Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Moral Fences

Pastors -- well, all Christians -- need to have mental walls separating themselves and sin. But James McDonald has eloquently written about the need for moral fences which serve as early-warning barriers before temptation arrives at the wall. Here they are:

1) I will not, under any circumstances, ride alone in a car with a female other than my wife or an immediate family member.
2) I do not counsel women in a closed room or more than once.
3) I do not stay alone in a hotel over night.
4) I speak often and publicly of my affection for my wife, when she is present and when she is not.
5) Compliment the character or the conduct - not the coiffure or the clothing.

Very sensible. I have stayed alone in a hotel room, such as at MethoBlogCon, but it's pretty rare that I travel anywhere other than to relatives, so it's not a regular event.

One of McDonald's points is that these fences need to exist in public, even though clergy misconduct is not something that we like to talk about:

When the message came to the "how to prevent" part, I simply downloaded the five moral fences to everyone. At the staff level we require a more detailed list of moral fences. From pastors to ministry leaders, to custodians and bookstore staff, every paid staff member is regularly held accountable for this moral code. A former singles pastor found it very difficult not to have lunch alone with women in his ministry, and often "forgot." That is, until we told him we would "forget" to pay him if he "forgot" again.

These fences are handy to not only avoid temptation, but false accusation. A pastor should avoid not only impropriety, but even the appearance of it.

Not that gossiping ever occurs in the Church, of course.

Hat tip: Jason Woolever


Dan Trabue said...

While I don't necessarily disagree with these rules as good ideas (except the hotel one - seems a bit much to me), I find it interesting that the apparent sin to be watched out for here is only sexual.

What of the sin of greed or materialism (which is far more commonplace than adultery and much easier to fall into - and warned about much more in the Bible!)? Where is the list that includes:

1. I will not, under any circumstances, purchase any SUVs or large vehicles
2. I will not shop in a walmart alone
3. I will speak often and publicly about the need for simplicity...

For instance. Or how about the sin of hatred and violence? Of envy? Why is the sexual isolated here as the one Moral Fence in need of being built?

Just curious.

John B said...

Most of James' rules seem extreme to me. Why are people so afraid? Is there any Biblical mandate that says I shouldn't ride in a car with a woman? I guess Jesus shouldn't have been speaking to the woman at the well, or Mary at the tomb.

Every morning, my secretary, a woman, and I are alone in the church building, sometimes even in the same room. Am I breaking some kind of moral boundary because of that?

Legalism which Jesus condemned doesn't seem to me to be very far from "I won't stay in a hotel overnight by myself".

Maybe I'm just naive, or maybe I trust myself and the Holy Spirit more than I should, but I think the atmosphere of fear that generates these kinds of rules is the work of the Enemy.

brother ben said...

who ever plans on having an affair with their secretary though?

most sins that ruin people for ministry begin in situations just like the ones that John listed.

most of the pastors that have committed sins that ruined their ministries were just like the rest of us... frail, broken, and not above being tempted.

it seems to think that you you are above temptation is the first step toward taking a fall that will discredit you forever.

its not immoral to be in the same car with a woman. but its not safe to think that we're stronger than ted haggard or any other fallen pastor.

John said...

Dan, you make a very good point. Although I think that shopping in Wal-Mart would be the more ethical thing to do (rather than expensive boutiques) if we are trying to encourage thriftiness among Christians, the Church does far too little to directly call wealthiness sinful.

John B wrote:

Maybe I'm just naive, or maybe I trust myself and the Holy Spirit more than I should, but I think the atmosphere of fear that generates these kinds of rules is the work of the Enemy.

A little fear is a healthy thing.

It only takes one accusation....

the reverend mommy said...

I actually agree with the spirit of these rules -- in some contexts they may seem extreme, in some not so much.

When I was growing up, my senior pastor would counsel women alone -- with the dutch door open to the secretary's office or so they both could be seen through the glass in the door.

Two of the places pastors get in trouble are financial (stealing from the plate/offering) and sexual relationships.

