March 1, 2020

A Church Both Wise and True

Self-applied labels rarely have a strong adhesive.

Bill Knott

An old—and favorite—editorial

cartoon from another era portrays two duck hunters pushing through chest-high cattails in their quest for game.

Unseen by them, but in the flattened foreground of our view, is their bloodhound, engaged in a game of poker with a brace of shady-looking mallards.

“Ethics?” one hunter calls out. “Ethics? Where is that dog, Ethics?”

The “ouch” the political cartoonist intended isn’t easily forgotten, for he cleverly reminded us that even those charged with ensuring ethics in our government and society have frequently compromised themselves. At a time when every smartphone owner may be a journalist and every video clip may go viral, the ethical lapses of those who lack internal, moral consistency are visible to everyone. Trust isn’t trending. Expectations are forever lowering.

So it’s imperative that thoughtful, sober-minded believers—in the pulpit, in the pew, and in the committee room—begin to unapologetically assert that they require the ethics of Scripture and the ethics of Jesus from those they ask to lead them in their end-time mission.

Self-applied labels rarely have a strong adhesive.

This isn’t a diatribe—or even a “dig”—at the tens of thousands of men and women who lead in local Adventist congregations, conferences, unions, departmental services, or executive offices. I’ve been blessed through 40 years of ministry to meet and appreciate hundreds—thousands—who use their Spirit-given gifts at great personal expense; when perhaps they should be sleeping; when others have left jobs and responsibilities undone. I’ve seen the deacons who arrive an hour before Sabbath School to shovel 18 inches of snow; the grandmothers who still volunteer to teach in Cradle Roll; the elders who lead by visiting faithfully; the pastors who log 5,000 miles a month connecting isolated, lonely members and congregations. For them, I have—and always will have—enormous admiration.

But no one can deny that the presence of all those smartphones and the rapidity of global communication have also made us painfully aware that some we’ve asked to serve have missed the first and foundational lessons about their accountability for how they lead. The footprints made by leaders with “clay feet” are distressingly familiar. In some places, money goes missing; employees are summarily dismissed because they disagree with leaders; the divinely-inspired system of church governance is abridged or even ignored by leaders intent on securing a personal agenda.

If these were only occasional incidents, we might plausibly identify them as the failures of men and women who are of “like passions” to us (Acts 14:15, KJV). We know we are sinners, and even when they disappoint us, we recognize that our leaders are sinners as well.

But it’s the increasing tide—some say, the brazenness—of ethical misdeeds that requires us to go beyond otherwise charitable assessments. At a time when the failure of ecclesiastical and faith-based organizations to hold leaders accountable for ethical behavior is literally blaring from every laptop and television set, an unwillingness to set our own house in order is effectively a denial of our mission and a surrender to the spirit of the age.

I may think myself—and even call myself—an ethical person, believing I know my heart and my behaviors to be uncorrupted. But I’m actually the least qualified to judge myself as truly ethical, for self-applied labels rarely have a strong adhesive. I’m ethical as a leader if those I lead consider me to be ethical: it’s a judgment of my church community, not a personal report. Ethical leadership certainly begins with an intense personal commitment to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV).* But only the gathered church can accurately discern whether these norms have actually been met in how I lead.

The key corollary of true leadership in any age is accountability to those led. When transparency is required—when we truly listen to “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 3:6, NRSV)—ethical leadership, godly witness, and effective mission will all flourish.

That’s why the church I want to belong to is . . . ethical.

* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.