16 minute read

Biblical Accountability: What It Is and How to Live It

Last Updated: February 8, 2021

Keith Rose
Keith Rose

Keith Rose holds a Master of Divinity degree and BA in Sacred Music. Keith worked with the Covenant Eyes Member Care Team for 15 years. During that time, he also served as a worship leader, Bible teacher, and pastoral assistant. He's now an educational content creator at Covenant Eyes and the author of Allied: Fighting Porn With Accountability, Faith, and Friends. He lives in Rexford, Montana with his wife Ruby.

Everyone knows accountability is important, right? Whether it’s politics, sports, or personal habits, it seems like everyone talks about the need for accountability.

Research shows that accountability is ESSENTIAL for any social system:

“Social systems in general can be defined in terms of common sets of shared expectations for behavior. Accountability, then, might be thought of as the adhesive that binds social systems together. Without the capacity to call individual agents to answer for their actions, there is no basis for social order, for shared expectations, or indeed, for the maintenance of any type of social system.”

In other words, human relationships depend on accountability.

But for Christians, more important than what sociology or psychology says about accountability is what the Bible says about accountability. What is biblical accountability? What examples do we find of accountability in the Bible? Does Scripture give us clear teaching concerning our accountability relationships?

Unfortunately, although the idea of accountability is pervasive both inside and outside the church, many Christians are vague about the biblical teaching. On one hand, some Christians uncritically appropriate accountability as it’s presented in business, politics, or other secular arenas. On the other hand, some Christians reject the concept altogether, assuming it is worldly, unbiblical, and therefore unhelpful. Both extremes are problematic.

The Bible clearly shows that accountability is not just important for Christians, it’s essential.

What Is Biblical Accountability?

What makes something biblical accountability versus accountability you can find outside the church? Biblical accountability is giving an account according to the clear standard of God’s Word in the context of a personal relationship. Let’s break this into three components and flesh them out with more detail.

1. Giving an Account

The first, most obvious part of accountability is giving an account. Plenty of relationships don’t have this component. It’s not accountability if there’s no account.

The clearest biblical examples relate to how we will give an account to God:

  • “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)
  • “But I tell you that men will give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:36)
  • “No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

These passages share how we’re accountable for our words, our deeds, and even our very selves. Whether or not we make ourselves accountable in this life, we are ultimately accountable to God. One day we’ll stand before God himself and give an account. Our accountability to God in this ultimate sense forms the basis for our accountability to one another as human beings.

Being accountable reflects an aspect of the image of God that every human has stamped in our beings. This is where the idea of accountability partners (at Covenant Eyes we call them “allies”) comes from. We’ll examine what accountability partnerships should look like in more detail later on.

2. According to the Clear Standard of God’s Word

When the world talks about accountability, it’s not always clear what the standard is. Unfortunately, this same ambiguity creeps into Christian accountability as well. But the Bible plainly emphasizes that real accountability is based on a clear standard: God’s Word.

Romans 2:12 explains that people are held accountable to God’s Word to whatever extent they understand it. “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” In other words, the more you know, the greater your level of accountability.

In Romans 2:15, Paul goes on to show that everyone has a certain level of accountability because God’s law is written on their consciouses. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts either accuse or even excuse them.”

We’re all accountable.

Biblical accountability is never arbitrary. It’s based on how the Bible tells us to live. And it’s based on God’s law written on our hearts. Whether it’s good or bad deeds, careless thoughts, or even who we are as people, we’re held accountable to the clear standard of God’s Word.

3. In the Context of a Personal Relationship

When the Bible talks about giving an account, it’s never in an impersonal or detached way. We’re not just talking about business contracts or political treaties. Biblical examples of accountability are always personal.

As we saw in Romans 14:12, each person will “give an account of himself to God.” The account is personal, given in the context of a relationship with God, whether that relationship is good or bad.

Biblical accountability does not mean we have to tell our darkest sins to every person we meet, especially when our “giving account” involves confessing secret sins like looking at porn. Biblical examples show that the level of accountability varies significantly depending on the relationship.

Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” The passage goes on to say that if the brother refuses to listen, you can involve more and more people in the process. It’s the same when seeking accountability for our own actions. Accountability starts by admitting fault to the people most affected by our sin. It expands outward as we seek help in being restored.

The Bible has great guidelines for the kinds of relationships that will be the most helpful for various kinds of accountability:

  • Titus 2 says that older men and women in the church should model good behavior for younger men and women and keep them accountable for godly living. In some situations, such as porn recovery, it’s helpful to have an accountability partner who has been through the same experience and can walk us through to the other side.
  • Galatians 2:11-14 gives an example of accountability among peers. Paul says he called out the hypocrisy of Peter and Barnabas
  • James 3:1 speaks of heightened accountability for those in leadership positions.

Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what things we must give an account of and to whom. But the principle of Matthew 18 as well as these other examples shed a lot of light on this: accountability starts with the smallest circle and expands outward.

Later, we’ll look in more detail at the kinds of things we should include when we give—or ask for—an account.

Why Is Accountability Important?

The biblical teaching on accountability reveals not only what accountability is but also why it’s so important.

1. Two are better than one.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 explains some of the practical reasons: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. For if one falls down, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to help him up! Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one may be overpowered, two can resist. Moreover, a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

2. It makes us better people.

Likewise, Proverbs 27:17 explains the benefit of accountability relationships: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens another.”

Being accountable makes us better people. This corresponds with what we’ve learned from psychology: accountability helps people accomplish their goals in virtually any realm of life.

According to one study: “Across all domains, we found that when one partner changed to a healthier behavior (newly healthy), the other partner was more likely to make a positive health behavior change than if their partner remained unhealthy.”

3. It reflects the image of God.

The Bible teaches that accountability’s importance goes deeper than its practical and self-improvement benefits. It’s important because we were created in the image of God. As image-bearers, we’re communal beings intended for fellowship. Genesis 2:18 makes this plain, saying, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper corresponding to him.’”

Biblical accountability means living out our relationships as communal creatures sharing God’s image.

This communal aspect of our nature creates a responsibility to live truthfully with one another. Proverbs 28:13 says, “The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them will find mercy.”

So, accountability is important for integrity between ourselves and others.

4. It’s based on a connection to Christ.

Because human beings are communal, accountability is valuable for everyone—whether inside or outside the church. But biblical accountability is rooted in something more significant than our general identity as humans; it’s rooted in our connection to Christ as believers.

This connection to Christ (also called “union with Christ”) has been called “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” We find this teaching in passages that talk about being “with Christ,” or “in Christ.”

  • Romans 6:5 says, “For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection.”
  • Romans 8:1-2 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
  • Colossians 3:1 says, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

Connection to Christ fundamentally changes our accountability relationship to God. For those in Christ, accountability to God is no longer a terrifying prospect. Rather, it’s life-giving, motiving, and freeing!

Accountability isn’t merely about controlling behavior or enforcing consequences. It’s about pursuing a deeper relationship with God. Biblical accountability is about seeking the things above.

5. It connects us with the body of Christ.

Our connection to Christ also means we’re organically connected to other Christians. This has tremendous implications for accountability relationships in the church.

  • 1 Corinthians 12:26 explains that this connection means that everything we do and experience as individuals affects the body of Christ as a whole: “So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
  • James 5:16 tells us, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” It says accountability brings healing, and it is important because it helps restore what is broken in our selves and our relationships with others. This is particularly evident in the case of addiction or ongoing struggles with temptation like pornography.
  • Galatians 6:1-2 tells us we have a responsibility to hold one another accountable: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

There’s built-in accountability in the way our actions affect one another—whether we realize it or not! We are called to hold each other accountable and to make ourselves accountable to one another in the church.

6. It sets us free.

We also see that accountability is about restoration, not condemnation. In fact, Paul warns against legalistic, condemning types of accountability in Galatians 5:1: “For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Biblical accountability is about freedom in our relationships, and it’s all wrapped up in the relationship we share through Christ. We’re called to be honest and open with one another, both in confessing our sins and looking for healing and in correcting those who have fallen into temptation and seeking to restore them.

What Does Biblical Accountability Look Like?

