Revisit & Reaffirm Ministerial Ethics

Reprinted with permission from Voice magazine, Nov/Dec 2010.

The associate pastor of Country Bible Church is a multi-talented young man with great people skills. His senior pastor, also a highly gifted ministry servant, values and trusts his young associate. The younger adults of Country Bible are calling for some changes to be made in the worship services and children’s ministries of the church. The senior pastor pays attention to these calls for change, but inclines to move slowly, to allow the church body needed time to adjust to and embrace the changes. The reach and the rate of the initial phase of changes fall short of the younger adults’ desires and expectations. These younger adults begin to voice their complaints to the associate pastor. He commiserates with them, but expresses that he is basically powerless to move things along faster and further.

With frustration mounting several of the young adults begin to voice the idea of breaking away from the larger group, perhaps becoming their own congregation, but remaining under the umbrella of their present church’s organization. As that conversation continues over a period of weeks, the younger adults decide that even that idea would move too slowly and would probably not produce the results they desired. So, they begin to talk about breaking away completely and starting their own church. They approach the associate pastor with the idea and invite him to become their pastor. He finds the idea appealing, but cautions that the discussions of that possibility need to be kept secret until final decisions are made. Secrecy is preserved and the group moves persistently toward forming a new church, gathering more young adults to the idea as the weeks pass by.

When the time seems right, their intentions are announced to the senior pastor. The young adults don’t seek his support or advice, but simply inform him that their plan will be carried out within a matter of days. The senior pastor is dumbfounded, crushed, and deeply offended by what he perceives as a betrayal of the trust he has placed in his associate pastor. He cries “foul” to his associate and to the young adults. They don’t understand why; they had already considered their actions in light of what the Bible might have to say. Without finding a biblical prohibition on a group within a local church branching out on their own, they concluded that they had the freedom to do so. In fact, they saw it as a legitimate step of furthering the Kingdom. The associate pastor, for his part, saw nothing wrong with answering the call from another group of Christians to become their pastor. If a church from another state called him to become their pastor, and he agreed to do so, most people in the church wouldn’t view that as unethical. This situation isn’t so much different from accepting such a call from another organized body of believers. He knew his senior pastor would be disappointed but, hey, disappointment is part of life.

How would you judge that occurrence? Are you confident that a generation different from yours would judge it the same way you do? Why don’t you contact 3-5 vocational ministers that you know, people who represent different generations, and see what they have to say? Try hard not to lead them on as you ask; allow them to feel free to answer according to what they really think. You might be surprised at the variety of responses.

Considering the speed of change in our society, it’s easy to suppose that notions of right or wrong conduct for Christian pastors have been morphing over the past few decades. This fact, combined with the present day fluidity of church participants who move from church to church with few reservations, the leadership of churches should not assume that the implicit assumptions regarding appropriate behavior for pastors will remain static. Newly arrived participants bring their long-held assumptions with them.

Considering the impact ministry leaders have upon people—those within the ministry where they serve and spectators watching from the sidelines—proper ministerial conduct should be deemed imperative. Also, this impact suggests that proper ministerial conduct should be revisited, reaffirmed, then set to writing in a way that all interested parties in a local church can see and understand.

The Relational Factor

Let’s be clear from the outset. One of the dominant reasons for why we should revisit and reaffirm these matters is because of the damage, both direct and collateral, that unethical behavior heaps upon people. When ministry leaders grievously fail, the ripple effects often extend well beyond what any one person can comprehend. Then, when leaders’ failures multiply en masse, the cumulative results insidiously erode the fabric of an entire society.

Consider the impact a ministry servant’s sin has upon our heavenly Father. If walking in a manner worthy of His calling can bring pleasure to our God (Col. 1:10), then, surely, walking in a manner not worthy of His calling can equally bring displeasure. If we appreciate deeply His wonderful grace, if we recognize His stature in the universe, if we love Him, bringing displeasure to Him should represent a deep concern to us.

Consider the damage to God’s reputation when Christian ministers publicly violate trust. We believe that our God is strong enough to withstand the hurts caused by the sinful behaviors of His people. Still, we are clearly exhorted in Scripture to “do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Thus, we’re called to concern ourselves with His reputation, carefully minding how our actions reflect on Him. When pastors publicly breach trust, they damage God’s reputation. In doing so they fail to take seriously the greatest command of all—to love the Lord with all their being.

Consider the impact on the ministers’ families. When pastors commit moral sins that become public, the damage often devastates the family. At best, shame will overshadow the minister and personal pain will undermine their spouses and children far into the future; at worst, the family will fracture. The hurt and resentment can easily affect family members’ lives for years, if not for their entire lives.

Consider the impact on the church. When a pastor sins ethically, not only are the church members themselves hurt. Also, observers can be appreciably injured, as well as those who might have received ministry had not the ethical failure caused a stumbling of the overall church ministry.

Consider the impact on fellow professional ministers. In November of 2008, the Gallup organization published the results of a poll designed to rank the public’s perceptions of twenty-one professions related to the honesty and ethics of the members of those professions. Nurses claimed the top of the list; clergy stood in sixth place.1 On the one hand, sixth out of twenty-one places isn’t all that bad. On the other hand, if you are a member of the clergy, aren’t you saddened that the clergy ranked lower than policemen?

