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Ethics For Christian Leaders

The philosopher Kierkegaard tells the story of a circus set up on the edge of town. When the tent catches on fire, one of the clowns runs to town to get help. The townspeople think he is merely performing and ignore his cry for help. Kierkegaard explains, "They heard him with their eyes."[1]

Today’s Christian leaders have an urgent message to share as well. It’s one that desperately needs to be heard. Unfortunately, our nation has witnessed too many performances causing them to disregard Christian leaders who are attempting to save lives. While the nation’s media-driven gaze is focused on the Roman Catholic Church’s recent problems, Jack Hayford warns "it would be unrealistic to assume that the public’s hue and cry over this sector’s failure will not develop into a wholesale investigation of the ethical practices of the rest of the church."[2]

Setting an Example to Follow

The idea of being investigated may sound threatening to Christian leaders in the 21st century, but we are already being watched by our community, congregation, family, and friends. The key question becomes, "Are we setting an example to follow?" The apostle Paul was intentional about answering this question in his own ministry. In Thessalonica he worked to pay for his own food even when it was not necessary (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13). He sent Timothy to Corinth when he was not able to be there (1 Corinthians 4:16-17). In both cases Paul explains the reasoning behind his actions; he wanted to provide the believers with "an example to follow."

Paul advised other Christian leaders to do the same. To Titus he wrote, "Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured" (Titus 2:7-8). Timothy was ordered to "set an example for the believers in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12).

When Paul told believers to follow him as he followed Christ[3], it was "not out of apostolic arrogance...but rather out of the peculiar nature of gospel ethics."[4] William Willimon explains, "The Christian gospel is inherently performative, meant to be embodied, enacted in the world. To speak the gospel skillfully without attempting to perform the gospel is a false proclamation of the gospel."[5] Put into more familiar terms, the Christian life is meant to be "caught" as well as "taught." Christian leaders throw the first pitch when they set an example for others to follow.

Following the Leader

During the editing process, Trail magazine, Britain’s best selling hiking publication, inadvertently erased the first two lines of a trail route that would help climbers descend a 4,406-foot mountain safely. Tragically, the misprinted route would lead hikers straight off the edge of a cliff.[6] Christian leaders bear a similar responsibility as they attempt to lead people safely through the twisted trails of America’s moral landscape. The risk of leading someone astray can be overwhelming and intimidating. In fact, the "difficulties of being certain as a moral guide" can create the temptation "to abdicate responsibility and refuse to lead."[7]

Some Christian leaders are tempted to relinquish responsibility when they become overwhelmed by the proverbial "fishbowl" life of ministry. When children care for goldfish they tend to overfeed them and knock on the glass to get attention. Sometimes spiritual children behave like that, too. Christian leaders can become exasperated by those who are constantly feeding them negative opinions or those who try to break through the boundaries of church and family life.

Other factors can come into play as well. Richard Bondi claims, "The temptation not to lead becomes especially powerful through the corrosive dispositions of complacency and wounded pride and through the paralyzing fear of change, failure, success, conflict, disapproval, and isolation."[8] Those who are called to set an example must be willing to engage in leadership, not withdraw from it. That is why it is crucial for leaders to recognize they were never intended to travel alone.

Gregory Nazianzen, a fourth century bishop of Constantinople, was tempted to remove himself from leadership. He was troubled by the immense responsibility of setting an example and feared leading people off the cliff when it came to making moral decisions. He concluded that pastors were only able to risk leading others because they trusted in the one he called a "Shepherd to shepherds and a Guide to guides."[9]

When the apostle Paul wrote "Follow me as I follow Christ," he understood the need to model the Christian life as well as the need to follow the "Shepherd to shepherds and Guide to guides." It was Christ who enabled him to do all things and this included leading other people. "The power to move through entanglements and to resist the paralyzing temptation not to lead begins to come when we admit we are in fact powerless to do it on our own."[10] Christian leaders gain strength to set an example for others as they themselves follow the leader, Jesus Christ.