When receiving the offering, I personally think it best for the pastor to not even touch the offering plates or ever ever ever be left alone with the the offering after service. Ever. Best let the ushers hold the plates up or acolytes for the prayer of dedication than the pastor.

Better draconic rules than even a hint, a breath of impropriety.

John B said...

John is right, a little fear is a healthy thing.

And I'm not as carefree or foolish as my first post would have people believe. I understand the importance of boundaries, but I do wonder how much of those boundaries we hear so much about are really about protecting the Conference from a sexually harrasment lawsuit rather protecting pastors from temptations.

When fear begins to dominate our lives and prevents ministry from happening, then I'm not so sure it's a good thing. There are other ways.

I never meet with a woman without my wife's knowledge. When I went to a workshop with a woman from my congregation last fall, I stayed with my niece and her husband, while she stayed at a hotel. I can't see why this woman should be denied the opportunity to grow in her faith just because I might be afraid of what some people will think or say about me.

Sadly, we live in a world where all innocence is gone and with it trust in one another.

Anonymous said...

My wife would kill me if I dragged her to all the "conferences, continuing education, and emergent events." And I choose to have a "no roommate room" because 1)I snore and 2)They snore.

So I guess I kind of violate his no hotel room stay alone policy :(

Dan has a point about limiting sin to one thing (lust), there is a wide variety of sins that we need to be aware of: pride being a big one, greed another biggy, apathy anyone?

John said...

apathy anyone?

Pfft. Who cares about apathy?

Dan Trabue said...

I have my hunches about why the one area is the one we tend to look for. I think the church has focused on sexual sins as the Big Sins to address in our culture.

Even though homosexuality is only mentioned a handful of times (if that) in all of the Bible and Jesus does not mention it at all, it will doubtless be mentioned in churches across the US this coming Sunday, and the next and the next.

Even though abortion is unmentioned in the Bible, it will get plenty of pulpit time.

Even though matters of greed, abuse of power, oppression, the neglect of the poor and marginalized are mentioned throughout the Bible in quite clear terms, THESE topics tend to go not mentioned nearly as much.

Why? I suspect it's because it's relatively easy for most Christians and church leadership to not have sex outside of marriage (either we do or we don't - it's fairly clearcut), it's much more difficult and messy to subdue the gods of materialism and greed.

So we pick on the "easy" sins and ignore or downplay the "difficult" ones.

Just my guess.

Larry B said...


One point I would make about your list

"Even though matters of greed, abuse of power, oppression, the neglect of the poor and marginalized are mentioned throughout the Bible in quite clear terms, THESE topics tend to go not mentioned nearly as much."

These appear to me to be more matters of seemingly larger corporate sins. I cannot personally transform a greedy corporation, which I think most people would agree, wreaks far more havoc on society than an occasional extraneous purchase by an individual.

The problem I see is that when these matters are brought up especially in the Methodist Church they are brought up in the context of corporate sin by a body, not as sin of an individual. I have no hope for transforming something like a Haliburton, yet our Church spends much time and energy denouncing such large organizations. It removes the personal sin aspect and makes it seem far removed from people.

If the church would spend more time focusing on the lives of individuals and stop plastering corporate sin declarations all over the place it might be something that would stick for an individual.

Sexual sin is far less associated with a corporate body and much more individualized. That's why I think more people can pay more attention to it, simply because it seems more relevant on an individual level.

As for the main topic of the post, those are excellent suggestions for not just clergy, but anyone. To believe that we will always be in a state of mind to resist temptation without having to think about it is a real stretch. Thinking ahead of time and avoiding bad situations is good advice in my opinion.

Whit said...

I rather think your rules are a bit much, John.

I live alone and I date, being a single guy. I'm not sleeping with any of my dates, and I trust that people will respect my word when I say that I am behaving morally. If I didn't I would have no life!

Quite frankly, the Rabbinic practice of 'building a fence around the Law' was explicitly condemned by Jesus. "You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel." I think that as long as we aren't doing anything that's actually immoral, we ought to sneer at bluenoses who would have us avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Anonymous said...

