An ethical lesson from the Nixon White House: Set your boundaries early and sink them in granite.
That's the best way to avoid being the star of headlines like those that recently appeared at just about the same time:
Megachurch Pastor Bob Coy… Resigns Over 'Moral Failing' (Christian Post)
Report: Video shows (Congressman) McAllister kissing staffer'(Politico)
My mind was impacted by both those incidents, as senior associate pastor in one of America's largest churches, and as a young junior assistant in the Nixon White House many years earlier.
It took me a month or so after being named to the White House staff to get over the exhilaration of having a hand on some of its smaller but still powerful levers, the privilege of walking unchallenged through the West Wing as long as I wore the right kind of pass, and never knowing when I might be summoned to a meeting with the big people, including, maybe, the President of the United States.
Then one day there came a rude awakening. Those levers of power could cause me to crash and burn. The heady atmosphere could be so intoxicating it might impair my judgment. I might even need to know when to say No to the powerful people who ruled the world.
I knew I needed to wall myself in. For many years I have been inspired and fascinated with the executive role to which the Hebrew exile Daniel rose in Babylon. Early on Daniel was singled out to be fashioned into a leader. While others of his fellow exiles starved, he was offered the very menu eaten by the king.
Daniel 1:8 lays down a principle that could save preachers and politicians, along with everybody else under the temptations of power: Daniel "made up his mind" that he would not "defile himself" at the king's table. Literally, young Daniel set his determination in concrete. He knew where the boundaries were, and he regarded them as inviolable.
Many of the vulnerable young men and women who survived the Nixon White House with their character intact set boundaries that, as in the case of one Nixon aide I knew, looked like this: (1) I will do nothing that could hurt my marriage and family; (2) I will not come near money and financial issues I don't understand or that could be viewed as giving me benefit; (3) I will not engage in ad hominem politics, in which my aim is to destroy the character and reputation of another human being rather than focusing on issues.
Setting boundaries makes a person face the facts about themselves, the sins that could "so easily beset" them (Hebrews 12:1), and what must be done to avoid them. These are among the reasons the Bible sets high priority on confession, which is self-acknowledgement of faults that might be committed, personal weaknesses, and also awareness of where the snares may lay.
This means when you or I are given levers of power the first thing we need to question is ourselves. "Do I really understand what has been handed to me? Am I really equipped in character and professional experience to handle this responsibility? Do I have clear understanding about the proper circumstances to pull the levers? Do I know when to stop?"
The most important principle of boundary-setting is the absolute standard that determines what is allowed in and what is kept out of that protected zone. For Daniel it was God – as it must be for all of us. But in Daniel's day there were many tagged as "gods." And as so it is now. Whatever is deity to a person will determine where the boundary lines are laid.
I knew a man in Washington who told me bluntly one day that his one aim was power. His boundaries were set only by the need to do whatever was necessary to enlarge his power. Of such things the Watergate scandal and resignation of the President occurred. There were others whose god was money, and the boundaries were set accordingly.
The simple fact is we are what we worship, and what we do arises from our being. That means the essential self is defined by our deity and its worship. We better get it right. It didn't take long for the fruit of Daniel's life to show he had chosen the true and living God as His Boundary. And the more he lived and functioned inside that zone defined by God, the more Daniel was entrusted with power.
The simple reality is that only those under authority can be trusted with power. Daniel's boundaries signaled the need for obedience and submission to God. That made Daniel a man people could trust – even kings who sometimes preferred him dead but couldn't get along without him.
Developing the boundary-alertness becomes a lifestyle. Every time one enters a new corporate or personal environment the boundary-alert person instinctively scans the "landscape" for the traps and establishes the perimeters and parameters that will avoid them.
Such a lifestyle is essential for moral and ethical survival in a world like ours, which is much more intense in its snares than even the Nixon White House four decades ago.
The practice saved Daniel in Babylon, many I knew in Washington and high-fevered journalism, and now in a megachurch environment. And they could have spared Republican Representative Vance McAllister and Pastor Bob Coy.
And a whole bunch of others.