By Josh Bryant
The last week has been absolutely insane. I’ve been a longtime advocate for adoption reform because of unethical adoption practices I unearthed as an adoptive father and attorney who has helped others through an adoption. Churches rightly promote adoption. James 1:27 requires us to care for the orphan, and Jesus told us that the Kingdom belonged to little children (Mt. 19:14). There are times however that our zeal for the orphan blinds us to the sin of those who claim to help in the process of adoption.
Let me tell you the story in a nutshell. My colleagues and I have been aware for some time now that certain adoption practitioners were preying on a marginalized community in my area. Last week, one of those practitioners was indicted on sixty-two criminal counts in three states related to fraudulent adoption practices. He was transporting pregnant women from overseas whom he’d offered $10,000 to place their child up for adoption, housing them in very tight quarters which required some to sleep on the floor, and overall valuing these women only insomuch as they had a commodity in their wombs that he wanted to put up for adoption to his profit. You can read more here. I’ve had the unhappy privilege of working with the team helping clean up the mess left by his practices and arrest.
The good citizen model of organizational ethics analyzes conduct as ethical or unethical by whether the actions constitute good citizenship. It is controversial because people can disagree, and those disagreements can be come political. This is a case in which I do not think there should be any disagreement. Churches which encourage Christians to be foster or adoptive parents are good citizens. Without people to take care of the orphan and abused children, the state is in a bind. Foster care numbers routinely exceed available beds. To obey Scripture and care for the orphan is not only classically ethical, it is simply good citizenship.
Urging Christians to be cautious in working with attorneys and adoption agencies does not diminish the value of civic service churches do when encouraging Christians to adopt. In a 2016 article, the CEO of the National Council for Adoption Chuck Johnson lamented the jeopardy the institution of adoption was in due to declining numbers and unethical practices. Put simply, people are wondering if the process of adoption can be done ethically.
Some may disagree, but the ends cannot justify the means. Christian ethics is deontological, meaning the rules determine the results, are the basis of our actions, are good regardless of the result, and serve as the framework within which the result is calculated. In short, the rules precede the result; the ends cannot justify the means. Generalistic ethics such as this say that a person’s actions depend on the result of those actions. Under that theory, murder is good if the victim was a serial rapist. Surely we cannot approve of a person taking justice into his or her own hands on any biblical basis. Neither can we approve of the selling of a child that would most likely have a better life being adopted than not. While churches should promote adoption and foster care, Christians must use caution when selecting those with whom they obtain help in that process. Church leaders must urge the same.
By Josh Bryant
In a blog last week, I described five ethical questions for church leaders to ask. As a recap, the first was about as simple as it gets: what would God want? This is the classical understanding of organizational ethics as it applies to the church. The question requires church leaders to develop a systematic or biblical theology regarding the question at hand. What does the Bible say that would help answer the question of how to handle sexual abuse?
The question may seem like a no brainer, but I’ve received two phone calls in as many days about situations in which pastors told victims that it would be best to handle something internally rather than appropriately address an issue of sexual abuse. This conclusion and others like it are usually based on one fallacy: viewing Scripture through a pinhole. Typically, the verse people point me to when arguing with me over whether they can keep an issue of abuse internal to the church is 1 Timothy 5:19, which reads “Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses.”
One verse is not a system. Broadly speaking, systems require more than one moving part working together. Unless the rest of Scripture is totally silent on the topic, we cannot stop with this one verse as a dispositive answer.
We certainly cannot pick this one verse out of 1 Timothy and read nothing around it. Taking verses out of context in this manner is a fatal exegetical error. If we read the entire passage we’ll notice that this verse is set in contrast to “good leaders…who work hard at preaching and teaching” (v. 17) and followed by commands to publicly rebuke those who sin (v. 20) and to be cautious and deliberate in how the church appoints elders (v. 22). Paul reminded Timothy to be impartial (v. 21) and that some people’s sin remains hidden (v. 24). When a church leader’s sin surfaces, we must take steps to deal with it. We cannot say under the circumstances that there are not enough witnesses and dismiss someone alleging sexual abuse against a church leader. Churches must act, but what must they do?
Most leaders who prefer to sweep things under the rug do not consider other passages, such as Romans 13. There Paul instructed the church in Rome to teach submission to governing authorities and explained why they should so teach. “…government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.” (v.4b-5).
Classical organizational ethics require the church to turn the criminal conduct of the elder over to law enforcement. We must be able to separate the man from the office. While we may be able to seek grace for not exercising church discipline immediately because of a lack of witnesses (although that would be unwise legally), we cannot do so for failing to hear the accusation against a church leader and to turn it over to the authorities. As Paul said, “the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.” (v. 2). Too many church leaders are experiencing the consequences of their choice to resist submission to authorities by not reporting crime to law enforcement.
by Josh Bryant
In a previous article, I described 5 questions that church leaders need to ask in terms of making a decision that would result in the church being called ethical. In reality, no one church leader makes all the decisions that result in an organization's actions. The Senior Pastor, staff, key lay leaders, other leaders, and volunteers all act in a manner that reflects on the church itself. These actions are the actions of the church as much or more than they are the actions of one person. How then do we restrain the conduct of the organization? In short, a strategic ethics program.