As Larry B. alluded to, occupation should not matter. (I am a physician, not clergy)
My wife and her best friend from college always thought it was cute and refreshing that I would not go over to her friends condo alone to assist her with various tasks. The only occasion in which I went to her place alone was when we received a house alarm call when her friend was out of town - as we were her emergency contact. Again, my wife thought of it as cute, and I earned the upmost respect from her friend. I was not acting out of fear, but what I thought was a proper gentlemanly thing to do.
To those detractors that "sneer" at those who would have us avoid the appearance of impropriety, I offer the following aphorism: an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure!

By the way, Thomas Sowell has an excellent column today entitled The Greed Fallacy. I could not help but offer this gem after reading Dan's offering.

Dark Gable

Dan Trabue said...

Dark G, you want to fill us in on what exactly the Greed Fallacy is, according to Sowell?

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. ~Jesus

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. ~Paul

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a person is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ. ~Paul

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you...
Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

A sampling from the Word...

BruceA said...

but I do wonder how much of those boundaries we hear so much about are really about protecting the Conference from a sexually harrasment lawsuit rather protecting pastors from temptations.

When I was just out of college, I interviewed with an organization that helped runaway teenagers. As I interviewed, I learned that the organization was going through a crisis: The founder had been accused of sexual harrassment after he had counseled a teenaged girl in a room with a closed door. There was no evidence of impropriety except for the girl's accusations.

Fear of a lawsuit may simply be prudence in today's society.

Anonymous said...

The moral fences required may be different for different personalities and circumstances. Some may need a 6 foot fence while others need a 10 foot fence with barbed wire. Each person should honestly and prayerfully assess his/her limitations and set appropriate parameters. I don't think there is a one size fits all for this.

Dan Trabue said...

Okay, I found the Sowell "greed fallacy" article at townhall.com.

It's not really what we're talking about here, though, is it?

In that essay, Sowell is criticizing those who criticize the wealthy as being greedy, without knowing anything else about how they got their wealth. He's really talking about market forces and what market forces allow salaries to be.

Which is an interesting topic, but not really what I'm talking about.

In the Bible, greed is, I'd suggest, described as the affliction of wanting much more than "enough," AND to be willing to use or benefit by oppressive systems in order to get all that and more.

Thus, we have systems built upon greed in the sense that we have so much affluence in our system. We've moved way beyond just getting our needs met and moved into opulence, by world and historical standards.

And this affluence is able to be fed by acquiring the More that can be found "affordably" at places like Walmart - affordable because the stuff is made by those working at less than Enough wages in conditions that are less than just and in a manner that often harms God's creation.

Perhaps this is a tangent (I don't think so, but maybe others would). All I'm saying is read the Bible through, keep an eye out for issues of economics and economic oppression and you will see this as a major - maybe THE major sin to be found in the Bible, at least in terms of how often it's brought up.

No, I'm not worried in the least about my pastor and sexual sin. And actually, I'm not worried about my pastor and economic sin because she's such a great Christian. BUT, if I were to worry, that would be my area of concern.

Anonymous said...

In my conference, sexual sin is a very real thing. It seems every year, at least one colleague falls to sexual temptation, either through adultery or downloading porn on the church computer. Sexual sin rips relationships apart, sows distrust and harms families.

The rules that are listed are a reaction to this "anything goes" world--and the worldliness that creeps into the church. However, rules alone won't solve this problem. It's all about a relationship with God. We should want to stay away from sexual sin (and any other kind) because our connection with Jesus is paramount. If I commit adultery, I alienate myself from Christ, grieve the Holy Spirit and ultimately answer to God (though I would answer to my wife first and that would be unpleasant enough).

Jacob said...

Did you ever consider that maybe James has extreme rules because he has had problems? This is his second marriage. He cheated on his 1st. wife and fathered 2 children by each woman he was with. I know, I am one of the children, I was born right after James was, well 4 months later. There is also another daughter, born after James and myself, but before Christa, her name is Leslie. He's afraid of being found and found out by Stacy.