"What Would Jesus Do?"

Four letters, "WWJD," have infiltrated the Christian marketplace by way of pencils, bracelets, bandanas, and bumper stickers. The question "What would Jesus do?" is an attempt to discern how to follow our leader, Jesus Christ. Believers are publicly expressing a desire to follow in Jesus’ steps. They are also stating their need for an ethical decision-making paradigm.

According to Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter, authors of Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World, the "WWJD" question has an "idealistic application." In other words, the standard has been set so high (and perhaps too vaguely) that it is difficult for people to apply. However, Trull and Carter also state that the attempt to use the life of Jesus as a "guiding theme" is accurate because he serves as our "guiding story." A guiding story allows an individual to "internalize truths" in a way that can be assimilated into daily life.[11]

A paradigm made up of "dos" and "don’ts" will not serve the believer well on a day to day basis. "Legalism is an inadequate approach to decision making for several reasons. First, any list of laws is never long enough....Also, to keep some laws requires breaking others....Finally, and this is perhaps the greatest weakness, legalism almost always hinders moral maturity and stimulates egoistic pride."[12]

The Jewish authorities of the first century adhered to a list of "dos" and "don’ts" based on their interpretation of Scripture. In their case egoistic pride had settled in and Jesus rebuked them for it. He did not advocate their adherence to a list of rules while neglecting genuine faith (Matthew 23:1-36). Instead, Jesus reduced "a maze of moral details into a limited set of principles."[13] He said, "’Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. ’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).

Stephen Mott explains, "Commitment to God and the good of the neighbor is what every part of the Law is about. The other commands in Scripture have their moral meaning as they are integral to a total attitude of preparation to love God in everything and of genuine respect for one’s fellow humanity."[14] Devotion to God and love for neighbor provide a two-prong hook on which to hang an ethical framework for Christian leaders. [15]

The second commandment (love for neighbor) is said to be like the first commandment (devotion to God). The two commands are interdependent in that love for God is demonstrated or "fleshed out" in love for others. Those who love God must also love others (1 John 4:21). The believer is called to love as Christ loved us (Ephesians 5:1), love as you would love yourself (Matthew 22:39), love as you want people to do to you (Matthew 7:12), and love for the advantage of others (1 Corinthians 13:5).[16] We also understand that we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

A Christian ethic must be grounded in love. It cannot be solely preoccupied with devotion to God or even love for others. Rather, devotion to God and love for others function side-by-side leading the Christian toward right behavior. Beach and Niebuhr stated, "Within the variable of Christian ethical theories, there is a constant triadic relation—the ’vertical’ relation of the believing and acting self to God, and the ’horizontal’ relation of the self to other selves—a relation in which God is, so to speak, the ’middle term’."[17]

As Christian leaders strive to set an example to follow, they gain strength and discover a guiding story in the leader, Jesus Christ. Following Jesus’ broadest ethical principle provides the right foundation for Christian living: vertical devotion to God and horizontal love for others. Devotion to God and love for others places God in the center of life. And when God functions as the center or "middle term" an individual’s focus becomes being and doing what pleases him. The Christian leader’s behavior is ethical (i.e. right) when who she is in what she does pleases God.

Character and Conduct: Being and Doing What Pleases God

In a report entitled, "Morality Continues to Decay," the Barna organization presented their findings on the percentage of adults who consider behaviors such as gambling, abortion, adultery, cohabitation, and drunkenness to be morally acceptable. In the past two years researchers found an increase in the percentages of those who "condone sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender other than a spouse, abortion (up by 25%), and a 20% jump in people’s acceptance of ’gay sex.’" Researcher George Barna predicted, "The data trends indicate that the moral perspectives of Americans are likely to continue to deteriorate....Until people recognize that there are moral absolutes and attempt to live in harmony with them, we are likely to see a continued decay of our moral foundations."[18]

21st century America is not the first culture to have experienced the effects of a moral slide. Genesis 6:5 describes a culture of wickedness where the thoughts of people’s hearts were inclined towards evil continually. No moral foundation remained, except in the life of one man – Noah. He was described as a righteous man who walked with God and was blameless among the people of his time (Genesis 6:9). Three times we are told that Noah did all that God commanded (Genesis 6:22; 7:5, 16). Most importantly, Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8).

