Churches, denominations bear responsibility for unethical clergy

Word & Way

By Vicki Brown
Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ministers are responsible for their actions as individuals, sometimes by civil authorities and ultimately by God. But what responsibility, if any, should the local church and the denomination bear for unethical behavior of their pastors and other church ministers?

Ministers must be aware of their relationship with each church member. Role reversal can open the possibility for confusion and abuse.

That question is difficult for religious bodies that follow a congregational form of governance that emphasizes the autonomy of the believer and of the local church. That stance has become the primary basis for refusal by many groups, including many Baptist denominations, to compile lists of ministers caught in unethical or immoral behavior, particularly sexual misconduct.

Establishing an organization-wide procedure is more difficult for denominations without a hierarchical structure, Joe Trull acknowledged. “As Baptists, we want to maintain our belief in local church autonomy and are hesitant to be viewed as telling churches what to do,” noted the retired professor of Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a former editor of Christian Ethics Today magazine.

Trull also was an adjunct professor at Logsdon Theological Seminary in Abilene, Texas, and at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas. The author of several books co-wrote with James Carter two editions of “Ministerial Ethics.” The 1993 edition is titled “Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a Not-So-Good World,” with the 2004 edition as “Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders.” The authors currently are updating the book, due to be released next year.

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