I take it as axiomatic that Accountability—the business of caring for and guarding my fellow Christian—is a non-negotiable duty of the Christian life. I do not get to choose whether or not I will be accountable to others. Nor do I get to choose whether or not I am accountable for what happens to others. I am accountable in both directions, and every failure on this front is a serious affront to my faith.
The story of Cain and Abel, of course, is my source material for this. The two brothers are out in the field one day and Cain, out of envy and lack of self-control, murders Abel in cold blood. The Lord then approaches Cain and asks a piercing question: “Where is Abel your brother?” The Lord doesn’t ask, of course, because He needs information—He’s not investigating Cain any more than he investigated Cain’s parents a short chapter earlier. No, God doesn’t ask questions because He needs information; He asks questions in order to give us opportunities to change our hearts. Cain’s response is unfortunate, and seems to echo throughout the rest of the Scriptures: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is yes, and as someone else has observed, it seems as if the rest of the Bible from this verse onward is a kind of answer to that question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper, and you have made a terrible muck of it.
If I am going to steer a path away from the folly of Cain then I must take seriously that I am my brother’s keeper, that we are each other’s keepers, that this business of keeping one another is neither optional nor selective. And we must remember that the neglect of brother keeping—as the first story of this neglect teaches us—is not far from a kind of murder. To refuse to keep my brother or sister in the faith is to either directly or indirectly contribute to his or her destruction. And for that destruction I am accountable.
I had occasion to reflect on the significance of this passage recently when I attended, for the second consecutive year, the Men’s Retreat with my church. We had three sessions of teaching together over our weekend. The first was on our identity as sons of the Father, the second on our responsibility as brothers to one another, the third and final on our mission to bless one another after the pattern of the Father. During that second session we held a sustained gaze at this idea of accountability for one another, taking seriously the question of what it means to “keep” our brothers in the faith. Upon reflection, there seemed to be two clear areas where this business of “keeping” takes place. (And please note that while I may speak specifically of brothers here, this responsibility applies to all who are joined together in Christ.)
The first area of brother-keeping is the keeping of my brother’s physical life. This is, perhaps, an area where we are most comfortable keeping one another. Physical problems are relatively easy to fix. Is a brother without food? Feed him. Is a sister without rent money? Take up a collection and solve the problem. Is a brother sick? Gather and pray. Is a sister being harmed? Step in to protect her. When we care for one another in the church—practically speaking—we are keeping our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But the second area of brother-keeping is far more difficult, because not only am I responsible for the physical life of my brothers in Christ, I am also responsible for their spiritual lives. Pause and reflect on that for a moment: as a keeper of my brother I am responsible for the spiritual life of my brothers in Christ. If my brother walks away from his faith, that is my problem. If my brother falls into sin, that is my problem. If my brother neglects his gifts and call in Christ, that is my problem. I am accountable. And so are you.
As part of our weekend together we attempted to narrow down what this business of spiritual brother-keeping really looks like in practical terms, and it seems clear that the main thing we are keeping—that is, protecting and guarding—is our identity as sons of the Father. This is the gift that God gives us when we accept the sacrifice of His son—to become sons and daughters of God. And to be a son of God is not mere sentimentality—it is a role that comes with responsibility and power. When the Father blesses Jesus the son at his baptism He speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” From these short words Jesus gets four profound things. He gets identity. He is the son of the Father, and after the pattern of Psalm 2 this means that he is the designated king of Israel, the one who will bring God’s justice to bear on the world. Second, Jesus gets acceptance. Jesus is loved without condition by the Father, and this means that Jesus will never need to perform to earn the Father’s love—he has it already. Third, Jesus gets a mission. To be the “son of God” means to be commissioned for a task—the task of justice, of kingship, and of representing God in the world. Fourth and finally, Jesus gets an inheritance. The son, we learn in Psalm 2, asks of God and inherits the nations. Jesus will also ask of the Father and inherit the nations, receiving all authority in heaven and earth as the reward for his faithfulness.
When we become sons and daughters of the Father these four factors become ours as well. We get new identities in Christ—identities that give us power and responsibility. We get unconditional acceptance in Christ—we cannot perform to earn God’s love, but He gives it to us freely. We get a mission, participating in the Father’s mission in the world in the image of the son of God, continuing the work of Psalm 2. And we get an inheritance as well, particularly an inheritance of the Spirit, poured out on us who believe, filling us with power and gifts to perform the work, calling us to our future inheritance in Christ.
Above all else, these four factors are those I am called to “keep” in my brothers and sisters in Christ. Over our weekend together we framed a series of questions that we might ask one another as brother-keepers in Christ. They are as follows:
Identity: I am a son of God; Am I living like a son of God?
Am I drawing my identity from the world?
Am I drawing my identity from my own history of sin?
Acceptance: I am beloved by God; Am I living like one who is beloved of God?
Am I performing activities for God that are merit based?
Am I trying to win points with God?
Am I extending God’s acceptance to others?
Am I projecting the need for performance upon others?
Mission: I am called by God; Am I serving the mission of God in my work and service?
Am I seeking to serve Jesus at my workplace/school?
Am I serving the mission of God in Church?
Inheritance: I am an inheritor of God’s gifts; Am I accessing my inheritance?
Am I living in the Spirit’s power?
Am I living by my own power?
Am I using the gifts God has given me?
Am I aware of the gifts God has given me?
These questions, of course, are imperfect, but I think they target an aspect of accountability that has been overlooked. For most men, the word accountability has become strongly associated with sexual purity. And while it is true and imperative that men must pursue and commit in relationship with one another to maintaining their sexual purity, I can’t help but think we’re a little out of order here. Accountability is not primarily about pornography; accountability is about preserving the life of God in my brother in Christ, of which porn may be a part. But to make accountability almost entirely about porn has robbed us of something important—even, perhaps, an important antidote to sexual temptation. If I am being asked tough questions on a regular basis by my brothers in Christ—questions about my identity, my acceptance, my mission, and my inheritance—then if my private sexual life is inhibiting my call to be the son of the Father that I am, then perhaps that sense of greater duty will lend strength to my battle for purity. Remember, purity is not and has never been an end in itself. It is a component of and stepping stone towards a deeper life in Christ. Men-who-don’t-look-at-porn is not the point of the Christian life—men in the image of the Son and in faithful service to the Father is.
Cain turned his back on Abel and left a horrific legacy behind. May we spurn the negligence of Cain. “I am my brother’s keeper.” I am called to keep my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am accountable for their faith. They, also, are accountable for each other’s faith, and also for mine. I have invited the men of my church to ask me any of these questions at any time, in boldness and confidence, so as to mutually secure our identities, our acceptance, our mission, and our inheritance. I am a son of the Father. And you, O reader, my brother or sister in Christ, as your brother I pledge to keep you accountable. Will you do the same for me?