Noah’s life testifies to the total possibility of pleasing God in an ethically challenged culture. His commitment to God involved both "being" righteous and "doing" what God commanded. Some have asked the question, "’Does what I am determine what I do, or does what I do shape who I am?’ The answer to both questions is, ’Yes.’ Being affects doing and doing shapes being."[19] When "being" and "doing" (character and conduct) please God, a person is living an integrated life that will result in ethical behavior.

Character: Being What Pleases God

The idea of being revolves primarily around the qualities of heart and soul. Right action taken for the wrong reason does not please God. In fact, Jesus calls this kind of behavior hypocritical. In Matthew 6:1-4 those who gave money at the synagogue in secret would be rewarded by their Father. Those who practiced their religiosity publicly in order to receive commendation got their reward. Likewise, the Christian leader who gives of herself in order to receive attention loses God’s approval.

Willimon states, "Whenever someone is in a position of power over another person, such as a teacher who rules over a student, the person in power must be deeply aware of his or her inclinations, dispositions, strengths, and weaknesses or else power may be abused."[20] This kind of awareness comes when a person is honest before God and asks Him to shine light into the dark places of the heart.

Consistent, honest conversation with God means we will be able to see whether or not our motives are pure. He will shine his light onto our lives. When we ask for forgiveness of wrong motives, God promises to forgive and cleanse us so that we might enjoy intimate fellowship with Him and other believers (1 John 1:5-10). The confession of wrong motive frees a leader and allows her to be a person who pleases God.

Why people lead matters to God. How people lead matters, too. Peter tells the elders of the churches to care for the people by giving oversight willingly and eagerly, not under compulsion or in a domineering manner (1 Peter 5:1-3). The manner in which they lead will determine whether or not they will be rewarded by the Chief shepherd when he appears (1 Peter 5:4).

Characteristics such as violence, tendency to quarrel, rebelliousness, arrogance, and impatience disqualify a person for leadership in the church. Being hospitable, gentle, respectable, and kind are all prerequisites to Christian leadership (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 2:5-9). Moreover, all believers are encouraged to take on the mind-set of Jesus who esteemed others as better than himself (Philemon 2:1-8). When it comes to being a leader who pleases God, attitude is everything and motives matter.

Conduct: Doing What Pleases God

John 14:15 states, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." Doing what pleases God will always coincide with what He has asks of us in His Word. "When loving God is our orienting principle in life, we are always adjusting to what he requires from us."[21]

This is one reason a pastor must be able to preach and teach sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). She is responsible for knowing what the Word of God says and must carefully correct those who oppose it (2 Timothy 2:24-25). She must also respond to it believing that "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16).

According to a recent study conducted by the Barna organization, only 51 percent of Protestant pastors in America have a biblical worldview. Barna’s definition for a biblical worldview includes, "believing that absolute moral truth exists, that it is based upon the Bible, and having a biblical view on six core beliefs (the accuracy of biblical teaching, the sinless nature of Jesus, the literal existence of Satan, the omnipotence and omniscience of God, salvation by grace alone, and the personal responsibility to evangelize)."[22]

Adherence to absolute moral truth as set forth by the Word of God has eroded among America’s pastoral leadership. Without a set standard for behavior the actions of a clergy person become flexible and subjective, offering little moral guidance to followers. In response to the survey Barna states, "The most important point is that you can’t give people what you don’t have. The low percentage of Christians who have a biblical worldview is a direct reflection of the fact that half of our primary religious teachers and leaders do not have one. In some denominations, the vast majority of clergy do not have a biblical worldview, and it shows up clearly in the data related to theological views and moral choices of people who attend those churches."[23]

Doing what pleases God means obeying His revealed Word. Yet biblical principles do not address the nuances of every ethical dilemma. And asking "What would Jesus do?" is too idealistic and vague a question for anyone to answer. Jesus knew that after he ascended to heaven every believer would need help. That is why he said, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you" (John 14:16-17).

Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to serve as a resident guide through the moral mazes of life. The Holy Spirit "fills in the blanks" where Jesus’ example and solid biblical principles leave off. Eldin Villafane comments, "It is important to note that in the decision-making process we have the promise of the divine helper (Parakletos), to lead us into all truth. This process is best described by the biblical notion of discernment."[24] When it comes to ethics, discernment is the process of proving or determining whether a decision would or would not please God.

George Barna speaks of the decision-making process in terms of mental and emotional filters which are put to use subconsciously. A filter "allows us to make choices consistent with what we believe to be true, significant, and appropriate."[25] Certainly the Holy Spirit is part of the process as the Christian leader allows the Spirit to lead her into all truth. Therefore, doing what pleases God involves both the objective truth of God, His Word, and the indwelling Holy Spirit who leads the believer through the subjective elements of decision-making.

Constructing a Code of Ethics

Recently a couple in our church went away on a weekend visit to see family. Due to an early evening snowfall they decided to extend their stay another night and head for home the next morning. They traveled close to two hours before they found themselves gaining speed down a snow-covered mountainous incline. Their minivan began sliding and swerving into other lanes. Finally, the van veered to the left side of the road crashing into a guardrail.

Our friends related that the guardrail continued for only a short distance. If they had veered off further down the road, they would have plunged down a steep mountainside. It was the guardrail that kept them, as well as the people in the surrounding vehicles, from devastating injury and possibly even death.

This is the primary purpose for constructing a ministerial Code of Ethics – to put safeguards in place that will help to prevent the damaging of people’s lives. For when a Christian leader fails the effects are felt by the entire community of faith, the minister’s family, and wider community. Rebekah Miles aptly refers to this as "ricochet." [26]

A Code of Ethics helps to preserve relationships, provide accountability, and define the minister’s moral perimeters. Of course, a code can only serve as a framework. Lovett Weems contends, "Integrity has far more to do with consistency between articulated values and behavior than it does with some prescribed code."[27] Joe Trull agrees stating that a code "will not keep anybody from sinning." Trull goes further to say, "Nevertheless, a good code of ethics, rightly used, is an encourager to do the right thing."[28]

How then does a Code of Ethics encourage the Christian leader to do the right thing? First, it forces the leader to define certain norms and principles for her ministry. After a crisis hits is not the time to think about safeguards for ministry. Second, a code of ethics focuses on key ethical issues such as confidentiality and truthfulness. Third, weaknesses are sorted out and gain more attention in an effort to safeguard the leader’s most vulnerable points. Fourth, the leader recognizes her accountability to the many categories of people who are influenced by her behavior. These include family members, those under a person’s leadership, colleagues, and people in her community and world.[29]

A Christian leader must feel free to construct a code of ethics with her specific situation in mind. However, there are key elements such as purpose, personal and family relationships, ministry relationships, collegial relationships, and community relationships that should be included. Taking some time to review sample codes of ethics will help a person identify areas that might otherwise have been overlooked. (See examples in the appendix of Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter’s book Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World.)

