by Josh Bryant
People talk an awful lot about business ethics. Not as many talk about church ethics. It's a bit silly to argue that businesses are moral actors but churches are not. So why aren't we talking more about church ethics? Here are 5 ethical questions church leaders should be asking about every decision.
1. What would God want?
Call me Captain Obvious. In business ethics, one of the questions in ethical decision making is "what brings the most value to the owner of the business?" This is the classical theory of business ethics. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. We who are in it have been bought with a price. He owns it all! So naturally, we must make decisions based upon what would bring the most benefit to him.
Not so fast. It's easy to say that, but we don't have to look too hard to see churches neglecting this necessary question. Would God want us sweeping sexual assault claims under the rug? Would He want us quietly dismissing pastors who abuse children without saying more? Would He want us to be unwelcoming to someone who has a different color skin or dresses differently than us? Of course not. If churches are going to make ethical decisions, we need to follow the advice of Oscar Hammerstein and "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start."
2. What agreements are relevant to this decision?
Another theory of business ethics is the contract theory. In essence, ethical decisions are those which keep all of our agreements; unethical decisions violate an agreement. On its face this seems ridiculous for the church, but let's dig a little deeper. Have we made agreements with God? Is the church not in covenant with Him? Have we not pledged fidelity to Christ such that as Cyprian said, "The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure" and He fidelity to us when he said "I will be with you always"?
Have we made agreements with each other? In a global context we cannot choose fellow believers any more than we get to choose our brothers and sisters. However, we do make agreements in the local context. Each local church is built upon a set of collective agreed upon beliefs and practices. I've heard a story of when new members wanted to change the fundamental character of a local church, to which the pastor replied, "we did not join you, you joined us."
We must ask what we have decided together to believe. What is it that we practice fundamentally? What decision best benefits the body of Christ in this local context? What agreements have we made with our neighbors, vendors, suppliers, service providers, communities, and others? What decision affects those agreements most beneficially? These are the questions this theory uses to ascertain right and wrong, and it is not completely inapplicable to the church.
3. Who is affected by this decision?
This question addresses the stakeholder theory of organizational ethics. In any decision that the church makes, there will be groups of stakeholders that are affected. Who are the stakeholders? Every individual person in the church is an individual stakeholder. You can organize them in many different ways. We tend to organize people by gender, age, and ministry (i.e. women's ministry, young adult's class, choir, etc.).
We cannot just stop with our church though. There are stakeholder groups in the community - the lost, those who depend on the church's food pantry, those who own or use property surrounding our church, and state and local governments. In some situations, local law enforcement may be a stakeholder (i.e. church security). In other situations, a youth group that you haven't even heard of yet may be stakeholders who call and ask for a place to serve on a short term missions trip. Your association and network of churches are stakeholders. As church leaders run down this list of stakeholders, they must determine how a decision affects these stakeholders.
4. What advances the gospel?
This is another question that seems so obvious it is hardly worth mentioning, but it is probably one of the most important. The agency theory of organizational ethics determines a course of action as ethical based on whether it helps or hinders the purpose of the organization. The decision that advances the gospel, promotes worship and fellowship, and secures spiritual growth and service opportunities for guests and members is the most ethical decision to make.
It is easy for churches to be short-sighted when answering this question. Some would argue that an incident of abuse must be kept quiet because for that to become public would hinder the gospel. I counter that when the allegation comes out (as it invariably will), the fact that the church swept it under a rug will harm the church far more than had they dealt with it at the time.
5. What makes our church a good citizen?
This one tends to be a bit more controversial. When people start discussing questions of good citizenship things can sometimes devolve into a political discussion. Some will say that the church has a moral obligation under the citizen theory to be environmentally friendly while others would argue the opposite. But this question is a bit more complicated than that.
Is your church part of an organization or network of churches? If so, how would this decision affect that network? Does your church impact your community? If so, how would this decision have a positive impact? How would this decision affect our standing with our community, state, and national leaders? Does it submit to their authority or is it rebellious? Do our policies obey the law? These are all questions that must be considered when making an ethical decision.
A question I routinely get is, "what if the answers to these questions point to different conclusions?" My response will typically be, "Are you sure they do?" Most of the time, these questions will all point in the same direction. However, if the decision is to obey an order of the government to stop preaching on Sunday mornings, obviously it appears that the citizen theory conflicts with the agency and classical theories at least. One way to overcome the problem is to ask, "would we really be a good citizen by ceasing to preach the gospel?" My answer would be a resounding "no." Another way to overcome it is as James and Peter did - let the government decide whether it is right obey it over God, but we cannot help but preach Jesus. Lastly, we need to understand that even in the easiest of analyses that we are guided by the Holy Spirit. A set of five questions cannot put Him in a formulaic box. He is God. We must be guided by His Spirit to make good decisions.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.