Q: I am noticing a troubling characteristic about myself — something I have already spoken about with my pastor. I hold a position of leadership in my congregation. My troubling trait is that I put up with things from people whom I like and who are my friends but do not put up with the same kind of things from people with whom I disagree.
For example, I excuse angry and belligerent outbursts from my friends but get angry myself and condemn the same kind of behavior in people with whom I differ. I accept gossip from people I like for the sake of helping them get it off their chests, while at the same time condemning gossip from those in a different camp in the congregation. I support special-interest groups whose interests reflect mine but am indignant with those who oppose my leadership.
I think I am operating with a double standard. Am I? I’m beginning to think I should challenge my own ethics.
A: You have looked at yourself with candor and honesty and found a characteristic that I hope you will bring to the foot of the cross in repentance and prayer. Good for you! I give thanks to God for your Spirit-powered openness and willingness to confront this in yourself. I wish that more of us in the Christian community, myself included, would have such openness and courage.
What you describe is fairly natural in human experience and part of the nature of our sinful situation. Social scientists who have studied the development of ethical thought and behavior might call this the “If you are my friend, whatever you do is ethical” position. It is a variation of the “What is ethical is based on who you know” position. A healthier ethical position, in contrast, is that our responses to behavior should be based on a norm that applies to all, whether that behavior is done by friend or foe.
The latter is an important principle in the Christian community. Our judgment about ethics and ethical behavior needs to be informed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and applied across all kinds and types of people, rather than being applied on the basis of how we feel about a person or even the issue that person is advocating.
If, for instance, demeaning another person is wrong, then it is wrong, even when done by someone we like. There can be no making it right by coating it in pious or religious language. If gossiping –rather than talking directly to a person — is wrong, then it is wrong regardless of who is doing it. If lying or offering misinformation is wrong, then it is wrong even when done in the service of a cause with which we concur.
There is an old saying in one religious community: “The end justify the means.” This idea often is used to justify outrageous or unethical behavior among people who agree with each other and need to rationalize their behavior. Such rationalization needs to be confronted, and you are doing so in yourself.
Accept your own challenge of yourself! Use your pastor or another trusted spiritual advisor to reflect on your behavior. Now that you know where some of your vulnerabilities lie, be especially watchful. Rejoice in your understanding as a gift of God in Christ Jesus. Be prayerful that God’s Spirit will give you awareness and understanding, born of the Christ who, indeed, showed no partiality in His saving work.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Sept. 6, 2005