“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27, NIV). Paul was expressing a specific and significant concern: that Timothy, and all of those who shepherd God’s flock, must develop and display a lifestyle fitting, worthy, and appropriate for the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a fitting lifestyle is incredibly important, even eternally important.
Consider this: if someone takes the most dazzling and valuable diamond ever mined and places it in a cheap, gaudy plastic setting, the diamond’s apparent value (not its actual value) will be greatly diminished, at best held suspect. An artificial setting for a genuine gem will cause most to consider the gem a fake as well. In the same way, a pastor’s life can in no way enhance the real value of the gospel, but it can certainly diminish, distort, and even destroy its apparent value in the eyes of someone viewing his life and ministry. Herein lies an essential value of the study, development, and display of pastoral ethics and decorum. Titus 2:10 calls pastors to make sure their manner and message match “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (ESV).
Essentially, a Biblical study of pastoral ethics and decorum addresses the specific and practical ways in which the ethical character of God, revealed in His Word, is displayed in the pastor’s day-to-day personal and professional choices, actions, and attitudes. When his personal and professional life is in real (although never perfect) harmony with God’s moral excellence, God is pleased and is glorified in that pastor’s life and ministry. His life becomes a fitting setting for the display of God’s glorious grace for all to see. God is honored.
A second serious implication of pastoral ethics and decorum is pastors’ credibility with those they serve. When what God says and what pastors say and do as shepherds are seen to be in real practical harmony, they are credible shepherds, inspiring trust and confidence in the hearts of God’s sheep. Such credibility is essential in Biblical shepherding. In one sense, if pastors don’t have credibility, they don’t have anything! Without credibility pastors will not be heard, believed, or followed—a serious problem for a shepherd! Certainly God can and does choose to honor His Word in spite of the “earthiness” of the earthen vessels He chooses to use. However, He clearly charges pastors to avoid confusing, obscuring, or distorting His truth with actions and attitudes that don’t reflect His character, that don’t match His Word.
So, in order that the Chief Shepherd is honored and the undershepherd is credible or trustworthy, a pastor must be careful that his day-to-day ethical touches with people within the church and community are marked by truth and love. Truth and love must inform and direct a pastor’s actions and choices; that is, his day-to-day interactions with all people must be true, in genuine obedience to the genuine teachings of God’s Word. A pastor’s interactions must be motivated and marked by genuine Biblical love to God and to the people He loves. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14, ESV). So what do truth and love in action look like in specific life and ministry situations?
The study of pastoral ethics and decorum must then focus on specific situations and applications that face all pastors. The list of topics varies a bit in different articles, books, and denominational traditions. Surprisingly, there is a fairly significant commonality in the many different lists that I’ve seen and read. So whether the codes of “ministerial conduct” came from Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Brethren, or even Unitarian denominations, or whether they came from churches or parachurch organizations, there appears to be a core of essential considerations. These topics include the pastor’s work ethic, confidentiality in pastoral care, impartiality in pastoral care, integrity in relation to women/sexual purity, financial integrity, and respect in relation to other pastors and churches. While volumes can and have been written on each of these topics, this chapter can only briefly touch on each of them.
The Pastor’s Work Ethic
So, what do truth and love look like in connection with the pastor’s work ethic? As to intensity, how hard and long should a shepherd work? I’m reminded of Paul’s words to the church at Thessalonica: “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:7–9, ESV). Paul and his team worked long, hard, sacrificially, and passionately. He compared his work ethic to a nursing mother, not to a clock-punching, clock-watching employee. He used words to describe his work that speak of extended and intense physical exertion, laboring at times to exhaustion. Truth and love demand that a pastor work long and hard.
For a pastor’s work ethic to “adorn” the gospel of Christ, it must also be focused—focused on the priority tasks assigned by God, not by a committee or public opinion. A pastor should not be working himself to death or a divorce court in the pursuit of greasing the countless and incessant squeaky wheels of felt needs. With specific and intense focus, a pastor should be laboring in the study, preaching, teaching, and counseling of the Word. A pastor must never allow the priority of time and effort demanded by the pastoral task or a healthy personal relationship to God and to his family to be given or stolen away by lesser priorities.
A “fitting” work ethic in a shepherd’s life will also include intentional times of rest. While I don’t believe in a strict New Testament Sabbath, I do believe in the timeless principle of Sabbath rest. Since, in fact, a pastor’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, he should neither worship the temple (being either nutrition or fitness obsessed) nor abuse the temple by running it into the ground, eating or working it into uselessness. Scripture refers to the body not only as His temple, but as an instrument or tool to be used by Him or by sin. A tool is meant to be used in productive work, not to be abused or broken by carelessness nor to be polished and pampered as some ornament or trophy for display. The shepherd’s work ethic should be an appropriate setting for the gospel.
