In mid-September, Gordon MacDonald told his congregation, Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, that he, Tony Campolo, and one other minister had been asked by President Clinton to form an "accountability circle." Their task as spiritual advisers is to help the President follow up on his tearful request for forgiveness at the September 11 White House breakfast for religious leaders (see "Clinton Seeks Pastoral Counsel, p. 18).

MacDonald's sermon and Campolo's subsequent press release led to calls to CT from journalists at the New York Times, Time magazine, three network news organizations, and other media outlets. They had never heard of accountability groups, and they wanted both to learn more about them and to ask what we think of this group of spiritual advisers solicited by and for the President.

Whatever his motivations, we commend the President on taking this step. We also recommend to all our readers that they should get involved in a group that will hold them accountable morally and spiritually, whether or not they are presently in a personal crisis.

Beyond remorse

The President's asking several prominent ministers to walk him through this period of repentance and restitution is a far more important element of what the Old Testament prophets called "turning" than were Clinton's dramatic lip-biting and tearful eyes. But what now? What will this group hope to accomplish with the President?

One reporter asked CT if there were specific steps in an accountability and restoration process. We were happy to summarize for him the seven points from an article written 11 years ago by former CT editor Kenneth S. Kantzer (Nov. 20, 1987, pp. 19-22).

The first step is remorse, wrote Kantzer. The second step, true confession, is wisely limited to the circle of those who need to know. The third, accountability, is "a recognition by the wrongdoer that sin is never a completely isolated act and that we are always accountable to fellow believers." Fourth, fruits that befit repentance must follow. Fifth, restitution, where possible, involves setting right what has been done wrong.

Kantzer outlined two more points that are especially important for leaders whose wrongdoing compromises their continued ability to lead. The sixth step is retreat, withdrawal for a time from public responsibility and visibility. Whether the wrongdoer is a pastor of a church or a college president or the leader of the free world, a significant sabbatical away from the pressures of office is required. Both in politics and the church, it is hard to separate one's personal, spiritual motivations from the calculated effects that statements and deeds will have on one's constituents. Can a sitting President make public acts of contrition without calculating their political effect? Can he now be a truly penitent President without understandably skeptical critics claiming that he is merely "playing the God card"? Will the President's advisers tell him to step down from office for his own spiritual health? Would he do so if they told him to?

Article continues below

The seventh step, wrote Kantzer, is the manifestation of a genuine call. If the process of restoration is not simply the restoration to fellowship, but also a restoration to leadership, there must be a genuine calling by God for the individual again to take up the reins of leadership. This sense of call must be perceived by the penitent and the accountability circle, as well as the community to be led. Not all penitent leaders should be restored to a leadership role. Indeed, Bill Clinton, sufficiently chastened and taking a cue from Jimmy Carter, might render his greatest service as an ex-President.

From Wesley to Promise Keepers

In 1987, when Gordon MacDonald's own affair became public knowledge, pastoral counseling professor David Augsburger wrote in CT about the importance of horizontal accountability structures (Nov. 20, 1987, pp. 23-24). "An egalitarian society has led us to discard vertical models of authority. But it has not created alternative models for appropriately distributing authority in community," he wrote.

Renewal movements have often been accompanied by an emphasis on forming such horizontal spiritual relationships. Historically, John Wesley, the father of so much that has come to characterize American evangelicalism, fostered the model for accountability groups. Today, Promise Keepers continues the call to accountability, urging the sweating, shouting, weeping males who attend its events to carry the ethical commitments that have been formed and energized in the emotional intensity of a stadium into the intimacy of small, congregationally based circles.

Wesley lived in an age of burgeoning democracy, and both his Holy Club at Oxford and his Methodist "class meetings" laicized spiritual accountability. It was an idea whose time was ripe, having been germinated in the seedbeds of pietistic Protestantism and a segment of French Catholicism that had come under the influence of a Kempis's Imitation of Christ. For most of the history of the church, spiritual accountability had been a vertical and hierarchical process. Christians who had access to a confessor or spiritual director did as they were instructed by experienced clerics. But the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw a new trust in the spiritual wisdom of the people emerge. And the lasting success of Wesley's ministry was due in large part to the spiritual growth cultivated in the peer groups he called class meetings.

Article continues below

Curiously, such horizontal authority structures hold in tension two opposing notions: the democratic sensibility that trusts the good impulses and common sense of common folks; and the biblical insight that we are all depraved, which is to say that every aspect of everything each of us does is in some way tainted by sin. Yet there is spiritual magic at work in this tension: While we are, each of us, expert at ignoring the fault lines in our own souls, those who know us well can spot them with little trouble and should point them out to us.

Given that fact, most of us would just as soon avoid such contact. Yes, some studies show that approximately one-third of American adults are involved in some sort of small group: but precious few of those dig beneath the social level to the substratum where we learn the truth about ourselves.

In 1987, Augsburger pointed out that "horizontal models of authority that work out patterns of mutual accountability are available. But," he wrote, "they have their price: they require us to limit our individualism, to adjust our narcissistic self-realization, to commit ourselves intentionally to building personal peer networks with integrity, and to make increased commitments to values, core faith positions, authentic repentance, and renewal of relationships."

Those are difficult adjustments to make. But whether we are presidents or peasants, our spiritual health depends on it.

Scandal in the church

One reason accountability groups are so important is the impact that sin has on others. When certain sins are avoided, individuals, families, and communities are spared suffering. Sometimes, however, the people close to a perpetrator of these sins themselves engage in enabling behaviors—denial, coverups, rationalization—which let the guilty party off the hook and allow sin to work its wreckage.

The scandalous behavior of National Baptist Convention USA president Henry Lyons (see story, p. 16) is a case in point. Because Lyons's peers did not carefully monitor his behavior, he was enabled to carry on an extramarital affair and waste allegedly ill-gotten monies on extravagances for himself and his lover.

Article continues below

More scandalous, however, has been the unwillingness of his denomination's leadership to hold him accountable. (The members are voting by closing their pocketbooks. And rank-and-file clergy, like Cheryl Townsend Gilkey of Cambridge, Massachusetts, are saying that "an honorable person would have already offered to resign.") Though Lyons has been indicted on charges of racketeering, extortion, money laundering, and other financial crimes and has openly admitted to adultery while in office, church leaders have refused to do what would be best for their church and for Lyons himself—to give him time away from pastoral and denominational responsibilities to let the Lord heal him from his self-inflicted wounds. Protesting that Lyons has not been convicted (yet) of any crime, they are content to leave him in office.

The scandalous behavior of this church leader is bad enough. But when compounded by the inaction of a denomination in denial, it brings shame on the church of Jesus Christ and sings sinners to sleep with a lullaby of cheap grace. Because Lyons heads a church that represents Jesus Christ's body on earth, this scandal is in some ways far worse than the misdeeds of the President.

Sin is serious. Sin in the lives of leaders disgraces and infects their communities. But when leaders take responsibility for their sins, not only by expressing remorse but by engaging in accountability, restitution, and retreat, we must, like the angels in heaven, rejoice.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.