What is Ethics All About?

By Esther Byle Bruland, Ph.D., MATS ('81)

"Unlike other professionals, pastors relate to their members in a multitude of contexts. We are with our people in church, but also in their homes, at barbecues or softball games, or numerous other social settings, and our interactions with them (which are required and expected) relate to a wide range of interests and concerns. Our members also sometimes serve on boards or committees in the church that have authority regarding our salary, job performance and other matters that affect us personally and professionally. These waters can be very difficult to negotiate at times, especially when it comes to questions of honoring confidentiality and maintaining proper boundaries."

A Gordon-Conwell alumnus shared these thoughts in response to the question, "What seems to be the most recurrent ethical concern that you have faced in your ministry?" I asked several alumni this question and, under promise of anonymity, received a wide range of responses. Let's hear a few more.

"The struggle to wisely apply God's life guidelines versus lapsing into behavior that Jesus deems foolish demands constant attention," voiced one. A similar commitment to high personal ethical standards shone through most responses.

One alumnus focused on the intersection of these standards with the challenges of the pastoral role, noting, "It is so crucial for the pastor to constantly strive to be totally honest and truthful at all times. People almost assume, based on living in a culture filled with people in authority who lie, from politicians to preachers, that all authority figures lie." He reflected on the protection this high ethical resolve provides:

Over 25 years ago, at my first church, I learned the "hard way" that careless words spoken in jest could come back to haunt you. I found that my words could easily be twisted and used against me out of context. After that ministry of five wonderful years, I had a group of individuals, looking to take over control of the church, attack me. They went back over four years of ministry and brought up conversations and comments I had supposedly made(in many cases, I couldn't even remember the conversation) and used them to impugn my integrity. Since then, I have always been ultra-vigilant to make sure I am truthful and honest in my ministry in everything I say and write. It is a blessing to know that I have done everything I can to make sure I speak the truth, even though there will always be times when others try to interpret my comments differently or take them out of context.

Others echoed this theme of the need for ethical vigilance. A 30-year senior pastor focused on administrative vigilance:

Shepherding church staff brings its share of ethical challenges. I have found that most are Christ-centered and dedicated to serving others. On occasion, though, even with agreed-upon personnel guidelines, some will stray. For instance, my current office manager is a dedicated disciple of Jesus. By contrast, the office manager who was here when I came was discovered to have spent hours each day using church technology to pursue her personal sales on eBay...It is a delicate task to call for accountability when a staff member's attitudes or activities are in conflict with biblical directives and with a church's purpose and mission.

As these comments reveal, ethics has a broad scope, ranging from personal and interpersonal to corporate accountability and beyond. Add denominational challenges, and the mix gets even stickier. One pastor asked, "How do I reconcile my sense of call to work for renewal in [my denomination] with the apostate nature of that denomination on the national, conference and seminary levels?"

Perhaps it surprises some Contact readers that the top ethical concerns of these respondents have little to do with the headlines of the day. Much of ethics is like that. Hanna Arendt wrote strikingly of "the banality of evil." A great deal of the work of ethics lies in untangling evil and good in everyday situations.

In fact, I would like to suggest that much of ethics, as a discipline, involves helping us find our way through the tension-filled territory George Eldon Ladd characterized as the "already but not yet of the parousia." More recently, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. has reminded us that what we experience daily is Not the Way It's Supposed to Be. Ethics helps us map out this territory and pursue the good, the right, the true, the just, the virtuous, on paths characterized by these same qualities.

Long similarly looked at how Christians have applied norms, once derived. Again, he discerned three major historical approaches to this task: the institutional (including Catholic, Protestant and other expressions), the operational (including various applications of influence and power) and the intentional (including separatism and special groups). Long updated and expanded his original survey, including new attention given to virtue and character ethics.

This descriptive mapping reveals that Christians have taken various routes in deriving norms they would label as Christian. In his benchmark Survey of Christian Ethics, Edward L. Long, Jr. characterized three major routes: the deliberative (drawing especially upon reason and philosophy), the prescriptive (drawing especially upon prescriptive codes, including biblical revelation), and the relational (drawing especially upon a relationship with God as a primary source of norms).

"Not every route from ethical challenge to norm derivation to norm application is equally desirable, just as not all routes from points A to B on a map are optimal. My family learned this the hard way some years ago, when our well-meaning AAA agent in Michigan prescribed what looked like the best connector route between Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Breezewood. As we drove Route 30 on a dark, rainy November night, though, we white-knuckled and prayed our way through twists and turns that became iced with freezing rain in the higher elevations of the mountains we were crossing.

No, not all ethical routes are equally sound or desirable, and not all can deliver the destination they promise. Christians holding to the authority of the Bible seek routes rooted, as Dennis Hollinger puts it, "in the very nature and actions of God and in [a biblical] worldview . . . [and emerging] out of a personal relationship with God through Christ . . . nurtured and sustained in the context of the body of believers, the Church."

Sometimes, even given this sound basis, the way seems uncharted. My son was given a GPS device, the kind that does not receive automatic updates. He installed it in the family car, and I find it intriguing that en route to the grocery store in a newly-developed plaza, I seem to go right off the map into a gray area. This device depicts what it's like to confront new ethical challenges, such as those presented by the latest biotechnologies. We can traverse clearly demarcated routes to a point, but then we have to forge our way through new developments. Several articles in this issue of Contact model how Christian ethicists go about this task.

As ethical agents, we rarely have to think long and hard about the ethical decisions we make. Ideally, ethical decisions and actions flow from characters formed by lifelong habits of virtue, these being formed based on God's revealed Word, carefully interpreted and applied. But as fallen people, even biblically-formed people, we don't know or do the right thing without fail. The discipline of ethics helps us work systematically through the values, stakeholders, responsibilities, accountability systems, sources of norms, consequences and so on, in our ethical decision-making.

A denominational executive alumnus spotlights our need for this discipline:

In serving over 16 years in regional ministry, time and time again I have watched pastors breach a boundary that has brought untold pain and confusion to congregations large and small. No, it's not the "common" boundary and ethical issues that often seem to rise to the surface in our thinking: sexual or financial misconduct. Those are destructive ethical breaches for sure, but the one that came first to my mind is the boundary breach of failing to disengage from a congregation when God has called them away, either to a new ministry or into retirement." Often, under the guise of "pastoral concern for the flock," these leaders confuse the congregations where they have served and frustrate the new shepherd...[who ends up constantly] tripping over the not-so- distant "memory" of the previous pastor.

Reinhold Niebuhr famously said, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." So with the continuing work of ethics. Our capacity for justice enables us to do it, and our inclination to injustice requires that we do it. All the while, we anticipate the day of God's shalom, when this work will find its completion in "the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight . . . ."

As we traverse this tension-filled territory, not the way it is supposed to be, may we do so with humility...but also with conviction and hope, because in the already-but-not-yet world in which we make our ethical deliberations and decisions, the in-breaking of the Reign of God has begun.

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