Every time a vocational minister’s sinful indiscretion becomes public, people are offended by the thought that those who represent God before other people would violate the trust that God and others have placed in them. Should not the clergy hold the top place of the list? Aren’t you saddened that they don’t? Are you willing to share the burden of ethical, moral and biblical behavior? Because only when every member of the profession lives consistently to the Lord’s

precepts will the clergy as a profession find its way to the top of that list of trustworthy professions.

When the public failures of Christian vocational servants ravage families, churches and fellow professionals, the second greatest command has been trampled. Important relationships are devastated; close bystanders are damaged. Others standing at a distance are hurt as well.

Many people pay a great price when ministers morally or ethically fail, including those who, themselves, commit the sins. Sometimes, repentance leads to a substantially rebuilt life. Sometimes, however, a life is irreparably shattered even with genuine repentance. No one should or can count on the former path. Sinning against self is also a dreadful breach of the second command.

Hopefully, the point is obvious. Ethical behavior among pastors is not imperative simply because it is right (though that’s not to be ignored). Ethical behavior is crucial because important people are hurt when ethics are breached. Ministerial ethics attaches inextricably to the two greatest commands of our Lord.

Admission About Culture’s Influence

Some elements of ministerial ethics connect directly to biblical precepts. For other factors, a strong deductive case can be built from the Bible confirming ethical assertions. For other elements found in statements of ministerial ethics, the expectations of a given sub-culture rule. One concrete example: should pastors have full knowledge of the monetary giving of the members of their church? Some Christian sub-cultures vehemently say “no!” Others proclaim “yes” with equal strength (believing pastors should oversee all aspects of their flock’s spiritual lives). The Bible doesn’t address the issue directly; a deductive case can and has been made for both positions. It benefits the Christian leader to know simply that various Christian groups believe differently on that and other issues. Wisdom should then lead vocational ministry servants to seek to become aware of the expectations of the given sub-culture in which they serve, and then submit to those expectations (as long as they do not violate deeply held personal beliefs).

A Desired Outcome

We at Grace Seminary encourage each vocational ministry servant to enter into a covenant with an appropriate group such as IFCA International. That covenant would incorporate a statement which outlines chosen elements of expectation and ethics and could well be called a “Code of Ethics” or a “Covenant of Ethics.” We exhort all vocational ministers to enter into such a covenant with an overseeing board of their own local church, provided that both parties agree with the statement. The IFCA International Code of Ethics for Pastors and Churches appears following this article for your consideration. If you wish to review a sample code of ethics from Grace Seminary, contact us at 1-800-54GRACE and we will gladly forward a digital copy to you.

May God bless you as you continue to serve Him faithfully and ethically.


1, accessed 1/2/09. [Editor: more recent are similar, here]

Dr. Ken Bickel is Professor of Pastoral Studies at Grace Theological Seminary of Winona Lake, IN.

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There are 3 Comments

Dan Salter's picture

Seems to me that the resolution of the problem should be more than a contractual commitment to ethical concern. Philosophically, ethics is too broad a subject to capture within the limitations of a documented code (although I know that depends on the length of the document). The problem is certainly not only that the associate pastor unethically chose his course of action. Of equal or greater concern is why he thought his action ethical. Why among the younger adults did no one recognize the action as a breach of ethics? Besides the functional ethics, why did these young adults not consider an attitude of loving submission both to the senior pastor and the older generation of congregants to wait through the longer adjustment plan? For that matter, why did the senior pastor need to wean his older adults off style (if it was only style concerns)? Had he not been teaching a difference between principle and practice (or between elements and circumstances for our more regulative minds). The problem in this example would not be solved had the associate pastor simply signed a code. It appears that lack of good teaching all around is the problem. And that lack becomes much more damaging in the long run.

Joel Tetreau's picture

Very good article. Interesting to me the story focuses on "the young" who are the break-away faction. In my limited 20 years of pastoral experience - often the younger adults are some of the most loyal. Too often it is middle-aged and the seniors who think they have the Biblical right to pull off these kinds of subversive "deals."

Great work Ken.....thanks for your ministry both here and in Winona Lake. Dan Salter - great follow up questions.

Straight Ahead!


Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (; Regional Coordinator for IBL West (, Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Jon Bell's picture

I know that ethical problems are not unique to Fundamentalism but I think that we do have some unique ethical issues. There has been such an emphasis on separation and on "good preaching" and "good church" that we have tacitly trained several generations that when things don't meet up to their standard of "good" you have a biblical mandate to separate and go off in search of something better.
I was part of a church that went through a similar situation as is given in the article where people secretly met with a pastor while part of our church to plan on "planting" new independent fundamental church just down the road. Signing a piece of paper would not have kept that pastor from doing that if he wanted too but a commitment to not do it would perhaps have kept him from undertaking to become involved with the malcontents in the first place.

Jon Bell
Bucksport, ME
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and

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