Conﬁdentiality in Pastoral Care
What about confidentiality in pastoral care? How should truth and love inform a pastor’s daily choices? Certainly this is of great concern in the area of pastoral counseling, and not only has implications for the church family, but has legal implications as well in this very litigious climate. A pastor must tell the truth, but love demands that he tell the truth with a heart and mind to honor God and bless His flock. While it is unwise to promise unconditional confidentiality to someone a pastor counsels, there still must be a reasonable expectation that what is said in private remains private unless there is a moral or legal “must” to do otherwise. I assure the person I am counseling that I won’t say anything that I don’t have to say morally or legally. If in fact I must say something, I won’t say it without letting that person know I must, thus giving him or her the opportunity to say it. A competent Christian attorney is a valuable resource in deciding the right path forward in these delicate matters.
Certainly the people of the church should never hear their personal story as a sermon illustration or topic of hallway conversation. Care should be given so that even if the name is never mentioned, the details of the anonymous story don’t betray the identity of the people involved or give humiliating and unnecessary details. Even in the Biblical practice of church discipline, great care must be taken in this area. The truth must be spoken in love, the sin must be addressed openly and honestly, but unnecessary details given to people who have no business knowing them is a breach of confidentiality that may be both spiritually and legally damaging.
Impartiality in Pastoral Care
What about partiality in pastoral care? I am convinced this is an area where misunderstanding and misinformation abound. A childish and perhaps uniquely American sense of entitlement often defines any action viewed as unfair as “partiality.” “Fair” to many equates to giving the same time, same attention, same opportunities to all people in the church at the same time and in the same way. So if it’s not “fair,” you are guilty of partiality.
God defines partiality quite differently in James 2:1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (ESV). To be direct, sinful partiality is the practice of giving or withholding spiritual service on the basis of someone’s face, identity, or appearance. The book of James addresses the giving or the refusing of true Christian love to a person based on that person’s appearance as being wealthy or poor. The specific condemnation is not against making discriminating choices, rather it forbids making a distinction on factually and morally flawed criteria. Specifically James condemns judging someone’s heart by his appearance. James clearly identifies people who do so as “judges with evil thoughts” (2:4, ESV). So then, should a pastor be treating everyone in the church the very same way? The honest answer is yes and no. Will a doctor spend equal time and resources treating someone with a common cold as he would someone with heart failure or an acute infection? Will a mom devote the exact amount of time and energy to her seven-year-old child as to her seven-week-old baby? Spending more time with the one with more need may be called “unfair,” but it is not partiality. It is in fact an impartial response to a person’s request for help based on real need—not on who they are, not on their “face.”
All pastors will be accused of partiality. A pastor should not summarily dismiss such accusations, but neither should he mindlessly accept them. He should examine his heart for the real basis of the decisions and distinctions he makes in his day-to-day service to the Lord’s church. He should teach an accurate Biblical definition of partiality, being open and honest about how to live and serve without being “a respecter of persons.” However, he must avoid being intimidated by an immature and inaccurate “fairness doctrine.”
Relationship to Women
So here’s a provocative question: What do truth and love look like in a pastor’s relationship to women in the church? Is this a matter of clear moral Biblical instruction or the consideration of various and changing cultural norms and perceptions? The answer is yes. Scripture demands that the pastor be a one-woman man, sexually and emotionally devoted to one woman, his wife. Giving or seeking satisfaction in either of these areas outside the marriage is sin and is damaging on many levels. Obviously, the most critical issue is objective moral purity. However, while that is the most important issue, it is not the only issue.
Not only must a pastor maintain and cultivate objective moral purity, but he must also give serious consideration to the appearance of impropriety. It’s at this point that cultural norms, sensitivities, and perceptions come into play. Clearly a pastor shouldn’t be sending inappropriate signals to the women he ministers to or with. He must guard himself from sending flirtatious signals, intentionally or unintentionally. Physical displays of affection are required in certain cultures and situations, but are offensive and suggestive in others. What further complicates this situation is that many and varied cultural expectations exist in every church simultaneously. While I can’t take the time to say everything that should be said at this point, let me say this: your very best day-to-day coach or guide in such matters is your wife! Her God-given perspective (the other 180 degrees you can’t see) is essential for navigating this most thorny issue. Listen to her. Believe her.
Another essential issue in this matter is strategic. What is the character and nature of your plan to grow in and maintain sexual purity? Should a pastor be relying on internals or externals to keep him pure? The right answer is not an “either or,” but a “both and.” Clearly a pastor should give attention to external “fences” in his day-to-day life. Such “fences”—like having windows in an office door, not traveling with a woman alone, and giving one’s wife complete access to one’s electronic communications—are wise practices. They do have true value in maintaining both purity and a reputation for purity. However, a primary reliance on externals will ultimately fail you.
