Should leaders – in the church, the government, the
military, elsewhere – be held to a different or a higher moral standard?
Most of us will almost immediately respond in the
affirmative to that question. Yet implicit within the question are two basic presumptions
about the nature of sin.
First, is all sin equally bad?
Answering this question affirmatively creates the difficult
problem of delineating a hierarchy of sin. The Roman Catholic Church has
defined such a hierarchy, broadly categorizing sins as venial or mortal. Mortal
sins, unlike venial sins, place the sinner’s eternal soul in jeopardy.
In reaction to efforts to categorize sin, some Protestant
reformers argued that all sin was equally bad because sin, whatever the
specifics, separate a human from God; otherwise, that human sin taints God,
with the result that God ceases to be perfect.
The Protestant position seems untenable. Sin exists.
Nevertheless, God remains in relationship to the world. Additionally, murder or
rape seem much worse offenses than does coveting someone else’s truck, but not
acting upon that desire. However, attempting to delineate a hierarchy of sin
seems an impossible task: nobody can list all possible sins; the effect on one
person of committing a specific may differ from the effect on another person
who commits the same sin.
What can be said without too much risk of refutation is (1)
certain sins are always more egregious than other sins (cf. the example in the
preceding paragraph); (2) certain sins are more objectionable when committed by
persons in particular positions, e.g., a priest who divulges what s/he learns
in the confessional is worse than most gossip; (3) some individuals do appear
to have become great souls (Hinduism) or saints (Christianity), i.e., less
sinful than the majority of other people.
Second, some sin appears to have little effect on other
humans or upon creation but primarily alters the sinner’s relationship with
God. Illustrative of this type of sin might be the person who regularly
receives Holy Communion yet has no Christian belief whatsoever. Presumably, the
preponderance of other people present are Christian believers. If anything, the
sin of receiving without belief may reinforce the belief and practice of those Christians.
The harm of this sin seems to fall almost entirely upon the non-Christian who
Are sins against only God therefore less egregious than
other types of sin?
No objective basis exists for definitively answering this
question because no finite being can know the mind of the infinite God. Indeed,
the metaphor of God’s mind is itself an example of anthropomorphism, imposing
human images on the divine.
Instead of pursuing a theological dead end, how can a person
identify that which is sinful and thereby journey toward holiness (the absence
of sin in one’s life)?
Main definitions of sin include missing the mark (behavior
that is not as loving toward God, others, self, or creation as it might be),
impairing a relationship, and inappropriate boundary crossings. These definitions,
better than any enumeration of possible sins, offer guidance on how to become a
better, less sinful human.
Individuals who hold, or who aspire to hold, positions of
leadership or significant responsibility do well to reject claims that all sins
are equivalent and that spiritual growth away from sin is impossible. Ever
mindful of the definition of sin and sin’s temptation, strive to develop a
virtuous life, especially focusing on the cardinal virtues of justice, courage,
prudence, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Then God will say, Well done good and faithful servant.
An Episcopal priest recently contacted me with these three questions:
Is the episcopacy necessary for the
wellbeing and growth of the church? How does a bishop exercise power and
authority? If we ask Jesus what he thinks now about the office of the
episcopate, what might he say?
The Episcopal Church, like many other Christian Churches
(e.g., the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, some Pentecostal groups),
has bishops. The Greek word episkopos in English becomes episcopal
and its cognates. The word bishop similarly has its etymological roots
in the Greek episkopos. In Greek, a bishop or member of the episcopacy
was an overseer. In particular, the New Testament usage of episkopos
denotes an oversee of one or more Christian congregations, a meaning that continues
in the Christian tradition today.
The theological and biblical question has never been whether
bishops are necessary for the wellbeing and growth of the church but adherence
to the biblical model of ministry.
Some Christian Churches (e.g., the Baptists,
Congregationalists, and Quakers) do not have bishops. In Presbyterian
denominations, the presbytery collectively acts as the bishop.
A commonly expressed argument in favor of bishops is that
connectional Churches hold clergy more accountable for their actions. However,
even a cursory review of sex abuse problems among the clergy points to a disproportionate
number of those problems occurring in Churches with bishops.
Furthermore, bishops are expensive. Typically, a bishop is
paid approximately the same or more than the highest paid clergy in the
diocese. Most bishops have one or more staffers; searching for and calling a
new bishop is expensive; bishops tend to travel extensively, visiting not only
diocesan congregations but also attending many meetings.
For me, the existence of the episcopacy is a given (or not,
depending upon the denomination). I’m comfortable with Churches emulating the
biblical pattern of ministry (bishops, priests/pasts/elders, deacons, and all
of the baptized). Trying to alter an existing pattern of ministry in a dying
religion such as Christianity ignores the basic problem of reversing declining
membership and participation.
My interlocutor’s second question – how does a bishop
exercise power and authority – points to a far more pressing issue. How do
bishops collectively and individually add value to their denomination and
diocese? Here are some suggestions:
·Model trustworthy, gift
affirming ministry that respects the dignity and worth of each priest/pastor,
deacon, and lay person
·Focus their and our attention
on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call
·Support diocesan clergy through
pastoral care, listening, assisting each in finding a call that matches that individual’s
gifts and abilities, etc.
