The Process of Mutual Accountability
Historically mutual accountability provided an internal dynamic to keep gospel order strong within the Quaker community. Friends often referred to this internal dynamic and, indeed, the whole pattern of community life as “church discipline.” The term is difficult for many people to hear today. It rings in contemporary ears with a note of rigidity and punishment. This negative reaction comes in part because of the historical memory of abuses in the handling of church discipline during past eras of Quaker history, especially the era of divisions. This reaction comes also because of the influence of our individualistic society, which is reluctant to establish and uphold corporate standards of living lest they infringe on individual freedom. There is no question that church discipline can become distorted, but it would be a mistake to see these distortions as the essence of the process. It is helpful to realize that discipline is the process of discipling, i.e., acting toward one another as disciples and helping one another become disciples of Christ. Mutual accountability is the lifeblood of the process of discipling.
The core of the accountability procedure used by Friends came from Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18. [Fox, Works, 7:339] This scripture passage became the backbone of Quaker discipline during the middle period of Quakerism. Matthew 18 recommends going to the person who has sinned and talking to that person in private. If this does not bring an amendment of behavior and a reconciliation between the two parties, Jesus suggests taking one or two others along so they can be present during the conversation. If the person still refuses to listen, then the matter should be brought to the attention of the church. If no repentance is forthcoming then one should treat the person as tax gatherer or pagan, i.e., as someone outside the community.
Perry Yoder has written a small set of “Comments” for Quaker Religious Thought which provide a helpful way to understand the significance of mutual accountability. [Perry Yoder, “Comments,” Quaker Religious Thought, (Winter, 1985), pp.1-35.] Accountability grows out of and, in turn, nurtures the quality of personal relationship within a community of commitment. In an impersonal social structure, people interact with one another through a structure of law. Traffic regulations with red lights, stop signs, and double yellow no-passing lines are examples of the legalistic structure of an impersonal system of relationship. Such a structure can be very useful in certain social situations. But a family or close-knit community, while it may have a well-worked out set of expectations and standards of behavior, has more than a framework of law. People care about one another. They have a commitment to live in a relationship of trust and love, a relationship where people hear and respond to each other. Accountability is not just concerned with members meeting the group’s outward expectations of behavior but about nurturing the deeper relationship of trust, caring, and responsiveness. The outward expectations and standards are expressions and signs of that committed relationship.
In gospel order, those gathered into the church-community have a covenant with God. It is a living relationship of trust, listening, and responsiveness to God’s call. They also have a covenantal relationship comprising the same qualities with each other. They are accountable to God and each other for maintaining these relationships. Matthew 18 is an outline of a procedure to embody accountability within a community so that it does not have to use an impersonal, legalistic framework.
Accountability has prophetic and priestly dimensions. On the prophetic side, accountability is a method of mutual admonition. Indeed, it is this very quality which is perhaps hardest for people brought up in the contemporary cultural milieu to understand. Yet early Friends recognized that admonition is an essential ingredient in the way God works with us. The Inward Light of Christ reveals to us our unfaithfulness and sin. This awareness is the beginning of a deeper sensitivity to God’s call and a recognition of our own inward blocks and barriers to faithful response. When Friends followed the process of mutual admonition with each other, they felt they were following the prophetic mode of Christ’s work in human lives.
There are a number of helpful aspects of the process of one-to-one admonition described in Matthew 18. It cuts off backbiting, tale-bearing, and general behind-the-scenes, disgruntled murmuring which is destructive to any group. It encourages the persons directly involved in the problem to address their difficulty, asking help from others if they need it. The procedure prevents problems from festering. It does not allow people to shy away from sharing their real thoughts when the behavior of another has caused offense.
Even with the obvious good points, some people find the admonitory sides of the accountability process distasteful because it seems to be one-sided, self-righteous, and condemnatory in tone. This perception need not be correct, at least when the procedure is used properly. Those who have followed Matthew 18 know that to speak to another who has committed a wrong is to make oneself open and vulnerable to one’s own part in the situation. Was there something in one’s own attitude or behavior that caused the other to act as he or she did? The one-to-one conversation may reveal that one has misinterpreted the situation or misjudged the other. One cannot enter this process without being acutely aware of one’s own faults. Even when it is clear that a wrong has been done, the goal of the process is not just amending the behavior of the other, but of restoring the relationship between the parties.
