Doing Right While Doing Good
Back in the early 1990s a very well-known sports figure in our society announced he was not a role model and young people should not look to him as one. The prudence of this athlete’s statement, given his popularity, is not the issue here. Pastors are the issue. They can’t attempt the same announcement. Disclaiming the responsibility of being role models cannot be done (1 Pet. 5:3). Only a few ministers today have the Apostle Paul’s courage to exhort the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1), but they should assume that responsibility.
As pastors preach their listeners take note of how they apply the biblical principles they proclaim—for example, do they preach with care and concern or with condemnation and derision? As pastors teach their flocks that the Bible calls Christians to “show proper respect to everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17), do they show that respect toward a wide variety of people in all contexts?
While virtually all ministers would acknowledge this obligation (of being a role model), many forget this responsibility in the midst of daily life. When misdeeds—moral sins, unethically handled funds, or ungodly treatment of others—become public, these actions injure those who look to them for spiritual leadership. They shame and offend their followers. Worse, the minister grants tacit license to sin similarly.
Ministers may dislike living in glass houses, but that’s like admitting that firemen don’t like heavy smoke and blistering heat. So what? It goes with the job. Moreover, when ministers willingly accept this reality and embrace the responsibility, it can provide helpful accountability. All of us might do some things knowing God is watching, but refrain from doing the same things if acquaintances are watching. Just about anything that keeps us from sin is good.
In this context, integrity speaks of living consistently with one’s stated belief system. It surfaces when individuals practice daily what they profess to believe, when they stand true to their beliefs even if it means sacrifice. They act as they believe they ought even if no one is looking.
In addition to providing a good model for others, integrity also provides a sense of satisfaction. We continue as imperfect followers of Christ until our time on earth is done, and that imperfection prompts us toward humility. It also prompts us to depend on God. It prompts us to show com- passion to others who fail. Further, we believe that God normally al- lows us to make decisions about whether we are going to obey Him or not. He has granted us the freedom to be volitional people. Thus, when we choose to obey Him, especially when it would be easier or more fun to disregard His commands, we can legitimately feel satisfied that we made a good choice. However, a track record of good decisions should not prompt us to become like the Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14. (There still remain too many wretched attitudes within us; they represent sinfulness even if we don’t act upon them). But, those repeated good decisions can provide a sense of peace and confidence as we stand before the Lord.
While that sense of peace and confidence may seem oxymoronic—self-serving and God-honoring—it can stand as a reward for consistent faithfulness. Thus, a minister’s integrity will not only provide a wholesome model for others, it will also provide a sense of personal well-being in life. We believe, if remembered on a regular basis, this should lead to a stronger dedication to ethical and moral behavior.
We agree with the conviction that faith calls for more than mere cognitive agreement with truth. Biblical faith expects that believers will act on that cognitive agreement even if doubts cloud the heart. For example, if we acknowledge that God calls Christians to obey the government’s laws (those that do not interfere with obedience to God), then faith calls us to obey the government’s building codes, even if it’s both expensive and seemingly unnecessary. Faith prohibits writing a charitable giving receipt for money donated as a personal gift. Faith requires us to tell the truth when doing so might make us look bad.
Many times, unethical behaviors do not represent confusion over what’s right or wrong. They represent a lack of faith to do what’s right and true because the cost of doing so seems too high.
But the Lord calls us to be people of faith, especially those who would present themselves as ministry leaders. Faith begins with an acknowledgement of proclaimed truth; but it becomes a living faith when decisions are made in concord with that truth, even if it’s not particularly shrewd in common life.
Many Christian leaders don’t think much about the responsibility to live in submission to others, apart from their need to submit to those in authority over them (the Lord, the government, others farther up the ladder of authority). But Ephesians 5:21 calls us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In fact, this call for mutual sub- mission is linked grammatically with being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
Why is this significant for ministerial ethics? While some aspects of the mosaic that represents ministerial ethics within a given church attach clearly to biblical principles, other aspects represent ideas that have arisen within the culture of that church. Is it wrong for a minister to earn more than the average member of the church? Some church cultures would say “yes;” others would say “no.” Does the pastor have to wear a suit and tie when he preaches, even if the men in the pews do not? Again, some would say “yes;” others would not.1
We maintain that wise pastors will seek to understand the cultural rules that have arisen among the people they serve, and willingly submit to those rules (We do not maintain that pastors should submit to the individual notions of each person they serve, but to the ideas of the group as a whole). Some issues of style and practice are not important enough to contend for if they result in the undermining of the pastor’s ministry. Submission is not a sign of weakness; it often demonstrates strength; it often demonstrates wisdom.
