Ethics

Ministry Conflict of Interest

Reprinted with permission from Baptist Bulletin May/Jun 2013. All rights reserved.

As a church leader, you are asked to counsel a man in your church who is having marital problems. In your first meeting, he tells you he is having an affair that he has no intention of ending. Do you have a duty to disclose this to the other leaders to work toward reconciliation? If his wife is a part of your church, do you also have an obligation to her? Do you have a duty of confidentiality to the counselee? If you didn’t disclose to him that you might be obliged to discuss his disclosure with church leaders, and if no one signed a waiver of confidentiality, you are in the middle of a conflict of interest.

The importance of the broader issue—ministerial ethics—should be obvious: an ethical failure can ruin a ministry. I recently wrote Doing Right while Doing Good with Kenneth Bickel to show how ethics is ultimately about choices. We debate the merits between courses of action because we seek the right choice. When we choose poorly (contrary to Scripture), we have failed. Consequences might include irrelevance, fractured relationships, or even the end of a ministry.

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Book Review - The Doctrine of the Christian Life

For those who are familiar with and have enjoyed John Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series this third volume, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, will be a welcome addition. This book deals with the Ten Commandments and their relationship with ethics. While one might not naturally think that the doctrine of the Christian life is summed up or founded in the Ten Commandments, Frame connects the two when he describes the core of the Christian life “as living under God’s law, in God’s world, in the presence of God himself” (p. 3). Thus, if the Christian life is lived “under God’s law” and the Ten Commandments are God’s law, then the latter provides the foundation for the former. Therefore, this book provides the foundation of the Christian life as seen through ethics and should not be seen as an exhaustive treatment of the biblical doctrine of the Christian life.

Part One: Introductory Considerations

At the outset Frame seeks to define ethics and explain what he sees as its interchangeable relationship to doctrine and theology. Avoiding, though not dismissing, theoretical or propositional definitions, Frame defines these terms in relation to their practical nature. In this light both doctrine and theology are defined as “the application of the Word of God to all areas of life” (p. 9). For Frame “ethics is theology as a means of determining which persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessing and which do not” (p. 10). In the second chapter Frame turns to defining and briefly discussing numerous related terms such as immoral, value, norm, virtue and duty, just to name a few.

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Taking Advantage or Caring?

Aesop told the tale of the Peasant and the Apple Tree.

A peasant had an apple tree growing in his garden, which bore no fruit, but merely served to provide a shelter from the heat for the sparrows and grasshoppers which sat and chirped in its branches. Disappointed at its barrenness, he determined to cut it down, and went and fetched his axe for the purpose. But when the sparrows and the grasshoppers saw what he was about to do, they begged him to spare it, and said to him, “If you destroy the tree we shall have to seek shelter elsewhere, and you will no longer have our merry chirping to enliven your work in the garden.” He, however, refused to listen to them, and set to work with a will to cut through the trunk. A few strokes showed that it was hollow inside and contained a swarm of bees and a large store of honey. Delighted with his find he threw down his axe, saying, “The old tree is worth keeping after all.”

The moral of the story: Utility is most men’s test of worth.

As I thought about Aesop’s fable, I thought how often utility is the rule. Some people are involved in church primarily to receive, not to give. Others view their spouses as servants or keep points as to who owes whom. Countless Christians serve God only for personal benefit. Utility is most folks’ test of worth. But—Praise the Lord—there are many exceptions to this rule.

The Bible speaks against our attempts to take advantage of others

The Bible warns us against utilitarian thinking, but urges us to think in terms of reciprocity, giving, receiving, submitting to one another, etc. Scripture also warns us about abusing our authority or exalting ourselves at the cost of another.

The Bible warns us frequently about taking advantage of others.

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The Idea of a Standard of Ethics

Not long ago, I was paging through my copy of Voice magazine. The issue theme was “measuring church maturity,” and I wanted to see what the issue’s writers had to say on the topic. For whatever reason, church maturity didn’t suggest the idea of “ethics” to my mind. So I was surprised to see Ken Bickel’s article calling for renewed emphasis on pastoral ethics (posted here yesterday), and even more surprised to find two pages devoted to a two-part ethical standard for IFCA members.

I am not an IFCA member, and—believe it nor not—they haven’t hired me to recruit for them! But I have a lot of respect for these guys. I offer the ethical standard below as an example of the idea of a standard of ethics—an idea that more fundamentalist organizations should seriously consider, and an idea more fundamentalist pastors should seriously consider as well (present company included).

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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.

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