Reflecting on these issues Isaac Penington writes in one of his letters:
I have heard that thou hast somewhat against W. R.,… this thou oughtst seriously to weigh and consider; that thy path and walking herein, may be right and straight before the Lord. Is the thing, or are the things, which thou hast against him, fully so, as thou apprehendest? Hast thou seen evil in him, or to break forth from him? and hast thou considered him therein, and dealt with him, as if it had been thy own case? Hast thou pitied him, mourned over him, cried to the Lord for him, and in tender love and meekness of spirit, laid the thing before him?… If thou hast proceeded thus, thou hast proceeded tenderly and orderly, according to the law of brotherly love… But, if thou hast let in any hardness of spirit, or hard reasonings against him…, the witness of God will not justify thee in that. [Penington, Letters, #26, pp.7-8]
Friends saw mutual admonition as part of a larger process of spiritual guidance and nurture that went beyond the specific advice in Matthew 18 about confronting a person who had sinned. It meant helping each other hear and respond to God’s call. The admonitory aspect of mutual accountability involved all kinds of situations, including helping people to recognize and exercise their gifts, to see where the broken and unfaithful places were in their lives, to overcome paralyzing fears, to discern know when leadings, and to know they had outrun or lagged behind their Guide. Thus, admonition was not simply telling others when they were wrong, at least in the way we usually interpret that idea. It was admonishing a person to be courageous in adversity or to undertake a much-needed ministry or service. It was encouraging one another to take a risk in trusting God’s leading or letting go of a behavior that was blocking deeper commitment to God. In short, it was helping each other move toward greater faithfulness in all areas of living.
We often mature spiritually in small steps. Awareness usually comes before mature practice. There is a lag or gap in our lives. For example, we may come to recognize the truth of the call to solidarity with the poor and oppressed before we fully integrate this understanding in our manner of living (e.g., our commitments of time, work, and money). A prophetic word at the right moment may be just what is needed to help us close the “life-gap” between our awareness of God’s call and our day-to-day behavior. [John R. Martin introduces the concept of life-gap in discussing the process of mutual accountability. See Ventures in Discipleship: A Handbook for Groups and Individuals (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1984), p.140.] In this sense, the life-gap is not wrong—unless we ignore it and thus say no to God. This existence of the gap is a sign of God’s working in us. Mutual accountability recognized that this is so and helps us move faithfully in responding to God.
On other occasions mutual accountability helps not only to close the life-gap between awareness and practice, it helps participants hear God’s call in the first place. Sometimes hearing is difficult. As an example, one common dilemma in Friends meetings today is the inability to hear when God is asking us not to take on more committee work, more projects, attendance at more gatherings. We often assume that more is better. But this is not always so. We may lose ourselves and the most important God-given commitments in our lives through a welter of other demands. Mutual accountability can help us hear when God is calling us to say no and when to say yes. The prophetic aspect of the process of mutual accountability is the commitment to help each other listen and respond to God’s call both as individuals and as a community of committed Friends so that we may live faithfully in God’s new order.
The process of mutual accountability described in Matthew 18 draws on the priestly as well as the prophetic understanding of Christ. The passages in chapter 18 which describe speaking to a person who has done wrong are part of a much larger context that deals with humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The chapter begins with the disciples’ argument about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by saying, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). The chapter goes on to tell the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one who has gone astray. After describing the accountability procedure, Jesus answers Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive. The New Jerusalem Bible says, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Matthew ends with the parable of the unforgiving debtor whose compassionate king cancels his debt while he, in turn, refuses to show compassion to another who owes him money.
The chapter is about more than prophetic admonition. It does not set our moral standards. It assumes people will fall. People hurt and wound one another. They turn away from God. The heart of faithful living is to learn how to love on the other side of hurt and betrayal. This is the way of God’s forgiving love which restores relationships after there is a break or fall. This is the gift God gives us through Christ. In Jesus’ sacrificial love on the cross, we are restored to wholeness; we are reconciled to God and each other.
William Woys Weaver, clerk of Marlborough Meeting in Pennsylvania, has written a moving account from the early history of his meeting which shows the priestly side of forgiveness and reconciliation in the practice of mutual accountability. [William Woys Weaver, The Marlborough Footwashing: A Remarkable Anecdote of Peace and Harmony From the Year 1782 (Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Firbank Press, 1981)] The author calls the story, “The Footwashing at Malborough”. The title, of course, brings to mind the account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The foot-washing conveys Jesus’ love, servanthood, and spiritual cleansing.
The story happened in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It took place around the time of the Revolutionary War. Two Quakers lived on neighboring farms. One was Richard Barnard, an elder, who was a war tax refuser. Not able to support military endeavors because of religious conviction, he refused to pay all taxes directly related to war. His neighbor was Isaac Baily, a strong supporter of the Revolutionary War. Baily was known in the area as a contentious man, often involved in disputes with his acquaintances and even with his meeting. It would have been hard to find two more unlikely neighbors than these two Friends.
A waterway ran between the Baily and Barnard homes. As part of a dispute about property rights and water use, Isaac Baily dammed up the waterway. God’s call to peacemaking and reconciliation was very important to this Richard Barnard. He tried every conceivable method to work out a satisfactory solution with his neighbor. Following the advice of Matthew 18, he went to talk to Isaac, but to no avail. He took other Friends with him to speak with Isaac. The matter of the dammed waterway was put to arbitration; Friends decided Richard Barnard was in the right. But nothing would induce Isaac Baily to remove the dam or be reconciled to this neighbor.
The situation was a great burden to Richard Barnard. Not only was he without the use of the water, but he suffered much inward discomfort as the result of the broken relationship with Isaac. Moreover, he was an elder in his meeting; he was supposed to be a counselor and guide to others. Yet he could not solve his own dilemma.
