Ethics and Consequences, Last Installment for Now

Okay, as I said in my earlier post, a good treatment of the specific ways that a biblical system of ethics and accountability should be implemented in today's church-in-the-world would merit a whole book -- to treat all the applicable scriptures and look at enough of the possible examples from real life today to do justice to the concepts. There are many treatments of ethics and church discipline out there, and so in reality the topic merits a library of books. I definitely "bit off more than I can chew" here, and am interested enough that perhaps I have hit upon a good doctoral dissertation topic, if I ever get that far. Meanwhile, I'll take a quick look at what I think are the essentials of how we might apply a biblical ethic in today's church through a few examples.

First, I want to restate the goal of ethics and accountability: our goal is the abundant life -- the righteous and satisfying life -- that Jesus calls us all to pursue, find, and enjoy. This looks like obedience to Him, both individually and corporately in our faith communities. This also is forward-looking rather than backward-looking, because we are all in a constant state of repenting from past sin and moving forward toward His abundant life -- and the only purpose of looking backward is to understand better how things really work so that we have a better map of reality as we push forward toward obedience.

So we need to take the best understanding we have of what obedience means -- for our sexual relationships, for our gender roles, for our marital commitments and relationships, for our child-rearing, for our emotional health, for our spiritual health, etc -- and construct out of that the social structure for our community and for our teaching. Part of that is based on a literal application of scripture. Part of that is based on understanding the story of humanity we see in scripture, and the principles it teaches us about life. Part of that is based on our traditions and common experience as the Church through the centuries. Part of that is just based on the human experience we share with all men and women. And all these parts form a coherent picture of how we should live if we want to make it easiest for most of us to follow Christ in obedience, individually and together.

Once we have that picture in mind -- of what obedience means in specific situations -- then we consider how we may best spur each other on to live that kind of life. Here I want to go back to my illustration from yesterday, of spanking a child who has already been hit by a car. We don't want to do that, do we? Rather, we want to keep the child from ever being in a situation where he could be easily hit by a car, and so we want to teach him to obey and teach him about avoiding dangerous situations when we aren't there to call him to obedience. We want to develop knowledge about the world in which he lives and the skill to navigate in it successfully, and we want to develop character. And we most definitely don't want to allow a situation where we have 20 children all running back and forth across traffic unrebuked, but then we spank the one who "gets caught" by being hit and injured.

In raising children, there is a role for punishment with consequences other than the ones provided directly by the results of any behavior. I will punish my child if I need to punish him in order to avoid more severe consequences if I allow a behavior to go unchecked. I do not want him to have the consequences of being hit by a car, or of falling off a cliff, or of having a mouth full of cavities. But punishment is not my only option in helping him avoid those consequences, is it? I hold onto my toddler if I am near a cliff or a street, and if he is about to escape my grip and make a dash toward danger, I don't just give him a verbal order to stop! I scoop him up and make sure he can't disobey me! So I use a whole set of tools to train up a child to understand life and function well in life, and punishment is just one of those tools, and a tool with a very limited function. It serves no good function if the consequences of an action are far harsher than any punishment for the action would be.

One of the most-used tools for exacting the behavior we want from our kids is to cultivate in them a desire to be a "good girl" or "good boy" so that Mommy and others will love them, and to instill a fear in them of being a "bad girl" or "bad boy" and making Mommy and others sad, or even of losing Mommy's and others' love. The shame of being bad is strong disincentive to many children to actions that would incur that label, and the relief of being good is a strong reward for walking the straight line and obeying the rules. And this whole way of training our kids -- and each other -- is not even always something that is expressed verbally or through actions, even. Sometimes it is just the underlying intuitive reality that colors our world and theirs, and we are not even conscious of it unless we stop and pay attention. The incentive to an unimpeded relationship is powerful, and the horror of a broken relationship is equally powerful. So it is tempting to use this power to control behavior through an intuitive or explicit approval or disapproval, or at least allow the dynamic to exist unchecked because it is easier.

In the same way, we can use approval and disapproval in our communities -- with great power for good or for evil, depending upon how closely our use of approval and disapproval is tied to a view of what is truly God's best for each of us. And, as with our children, the degree to which we speak or act on our approval or disapproval is not necessarily proportionate to the simple power of real approval or disapproval, sensed intuitively by each of us. Since much of this is outside our conscious control, we must master what is within our conscious control: a consistent practice of study and worship and service and all the other spiritual disciplines, so that our reactions can be formed by His Spirit.

The first and most necessary scriptural exercise of "church discipline" is for JUSTICE. We are called to protect the innocent and the victim of another's sin. We are not allowed to allow each other to injure each other or outsiders in grievous ways and not do something about it. So, even if there were no civil law to use to protect people from being murdered or abused or defrauded, we are called to take steps to protect those so abused and to impose consequences upon those who so abuse others.