As important as it is, accountability often goes sour. For many seeking freedom from porn, accountability has been unhelpful, frustrating, and in some cases causing more harm than good.

Why is that? If even politicians and business experts can see the value of accountability, why do Christians sometimes get it wrong?

Quite simply, accountability fails when we fail to practice it biblically. It’s incomplete. It becomes perfunctory or ritualistic, lacking real power or purpose. It fails when we fail to follow God’s prescriptions for living out our calling as communal image-bearers.

At a minimum, biblical accountability partnership needs confession and prayer. We already noted James 5:16, one on key passage accountability, which says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.”

But the Bible has much more to about how accountability should look. It affects every part of ourselves as image-bearers of God. It’s not superficial or one-dimensional, but full-orbed accountability for our minds, our actions, and our emotions. To simplify, we can think of three-dimensional accountability for our heads, our hands, and our hearts.

1. Head Accountability for the Truth

“Head accountability” means that accountability is about truth. In John 8:32 Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Accountability is liberating when it works as an agent of truth. It leads to further bondage when it’s marked by lies and deceit. That’s why James instructs Christians to confess their sins to one another. It’s also why prayer is an essential component.

Ephesians 4:15 says that love-based truth-speaking is required for mature believers, “Speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head — Christ.”

A big part of biblical accountability is simply that: speaking the truth in love. This includes not only confessing our failures to one another or calling out sin but speaking other truths as well.

It may mean an ally speaks new truth that was previously hidden. In porn recovery, this is often related to triggers (see The Ultimate Guide to Identifying and Redirecting Your Porn Triggers). A good ally asks pointed questions that reveal the circumstances that put someone in a compromising situation:

  • “Were you bored?”
  • “Were you tired?”
  • “Were you lonely?”

These questions can reveal the compromising circumstances that led to temptation. Learning to identify and redirect triggers can be a powerful tool for recovery.

Or, it may mean simply reminding someone of a truth they already know:

  • “Porn is hurting your relationships.”
  • “If you watch porn because you’re lonely, it will just make you sadder and more miserable.”
  • “Watching porn displeases God.”

Biblical accountability is about speaking truth in love to be set free and to help set others free.

At this point, you may be thinking of a common objection that many people have to accountability: “Yeah, but what if someone just lies?”

Unfortunately, this does happen a lot.

However, biblical accountability is rooted in the reality that we’ll one day give an account for every secret sin and every lie.

  • Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.”
  • Psalm 90:8 reiterates, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
  • In Matthew 10:26, Jesus says, “There is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known.”

This knowledge that our sin will be exposed in the future motivates us to confess it in the present. With accountability, we bring the truth of eternity into the present moment.

The connection we have to other Christians heightens the need for truth in those relationships. We can’t live in close fellowship or authentic community if we aren’t revealing the truth about ourselves. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).

This is one of the reasons for accountability software, like Covenant Eyes Screen Accountability. Monitoring your devices ensures that your allies know the truth—whether or not you feel like speaking it.

Biblical accountability is about knowing and speaking the truth in our relationships.

2. Hands Accountability for Our Actions

By “hands accountability,” we simply mean accountability for our actions. In the world of counseling and therapy, the focus is often on “behavior change,” particularly when it comes to something like porn.

The Bible shares this focus. On a basic level, we’re accountable to God for the “work of our hands.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

As we’ve seen already, it’s tempting (and easy) to lie to our allies. What steps do we take to keep our hands accountable? Given this future reality, how do we ensure that we’re accountable in the present? We need to have a plan.

This is where hands accountability comes in. In Matthew 5:29, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Jesus is not encouraging self-mutilation. Rather, he’s saying that we need more than just head accountability.

Accountability for our actions may mean putting barriers between ourselves and temptation. For some, accountability itself provides an adequate barrier to temptation. Personally, the knowledge that my ally is going to ask me how I’m doing is usually enough to keep me on the straight and narrow path.

However, if you’ve been struggling hard with porn and it’s getting the best of you, accountability for your hands may include adding porn blocking on your devices or blocking access to social media with the custom block list. It might mean eliminating some triggering movies or TV shows. In more extreme cases, it could mean getting rid of your devices altogether.

