Thursday, April 14, 2016

Biblical Templates of Moral Failure

I preached on the moral failure of Christian leaders. In that sermon, I put forward 5 templates of moral failure that appear in the Bible. These templates are still relevant in the life of churches. Below is my offer. This isn't perfect or a complete idea.

5 Templates of moral failure for Christian leaders
  1. Pharisee Template
  2. Sadducee Template
  3. False Teacher Template
  4. Ezekiel Shepherd Template
  5. Aaron Template
Pharisee Template
Moral failure: Using tradition and rules to manipulate people
Modern example: Legalism without compassion
Biblical examples: Matthew 23:4,13,16,18; 12:1-13; 15:3,14; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 17:1; 14:1-6

In this template, a leader uses traditional boundaries or legalistic boundaries to dictate how a group of followers should exhibit their faith life. It could apply to pastors or lay leaders within a local congregation.

The problem is that tradition serves to flavor the way a people live out a faith life. Rules define the boundaries of a community. Neither of these are static, rigid, or permanent. As time and culture shape the people, so the community is also transformed over time.

The pharisees in the New Testament used both tradition and rules to control the daily life of the people. Jesus accuses them of missing the point of the law. In contemporary settings, legalism is used to keep people within a certain set of lifestyle choices. The is little grace or forgiveness shown.

In worst case scenarios, this is how cults are formed. They have a rigid set of rules that are established around a central authority. Breaking the rules is usually accompanied by increasing levels of “discipline”.

In simple cases, it may be nothing more than applying guilt or shame to an individual for behaviors. This should not be confused with accountability, reprove/rebuke, or the true spirit of discipline. Someone who falls into the pharisee template would use guilt and shame to bring another person into line with their opinion of how people should live. If allowed to get out of control, this could shape the entire congregation.

Sadducee Template
Moral failure: Manipulating the standards to fit in with cultural, political, or outside forces
Modern example: Compromising values or principles to remain relevant
Biblical examples: James 5:1-5; Philippians 1:15-17; Revelation 3:15-17

In this template, a leader would allow values or principles to be compromised. Values and principles refer to moral and ethical foundations that are defined within the community as necessary. This could apply to pastors or lay leaders.

There is nothing wrong with adapting to the environment in order to remain relevant within a cultural setting. The problem arises with central moral or ethical values are allowed to be compromised. The church has to remain true to the message while being able to communicate it through various methods.

The Sadducees were a branch of the religious leadership within the New Testament era. They were also responsible for being the bridge with political groups and bridging the Jewish and Roman cultural settings. They were the economic upper caste within the Jewish society. They also were the liaison with the Roman empirical government. They did not agree with the Pharisees on numerous theological issues. It would appear that Jesus was pointing in part to the Sadducees when condemning the rich and the powerful. They also did not hold to observance of purity (and possibly dietary) laws as the Pharisees.

In congregations, this could be witnessed as pastors not meeting the ethical standards of their ordination in order to “fit in” with a community or group of people. It could apply to lay leaders who violate the ethical standards of the church in order to maintain business connections or cultural influence.

False Teacher Template
Moral failure: Refusing to study and learn beyond their opinions and influencing others against accepted authority
Modern examples: Misunderstanding or misapplying a biblical/theological precept and out of that error leading people to reject accepted authority regarding that issue
Biblical examples: 2 Peter 2:1; Galatians 1:6; 3:1; 4:9; 5🕛:12;6:12; 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 2:14-18; Titus 1:10-11

The problem develops when a teacher draws people away from fundamentals. They assume a position based on an error of understanding or a lack of study. Any effort to correct them or get them to learn beyond their opinion is met with hostility. They also attempt to influence others to join in their position.

In many cases, false teaching centers on taking a particular subject out of context of the entirety of scriptural witness regarding that issue. The teacher then emphasizes their position without taking other teaching on that subject seriously. They will become their own “authority” on that subject and teach others how important that is. They will ignore the established authority of the witness of the Church or Traditional teaching.

There is a danger in identifying false teachers in contemporary settings. In the apostolic era, false teaching could be compared to the teaching of Jesus. As the apostles were sent out as the authority on what Jesus said, any message that was taught only had to agree with the apostolic witness. Over the course of 1900 years, though, there have been increasing layers of Church Tradition and Authority. To identify a false teacher, they have to be judged according to the years of Tradition and Authority.


The diagram is a simple attempt to show the levels of Tradition and Authority one would have to measure a false teaching. The central message would be that of Christ's teaching as revealed through the Gospel. After that would be the apostolic message of the early letters in the rest of the New Testament. Following that, we would compare to early writings of Bishops of the Church and the Councils that established doctrinal boundaries. From those Councils, the larger Traditions developed that would become the arms of Christianity we have today (Orthodox, Catholic, Oriental, and to a degree Protestant). Within each arm we would explore the distinct Theological perspectives that have developed. And, finally, we measure the parameters of the Denomination.

A teacher may seem to be teaching from a position of error if only one area is emphasized. All levels of Tradition and Authority need to be considered before claiming that someone is teaching in error.