Many would say that the church of all places needs an ethics program the least. Churches don't need policies and procedures because no volunteer would intentionally harm the church or have the authority to do anything that would. Churches don't need to worry about violating obscure laws because churches are "small fish" compared to big corporations. Churches don't need codes of conduct for volunteers because we all follow Christ and will do the right thing.
These statements simply could not be further from the truth. More and more lay counseling programs are popping up that are poorly supervised and trained. Volunteers are operating chainsaws, heavy equipment, and automobiles full of children. Churches aren't so small any more. Mega churches and multisite churches are growing in number, and many times in size. As churches grow, budgets grow. Volunteers will always do the right thing? Tell that to the churches and charities that will lose $5 billion this year alone to fraud and theft. We must lead our churches to be very intentional in structuring the church's conduct. Here are four levels of ethics to strive for, each building on the one before it.
Level 1 Church - Compliance Driven Ethics
At this level, your church's method of ethical behavior is driven by a need to protect the organization. You have policies and procedures in place designed to meet the government's requirements of the church. You have rules and disciplinary procedures for staff members to enforce compliance with your code of conduct. The focus of your ethics program is all about "following the rules."
In some regards, most churches find themselves in this area of the spectrum or below. Far too many churches do not have any policies and procedures. Too many church leaders are completely unaware that their church is violating several laws that could result in serious harm to the church. This state of blissful ignorance has been tolerated and ignored for a long time, but we are starting to see that tolerance end. Churches have control over staff by threats of being fired, but they do not have the same "control" over their volunteers. Most have such a volunteer shortage that they will not fire a volunteer at any cost. In order to fully meet the requirements of even a compliance driven ethics programs, these are areas that the church must address.
Level 2 Church - Risk Driven Ethics
At this level, your church has developed a more sophisticated system for measuring risks and mitigating them. You have resources assigned to tackle them. You have begun to create an ethical culture at the church among staff and volunteers, but your efforts are still very inward focused. The church is more concerned with the effect of the conduct of its employees and volunteers on the church than the effect of that conduct on the outside world. In other words, you're still acting to protect the church.
Very few churches exist at this level. Even those with well developed policy manuals usually do not have a great system of measuring what risk is out there and how to ethically mitigate that risk. Very few churches have an employee with the responsibility of doing so. Very few churches are employing quality risk assumptions and liability waivers that one would expect at this level. Most churches are comfortable either ignoring the issue or simply ensuring staff comply with the rules.
Level 3 Church - Reputation Driven Ethics
At first glance the name of this level sounds prideful and self-centered, but it isn't. We want the church to look good to the outside world. We want what Jesus offers to be attractive without the church making it less attractive.
At this level, the church is paying attention to the ramifications of its decisions on the world around it - those directly impacted by its actions. Instead of a tyrant enforcing policy on staff, the church pays attention to what would make their lives better. The church focuses on how it can make its members and guests lives better. When the church is concerned about its reputation - not pridefully but for the cause of Christ - its relationships with employees, volunteers, members, and guests grow stronger. Employees and volunteers are more productive. More members volunteer.
I can hear you already - "we are focused on a lot of these things." There are many churches who do very well meeting ethical obligations at this level. But statistics show that most church staff are still severely under paid. We are concerned with providing a great worship experience and spiritual growth for our members and guests, but people are coming less frequently. These are our goals, there is just no ethics program attached to them. There is nothing that governs the church's conduct to make sure this happens. There are no policies and procedures governing parking lot greeters or the process by which a guest speaker is vetted and approved. Furthermore, all of this is built on a foundation that is crumbling at best. Each level builds on the previous one, so if we do not fix those problems, we could very easily find the comfy chair of our laurels that we are resting in get kicked out from underneath us by a litigious, hostile world.
Level 4 Church - Culture Driven Ethics
At this level, your church is adding value to its community and to other churches. Your church is considering future generations and people who have not yet been born who will worship at your church decades from now. Some believe that to reach this level your church must be concerned with its environment through recycling programs, clean energy usage, carbon footprints and more. None of these concerns are bad or unbiblical, even if you do not believe in global warming (I offer no opinion on the subject). Your community not only benefits from your church, it trusts your church. As a result, your church's conduct optimally achieves its mission.
Here you have policies and procedures for the entire church. Every operation is performed within the same parameters every time. As such, the community begins to rely on and trust those operations. The chances of variable conduct derailing the train and causing a legal disaster are minimized. You have a code of ethics that is part of your DNA. You talk about it, teach it, publish it, and live it. Your church's conduct is intentionally designed to bring value to the Kingdom of God, to do everything it is obliged to do, to take care and shepherd those God has entrusted to it, to fulfill the Great Commission, and to be a trusted and valuable member of society. This is the kind of church ethics program we should strive for.
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.