Favoritism, greed, shoddy morals and shady ethics have found a comfortable home in the church.
At the same time, both inside and outside the church there is a rise in intolerance toward leaders who have been allowed to compromise with impunity their various institutions' self-declared moral and ethical standards.
The most dramatic evidence of this is the painful confrontation the Roman Catholic Church has faced as its nose is rubbed in decades of moral violation perpetrated by a small number of its priests.
I take no delight in their dilemma, and I commend their efforts at reparations for the violated and the discipline of the clergy. But it would be unrealistic to assume that the public's hue and cry over this sector's failure will not develop into a wholesale investigation of the ethical practices of the rest of the church.
The world may justify its own moral and ethical relativism in certain arenas of life, but it has every right to hold the church's feet to the fire concerning its belief that morals and ethics have absolutes to which the church must answer.
In short, the world is saying, "Practice what you preach."
Concurrently, notable pulpit and media voices from within the church have been raised, calling for a showdown when leaders justify easy divorce and sudden remarriage, and continue in ministry as though the approval of their supporters verifies the holiness of their actions.
But there has been no standard policy guiding the body of Christ as it deals with its mavericks--the small but growing number of leaders who make their own rules and flaunt the ethical demands of a disciple of Jesus Christ.
While virtually every evangelical denomination responsibly monitors, disciplines and restores its own ministers, the enormous number of independent spiritual leaders is another matter.
Of course, the vast preponderance of independent pastors and church leaders I have met are not independent. They may be independent in their adherence to formal structures or ecclesiastical polity, but they aren't in their attitudes or in their spiritual values.
I've met thousands of independent ministers personally, and they virtually always characterize the godly lifestyle and personal accountability that the Bible requires of every spiritual leader.
There is nothing unworthy about being independent, and I want to stress the fact that virtually all such leaders I know have circles of personal accountability to which they voluntarily answer. They may be structurally independent, but they don't lead their lives independently.
Further, as we have seen with the Catholic Church, the existence of structures that administrate discipline or require ethical alignment within denominations doesn't insure that those functions are always exercised. Slackness, favoritism or administrative politics have all had their field day on occasion, even within denominations.
In light of this crisis, I want to propose the establishment of an International Council for Ethical Accountability (ICEA)--or something with another title but serving the church with what those words represent.
First, let me assure you: I'm aware of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA)--and the name's similarity is intentional, as is my hope that whatever the name, it could serve in as effective a way as ECFA has and does.
The "International" is not to suggest something less-than-evangelical in convictions. I propose that the widely accepted National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) statement of faith be signed by all members of the new council.
Further, I know that ethics and financial integrity overlap as concerns, but the former does cover a broader spectrum of values, mores and behavioral issues. So, noting these things, and assuring anyone who is interested that my proposed name isn't my point, let me affirm that the need for a council on this order is my point.
Such a council could provide a starting place for an internationally agreed-on standard concerning basic ethical and moral issues as they pertain to church leadership.
I know that regardless of whatever might be framed and agreed to by the broad body of Christ, there would still be mavericks. But the good news would be that the church had a near-universally accepted fellowship or council that could answer the Christian public or the secular press with the words: "This isn't us. We don't espouse or condone this."
However, the church at large is presently limited in expressing a collective voice in this way. While any one of a field of leaders may answer a reporter's question with a statement disapproving of another leader's conduct, without a broad consensus, the public is left with the notion that every spiritual leader is basically a law unto themselves.
It tends to confirm the growing suspicion in our culture that moral or ethical standards in the church are as negotiable as a Ph.D. gained from a diploma mill for $250 and a 1,500-word paper.
I recognize that, by the very fact of my proposal here, I become vulnerable to charges of Phariseeism. But my history is generally known for an absence of moral posturing, and a track record of seeking to serve fallen leaders in ways of grace and discipline in hopes of recovering their marriages and/or ministries.
Ethics involve more than issues of sexual morality, and some know of my straight-talk when invited by leaders into private conversations about their personal administrative habits. I am humbled that several leaders have inquired of me regarding appropriate income levels--especially when their ministries have been greatly blessed with finances.
I have commended them, but have always held that, as representatives of charitable institutions, spiritual leaders may not be called to poverty, but we are called to self-denial.
I detest the idea that boards exist merely to "keep the leader humble" by prohibiting a leader from benefiting from his/her ministry's success. However, luxury and extravagance have no place among us, and Christlike self-denial is a lost concept in some quarters today.
A growing celebrity mind-set has pervaded much of the church today, and with it, an idolatry of personality cultishness is making way for leaders to violate wisdom and indulge themselves, simply because their clientele allow it.
This does not go unnoticed by the watching world. And while legal technicalities may leave the leader's head above water, the gospel is being cut off at the knees when such absence of self-denial breeds guffaws and catcalls from a sneering society--a society neutralized for an entree of the gospel by a handful of the self-serving who are seen as representing the whole.
It has been my unpleasant experience to quietly withdraw from two ministries I've been involved with in past years. In neither case were laws violated, nor, to my knowledge, was sexual immorality involved.
However, in both cases, the "law unto myself" attitudes curtailed my ability to continue in relationship. In each case, I spoke privately with the leader, exercising my effort at gracious, brotherly confrontation, and in neither did I sow contention, only speaking with the leader.
In one case, I was dismissed as being too "denominational" in my values, even though the issue was moral and ethical, not biblical, doctrinal or ecclesiastical. In the other, I was completely unheard--not mistreated, not spoken ill of, but simply not answered.
It isn't my desire to pretend that my standards or wisdom are superior to anyone else's, but to assert that God's are higher than those any of us are likely to abide by without a measure of accountability. And there is a biblical principle of "iron sharpening iron" (see Prov. 27:17) that is intended to verify we need one another, because left alone we are all vulnerable to losing our edge.
The book of Judges describes Israel's deplorable moral condition with the words, "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (17:6, 21:25, NKJV). The consequences of Israel's apostasy were drastic, as God's covenant people were mocked and overridden by the pagan world around them.
The environment for this moral and ethical autonomy was born of two dynamics: a disregard for God's word and an absence of a central government. In each case, God answered by introducing a deliverer--a judge who was used to drive back evil's intrusion and defend God's purpose among His people.
Today, the church's call is to judge itself--not with criticism, but with purifying grace. It's still true: "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God" (1 Pet. 4:17). If it doesn't begin with our own self-government, I believe we can count on it from elsewhere. The judgment will come from outside, as society's legal, judicial and media agencies hold hypocrisy up to the eyes of a world that needs the light we are called to shine forth, not the shadows of our shame.
Even if this proposal were attempted only in our own nation, the spread of a standard for the global church could be profound.
This isn't a proposal for doctrinal agreement beyond basics, or for ecclesiastical or liturgical conformity. But written on all our hearts is a set of ethical principles that we intuitively know are right, and God's Word affirms a fundamental body of moral expectations we all affirm.
So the question is, do we believe it possible that we can find a consensus on how we can strengthen one another by speaking with one voice where ethics are involved?
I think the answer is yes. I would be interested in hearing other thoughts, in the hope that my heart is being heard as one who loves the church and its leaders, and my words not perceived as either self-righteous or prudish.
Jack Hayford, Litt.D., is the founding pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, Calif., and chancellor of The King's College and Seminary.
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