"Hold people accountable!" is a rally cry when we recognize injustice done by another person or institution. We talk about holding politicians accountable to their actions by how we vote. We hold children accountable for their actions when they make a mistake. The criminal justice system talks about holding people accountable for their infractions. Holding another accountable is even present in the Church.
God holds the people accountable for their actions when the covenant is broken. Church leaders and church members hold one another accountable in doing the work of God. Pastors are held accountable to their Bishops and Bishops are held accountable to other Bishops.
Ideally holding people accountable is a wonderful way to move into deeper relationship and health. However, too often we misunderstand what it means to hold someone accountable and instead hold them hostage.
Holding someone accountable means at least three things:
- Non-threatening - In a hostage situation, threats are used in order to force the other party to participate in an action. Force by way of violence, threats, or expulsion are used in order to "get" the other person to act. Holding someone accountable means, at the very least, threats of violence (in all its forms) are not present. For example: If you do not like the way your pastor preaches and then threaten to withhold your donation until they change, you are holding your pastor hostage. However, if you do not like the way your pastor preaches and desire to hold them accountable for their action, see Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18.
- Preservation of agency - In a hostage situation, the hostage does not have choice (agency) in the matter. The hostage taker may give false choices. They may say, "You can walk out that door if you want to! It is your choice!" but the hostage knows walking out the door means getting shot. Holding someone accountable means that the parties involved work to preserve one another's agency. If false choices are presented or if there is a clear power difference (the other has a gun and will shoot you if you leave), then you have a hostage situation not an accountable situation.
- Trust maintained at all cost - Trust is the fuel to the engine of accountability. If there is no sense of trust between the parties, then every action will be met with suspicion. Part of the reason hostages are kept in sight or locked up is that the hostage taker does not trust the captives to remain. In Acts the jail is broken as the result of an earthquake but the prisoners chose to remain. They were in prison because the Romans did not trust them. When it was clear that Paul and his partner trusted God and remained in the newly opened cell, the guard was converted. Acts 16:25-35.
The UMC faces a situation where there is an expressed desire to hold someone accountable: Traditionalists want to hold local pastors accountable for breaking the Book of Discipline. My own jurisdiction wants to hold another jurisdiction accountable for the election of Bishop Oliveto. Progressives want to hold the church accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. American churches want to hold Central Conferences accountable to pay apportionments; Central Conferences want to hold American churches accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. It seems everyone wants to hold the Bishops accountable for a slew of reasons! The most recent group desiring to hold someone in the denomination accountable is the WCA's desire to hold those who violate church laws accountable for understood disobedience.
We all invoke the accountability language because it is Biblical and mature. Frankly, humans are better at covenant-breaking then covenant-keeping (see the entire Bible for endless examples).
God holds us accountable, but God does not hold us hostage. In a twist of irony, the leading atonement theory for a millennia was rooted on the idea that God was willing to be taken hostage by the devil in order to trick the devil.
It is the evil one who takes hostages; God never has.
Be alert to the ways you are being held hostage. Be vigilant to the ways the Church is being held hostage. Be joyful that God is not interested in holding us hostage.