Most of us are too polite to say out loud, ‘Mind your own business!’ But when someone gets a little too pointed in their advice to us, we are tempted to think it. Why do we react so instinctively?
Is there a ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ strand buried in our DNA? Well, of course there is. As the progeny of Adam and Eve we inherited a spirit of rebellion along with our human nature.
Satan tempted Eve by holding out the promise of becoming ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). Adam and Eve took a chance at autonomy over the status quo — which was gentle dependence on the God who walked with them ‘in the garden in the cool of the day’ (Genesis 3:8).
As Old Testament history unfolds, the Lord laments, ‘I reared children … but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, and the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know … they have spurned the Holy One of Israel’ (Isaiah 1:2-4).
The psalmist writes that all peoples rage against God’s moral ‘fetters’. In the parable of the ten minas, Jesus illustrates this sad reality. The subjects of a nobleman ‘hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, “We don’t want this man to be our king”’ (Luke 19:14).
Resentment at having our autonomy curbed by sovereign authority is universal.
Society cannot function, however, without some surrender of autonomy. Indeed, God has created us to be accountable to one another in a myriad of relationships.
We are first accountable to our parents: ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour your father and mother — which is the first commandment with a promise — that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth’ (Ephesians 6:1-3).
Children brought up ‘in the training and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4) usually become responsible, moral citizens. In such a context, parents avoid exasperating their children. They adorn every firm command with gentleness and love.
Since homes like these are the womb of a ‘good’ society, governments tamper with the biblical family at their peril.
In marriage the created order is manifest — God, man, woman. A husband is accountable to God and a wife is accountable also to her husband. ‘The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour … wives should submit to their husbands in everything’ (Ephesians 5:23-24).
At this point confirmed feminists become outraged and we have to admit that, at first glance, for a wife to submit to her husband might look like subservience. However, the apostle also says, ‘Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 6:25).
Love as Christ loved! Christ, who humbled himself and became obedient even to ‘death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8). A husband is required by his Lord to model the self-giving love of Christ — by cherishing, protecting and, if necessary, sacrificing his life for his wife.
Employees are also accountable. Although Ephesians 6 refers to a slave/master relationship, the principle has wide ramifications for employees and employers. ‘Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,’ (Ephesians 6:5).
As citizens we are accountable to ‘the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Romans 13:1-7). Anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.
Flight from accountability is not the only consequence of the Fall. Paradoxically, the passion to control others also mirrors our rejection of divine control.
On the one hand we demand freedom to do what we want, while on the other we try to restrict the freedom of others by trying to bend them to our will. Out of this irrational paradox, abuse is born.
This human predisposition carries different names and comes in many varieties — machismo, feminism, child abuse, wife abuse, the ‘hen-pecked husband syndrome’, bullying, pastoral dictatorship, or even ‘restoring the biblical role of husband and wife’.
Whatever we call it, if it does not reflect the tender love of our Creator God, it is of the pit and it smells of smoke — to use Steve Brown’s poignant phrase.
A sense of responsibility for others should replace a desire to control them. Responsibility is the flip side of accountability. Ideally, those to whom we are accountable accept a measure of responsibility for us.
Yet ever since Cain asked, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:9), humans have shunned responsibility. Rejection of responsibility is as much sin as a rejection of accountability or a passion to control others.
God exhibits responsibility in all his dealings with his creation. ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). ‘He gives all men life and breath and everything else … in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:25, 28).
Responsible parents provide for their children. Responsible husbands love, protect and cherish their wives. Responsible employers reward their employees with a fair wage. Responsible governments provide a safe environment for their citizens by maintaining law and order.
Who is my neighbour?
It is fairly easy to understand accountability and responsibility in the framework of formal relationships, but what about less formal contexts?
A broken-down car stands by the roadside. A neighbour goes out and carelessly leaves a window open. A child is bullied at school. None of our business?
Clearly, the law of love — ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ — calls us to accept some responsibility for anyone who crosses our path. The Good Samaritan felt responsible for the stricken traveller (Luke 10:33).
Responsible living is so important that Christ crafted a parable to illustrate the matter.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), he taught that we will be called to account for the way we responded to those in need.
All who inhabit planet earth are informally responsible for one another. ‘So then’, says Paul, ‘each of us will give an account of himself to God’ (Romans 14:12).
Like everything else in the biblical worldview, however, our accountability and responsibility are not matters of legalistic demand but of love.
In every human context, biblical accountability is to be maintained by believers walking humbly and lovingly with their Creator.
That we have not returned to the total anarchy of Sodom or the pre-Flood earth is due to the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit: ‘For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way’ (2 Thessalonians 2:7).
In God’s providence, the Spirit normally maintains civil order by encouraging a communal sense of respect and accountability. Where this restraint is withdrawn — witness the Rwanda genocide — there is unbridled anarchy and violence.
Fortunately, through common grace, God moderates evil — people innately realise that their best interests are served by showing civility, respect and concern for others.
This natural network of accountability, however, is fragile. The tapestry of ordered civilisation is seriously frayed. Those who revere the Bible should understand how close we are to anarchic rupture.
So, when Christ came ‘preaching the good news of the kingdom’ (Matthew 4:23), he was preparing the way for a new accountability structure — the church, as the outpost of the kingdom of God here on earth.
In the fellowship of the church, God’s children learn to re-create the mutual accountability and responsibility that repairs broken human relationships. It is in the local church in particular, that selfish independence ought to give way to loving interdependence.
A new society
When God saves an individual from the power and consequences of his own wilful independence and sin, he incorporates him into a new society — the body of Christ.
As members of that new society, Christians are called, not just to personal sanctification but to transformation in all their relationships.
God uses his children to renew a biblical model of accountability and responsibility — in friendships, marriages, families, workplaces and communities.
In the church, non-Christians ought to see hope that cannot be found in the outside world, oppressed as it is by Satan.
Satan unmercifully targets the church, urgent to destroy this hope. He tempts us to become freelance Christians — joining the multitudes who profess Christ but do not join a local church, an anomaly denounced by Scripture.
We find it easy to profess ourselves followers of Christ as Lord. But the proof of our submission to Christ is our accountability to one another. ‘If anyone says, “I love God” yet hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen’ (1 John 4:20).
The author has recently written Revolutionary Forgiveness (EP) and is editor of the Fellowship LINK magazine. He welcomes responses to this article: firstname.lastname@example.org