Dependence on God
Jesus urged His disciples to remain vitally connected with Him because, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Much of the transformation in people’s lives that pastors are hoping to see happen requires the supernatural working of the Lord. Pastors can’t pull off an individual’s salvation and sanctification with their own strength.
Furthermore, the intricate problems that arise in highly complex societies like ours require a level of wisdom that is far beyond our own abilities. Pastors deeply need God’s wisdom and guidance.
Recognizing this would seem to help pastors live every day with an unwavering sense of dependence on the Lord. Unfortunately, some realities mitigate against such dependence. As pastors acquire ministry education and training, a measure of self-confidence grows. As they gain experience in the art and craft of shepherding a local church, that self-confidence continues to grow. Previously successful words, actions, and reactions can be employed customarily when similar (or apparently similar) situations arise. Self-reliance insidiously replaces a pastor’s awareness of needing God’s help.
But, the reality remains. The pastor’s business is a super- natural enterprise, and it is good to cling to the need for God’s help.
These thoughts intersect with ethical considerations. Many breaches of ethics represent pastors’ efforts to handle difficult situations with decisions that arise out of their own sense of astuteness and expediency.
For example, the church budget may be very tight. Funds are insufficient to care for some of the current bills. The pastor fears that the reputation of the church will be dam- aged by the late payment of bills. A substantial amount of money lies fallow in one of the church’s restricted funds— money donated by individuals who have instructed that it be used solely for supporting pastoral students in Africa. Drawing upon those funds to pay the bills will prevent ridicule from being directed toward the Lord’s church. Also, it’s relatively easy to convince the church treasurer to go ahead and pay those bills out of those restricted funds. It seems like such a minor sin; easily justifiable.
Unfortunately, breaches of ethics can readily become like a cancer, starting small but growing into a life- threatening problem if not dealt with through often painful measures. It’s easier to depend on the Lord and allow His guidance toward alternative answers that might be harder to accomplish but are far more ethical in nature.
When dilemmas arise, they represent opportunities to reactivate internal awareness that Christian leaders really do need to depend on the Lord for righteous solutions. Living habitually with a keen awareness of how much we need God to live righteously—that’s a good state of mind and heart.
The Importance of a Group of Spiritual Minds
What is ethical or unethical in some situations of life can be very confusing. Wise pastors pray over those situations. However, wise pastors also know that we are very capable of hearing answers to our prayers that are favorable to our own leanings.
Decisions of considerable importance signal the time to seek the counsel of spiritual colleagues. In some church settings those spiritual colleagues would be the fellow elders of the church. In other settings, fellow pastors of other churches would be the best advisory group.
We believe the Lord speaks to us in nonverbal ways but, for a variety of reasons, Christian leaders don’t always hear His words correctly. We believe the Lord also speaks to us through the voices of fellow Christians (particularly those who are spiritually in tune with Him). When their words sing in harmony with the words we hear in answer to our personal prayers, greater confidence in knowing God’s will can abide.
We encourage pastors not to handle the sometimes complex decisions of this life as lone rangers. We challenge pastors to show humility and wisdom by seeking the advice of a group of other Spirit-minded individuals when the ethical path ahead is unclear.
*This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of GraceConnect magazine; excerpted from the BMH book, Doing Right While Doing Good (2013), which is available at bmhbooks.com, online e-tailers (including amazon.com and cbd.com), and your local bookstore.
Ken Bickel is a former banker, pastor, and seminary professor. Kevin Vanderground is an attorney practicing in northern Indiana.
1 Pastors should be aware of those who would attempt to claim the status of “weaker brother” and insist that they not be caused to stumble. These individuals should not be allowed to impede progress by their self-proclaimed immaturity. Immaturity is not something a pastor should submit to. However, a submission of the pastors’ preferences to what is best for the body of believers should characterize their ministries.