“Who Sharpens Them? The Need For Accountability Relationships Among Leaders”

“Who Sharpens Them? The Need For Accountability Relationships Among Leaders”
Copyright 1993 by the Christian Research Institute.

Who “sharpens” them? Who helps the leaders of the body of Christ keep their “keen edge” — both their doctrinal and ethical purity? Is it possible that, in many cases, there is no one?

Over the recent past, the body of Christ has encountered many difficulties and scandals. Sexual immorality, questionable practices, problematic pronouncements, and doctrinal deviations
have all hurt the cause of Christ, giving “occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Sam. 12:14). Such highly visible deviations have called into question the capability of our leaders
to carry out their task in a manner consistent with biblical teaching and their own profession. Why is this? Can anything be done about it?

Certainly the efforts being made by such organizations as the National Religious Broadcasters help. Calls for financial disclosure from ministries may be of value. Closer scrutiny of the lives and teachings of leaders may curb some problems. However, all these measures may be overlooking a very basic issue which could have just the kind of impact that is needed.

Proverbs 27:17 provides a clue. We find that as “iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

What any man needs to remain sharp — including leaders — is another to whom he can be accountable. Perhaps we need not only better accountability _structures_ but also more accountability
_relationships_ to keep that keen edge.

Gordon MacDonald recently offered some very candid thoughts about the events that led up to his resignation from the presidency of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He admitted to permitting a “friendship to become immoral” but “didn’t feel the liberty to talk to anybody about it.”

In discussing what contributed to his sin, MacDonald concluded:

I now realize I was lacking in mutual accountability through personal relationships. We need friendships where one man regularly looks another man in the eye and asks hard questions about our moral life, our lust, our ambitions, our ego. (_Christianity Today,_ July 10, 1987, p.38)

He needed someone to keep him sharp; just as Proverbs 27:17 indicates. Such biblical interaction between two people would have operated “in the way of sharpening the manner and forming the
habits and character” (Keil and Delitzsch, _Proverbs,_ p.213). He needed a friend to offer counsel (Prov. 27:9) and, when necessary, words of correction: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but
deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6).

Unfortunately, in many Christian circles the leaders are set up on an unrealistic pedestal. This is not to deny that the Scriptures call for high standards — morally and doctrinally — for those in
leadership. However, such standards don’t imply that our leaders are other than human, without the weaknesses and foibles all of us share.

When this pedestal is coupled with an all-too-common “lone-ranger” mentality — either self-imposed or forced on leaders by their congregations — our elders are being set up for a fall. Isolated and unconnected, these leaders may not have the opportunity for this much needed personal sharpening process.

Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book on leadership, notes:

We may be given different positions of responsibility and authority in…the body of Christ, but never does our position set up apart from our fellow human beings. We must always therefore be ready for our behavior and decisions to be questioned, discussed and criticized. We must be open to correction and rebuke. (_Shepherds and Sheep,_ pp. 47-48.)

And, this would seem to happen best in a growing one-on-one relationship.

It would seem wise, then, for those in leadership to evaluate whether they indeed have some honest, open relationship where someone else can look them in the eye and, as MacDonald put it, ask
the hard questions. It will hardly be easy to develop such a relationship, but the effort would be well worthwhile.

For the rest of the members of Christ’s body, whose leaders lack such relationships, perhaps we could 1) pray for our leaders to develop the kind of needed accountability that will help preserve their “sharpness”; 2) find ways to encourage them to develop a relationship or two where they can get the kind of interaction discussed here; and 3) make ourselves available to be that “iron” our leaders need if the opportunity arises.

Clearly there isn’t a simple answer to the struggles the church has faced recently. The thoughts shared here are far from a quick and complete solution. But, these ideas may just lead to the long-term personalized accountability that will help ensure the spiritual health of our leaders and, ultimately, the health of the body of Christ.


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“Who Sharpens Them? The Need For Accountability Relationships Among Leaders” (an article from the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1988, page 31) by Brian Onken. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.