One student asked his friend to change the password on his streaming services so he could focus on his studies for a time. Another young man gave up his laptop while he was struggling. A good ally will help set up barriers where barriers are needed—and keep you accountable for staying behind them!

From the standpoint of biblical accountability, all these options are on the table. James 4:7 says, “Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” We resist the devil so he’ll flee, and we do this by removing easy access to the things that tempt us.

Those seeking “hand accountability” according to the biblical model will look for help removing access to temptation. It means having a clear plan in place for what to do when temptations come around.

3. Heart Accountability for Our Motives

Accountability falls short when it’s superficial. It only asks yes or no questions. It only deals with actions and fails to explore the deeper regions of the heart.

  • “Did you look at porn last week?”
  • “Did you mess up?”
  • “You OK?”

These questions serve a purpose—we certainly don’t want to avoid asking them. But accountability in the Bible always includes the heart.

When we keep the depths of our hearts hidden, it’s both exhausting and destructive. In Psalm 32:3-4, David says, “When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was drained as in the summer heat.”

Exposing the truth of our failures and making ourselves accountable brings freedom and relief. This is particularly true with things like porn, which can wrap up us in bondage and shame.

So, 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing.” Paul does this himself in many of the epistles, particularly those written to Timothy (see 1 Timothy 4:6-16).

Encouragement means speaking to the heart. It means that allies aren’t simply there to police actions, but to listen with, to laugh with, to cry with.

Biblical accountability isn’t just concerned with what someone did or didn’t do. It gets to the “why”—the underlying motivations of the heart. Heart motivations are often tied to deep emotional wounds received in our past. Because of this, when it comes to pornography, counselor Jay Stringer encourages an attitude of curiosity regarding particular temptations, “My research found that the type of pornography and sexual behavior you pursue can be predicted by the major themes and significant relationships that have marked your life.”

One practical way to get to the “why” is to ask open-ended questions, particularly regarding the way someone feels. If you’re someone’s ally, that may sound intimidating, but you don’t have to be a professional counselor or therapist to do this. These questions could be as simple as:

  • “What are you thinking?”
  • “What are you feeling?”
  • “What are you doing?”
  • “What are you thinking of doing?”

In other words, heart accountability goes beneath the surface. It explores motives, not just actions. It adopts an attitude of curiosity as opposed to a perfunctory checklist, because it genuinely cares about the heart and soul of a person.

It’s Only Biblical Accountability If It’s Consistent and Ongoing

Perhaps the most common reason accountability fails is inconsistency.

I was once an ally for a friend who was struggling with sexual temptation. We got off to a great start, meeting regularly, and having open and vulnerable conversations. But then we both got busy, and my friend skipped a few of our regular check-ins. Then I skipped a few.

The result was disastrous. After failing to reconnect for a few weeks, I found out my friend had fallen back into his old patterns.

Maybe you’ve been in accountability relationships like this too. But we’ve already seen that being connected to Christ means we’re connected to other Christians. This alone should tell us that biblical accountability isn’t a one-time or temporary thing. It’s part of a Christian’s identity.

  • Hebrews 3:13 says, “But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception.”
  • Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other and all the more as you see the day approaching.”

These biblical passages tell us that accountability isn’t like an antibiotic that you take for a few weeks to fight a particularly infectious sin. Rather, accountability is like a regular vitamin supplement or an exercise habit that keeps us healthy and bolsters our immunity. Accountability in the Bible is a lifestyle.

One-time accountability is not biblical accountability. It requires ongoing relationships with persistent—even daily—communication. Too often, accountability is treated as a last resort or a temporary solution. But biblical accountability is ongoing.

We shouldn’t look to accountability as a last resort when everything else has failed. There is immediacy and urgency to accountability in the Bible—get it in your life now! The challenges of life and the world around us make it a necessity.

Make Accountability a Part of Your Life

Biblical accountability is essential for Christians. Do you have it in your life? If not, look for an ally and begin the journey of accountability.

One way to begin an ally relationship or to revitalize an old one is to go through Overcome Porn: The 40 Day Challenge. We encourage you to go through this challenge together with your ally.