“Make no mistake: maturing as a Christian is a process. It is not a second step, a higher plane, a sacred blessing, or a lightning bolt moment when God invades and brings the christian to a perfected place. A lifelong transformation is set into motion when one places his or her faith in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow him (discipleship, apprentice-ship). — Pettit, Paul, Foundations of Spiritual Formation, 2008
There is more of an overlap between certain Evangelicals and the Orthodox than we often care to admit. “Theosis is the understanding that human beings can have real union with God, and so become like God to such a degree that we participate in the divine nature. Also referred to as deification, divinization, or illumination, it is a concept derived from the New Testament regarding the goal of our relationship with the Triune God. (Theosis and deification may be used interchangeably, (Antiochian.org).” Whether we speak of a lifelong transformation or a growing union with God that allows us to participate in the divine nature, we are speaking of exactly the same thing. In either case, we are talking about growing more and more into the likeness of God. We are imbued with the Holy Spirit to allow us to overcome our weaknesses, little by little, so that we may more clearly reflect both the image and likeness of God with which we were gifted at Creation itself.
It is always interesting to me to read Evangelicals speaking about small groups or accountability groups or accountability relationships. It is interesting because these are as old as the monastic movement. It is true that one finds reflected in Scripture various accountability statements. However, it is also true that the type of structured accountability groups of which Evangelicals exist date more to the monastic movement than they do to Scripture. It is in the monastics that one finds true intentional community, complete with spiritual fathers and mothers (spiritual directors), etc. The monastics had a rule of life that guided them. Frankly this is not much different from the various rules of life written by Protestant groups such as the Amish, the Brethren, the Mennonites, and the later Bruderhofs. Many of the Charismatic Movement developments were actually a return to this older form of living out a Christian life. If we are honest, the Puritans had a rather strict Rule of Life that they expected to be obeyed.
This lets me point out that not all rules are created equal. Some rules are, frankly, better forgotten than kept. For instance, the Shakers, a now dead Protestant religious sect, had a Rule of Life that eventually destroyed them. They left some lovely art, some soulful music, some communitarian heritage, yet little else. But the rules of St. Benedict and St. Basil, the Franciscan rules, and some other rules have survived to tell us that communitarian living is possible. To some extent, they form a backbone to some of the current Evangelical understandings of accountability groups that most Evangelicals would not like to admit. It is not the community living that is kept in those groups, but rather than understanding that the Christian life is not to be lived alone as though everything were simply a relationship between God and us.
But, the return of various Evangelicals to structures of accountability does remind us that the lone Christian life is a shipwreck waiting to happen. More than that, it reminds us how often we can deceive ourselves and convince ourselves that there is little need for us to be accountable to a human being. We do so love our arguments that we are only accountable to God. All too often, it rather means that we are accountable to the devil, who has convinced us that we are communicating with God. It is in the human to human interaction, the interaction between two beings created in the image of God that we find the accountability that is so lacking if we try to only relate to God. After all, it is Christian humans who are the eyes, hands, and voice of God in many of our life circumstances.
At the same time, I do prefer the older structures of the Orthodox Church, even with all its mistakes. Why? Because there are centuries of experience at work, particularly in the monastic movement. I am not saying that the monastics are perfect, far from it. One only needs to read the news media to find monastics gone wild. Yet, many of the canons that govern monastics, both Roman and Orthodox, are based on sad experiences that required the institutions of some limits. Evangelicals, all too often, are busily reinventing the wheel, and then wondering sadly why they are repeating the same mistakes that were dealt with centuries ago among their older brethren. We may not be any more perfect, but we do tend to commit fewer of some types of mistakes, only because we have become so sadly accustomed to dealing with them.
Nevertheless, this post is to point out that accountability minded Evangelicals are simply rediscovering what has been part of the Church heritage all along. I might suggest to various of them that they visit some of the monasteries and ask some practical questions. I know that I plan to do so in the future.