When we couple these two uses of "discipline" -- to move us all toward Jesus' "abundant life" and to implement real justice in protecting the oppressed -- the historical uses of "church discipline" fall into an interesting array. We have some that do just that. We have some that completely neglect both. And we have some that are well-intentioned but misguided. We need to consider both our structure for discipline (as found in something like the book of order and more detailed administrative guides within presbyterianism) and our intuitive use of discipline within our individual churches. I am going to cut that whole discussion out of what I treat in a blog, and just jump on to looking directly at common problems for discipline within our real churches.

So on to my examples . . .

Let's start with our ordained and pastoral leaders. (In my church we call them our "program staff", as opposed to "support staff" who hold positions where they are not leading ministries.) These leaders, as well as our elders and deacons and others who take actual vows concerning ministry and behavior, know they are accountable to certain behavioral and ethical standards, and that they will face consequences if they violate these standards. This is not always as straight-forward and objective as we might desire, but it is not nearly as subjective as some of my following examples. So, if we find such people engaging in adultery or spousal abuse or embezzlement or many other types of behavior that are clearly in violation of the behavioral and ethical agreements that they knew they were making in assuming their positions, it is relatively straight-forward to apply appropriate discipline. A pastor who has preached upon the texts that govern his behavior and then acted in a way that goes against what he himself has preached has violated the trust of his congregation, and must be held accountable. A healthy process will hold him accountable for sin in a way that is proportionate to the sin, and will also provide a way for repentance and reconciliation and a renewed ministry for a leader who shows the life-results of real change. A healthy process will also permanently bar from ministry one who is not willing to conform his behavior to the beliefs of the congregation. And a healthy congregation and process will allow our leaders to be human, and admit normal human struggles without penalty when those struggles do not violate our trust. For instance, there should be no penalty for admitting marital conflict or depression or many other normal parts of life. But spousal abuse -- even just alleged spousal abuse than cannot be proved -- must be taken seriously, because of the need to protect and do justice.

Now, for support staff and volunteers in ministry: Here we have a wide variety of people with various backgrounds at various stages of spiritual commitment, performing a wide variety of services. We have janitors, technical people, child-care workers, "teachers" for different age-levels of our children with different goals for the time (ranging from pure child-care during times when adults must be in meetings to times of trying to instill some teaching to times where the Bible and Christian doctrine are very much being taught as the primary purpose of the time.) We have people who distribute food to the poor, people who mentor, people who help construct during missions projects, and many other types of service. And the motivations vary widely, as well. Some of these staff are motivated simply by a paycheck. Some desire to be in ministry. Some are in the middle and need a paycheck and also feel a call to do what they are being paid to do. And volunteers are motivated by many things, as well. Some simply said "yes' when asked because they don't ever say "no". Some desire to serve. Some desire the social connection. Some are investigating Christianity but do not yet have sound commitment. And there are many, many other motivations.

Holding this variety of people fairly accountable to any system of ethics or behavior requires that we completely abandon anything subjective, and make the process as completely objective as possible. They should each be given either an employee handbook to sign off on or a specific agreement as to their behavioral and ethical requirements in doing the specific job, with an explicit statement of the consequences of violating those behavioral standards. To assume any underlying understanding of a cultural consensus on their behavioral requirements and the consequences of deviation from that consensus would reflect ignorance and insensitivity on the part of those in leadership of these staff and volunteers. In this way, the man who was accused by his wife of spousal abuse -- or the woman who accused her husband of spousal abuse -- would have a good idea up-front of what the church's response would be to their continuation on staff or as a volunteer. So would the man arrested with a DUI or in possession of marijuana. So would the woman who confessed that she'd had an abortion. And so would the woman who confided that she had been abused by her long-time boyfriend when he had been released from prison and subsequently gotten pregnant and decided not to have an abortion. Because of the wide variety of people and backgrounds, it would violate trust to implement any discipline that had not been clearly set out at the beginning of the volunteer or support-staff relationship with the church.

The last set of people to consider are those who are attending the church -- either as members or not -- but are not engaged in any volunteer or paid service. Membership should also have its stated requirements, so that any church discipline is objectively administered, and not simply administered on a subjective basis. And those who become part of the community by their regular appearance at events, even though they never join the church, should also understand very clearly what is expected of them, if anything. No church can afford to assume that its positions and actions will be understood by anyone if they are not clearly explained in advance.

We are accountable for our part in a healthy community that is a true reflection of Christ's Kingdom for today -- right here and right now. We need to take that responsibility very seriously if we call ourselves His followers -- every single one of us!

May we each do our part to influence each other toward a greater experience of the freedom to live in His abundant life, and to protect the innocent from abuse and neglect and rejection. May none of us pretend that we don't see what we do see, and be judged in the end as accomplices!


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