Why the NAE Issued a Clergy Code of Ethics

Greg Strand – June 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Earlier this week the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) released the “Code of Ethics for Pastors.”

As this document was being written, the NAE March Evangelical Leaders Survey revealed that “71 percent of evangelical leaders are not required to sign a formal code of ethics.” Leith Anderson, NAE President, notes “For many churches and Christian organizations, there are unspoken rules, or guidelines, for ethical behavior. The problem with unspoken rules is that no one has agreed to a standard. That yields mixed expectations.” (“Most Church Leaders Don’t Sing Codes of Ethics” April 30, 2012)

David Neff, vice president of Christianity Today, interviewed Luder Whitlock, the chair of the NAE task force responsible for writing this Code: “Why the NAE Issued a Clergy Code of Ethics,” Christianity Today (June 13 [web-only] 2012)

Whitlock’s general impression of evangelical pastors today is they are committed to serving the Lord and His people. He gives pastors a high mark. The reason he believes it is important to have a document like this today is that even though pastors “intend to do the right thing,” in this cultural climate with eroding standards of morality, “in many instances there isn’t adequate clarity and a strong enough sense of obligation to what’s right.” And in the midst of this malaise, “pastors need to be paragons of moral integrity for other believers and examples of moral integrity to the world.”

As part of this longer interview, Neff asked Whitlock about denominational support, moral areas of which pastors must be aware and moral temptations that pastors are susceptible to rationalize and justify.

Don’t denominations provide enough guidance for their pastors and churches?

Denominations have produced a few things, but most haven’t. The few existing statements tend to be truncated in scope or overly legalistic and rule specific. There is no broad statement or code that everybody adopts, like we have the statement of faith.

Years ago we realized we needed to outline financial accountability for organizations, so the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability came about.

Strangely, no one has done the same for clergy’s ethical behavior. Everyone kept assuming, “We know what’s right. People know it, why don’t they do it?” But really, when you have a world that’s swirling with change like ours and so few people know the Bible well, it’s all the more imperative to come up with something like this.

When we think of unethical clergy, sinful sexual relationships immediately come to mind. What are the other areas you want clergy to be cautious about?

The most important thing of all is the development of character, of personal integrity. When spiritual, moral maturity is the standard, then it helps bring all other issues into alignment with biblical standards. Having said that, financial issues quickly come to mind. Close behind are family matters. Inadequate concern for the reputation of others, including other pastors, resulting in tarnished reputations.

What are the sneakiest temptations pastors face? What do they find it easy to rationalize?

Their use of time, family obligations, playing favorites, plagiarizing, personal use of church resources without permission, accessing pornography via the Internet.

A lot of ministers don’t have a strong sense of obligation regarding how they spend their time. They seldom have anyone looking over their shoulder. That’s one area that needs more attention than it will get.

Whitlock responded to the question of how to balance between sin and holiness, either responding with a “all have sins” and thus lessening the call to holiness, or with a strong commitment to holiness that tends toward legalism. Whitlock speaks to the issue of how to think about and approach this “Code of Ethics for Pastors.”

Because Christian theology says we are all affected by an interior drive toward sin, we’re not surprised that pastors do things they shouldn’t. Yet we’re also called to a life of holiness. In dealing with clergy, how do we balance realism about human nature with our strong commitment to holiness?

We need to be very honest about the standards the Lord gives us. We also need to avoid turning the standards into legalism.

We must realize that we are all sinners and will in some ways fall short. If we expect perfection of a minister or a congregation, we will be disappointed. How do we find the right balance? First, by making our dependence on the Lord and our obedience to Him of paramount importance. Second, by being the same person in public that we are in private, by being people of integrity. Third, by coming to grips with any serious deficiency or disobedience. We must then confess our failure and sin, find forgiveness, and move on.

Nevertheless, we want to avoid the pettiness that flags every deficiency or mistake a person makes. How do you draw the line? That’s a process of education and maturity. And in a way, it’s a little of what we were doing with this document. We did not create a document filled with prescriptions and rules—but we took a principled approach saying, “You should understand the kind of person you need to be.” When pastors learn that, it’ll determine a lot of the specific issues.

We in the EFCA have discussed numerous times over the years such a document. Inevitably we have not pursued it beyond drafts and discussions because of the fear of how the document might be used, either legalistically, or as a club against someone who was not abiding by the standards. Do you remember some of those discussions? What do you recall from them? What were the arguments for and against such a document?

Here is a document that many in the EFCA will likely consider helpful. I am thankful to see its publication and to read of how carefully its proper use is framed. Of course, original intent does not guarantee it will be followed in its implementation. But fears and concerns of how this may be misused must not prevent us from its use at all. That has often been the default response, which is more reactive rather than proactive.

Some questions: Do you presently have such a document? If not, why not? If so, how has it functioned? How have you kept from the twin errors of “we all sin so no one can hold another accountable” and legalism? Will you plan to use this Code? What do you find its strengths to be? What would you like to see included/added?

Greg Strand


Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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