Hold Accountable ≠ Hold Hostage

"Hold people accountable!" is a rally cry when we recognize injustice done by another person or institution. We talk about holding politicians accountable to their actions by how we vote. We hold children accountable for their actions when they make a mistake. The criminal justice system talks about holding people accountable for their infractions. Holding another accountable is even present in the Church.

God holds the people accountable for their actions when the covenant is broken. Church leaders and church members hold one another accountable in doing the work of God. Pastors are held accountable to their Bishops and Bishops are held accountable to other Bishops. 

Ideally holding people accountable is a wonderful way to move into deeper relationship and health. However, too often we misunderstand what it means to hold someone accountable and instead hold them hostage. 

Holding someone accountable means at least three things: 

  1. Non-threatening - In a hostage situation, threats are used in order to force the other party to participate in an action. Force by way of violence, threats, or expulsion are used in order to "get" the other person to act. Holding someone accountable means, at the very least, threats of violence (in all its forms) are not present. For example: If you do not like the way your pastor preaches and then threaten to withhold your donation until they change, you are holding your pastor hostage. However, if you do not like the way your pastor preaches and desire to hold them accountable for their action, see Jesus' teaching in Matthew 18.
  2. Preservation of agency - In a hostage situation, the hostage does not have choice (agency) in the matter. The hostage taker may give false choices. They may say, "You can walk out that door if you want to! It is your choice!" but the hostage knows walking out the door means getting shot. Holding someone accountable means that the parties involved work to preserve one another's agency. If false choices are presented or if there is a clear power difference (the other has a gun and will shoot you if you leave), then you have a hostage situation not an accountable situation.
  3. Trust maintained at all cost - Trust is the fuel to the engine of accountability. If there is no sense of trust between the parties, then every action will be met with suspicion. Part of the reason hostages are kept in sight or locked up is that the hostage taker does not trust the captives to remain. In Acts the jail is broken as the result of an earthquake but the prisoners chose to remain. They were in prison because the Romans did not trust them. When it was clear that Paul and his partner trusted God and remained in the newly opened cell, the guard was converted. Acts 16:25-35.

The UMC faces a situation where there is an expressed desire to hold someone accountable: Traditionalists want to hold local pastors accountable for breaking the Book of Discipline. My own jurisdiction wants to hold another jurisdiction accountable for the election of Bishop Oliveto. Progressives want to hold the church accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. American churches want to hold Central Conferences accountable to pay apportionments; Central Conferences want to hold American churches accountable to their understanding of the Kingdom of God. It seems everyone wants to hold the Bishops accountable for a slew of reasons! The most recent group desiring to hold someone in the denomination accountable is the WCA's desire to hold those who violate church laws accountable for understood disobedience. 

We all invoke the accountability language because it is Biblical and mature. Frankly, humans are better at covenant-breaking then covenant-keeping (see the entire Bible for endless examples).

God holds us accountable, but God does not hold us hostage. In a twist of irony, the leading atonement theory for a millennia was rooted on the idea that God was willing to be taken hostage by the devil in order to trick the devil.

It is the evil one who takes hostages; God never has. 

Be alert to the ways you are being held hostage. Be vigilant to the ways the Church is being held hostage. Be joyful that God is not interested in holding us hostage.

It is all in what you are listening for

This story came by way of Rev. Nancy Allen who shared it at an Academy for Spiritual Formation in February 2017. If this story does not originate with her I am unsure of the source. 

There was a grandfather and grandson walking down the busy street in the city. Cars moving, trucks unloading cargo, people chatting in the cafe patios that ran along the sidewalk but the two walked hand in hand through the city streets with ease. Suddenly the grandfather stopped and said, "Do you hear that?!" 

Quickly the grandfather escorted his grandson to a flower box at the end of one of the cafe patios. Pulling back the flowers and the ivy, the grandfather exposed a nest where six baby birds where chirping. 

Amazed that his grandfather could hear such small birds over the noise of the city asked, "How did you hear those tiny birds?!" 

The old man reached into his pocket and pulled out a half dozen coins and threw them onto the ground where they pinged and rolled into the street. 

