Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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Ethics – its not just a theory


Introduction – What Comprises a Theology of Ethics?

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top

Living an integrated faith

It is easy for ethical models to be disconnected from real life. James McClendon is one of many who have worked on creating ethical models that exercise a theology of ethical decision-making. McClendon (1986) writes that to be truly distinctive as Christian ethics – talking about morality must correlate with the fact that we are “. . . (1) part of the natural order, organic beings, bodies in an organic continuum, God’s natural creation; but also (2) part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and (3) part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ (καινή κτίσις) established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”[1]

McClendon summarizes these three strands as:[2]

  • body– we live in a body and so its desires and needs are not in themselves a problem but a blessing and a way to interface with our surroundings.
  • social – life finds meaning both in its connection to others and ultimately in our share in Christ’s story
  • resurrection – makes it inescapably clear that the story is to be marked with incalculable surprises. It summons us to a deeper engagement with our context not on the basis of known rules but on an eschatological basis that looks for the work of God’s promise that is unconfined by the way things appear to be.

In thinking through his theology, McClendon seeks to avoid a compartmentalized view of ethical thinking that often characterizes the way Christians behave ethically. Hence his efforts at explaining the interconnectedness of body, social, and resurrection realities in ethical thinking. He reinforces his project noting that:

…Paul was not willing to reduce Christian ethics to the third strand by denying the contributions of nature and of the storied community to the Christian situation – he was not willing to reject strands one and two in order to capitalize on the Christian strand.[3](258)

McClendon desires a theology on ethics to serve as a mirror that can confront the church with her potential convictions to ask whether she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. In reading the case below, keep this challenge in mind. How would you answer the question raised by my former student? In what ways does my answer keep the recognition of how the church can be in body, social, and resurrection perspectives rather than simply recognizing how the Church is? What changes would you make to my answer? What aspects of the question did I not address?

The Case

Dr. Wheeler,

Sorry to reach out suddenly but I got some serious question that I just don’t know how to answer. A Friend of mine recently came to me and told me that his close friend (of whom he had feeling for but never expressed and grew into a brother sister love) came to him and asked him to sponsor her; meaning to marry her for papers. I don’t know how to answer this.[4]

He says that he’s only considering it because he wants to help her. He feels that as long as it’s done through city hall that he wouldn’t feel like it’s done officially under God and maybe they might grow to love each other seeing as they are close and if not he’s ok with it.

What are your opinions?

I feel that a marriage is a marriage and if he goes with it it’s under God. So, divorce shouldn’t even be an option, but I don’t know.

All feedback is very appreciated on this delicate subject.

Jerry.

An Analysis

Jerry,

Your friend is working under a false premise. An agreement founded on fraud Is fraught with multiple challenges.

First, he must lie to immigration about the true status of his relationship with his friend. The act is illegal designed to serve no good purpose. It can’t be justified in any ethical model.

Second, he must lie to himself by justifying his action – here by what you shared, his justification is the possibility of a healthy relationship. The odds are slim that a healthy relationship can be built on such a flimsy foundation. How does one build a foundation for the transparency, vulnerability, and repentance needed to build intimacy by working to maintain a lie?

Third he must lie to his friend. Does he desire sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and spiritual intimacy with his wife? Has he explained this desire to his friend? Or is he willing to forego sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy for the sake of her ambition? If he simply goes along with the plan he is lying to her. Or worse, will they simply hook up out of convenience? In this case they not only lie to one another about what they want, they violate a true covenant of marriage by passing off physical intimacy as irrelevant because they weren’t really married. Paul warned the Thessalonians against this kind of violation of others.

Fourth he must lie to his family or involve them in his deception. Either choice is a moral lapse.

Fifth, he must lie to the church by either declaring he is married or denying it.

Sixth, and most seriously, he must lie to God. His rationale that a civil marriage is not a real marriage before God is the first lie. How does one justify violation of law, family, friends, or the church?

So, agreeing to this action is illegal, he puts his own status at risk as well as hers. The act is unethical in that it is filled with deceit that only has caustic consequences in all his relationships not just the direct relationship with his friend.

So, I agree with your assessment – the idea isn’t just bad, it is spiritually, morally, and relationally destructive.

Ray

Conclusion

Why is ethical/theological reflection so important? McClendon cuts to the chase in his question of whether the church she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. The absence of ethical reflection and action by the church yields behaviors that contradict the hope and the message of the church and this results in behaviors that are destructive and toxic. The community around us has no reason to consider the hope of the good news found in Jesus Christ if there is functionally little or no difference between our behavior and the behavior of anyone else.

The questions and issues I raised in writing my former student are not exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that are theologically appropriate to ask. There are other ethical models that would ask completely different questions e.g., individual utilitarianism. However, the context of the question arose in the behavior of the church and as such demands an approach that considers the issues raised by McClendon.

How well have you thought through your ethical model?

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986, 66.

[2] McClendon 231-232.

[3] Idib 258

[4] In case this is not clear, this is a request rooted in the process of immigration.

