Ministry Ethics: Power & Authority

Part I. Authority and Power

Authority and power are interrelated and serve as the pivotal benchmark for ministerial ethics. The proper use of power coupled with authority wields enormous influence on congregations and motivates others to proper discipleship and productivity. However, the potential for abuse is vast and susceptible to ministry leadership and should never be taken for granted or looked upon without “fear and trembling.” 

Authority is the ability to lead a group of people or specific individuals with the intent to serve their needs or desires positively. The key to that sentence is: serve. The proper authority serves those he/she has authoritative power over; “authority is earned and not assumed.”[1] In addition, power is the ability to assert authoritative promulgation with effective and positive outcomes. One earns authority in Church settings and uses his/her power to assert the congregation, exact doctrinal change, and help heal those he/she is leading with the constant discipleship of Christ as the model. Jesus is the agent of change, not the power one wields or the authority one has. Regarding Church, authority outside of the triune God comes from the axis of servitude. Jesus should be the example of power and authority: “He (Jesus) appeared on the stage of history in the role of a servant, the man for others, who asked nothing for himself—no home, no money, no leisure, no privacy. He had everything to give and he gave it freely.”[2] This is becoming less and less apparent in the modern church here in America.

Authority is exercised with integrity when God is the focal point of all authoritative directives. Within ministry settings, authority takes on a different role than secular authority. God-centered worship is the focal point of authority; therefore, those members brandishing that authority need to take God into consideration when exercising it. Members of the Church with authority always should set Christ-like discipleship as the base for his/her power. It is out of service that we lead; to serve our God in obedience, serve each other with love, and serve ourselves out of humility. When God-centered worship is displaced with man-centered worship, our concept of self is out of order and our power diminishes and ultimately our authority is called into question.

 Leadership is exalted to serve those he/she is leading. Service is the source of authoritative power. Proper service calls for persuasion and techniques not useful in secular settings; “effective ministers do not order; they persuade.”[3] Christ showed others the truth, he did not demand it of them but persuaded them to a life of spiritual formation and holiness.

As in any setting, leaders will always attempt to abuse power, either authoritatively or through directives or persuasively through the pulpit. This slowly starts to evolve a totalitarian style of ministerial leadership that pervades and plagues a large portion of Christian ministries throughout the world. We have seen this politically throughout the decades: “Dictatorships may be the most efficient form of government, but it leaves out the consent of the governed.”[4] This is also true of the Church. Many parishioners find it impossible to contend with church leadership and when they do it is looked upon as an act of mutiny.

As mentioned earlier, “In both political life and voluntary organizations, leadership depends on the consent of the governed.”[5] Once the congregation or “flock” begins to realize this abuse of power, all hell breaks loose. This has been happening year after year in the American style of ministry. Televangelist has been exposed as money-hungry charlatans who play on the emotions of the less fortunate. The Catholic and Protestant leaders have also been found guilty of abusing power with sexual malfeasance. Knowing ourselves and our propensity to sin is an integral part of protecting ourselves from the abuses of power. John Calvin wrote, “nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.”[6]  The knowledge of God is compassion, love, and grace. The knowledge of ourselves is greed, lust, and self-centeredness.

Part II – Code of Ethics for Healthy Relationships

Here is an example of a Code of Ethics for healthy relationships with a Church, parachurch organization, and/or vocational setting that puts Christ as the standard barrier of ethical behavior:

“As a member of non-profit leadership and co-existing member of a faith-based community, I pledge to uphold and adhere to ministerial ethics and biblical doctrine that separates, evaluates, and propitiates healthy relationships within the constructs and frameworks of these organizations:

  1. I will always put the needs of the group above the needs of myself.
  2. I will always treat each individual with the same amount of respect.
  3. I will never engage in personal relationships outside of the constructs of the group.
  4. I will never accompany any member of the group to a bar or restaurant with the sole purpose of drinking.
  5. I will not engage in a personal relationship with extenuating members of any group member’s family without express permission.
  6. I will not lie or bear false witness to any member of the group or organization.
  7. I will not engage in personal relationships outside of the organization or community with any member of the opposite sex.
  8. I will make an effort to perform one charitable act of service each week for one different member of the group.
  9. I will openly show mercy to any member of the group that confesses, repents, and asks for forgiveness.
  10. I will not act on, or contribute to, gossip or rumor within the organization or group.
  11. I will offer advice only when asked.
  12. I will not condone the degradation of any member of the group.
  13. I will not support the rebuke or dismissal of any member of the organization without proper evidence or tribunal where the person is allowed to defend his/her accusations.
  14. I will encourage and propagate healthy eating within the group and organization at all times.
  15. I will encourage and propagate exercise within the group, either as a whole or individually.
  16. I will partake in or steward a weekly Bible study wherein all members of the group or organization may have the chance to hear the word of God.
  17. I will do my best to speak to each member of the group without any type of profanity.
  18. I will respect differentiating opinions within the group as long as they do not include egregious sinful action or blatant heretical doctrine.
  19. I will bring every conflict within the group to God first before I make a serious decision that could affect the organization of members within it.
  20. I will follow the will of God over the will of the group, or its membership.”

Bibliography

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Ethics. New York, NY, Etc.: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Calvin, John. The Institutes of Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.

Trull, J. E., and J. E. Carter. Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.

Footnotes:

[1] J. E. Trull and J. E. Carter, Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 91.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid, 91.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 35.

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