puritans argued that Hebrews 3:13 and 10:25 also taught spiritual conversation as a God-appointed means for believers to mutually guard one another’s faith. In so doing, holy discourse functioned as a robust mechanism for accountability in the Christian life.
Practice of Holy Discourse
Intentional spiritual conversations were anything but dreary, awkward, or narrow. Puritan pastor Robert Bolton (1572–1631) described holy discourse as a time when ordinary Christians allowed “free, unreserved communication of their souls, mutual exchange of their hearts, faithful revelations of the spiritual state of their consciences one unto another . . . in ardent sanctified affection” (General Directions, 77).
Isaac Ambrose (1604–1664), itinerant preacher and early supporter of Presbyterianism, described the shape of these meetings. Church members would gather every Wednesday for discussion on Scripture and practical Christian living, topics agreed upon the week prior. Meetings would begin with mutual prayer and end with thanksgiving. Participants agreed to keep confidential anything of a personal nature (Media, the Middle Things, 342–44). Discussions could range from examination and application of the sermon text to “the secrets of sanctification, of perplexities of conscience, of [the Christian’s] everlasting abode together in mansions of heaven” (Bolton, General Directions, 77).
Richard Baxter (1615–1691) wrote that the major theme of holy conference ought to “be much about the glorious excellencies, works, and mercies of the Lord, in way of praise and admiration” (The Practical Works, 2:446). In his view, no other subject was as “sublime and honorable” for people to discuss as “the matters of God and life eternal.” He had seen by his own experience that holy conversation profits the speaker and the hearer, as our own hearts are warmed “when we blow the fire to warm another.” Declaring the praise of God to others, he wrote, “kindleth the flames of holy love in us.” In the same way, when we talk about the odiousness of sin with others “it increaseth a hatred of sin in us” (6:246–49).
Overcoming Common Challenges
The Puritans recognized conversations like this required practice — and they trained their congregations to overcome common challenges.
They noted how self-absorption can hinder our ability to actively listen. When we are consumed with our own thoughts, we fail to draw out the concerns or insights of others. What is worse, we can be quick to “censure others” or point out their faults. Bolton argued that this is often evidence of hypocrisy that hides our own faults (General Directions, 126). Therefore, participants were encouraged to come prepared to build up one another in their most holy faith and in each other’s “acquaintance with temptations, experimental knowledge, more comfortable walking with God.” Admonitions should be appropriate to the severity of concern, but always humble, loving, and discreet. Bolton also exhorted members to make the most of every conversation, encouraging them to consider the example of Jesus, who turned all kinds of conversations to spiritual matters (146–47).
Puritans also considered the challenges many of us feel when engaging in spiritual conversations. We know our own disordered desires. We ourselves frequently don’t love what is loveliest and best. And when we fail, we are reluctant to disclose our hearts to others. In addition to the shame we often feel, spiritual lifelessness, grief, and fear about how we might be received can prevent Christians from engaging in vulnerable conversation.
“Holy discourse seeks to apply the blood-bought benefits of Christ to the deepest recesses of the human heart.”
Richard Greenham (c1535–c1594) encouraged believers to not let these internal struggles keep them in silence but, instead, turn them to good. The remedy is “not give place to such deadness” but, in humility, ask some question of another or speak briefly of God’s promised comfort. Greenham argued that God uses even the most “abrupt and disordered” speech for his purposes and the good of others (The Workes of the Reverend and Faithfull Servant of Jesus Christ, 1599, 5–7). Baxter echoed that: when, in faith, “you force your tongue at first to speak of that which is good, the words which you speak or hear, may help to bring you into a better frame.” Many a man, he continued, “hath begun to pray with coldness, that hath got him heat before he had done” (The Practical Works, 4:225).
What distinguishes the discipline of holy discourse from contemporary accountability practices is the comprehensiveness of its scope and the profundity of its care. Rather than a narrow focus on certain sins, conferencing targets the whole of the Christian life.
Holy discourse seeks to apply the blood-bought benefits of Christ to the deepest recesses of the human heart. Holy discourse fans zeal for Christ, strengthens understanding of Scripture, reinforces doctrinal orthodoxy, unearths destructive patterns of thought, addresses beleaguered souls, nurtures preserving prayer, bridles gossip and backbiting, deepens compassion for others, and develops skills of soul care.
Maybe it is time to abandon our accountability group — or at least to incorporate the lost discipline of spiritual conversation. If we flourished in holy discourse, Baxter asked, “how holy, and heavenly, and happy would such families or societies be?” (4:229).