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How the nature of relationship intersects with the organizational structure found in the local church


customersIt isn’t uncommon today to find remnants of the mindset of the industrial revolution in how the church thinks about structure. The mechanistic assumptions so predominate in business and non-commercial structures throughout the 20th century often seeped their way into church governance here in the west in the adoption of a corporate organizational authentication for tax purposes.  The emergence of the church growth movement contributed to this same mechanistic set of assumptions in that it often uncritically adopted effectiveness driven assumptions that placed relationships in a subordinate position to growth and self-preservation in the church. This propensity to mechanize organizational structures to gain efficiency and effectiveness fall short in that they stumble over the reality that people are involved. One business writer commented that a well-known shoe company’s heavy investment in TQM was undone by one guy in the order fulfillment department who purposely stuffed two right foot shoes or two left foot shoes in a single box. When asked why he was doing this he responded that his manager had treated him poorly and his actions were revenge because his manager’s bonus depended on consistently accurate order fulfillment.

Similarly, church leaders can tell their own stories about how one person’s or pastor’s vindictiveness held the entire organizational structure of a congregation hostage and leveraged a mechanistic structure to redefine reality or expectations of what the community of the church should be.

What makes the church so unique is that Jesus set the cornerstone of the church’s structure firmly in healthy relationships. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:8-10)

Jesus outlines the task (remain in love) and the outcome (bear fruit) that make up the parameters of the church’s organization. Based on what Jesus modeled, love (or the organizational structure of the local congregation) is characterized by truth-telling, forgiveness, support, instruction, insight, inquiry, missional focus, and developmental bias. Love is not an afterthought or optional component to the relationships Jesus expected of the disciples as they continued his ministry. Love and its characteristics are the core feature that determines the legitimacy of the church.

Relationships are not an intersection in the organizational structure of the church they are the constituting frame that allows for the diversity of gifting, outcomes, and methods inherent in the works of God operating through the church. Relationships define the church’s purpose and its method. For example: does the organization accept responsibility i.e., bear fruit as outlined in Luke 4:18-19? Does the organization evaluate its context and behavior with truthfulness? Does the organization generate restored relationships, maturing behavior, continuous insight into what God is doing? If relationships serve only to intersect with a structure that is built on some other foundation (e.g., mechanistic) then relationship fails to be the nucleus and becomes a secondary add-on that is not elemental to effective and efficient operational systems. Organizational structures that push relationships to a secondary status inevitably become toxic and a contradiction to missio Dei.

So, how do you functionally define the structure of your congregation? Perhaps it’s time to sit with your leadership team and review what makes the structure of your congregation really tick.


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How does the nature of God shape our work?


downloadTheological propositions and discussion are often seem detached from the work-a-day world in the way we think. That doesn’t mean however that theological thinking is irrelevant to our day to day existence.  Consider the doctrine of the Trinity.  Work that reflects the nature and agenda of God, is shaped by the wholeness, uniqueness, oneness, and clarity of God’s triune nature. God’s triune nature, evident from the opening pages of the scripture, serves as a tutorial for one’s personal identity and expectations for how ministry should work and the collective identity of the local expression of the church.

Personal identity is that foundation from which all of us serve. How we see ourselves, understand our own nature, and define our strengths is the essence of our definition of ministry. Our nature reflects the triune nature of God in that we exist as corporeal creatures that can reason and think about transcendence in purpose and meaning. Starting from the Trinitarian nature of God who exists without self-contradiction is a far better beginning for self-understanding than the dualism our culture inherited from the Greeks. The challenge of a dualistic approach is the denigration of rather than engagement of our corporeal existence. Evangelicals have wrestled long and hard about how to live in a body and maintain a sense of holiness and wholeness – but they wrestled with the idea of separateness or contradiction rather than integration. That God took the form of a human in Christ and lived in a way that flourished in a relationship with God and others models an integrated way of thinking about self. Being human, Jesus lived with all of the drives, hormones, distractions, temptations, and limitations of a corporeal existence. It remains then for us to accept that the body is not an albatross hanging around the neck of our spirituality but the foundation that gives us the capacity for relationship, interaction, and moral reasoning in the quest of meeting the needs of the body.

Expectations for how ministry should work are seen in Christ who modeled humanness filled with the Spirit of God. Foundationally ministry in Jesus’ model is responsive, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 NIV) We are not called upon to do God’s work solely with the strength, abilities, and drives of our corporeal existence. We are called upon to participate with God in the power of God’s being in a new relationship with the Holy Spirit. The agenda and the capability to impact humankind at its deepest and noblest level is God’s. Here ministry becomes an adventure of response to God the Holy Spirit that simultaneously confronts the powers that imprison the human condition to servitude and unleashes wholeness that washes over people physically, mentally, and spiritually.  We are those who are truly alive. We are also truly present with God and with others. We see God’s works, we see others. The combination is transformative.  The capability to engage this relationship is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the triune nature of God, we also have a model for how the collective identity of the local church can function in its variety of gifts, a variety of ways to serve, and a variety of operations. The fundamental declaration of the Trinity is, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4 NASB) This unity that finds no room for competition, one-upmanship, or withdrawal is the eschatological summons of the local church to live out its fullness in the gifts inherent in its members. We are diverse in gifting, service, and effect but one body. Moving as one has the potential of impact on our world that a diffused or contending intramural existence can never have.

The Trinity shapes our sense of identity, our sense of capacity, and our sense of belonging and interdependence. To the extent, we engage the Triune nature of God in vulnerable repentance and obedience the church emerges as a holistic expression of God’s love and power. To the extent we ignore or diminish the triune nature of God we become irrelevant – just another player in the field of our pluralistic society that has just another truth claim without power.