THE ETHICS OF SIN

One of the classes I taught the last time I worked in Kenya was a course on Christian ethics, focusing specifically on the ethics of Christian leadership.  I had fun teaching the course and I am pretty sure that the students enjoyed the course as well, although the evaluations did contain the traditional student complaint about courses–too much homework.

Among the things we dealt with was the problem of sinful leadership in the church, a topic that provided a great deal of discussion since all the members of the class were church leaders in contexts where the perks of office often included some built in free passes for some sins.  I was forcing the students to deal with an issue the church as a whole has not yet successfully dealt with.

Church leadership sets the rules for sin:  what it is, how to avoid it, who deals with it, how it is dealt with and so on.  But church leadership also invariably builds in special privileges and dispensations for itself.  At the heart of most complains of hypocrisy leveled at the church is the reality that those in leadership treat their sin differently than they treat the sins of others.

Now, that is actually a Biblical principal–leadership in the faith does have different requirements.  Matthew 23, for example, shows Jesus taking religious leaders to task for their harshness towards others while allowing themselves lots of freedom.  There is also the equally scary passage in James 3.1, which cautions, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” NIV

Jesus and the Biblical writers take seriously the reality that those in leadership have a significant impact on those they lead.  When we get it right as leaders, we have a very positive and often long-lasting effect on the lives of the people we lead.  And when we get it wrong, we have an equally negative and long lasting effect on the lives of not just the people we lead but also people associated with the people we lead.

Unfortunately, when church leadership sets different standards for leadership and followers, they tend not to look at things from this perspective.  Often, those in leadership choose to see the difference in terms of privilege rather than  responsibility.  The call to leadership is too often too often seen as allowing more latitude than others have.

I remember one fairly domineering pastor who demanded that all his church members get rid of their TVs.  Since he was a dominant leader in an almost cult-like group, they did what he said.  But everyone in the church and the rest of the community knew that he kept his TV and regularly watched whatever he wanted.  What was sinful for the rest obviously wasn’t sinful for him.

Maybe part of the problem of sin is that we in leadership don’t take our own sinfulness seriously enough.  We might require rigid compliance of others but we allow ourselves latitude and freedom which effectively undercuts our ability to lead people and help them deal seriously with their sins.  If people know that I am doing what I am telling them not to do, they are neither going to listen to me nor avoid the things I am telling them to avoid.

In fact, the more I tell them not to do something, the more convinced they will become that I am doing it and that it might be interesting to give it a try themselves.  Meanwhile, those on the outside are going to ignore the whole bunch of us–they have enough issues and don’t need the ones we manufacture.

As leaders, we need to learn to take our sin seriously.  We need to be aware of and willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We need to recognize our propensity for sin and need for grace.  We need to use the power of God to challenge and change that which in sinful in us so that we don’t become the hypocrites whose presence in the church keeps so many others outside the church.

Maybe instead of focusing so much on the sin of others, we need to spend a lot more time and effort focusing on our own sin.  We might be surprised at how much grace we discover and how much more graceful we can be to others.

May the peace of God be with you.

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