Will NAE's Code of Ethics For Pastors Become Professional Standard?

Prominent Christian leaders continue to sign and endorse a "Code of Ethics for Pastors" document created by a National Association of Evangelicals taskforce and released just two weeks ago. But others wonder why the Bible – already serving as a standard – isn't enough.

"As evangelicals, I think we have the best of pastors across America, but what we have not had in the past is a code of ethics for professionals," said Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, in regards to career ministers during a panel teleconference Wednesday. "We believe that most pastors are professionally ethical, but we recognize that there is a benefit to a written standard to measure by."

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., recently signed the Code of Ethics for Pastors, joining Charles Blake, West Angeles Church of God in Christ; Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church; Tim Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church; Max Lucado, Oak Hills Church; John Ortberg, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church; Samuel Rodriguez, New Season Christian Worship Center; and Bryant Wright, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church.

The code has been met with little controversy, however some question whether simply the act of pastors signing the document will serve as a catalyst for change within the church.

"Someone said to me, 'Well, we have the Bible, why isn't that our code of ethics?' Indeed it is our ultimate code of ethics and the NAE Code of Ethics is based upon the Bible," said Anderson. "However, we also recognize that there are modern applications to the Bible. Things like mandated reporting if there is abuse that is told to a pastor. We need to have a professional standard for that."

Greg Waybright, who is the senior pastor at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, Calif., said during the panel discussion that when his pastoral staff reviewed the document they agreed that it was important and helpful.

"Maybe it's because we are in Southern California, but we find a lot of confusion about what might actually be considered to be ethical and right," Waybright said. "To have something for those who are committed to Scripture, to the lordship of Jesus in our lives, together from across the nation to look at this and say these are the things that we can aspire to, has been helpful and important.

"Not to be perfect, but this is the kind of thing that sets the trajectory of our lives because if we have a code of ethics in which we have to pretend to be perfect we will hide most of our lives," he continued. "We really believe that with God's help and by God's grace that this code of ethics will help to honor the name of God within our church callings."

Conference panel member Dennis Hollinger, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, emphasized the importance of following ethical standards.

"If we do not carry our pastoral functions in accordance with high ethical standards and commitments, it really does undermine the proclamation of the Gospel, the preaching of the Word," Hollinger said.

As a professor at the seminary as well, Hollinger said he would introduce the code of ethics to his students.

"It really has the prospect of enabling folks in ministry to reflect deeply about their roles, how they carry out their pastoral and ministry roles. In a seminary context I think it could be used very nicely in case studies," he said.

Hollinger, who helped write the code, said the taskforce was trying to avoid legalism and focus on principles.

"We wanted to be more principle orientated and in many respects also give attention to what in ethics we commonly call virtues. Virtues have to do with who we are – our character," he explained.

Specifically, pastors who sign onto the document vow to, among other things:

  • Exalt Christ, not self
  • Interpret the Bible accurately and apply it discerningly
  • Be honest and prudent in regard to personal and ministry resources
  • Avoid sinful sexual behavior and inappropriate involvement
  • Build God's Kingdom in cooperation, not competition, with other local ministries

According to a survey of NAE leaders earlier this year, 71 percent of evangelical leaders are not required to sign a formal code of ethics. NAE states that some evangelical leaders noted in the survey that ethical expectations are implicit in doctrinal statements and other organizational commitments that they sign, but the documents include issues outside ethics and don't expound thoroughly on issues of ethics.

Luder Whitlock, who is a chairperson on the Code of Ethics for Pastors taskforce, said the process for developing the code was long and arduous, but something he hopes will be integrated in church leadership everywhere. The code was developed over 18 months through ethicists, pastors, editors and denominational leaders. The NAE Board of Directors reviewed the document several times throughout the drafting process and unanimously adopted the NAE Code of Ethics for Pastors on March 8.

Church strategy consultant Ron Edmondson, who is co-founding pastor at Grace Community Church in Clarksville, Tenn., told CP in an interview earlier this month that he sees nothing wrong with the document, but is not sure of its impact on pastors and churches.

"It's only going to be as good as the character and the heart of the ones who sign it. But it's a step in the right direction and a good positive move for evangelicals to get behind it. We can all agree with everything that is on the list," Edmondson said. "I don't believe just writing it and signing it is going to necessarily improve some of the struggles that we have right now with defining morals."

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