Ezekiel Shepherd Template
Moral failure: Taking advantage of the people that are entrusted to a leader for their own benefit; abuse
Modern examples: Leaders who abuse their followers through financial, spiritual, sexual, emotional means
Biblical examples: Ezekiel 34; Matthew 18:4-14

Ezekiel is called to cry out against the “shepherds” of Israel. The following judgment seems to identify these shepherds as the leaders of the people. It does not distinguish whether these are religious, political, or cultural. It would seem that the leaders are taking advantage of the people to increase their own well-being. One telling line is the condemnation of the hard and severe domination of the people.

With “pastoral abuse” now an identified class of moral failure, we can find this template still being lived out in churches. It does not apply only to clergy, though. A lay leader can also be guilty of abusing those that they lead.

Aaron Template
Moral failure: A leader is manipulated by the people into compromising the moral and ethical standards
Modern example: A pastor puts themselves into a morally compromised position by succumbing to influence of a morally compromised portion of a congregation
Biblical example: Exodus 32; Galatians 2:11-13

Aaron and Peter, in the biblical examples, allowed the people around them to influence their leadership. Aaron gave the Hebrews an idol. Peter began to judge the Gentiles. Both of these individuals are personally responsible for their actions. They cannot blame those that were influencing them. But in community as connected as the Hebrews or the Christians, when one side influences another because of their moral failure, then we cannot allow one side to accept all of the blame.

In this template, a leader is coerced into violating the moral and ethical standards because the environment becomes difficult to lead within. The leader, in an effort to maintain their “authority”, gives into the pressure to conform to the larger group. Their authority was already in question and their ability to lead is already compromised. The resulting moral failure is magnified because the leader is considered to be an example, a role-model. This isn't just a moral failure of an individual. This is a moral failure of the community.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Ambition in Ministry

In the past Sunday's sermon, I made the suggestion that the American church culture has been de-centralized as a moral leader. I also suggested that American church culture could become a leader in culture with regard to morality. The first step, says me, is that Christians should stop following Christian leaders who are not leading from a moral place. The comment brought some conversation up at lunch. The next sermon will deal more directly with this issue.

The conversation and the subject bring up a side subject: does ambition have a role in pastoral ministry?

I want to offer you a little insight into my psyche. I am going to share with you a conversation those little voices in my head have somewhat regularly. It goes something like this:

You know, I think I deserve a bigger church, a better appointment. I have been at this job for almost 20 years. I think I have learned enough to handle a church with a staff and bigger budget. I see colleagues who have fewer years of experience, have not been ordained as long, I know I could do better than. People tell me how good a pastor/preacher/teacher I am so I think I should get a chance to showcase those skills. 

You know, you have a lot to learn from people. You have not experienced a wide range of ministry settings. There are pastors who have spent much longer in ministry who can teach you a lot. There are times you cannot handle the little tasks successfully so maybe you should focus on that. Other ministers are just as equipped, just as talented in other areas, just as capable as you are. You are not here to show off  your skills. You are here, where you are appointed to serve people. Your skills are given to you so that you can help others become better and they need you right here.
 That conversation happens sometimes. Not verbatim. I'm just sharing the two sides of it. But it is a very real struggle for me. I am not immune to the call of ambition - move up/make more/be noticed.

I believe that I have kept the first voices arguments and sentiments under control. I look upon the work that I have done believing that I have subjected the desires to move up/make more/be noticed to a more humble attitude of serving where I am. Only those around me, in those churches I have been appointed, can answer that with authority. I will not claim to be perfect in my humility nor in my servant hood. But it is my hope that I have served out of the right spirit - a called servant.

But what do we ministers do with our ambition? It seems petty and selfish/self-centered to drag those thoughts into the light. It sounds shallow and weak to desire to be noticed and rewarded. Even Jesus brings this out. "Don't seek to sit at the head of the table. Let the host find you at the far end and invite you up. Otherwise, you will be shamed when asked to move down." (Luke 14:7-11 if you want chapter and verse) Ambition is one of our human qualities that pokes its head up into our lives.

Should pastors be immune to ambition? I don't think that is realistic. I can say that I experience it as a temptation. It leads me to feelings of ill will. It brings me to a place of frustration. It can lead me to resentment. So, at least for me, it is a path to sin. And I have to fight against it. I have to push it away.

That hasn't always been the case. I had to learn over time that I don't deserve what the lure of ambition offers. I had to see that the greater path, and reward, was in the path of serving where I was placed. I earnestly feel that the greater calling I have experienced is not to be moved up/making more/getting noticed. I feel that my gifts, skills, heart is oriented to the people where I am. I realize that in the clear moments. I realize that when the fits of temptation dissipate. I am reminded of that every time I see the faces of the people I serve, the community I live, the gracious acceptance of the churches I am appointed to.

Today, the temptation is weak. I can speak with a clear heart and mind about this. But when the temptation hits again, I will honestly feel that I deserve more. All I can do is ask that those who are around me lift me up in prayer. Help me, before God, to remember that the most important thing, the greatest work, the most potential reward is found in being who God has called me to be and gifted me to become in the midst of the people where I have been sent.