As the coins rolled into the street the young man noticed that everyone in the street cafe enjoying their coffee and conversation stopped, turned their heads and looked at the coins. 

The grandfather said, "It is all in what you are listening for."


The more we hear what we want to hear, the more deaf we become.

The more we see what we want to see, the more blind we will be.

The more we love what we want to love, the more we love ourselves. 

Work of God, God's Work and the Work of the Satan

In the previous post I shared a bit of what I saw to be the difference in the Work of God and God's Work. As a reminder here is the short list:

  • Healing (Work of God)  ----  Resurrecting (God's Work)
  • Guiding (Work of God)  ----  Influencing (God's Work)
  • Sustaining (Work of God)  ----  Abiding with (God's Work)
  • Reconciling (Work of God)  ----  Transforming (God's Work)

In a couple of emails I was asked if I could identify the role of Satan in all this. Regardless if you believe in a literal being or not, I think everyone agrees there is evil in the world. Christians personify God as a way to talk about God but Christians also know that God is beyond the personifications made. For instance God is not male or female but we talk about God being so in order to express something about the nature of God and humans. Likewise, many Christians personify evil in the character of Satan. Christians also know that evil is not limited to the personifications expressed. For instance, Satan is not a half man/goat hybrid with a pitchfork. 

Taking the above list of the work of God and the Church, I added the work of Satan:

  • Healing (Work of God)  ----  Resurrecting (God's Work)  ----  Hurting (Satan's Work)
  • Guiding (Work of God)  ----  Influencing (God's Work)  ----  Dictating (Satan's Work)
  • Sustaining (Work of God)  ----  Abiding with (God's Work)  ----  Abandoning (Satan's Work)
  • Reconciling (Work of God)  ----  Transforming (God's Work)  ----  Dividing (Satan's Work)

In some ways, the distinctions of these different "works" can also be seen in the difference in symbolic, parabolic and diabolic.

Doing the Work of God is Not the Same as Doing God's Work

The Church universal is an institution that attempts to do the Work of God. Among the number of specifics the Church does, there are at least four areas of the Work of God the Church engages in: healing, guiding, sustaining and reconciling.

However, doing the Work of God is not the same thing as doing God's Work. 

Take the four areas of the Work of God and consider how God's Work is related but distinct:

  • Healing (Work of God)  ----  Resurrecting (God's Work)
  • Guiding (Work of God)  ----  Influencing (God's Work)
  • Sustaining (Work of God)  ----  Abiding with (God's Work)
  • Reconciling (Work of God)  ----  Transforming (God's Work)

For example, the work of God is to be about healing, which is why the Church participates in hospitals and funerals. Healing is not the same as curing, which is why the Work of God is not about curing for there are things that will happen. The Work of God is toward healing (not curing) and God's work is resurrection. The Church trusts that death does not have the last word and the Church trusts that God will do God's work to bring resurrection.

Guiding is also the Work of God, which is why the Church participates in teaching and preaching. Guiding is not the same as directing, which is why the Church values mystery and questions. The Work of God is to guide and God's work is to influence. God does not coerce or threaten. God's power is expressed through vulnerability and thus God's work is to influence creation toward Shalom. 

Sustaining is also the Work of God, which is why the Church creates small groups and fosters community - in order to sustain us through the dark times. Of course there are times when the Church fails at her job and we abandon one another (see Jesus' trial). The Work of God is to sustain and God's Work is to abide. Because there are times and places that the Church is not able to be in and with, the Church trusts that God will abide with everyone - even when the Church fails. God's presence to abide with everyone at all times (omnipresent) is something that the Church can strive to do, but is never fully able to achieve.

Finally, reconciling is the Work of God, which is why practices of repentance, confession and forgiveness are critical to the Church. While the Church can work toward reconciliation, there are some cases where reconciliation may not be possible because of the depth of the wounds. The Work of God is to reconcile and God's work is to transform. It is by God's grace that we are transformed and where reconciliation was once impossible it is transformation that makes reconciliation possible.

Being a part of a Church is to engage in the Work of God, it is not to do God's Work.