Guiding questions can help with the construction process as well. For instance, answering the question "What is the purpose of your code?" defines why you are writing the code and provides an opening purpose statement. A purpose statement might read, "As a Christian leader who is called to set an example for other believers, I am establishing these specific safeguards to help me to be and do what pleases God in the contexts of home, ministry, and community." Some codes are written with a focus on inspiration, boundaries, standards, or ministry definitions. [30]

The section which addresses personal and family relationships should deal with how a person will live out her relationship with God, care for herself, and build family relationships. "I will cultivate my relationship with God by reading the Bible and praying every morning before leaving the house" is one example of a personal conduct statement. When defining ministry relationships a person might ask, "How should I treat the people in my congregation?" or "What are the areas of vulnerability in the church context?" Listing the areas of vulnerability helps a person build safeguards in the right places.

It is also important to include relationships with colleagues and community when constructing a code. One must consider what responsibilities she has to colleagues or people in authority and then identify areas where behavior or attitude might be compromised. In terms of community relationships a person might ask, "What responsibilities do I have to my community as a minister?" Joe Trull recommends being specific about weaknesses in each category. Codes are meant to identify "the moral stress points within a profession."[31] A general code that lacks specificity will not serve its true purpose.[32]

Summary

Those who are called to leadership are also called to set an example for others to follow. Modeling the Christian life and the decision-making process may seem a daunting task. However, the Christian leader is not expected to set the example without a guide. Leaders set an example by following the leader, Jesus Christ. While the question "What Would Jesus Do?" will not direct the leader through specific moral mazes, Jesus’ life does provide a guiding story.

Jesus also provided a two-prong hook on which to hang an ethical framework: devotion to God and love for others. Jesus’ heart-soul-mind devotion to God coupled with love for others means that a Christian ethic must be grounded in love and focus on pleasing God in the areas of both being (motive and attitude) and doing (obedience to God’s Word and the Holy Spirit). Finally, constructing a Code of Ethics will help the Christian leader build safeguards into her life so that she might be kept blameless before the Lord.



[1] Qtd. in Lovett Weems, Jr., Church Leadership: Vision, Team, Culture, Integrity, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 13.

[2] Jack W. Hayford, "Practicing What We Preach," (Ministries Today, November/December 2003), 22.

[3] 1 Cor. 11:1

[4] William Willimon, Calling and Character, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 49.

[5] —-, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 302.

[6] CNN.com, "Magazine directs climbers over cliff," January 22, 2004,

< http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/europe/01/21/offbeat.hiking.mistake.ap/index.html>

[7] Rebekah L. Miles, The Pastor as a Moral Guide, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 8.

[8] Richard Bondi, Leading God’s People, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 98.

[9] Miles, 13

[10] Bondi, 106.

[11] Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter, Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1993), 61.

[12] Trull and Carter, 56.

[13] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 81.

[14] Stephen Charles Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 49.

[15] The term "devotion" is used to express the overlay and combination of heart (emotion) - soul (spirit/will) - mind (intelligence) love.

[16] Mott, 42.

[17] Waldo Beach and H. Richard Niebuhr, eds., Christian Ethics, (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1955), 5.

[18] Barna Research Online, "Morality Continues to Decay," November 3, 2003, < http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp >

[19] Trull and Carter, 45.

[20] Willimon, Calling and Character, 37.

[21] Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Boundaries in Marriage, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 114.

[22] Barna Research Online, "Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview," January 12, 2004,

<http://www.barna.org/cgi-bin/PagePressRelease.asp >

[23] ibid.

[24] Eldin Villafane, The Liberating Spirit: Toward an Hispanic American Pentecostal Social Ethic, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 210.

[25] George Barna, Think Like Jesus, (Brentwood, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2003), 5.

[26] Miles, 10.

[27] Weems, 13.

[28] Joe Trull, "Up to Code – Why It’s Time to Rewrite Your Ministerial Code of Ethics," Leadership Magazine, January 2003.

[29] Trull and Carter, 196-203.

[30] Trull and Carter, 207-213.

[31] Trull and Carter, 187.

[32] Joe E. Trull, "Up to Code – Why It’s Time to Rewrite Your Ministerial Code of Ethics," Leadership Magazine, January 2003.