Is Accountability Enough? The Case for Peer Discipleship
Any relationship that helps another person grow in Christ is a “discipleship” relationship.
Unfortunately, “discipleship” can often be reduced to a vision of a mentor and a mentee, drastically distanced in their spiritual maturity level, that meet together for years. But this is not the only way, or perhaps even the most frequent way, that discipleship happens in our lives.
I believe there are three directions that discipleship relationships can take:
- Mentor Discipleship: where I find a mentor who is more mature to disciple me
- Mentee Discipleship: finding a less-mature mentee that I can disciple
- Peer Discipleship: where I find a peer and we mutually disciple one another
We need peer discipleship. And it is probably going to be one of the easiest and most frequent spiritual relationships we keep.
Peer discipleship is side-by-side discipleship. It’s mutual discipleship: a relationship where each person helps another follow Jesus better, not based on a significant level of higher maturity, but because they are able to speak the truth with care and empathy even when they are in a similar stage of their spiritual life.
This type of relationship could be confusing because we use a number of terms for peer discipleship:
- “Accountability partners”
- “Brothers and sisters”
But each one of these terms points to a helpful dynamic that enriches peer discipleship.
1. Accountability’s Intentionality
“Accountability partners” are peers who meet regularly to focus on transparency, confession, and repentance.
Groups and partnerships like this have a rich legacy (including John Wesley’s use of this model!). And structured relationships where areas of sin and struggle can be addressed and righteous living pressed are incredibly helpful to our hiding hearts (see 1 John 1:5-10). But there are also risks in centering peer discipleship on confession, such as:
- Reducing healthy spiritual relationships to only confronting sin
- Misshaping gospel-fueled confession and restoration into simple sympathy or “do better” methodology
- Burnout from spiritual conversations that focus on confrontation without the joys and foibles of common life together
Despite these risks, the helpful dynamic that this type of relationship shows us is intentionality. We need peers to really ask and really help us in our repentance.
Our spiritual life rhythm needs to be gospel-shaped:
- We always need to confess
- We always need to repent
- We always need God’s restoration through Jesus
- We always need the Spirit’s empowerment for repentant living
So some sort of accountability should be a dynamic in any peer discipleship. Without it, we’ll hide and stunt our growth in the exact places where we need it most.
2. Friendship’s Bonding
Pastor Drew Hunter has defined friendship as “an affectionate bond forged between people as they persevere in the faith with truth and trust.”
Unfortunately, biblical friendship is rarely discussed by Christians, but its importance and influence can be seen throughout the Old and New Testament.
Biblical friendship has deep oneness at its core:
Granted, we can’t be deep friends with everyone. As Drew Hunter states, “Christian love expresses friendliness to all and enjoys friendship with a few” (Made for Friendship, 2018, 36). But this affectionate bonding is the dynamic that we need in our peer relationships. Bonding will not only build deeper trust, but it will create a context where we can live our full lives side-by-side with another.
3. Brothers & Sisters Who Speak the Word
Finally, we could also use the term “brothers and sisters” for peer discipleship. After all, that’s what the New Testament calls us!
- “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (1 Tim. 5:1-2)
What do these brothers and sisters do for each other? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, our identity as spiritual siblings empowers us to speak our Father’s Word to each other:
“[T]he Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. … The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (Life Together, 1954, 23)
Am I My Peer’s Keeper?
Much of what happens in a Small Group is peer discipleship. I seek my brother’s counsel on my marriage not because he’s been married longer but because he knows how to point me to God’s Word. I attend to a woman in Small Group about her struggle with gossip not because she’s way behind me in her overall spiritual journey but because she needs me in this opportunity just like I’ve needed her help in the past.
Personally, I have made it one of my life goals to always have one or two people in my life with whom I am sharing my deepest sin struggles and am able to gain their accountability, bonding, and direction from God’s Word. After all, when crisis or failure occurs, we may only have time to call one person. But it’s my hope that every Christian would have that person in their life.
Whether you call them your accountability partner, your friend, or your brother (or sister), this peer may become one of your deepest satisfactions in life. As Drew Hunter has said, “if you ask me what’s best in life, I am going to give you names” (Made for Friendship, 24).