·Minimize administrative overhead
(time and money) and maximize ministry and mission
·Hold all persons within the
diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering
to legal and moral behavioral standards
·Ensure that the bishop
him/herself is held accountable by the Standing Committee and House of Bishops
·In other words, exercise
power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way
characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love
What might Jesus say about the episcopacy today? This
poignant and timely question was the third and last question my correspondent
sent me. in view of current events in the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus would be
extremely displeased with much of the episcopacy.
Illustratively, covering up sexual abuse and misconduct is
at best a misguided way to protect the abuser and thee institutional cost at
the cost of the one abused. Indeed. most often the perpetuator continues to
harm others. In fact, covering up abuse not only egregiously harms those abused
in the past, present, and future, but also harms the abuser by failing to give
the abuser the opportunity to move toward wholeness. Additionally, the cover up
when discovered harms the institutional church more than if the ecclesiastical
authorities had dealt with the problem openly and appropriately.
Similarly, Jesus appears to have lived among the poor,
according to what we know about him from the New Testament. Yet several Roman
Catholic bishops have recently attracted media notice when they purchased residences
costing more than one million dollars.
We Anglicans are not beyond criticism. Sexual abuse has
occurred in every province of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England
provided palaces for their bishops in which many of their bishops continue to
Closer to home, would Jesus approve of the compensation that
our bishops (and some other clergy) receive? Jesus would surely insist that
bishops and other clergy receive a living wage. Does a living wage anywhere in
the U.S. require a compensation package of more than $250,000? Does any bishop (or
other cleric) continue to exercise his/her ministry in order to obtain better
retirements benefits or because s/he does not have good alternative career options? (In the interest of full disclosure, the same questions apply to senior military chaplains (Navy Captains and Admirals; Colonels and Generals in the other military services), of whom I was one.)
Would Jesus approve of authoritarian bishops whose actions
reflect more concern about the bishop’s authority than those actions
communicate trustworthiness, care for the wellbeing of the bishop’s clergy, and
an unrelenting focus on ministry and mission?
Would Jesus approve of bishops whose calendar and efforts are
devoted to administering the Church instead of revitalizing a dying
institution? Admittedly, asking that question is easier than answering it. For one
part of the answer, cf. my Ethical Musings posts, “For
such a time as this” and “Looking to
Would Jesus approve of bishops who struggle with mental
health problems, relational difficulties, or spiritual emptiness not seeking
appropriate help, perhaps even resigning (or taking a leave of absence) her/his
diocese to concentrate on moving toward personal wholeness?
No bishop is perfect; every bishop remains fully human, no more
deserving of dignity or respect than is any other human. Hopefully, a bishop
does have a goodly measure of spiritual maturity that surpasses the average. Bishops
have a challenging ministry in the best of times. Bishops, like all Christians,
need God’s help and the support of others.
The path toward Church renewal entails improving the
episcopacy, not eliminating or replacing the episcopacy. Questions such as the
second and third ones discussed above are essential for keeping the episcopacy
aligned with the Jesus path, promoting episcopal integrity, and for helping
bishops to live into their calling more fully.
The New York Times recently departed from its customary protocol
of requiring Op-Ed piece authors to identify themselves and published an Op-Ed
piece by an anonymous author who identified him/herself only as a senior member
of the Trump administration. The piece, “I Am
Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” available by
following this link, disturbed me for
First, the anonymous author paints a picture of the Trump
White House that is consistent with Bob Woodward’s depiction in his book, Fear,
as well as details obtained from multiple sources stretching across Trump’s
presidency. Chaos, infighting, and staff jockeying to have the last word with
an erratic, inconsistent and amoral president – all apparently common practices
in the Trump White House – are extremely worrisome in today’s world. Trump acts
as if he would prefer to be a dictator than an elected leader in a nation
governed by the rule of law.
Second, the Op-Ed author’s actions presumably unintentionally
undercut the rule of law. Neither staffers and political appointees are elected
officials; some, but far from all, require Senate confirmation before permanently
assuming their position. Allowing, perhaps even trusting, staff and political
appointees to temper if not to limit Trump’s most outrageous actions erodes the
rule of law upon which the U.S. was founded.
Third, the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution
provides a mechanism for removing, temporarily or permanently, an individual incapable
of functioning as president. Staff members surreptitiously removing documents
from the president’s desk, anonymously leaking descriptions of a dysfunctional
president and staff, and other immoral if not illegal behaviors ignore the real
problem and deny the U.S. the opportunity to address these problems in a responsible
way. Staffers and political appointees who cannot legally and morally fulfill
their duties have a moral obligation (cf. my article, “Duty
at All Costs,” in the Naval War College Review for a fuller explanation
of the reasoning behind this position – similar reason applies to political leaders
as to military officers).
Prayer alone will not change the dangerous political situation
in which the U.S. now finds itself. Christians in a democracy have the duty to participate
actively in the political process and to vote. Even if one believes that
abortion is a terrible evil (and I am not among those who hold that belief), a
dictatorship in which abortion is illegal will be infinitely worse than a
democracy in which individual women decide for themselves whether to have an