The most critical issue in maintaining sexual purity is genuine fullness, health, and growth in your relationship to God and to your wife. Serious consideration should be given to a profound spiritual principle found in Proverbs 27:7: “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet” (NIV). Someone who is “full” is in a very strong position to resist even the sweetest of temptations, while someone who is “hungry” is vulnerable to the weakest. This explains why people are willing to pay an arm and a leg for a shriveled-up, fat-filled, slimy hot dog at a ball game, and scarf it down in a moment and want more! They’re hungry! For the pastor, “staying full” is of the utmost importance. However, people don’t “stay full” by getting. Self-indulgence just leads to greater desire and greater emptiness. Ask Solomon! Pastors get full and stay full by investing in their essential relationships, sacrificially sowing the seeds of truth and love that produce a harvest of devoted love, true fullness that satisfies their soul and fortifies them against temptation.
We talked about sex. We might as well talk about money! What do truth and love look like in the way a pastor handles money? A life that is a suitable setting for the gospel of Christ must be marked by financial integrity. It is specifically mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:3, “not a lover of money,” and 1 Peter 5:2, “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (ESV).
A life characterized by either spending recklessly for one’s own pleasure or hoarding for one’s own security is an expression of sinful materialism. It is a deformed setting for the gem of the gospel. A man’s life as a pastor should be an honest, growing model of spending and saving intentionally, with God’s priorities in control. A pastor should be paying his bills on time, exercising care and discipline to avoid crippling and enslaving debt, and saving for the future. Regular, proportionate, and sacrificial giving should be a cornerstone of his financial life.
A particularly thorny test of financial integrity is the pastor’s financial relationship to people in the church. The church is commanded in Scripture to generously support its pastors (1 Tim. 5:17). Showing affection and support in tangible ways fulfills God’s command to love in deeds, not just word. However, when is a member’s generous kindness meant to influence a decision or court special favor? So, should a pastor never accept gifts (money, meals, vacations, tickets, etc.), or accept them without a thought? Clearly believers are commanded to demonstrate true love to their pastors. Clearly that love must be graciously received. Clearly that love must never buy favor or influence.
Here are five considerations that I weigh, pray about, and discuss with my circle of counselors/friends in such situations.
- How large is the gift?
- How public is the gift?
- How frequent are the gifts?
- Is there something potentially suspicious about the timing of the gift?
- Is there an expectation of some type of “return” on their investment, spoken or implied?
Pastors do and will always need God’s wisdom in this matter.
Other Pastors and Churches
The final consideration normally included in the discussion of pastoral ethics and decorum is the pastor’s relationship to other pastors and churches, particularly other Bible-believing churches in surrounding communities. My personal experience is only that—my personal experience. However, it is my experience that this is the area that shows the greatest and most glaring disparity between what pastors say and what they do.
Again, truth and love must determine practice. A pastor should honor the autonomy and authority of other Bible-teaching churches. He should publicly and privately speak of pastors and churches with the respect that comes with knowing they are the Lord’s, purchased with His blood. He should honor and support their practice of discipline and insist that their members seek to reconcile their differences with their pastor face-to-face before beginning any relationship to his church. To do this, he must avoid isolationism, cultivating true fellowship when Scripture permits. A genuine ongoing personal relationship will go a long way in keeping ethical dealings clean and healthy. A pastor must refuse to entertain rumors and spread gossip, remembering that even though it may be electronic, as he writes or reads a blog, it’s still gossip!
Pastoral ethics and decorum that reflect the Lord’s moral excellence please the Master and provide the only suitable setting for His gospel. Truth and love must rule a pastor’s real-life choices. “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love” (2 Cor. 6:3–6, ESV).
Take Action . . .
- Evaluate your work ethic. Where does it lose balance to one extreme or the other? What specific adjustments need to be made?
- Practice not sharing everything you know, even if you could share it without gossiping.
- Explain the difference between “fairness” and partiality to someone you lead. Discuss it with them.
- Avoid the appearance of impropriety—have a specific unhurried conversation with your wife about this.
- Write out your plan to grow in and maintain your sexual purity.
- If you need to do so, get help with financial planning, budgeting, and the like.
- Give serious thought to what you say about other pastors. Edit out anything you wouldn’t say with them in the room.
- How can a pastor know and maintain proper balance between relying on internal versus external safeguards in maintaining both the reality and reputation for sexual purity?
- What specific ethical dilemmas do pastors face in pastor-to-pastor, church-to-church relationships in their communities?
- What additional action steps might a pastor take to avoid both the reality and the appearance of financial impropriety in his dealings with members of the church and community?
For Further Study
The Effective Pastor: A Practical Guide to the Ministry by Robert C. Anderson, Moody Press, 1985.
God on Sex: The Creator’s Ideas about Love, Intimacy, and Marriage by Daniel Akin, Broadman and Holman, 2003.
Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World by Joe E. Troll and James E. Carter, Broadman and Holman, 1993.
The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, Thomas Nelson, 2007.
Tim Jordan (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Lansdale, Pa., and president of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary. This article is an excerpt from The Pastor: A Guide for God’s Faithful Servant, available through Regular Baptist Press.