One day a travelling minister came to visit. Richard Barnard opened his heart to the minister and described his problem. When he finished, the minister said simply, “There is more required of some than of others.” Richard was struck by this response. He considered what more could be required of him. He had done all that seemed humanly possible to find a solution to the problem.
Richard held up the problem to God for direction and guidance. The answer that came was beyond all “techniques” for conflict resolution. It required giving up claims of being right and going to his neighbor in humility and forgiveness. Richard felt that God was calling him to wash Isaac’s feet. The idea was so unusual, he kept trying to push it away. But in the end, he realized he would not have an inward sense of being faithful to God’s leading unless he was willing to surrender his notions and be obedient.
Therefore, one morning he filled a bowl with water from the waterway that divided the two men and went to Isaac Baily’s house. It was so early that Isaac was still in bed. But Richard went up to his bedroom and explained that he had come to wash Isaac’s feet. He described how painful the strained relationship had been for him. He was here now, following God’s leading, hoping they could be reconciled. Isaac sputtered and fussed, refusing to participate. But Richard persevered and began to wash his feet. Gradually Isaac became quiet and let Richard complete the washing. Then Isaac dressed and accompanied Richard to the door.
Later that day Isaac took a shovel to the waterway and dug away the dam. The water flowed again between the two farms. In the afternoon Isaac and his wife came to pay the Barnard a friendly visit, the first in a number of years. Richard was very grateful for the restored relationship.
The friendship between the two men remained deep and vibrant for the remainder of their lives. Some while after the problem with the waterway, Richard Barnard broke his leg in a lumbering accident. Isaac took care of him during his recovery. When Friends decided to build a new schoolhouse in the vicinity (a building which may also have functioned as a meetinghouse), the two friends contributed one hundred dollars and adjoining land at the juncture of their two properties for its construction. It was a fitting memorial of God’s healing work in their lives.
These neighboring Friends experienced Christ’s power of forgiveness and reconciliation as a living reality in their lives. Although Friends did not commonly use the theological phrase, “the priesthood of all believers,” this incident shows that its meaning found expression in their lives. Among Friends, priesthood moved from a liturgical function into daily life. Richard Barnard’s gift of sacrificial love made reconciliation possible with his neighbor.
Both forgiveness and repentance (and its consequence, amendment of behavior) are prominent elements in the scriptural understanding of mutual accountability. The interplay of these two elements helps to make clear the place of disownment in the process. Disownment, once widely practiced by Friends, is now used infrequently. Some contemporary people find this aspect of the accountability process discomforting.
Amendment of behavior may not occur through admonition alone. In the Marlborough story only the power of forgiving love was able to restore the relationship and thus allow a possibility of changed behavior. Forgiveness arises out of reliance on God’s gift of reconciling love to us. Forgiveness, however, cannot be forced. An insistence on forgiveness may only force the victim to suppress anger and hurt until it came bursting out in an unexpected rage. Sometimes the victim, unable to demonstrate outward anger, will “play the martyr,” killing the offender with kindness until the latter is consumed with guilt. In the practice of mutual accountability the community must be clear that no unconscious manipulation of either party is complicating the situation. Forgiveness must arise freely out of God’s healing work in our lives.
In the same way, a forced change of behavior in the offender is no change at all. Yet the church was clear that it did expect to see an amendment of behavior. If this change was not forthcoming after a suitable time, working through all the avenues of caring outlined in Matthew 18, the meeting felt it had no choice but to recognize that the relationship of love and trust with the recalcitrant person was non-existent. Lack of repentance was a sign that the offending party was not part of, and did not wish to be part of, the covenantal relationship that characterized the meeting’s commitment. In such situations the meeting disowned the party involved. The disownment was understood not as the intention to cut one off from relationship with the community. The disowned one could still attend meeting for worship; social discourse was not interrupted. Disownment was the recognition that a fundamental covenantal commitment was already severed. [Fox, Works, 7:340] When Matthew 18 says that the unreconciled person should be treated as a tax gatherer or pagan, it means someone outside the community of faith with whom attempts at reconciliation have failed.
The possibility of disownment among Friends prevented the accountability process, with its strong emphasis on forgiveness, from being a matter of cheap grace (i.e., offering the offender forgiveness with no call to righteousness). At the same time, it is always clear that disownment is not the end of all hope of reconciliation. There is always hope for repentance. [Fox, Works, 7:340. Repentance is shown by a letter acknowledging wrong action.] The door is always open for reconciliation. When there is repentance and change of behavior, the meeting is happy to welcome the person back into the community, allowing no shadow or inward reservation to undermine the person’s full participation in the life of the church.
For the process of mutual accountability to operate with integrity, it is obviously necessary for all members of the community to live in a close relationship of love, trust, and caring. There needs to be a commitment to Truth and a deep listening to God and to each other. Disownment cannot be used as a political weapon in a power struggle over theological and moral disputes, as has happened in the past. We cannot admonish each other unless we are listening together for the way God is truly leading each of us as individuals and jointly as a community. We cannot love each other into wholeness unless we know each other well and have that knowledge anchored in God’s love and truth. Both the prophetic and priestly dimensions of mutual accountability require nothing less than a covenantal relationship with God and each other.