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Can Church Politics Be Ethical: A Response


Ron Highfield's "The Ethics of Church Politics" addresses an issue of intense debate among the churches of Christ. It is a difficult topic, and the situations which can be envisioned are multiple. My response, therefore, will not so much address the case studies presented by Mr. Highfield, but his theological foundation. In that foundation, he raises questions which are too momentous to even attempt a brief reply such as the definition of truth and its philosophic grounding. This is especially true when he states: "Man never finds himself in a situation where he can choose between absolute right and wrong." That assumption is perilous, and ultimately renders all ethical decisions uncertain. Of course, in the following reply, I too will make certain assumptions, but space does not permit the defense and delineation of them.

The essential question, as I see it, is whether ethical policy decisions can be made while at the same time the truth value of a proposition is "provisionally set aside?" Mr. Highfield argues that the politician must consider the situation apart from truth, at least for the moment, while he attempts to set a policy to which "all the group may subscribe." He regards this as necessary given the fallen condition of man. He argues that as a result of the fall truth is sometimes subordinated to the "force principle."

However, it appears to me that Mr. Highfield has put the cart before the horse. For any decision to be ethical, it must be moral, that is, it must have truth content. A policy decision that is devoid of truth (and consequently devoid of morality) cannot be ethical. When politics is defined as the art of policy formation and compromise (which is an acceptable definition), it needs to be said that policy decisions are only ethical if they conform to truth. Compromise is a laudable practice if it occurs within the limits of truth.

Mr. Highfield, I think, ultimately recognizes this principle. But he argues that in our fallen condition no one can absolutely be sure that he possess the truth. Everyone, according to him, holds his convictions with a mixture of "truth and error." Consequently, in his conclusion Mr. Highfield believes that no church policy decision can be ethical if it is expected that the "truth is never compromised." Thus, we are "free to compromise our personal position in the interest of unity." A policy decision is ethical if it is made in the light of its ambiguity, "with humility and patience," prayer, and the "truth question is never made subservient to the political question." Yet this introduces what seems to be a paradox: how is it possible to give truth value an equal footing with the political question when it is not possible to have a policy decision where the "truth is never compromised." It seems Mr. Highfield equates truth and policy decisions as some kind of equals--the one is not to be subservient to the other. If there is a conflict between truth and policy decisions (i.e., what will hold the community together), which ought to be chosen? It appears to me that policy decisions must also be subservient to truth. Yet, given Highfield's pessimistic view of knowing truth, the ambiguity of man's fallen condition forces him to propose this unworkable equation.

This pushes our question of ethics back into the field of anthropology. Has the fall so radically affected man that he is unable to know or discover absolute truth? Must man always find himself upon a wave of uncertainty about his ethical decisions? Has sin so distorted man's existence that there is no light which breaks through the "ambiguity" of the situation? If man were left without a divine revelation, this would certainly be true. Left to himself, man will never grasp the redemptive message of God, nor will he know whether his decisions were ethical or sinful. However, God has not left man without a witness. Indeed, he has given an infallible witness in Scripture. Here is the "infallible criteria" that Mr. Highfield seeks. All our speaking is fallible, but that does not imply that all our speaking is erroneous. Fallibility does not deny the possibility of knowing truth. Otherwise, how would we know the truth of our own fallibility. Ethical decisions are only possible because it is possible to understand and know the truth, and where truth is not compromised, decisions are ethical. However, where truth is compromised, decisions can never be ethical.

Ethical decisions need to take three perspectives into account: (1) the norm (truth value); (2) the existential (personal) moment; and (3) the situation (teleology). Every individual asks existential ethical questions, such as, "How must I change so that I may please God?" These questions are asked in daily situations. Every ethical decision is situational, that is, it applies ethical principles to particular situations. However, while every ethical decision is existential and situational, every ethical decision must subjected to a norm. That norm is applied situation ally and existentially, but the norm remains to judge ethical decisions. The norm is unambiguously revealed in Scripture while the situational decisions are sometimes ambiguous, but they are not ambiguous to truth. They are ambiguous to what is most expedient within the limits of truth.

It is here where I think Mr. Highfield needs to place his discussion. He states: "It is not the task of ethics to venture an opinion as to the 'right' course of action, but to clarify the factors which our church leader must consider in making this decision." If he means that within the limits of truth, there are several ethical options open to him, then I would agree with his statement. If, however, he means that truth value must be placed on the same level as a political compromise, then I find his argument has not taken into full account the nature of truth as a norm for ethical decisions. In any given situation, the personal options for "right" (ethical or sanctioned by the norm of Scripture) may be many (while at the same time there are several "wrong" [unethical] options). Which "right" decision he chooses depends upon situational and existential considerations any of which will be "right" though only one may be the "best" or "most profitable" decision.

Policy decisions must be made based upon the situation and the existential realities of the predicament, but always within the limits of the Scriptural norm. Within that norm (Scripture does not address every situation, but defines principles to be applied), political compromise is an art which must be practiced if unity is to be maintained because there is always ambiguity here. Outside that norm, political compromise is not sanctioned since Scripture is unambiguous (I assume the perspicuity of Scripture). Humility, prayer and openness are always demanded even to the testing of what is held as truth. If it is truth, then it will stand the test. Our thinking must conform to God's thoughts, and in Scripture, as the Reformed apologist Van Til is prone to say, "we think God's thoughts after him." The Christian leader must first be a prophet (discover truth), and only then can he be an ethical politician.

First appeared as "Can Church Politics be Ethical?," Mission Journal 19.19 (March 1986), 11-2.


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