Interview With H. B. London
We are living in a day when ethical behavior is not valued. Business executives value the bottom line over ethics. Newspaper headlines and the evening news reveal the scandals brought about by their unethical behaviors. There is one place, though, where unethical behavior should never appear — in the lives of ministers. Those who have been called to preach the gospel should exhibit godliness and integrity.
To underscore the importance of ethics and ministry, Gary R. Allen, national director of Ministerial Enrichment and executive editor of Enrichment Journal interviewed H.B. London, Jr., vice president of ministry outreach/pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Known as a pastor to pastors, London shares his insight into this vital topic.
How Do You Define Ethics?
London: Ethics reflect who a person is — his conduct, his innermost thoughts, his speaking, teaching, and lifestyle. Christian ethics differ from secular ethics because Christian ethics are linked to the Bible and determined by the unchanging truth of Scripture.
Ministerial ethics is a religious code of behavior that is grounded in biblical truth. The ethical codes for the Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, or the Baptist church might be different for each denomination. Usually ethical religious codes define a particular group, profession, or an individual. If a person does not have a code of ethics, he almost has a license to behave in any manner he chooses.
In Today’s Pluralistic Environment, How Do We Determine What Is Right?
London: People determine what is right and wrong by their value system. The Christian’s value system is influenced by scriptural standards, how he applies scriptural truth to his life.
Situational ethics teaches that as long as it does not hurt anyone it is OK. This teaching is doing great damage to the church. In some instances, the majority of people who sit in the pew believe in situational ethics rather than moral ethics. If pastors do not address this ethical dilemma and do not live by obvious moral ethics, they contribute to the dilemma.
To Whom Are Pastors Accountable?
London: First, I am accountable to God and then to myself — to thine own self be true. If we regularly ask God “Is it well with my soul?” we will receive the answer for which we are looking.
We sometimes live in a way that is contrary to what we believe because we are trying to advance a program or build our own image. Rather than be true to ourselves we might compromise.
We are also accountable to our congregation, our staff, our spouse, our children, our denomination, and the beliefs of our denomination.
What Are The Major Ethical Issues Impacting Pastors And Congregations?
London: Today, there is much arrogance and self-centeredness in the ministry. It affects our behavior not only spiritually, but also morally and ethically. We need to return to sound biblical doctrinal teaching, preaching, and living. Pastors must be willing to address sin; if they do not, people will not know what truth is.
In my work as a pastor to pastors, I see ethical mistakes, financial integrity mistakes, and men and women disregarding one another and their families because success is so important to them. Sometimes I think we use God as J.B. Phillips describes in Your God Is Too Small. When we put God in a box and only pull Him out whenever we need Him, it presents ethical problems. When we speak, teach, and think for God, it is really not for God at all. It is for our convenience. We are simply using God as a crutch.
Another critical issue I see frequently is the church mirroring the world rather than the world mirroring the church. The church is not impacting society like society is impacting the church. The world is in our congregations. If we are not careful, we will downplay the problems of homosexuality, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, or easy believism. If we do not guard the church in the next 5 to 10 years, it will become more of a social institution than a deeply spiritual, moral institution.
I have observed in many denominations that their people are unfamiliar with their doctrinal distinctions. We are not sure who we are anymore. Indecision doctrinally and theologically eventually leads to chaos. The church today has a great deal of chaos because we are not grounded and rooted in Scripture. We have ripped up our roots and traditions to the point where especially the younger pastors do not have anything to go back to. Without a point of reference we follow the latest book, trend, or fad.
How Is Postmodern Society Influencing Ethics In The Church?
London: Postmodern society is influenced by polls, surveys, and popularity. This is one of the trends influencing the ethics of the church today. We have embraced a situational theology. What was relevant truth 10 or 15 years ago is considered outdated today because it no longer stands the test of society. Thus, it has become acceptable to no longer adhere to that truth. Postmodern society has defined sin for us rather than the church defining it. The result is we do not talk much about sin, restitution, or repentance. Sin is handled in a three- or-four step process and then everything is fine. Easy believism has affected the church morally as much as anything.
What Impact Does The Media Have On Personal Ethics?
London: The media has removed ethical boundaries. Anything goes. We watch sitcoms on television, read magazines, and laugh at the immoral ethics and behaviors that are eroding society. At the moment it strikes us funny. Even though these influences are subtle, they are profound because our young people and our children watch so much television. These immoral ideas are emblazened in their minds and in their hearts. Media producers have weakened traditional values that were once important to the body of Christ. They have determined that traditional values no longer stand the test of society and consequently are finding new values that will. But these values are always weaker, more liberal, and eventually bring us to a point where we do not have ethical boundaries anymore.
When Are Ethical Principles Established Within A Person?
London: Basic ethical principles are established when a child and parent can communicate with one another. They begin with learning what is right and wrong.
Beverly and I raised our children by establishing parameters in their lives. We explained to them, “This is always going to be wrong, this is always going to be right, and there are consequences when you refuse to respond to the parameters.”
Ethical principles need to start as early in life as possible. It is difficult to unlearn bad habits. What parents say about church, government, morality, school teachers, and law enforcement agencies begins to fill the minds and hearts of young people. Children respond to the moral lessons they learn from parents. They also respond to what they are taught at school. Public schools have become liberal and worldly. The ethics and morals of our schools are mostly social and are based less on biblical principles and more on accepted social behavior.
How Can The Church Help Parents Set Ethical Principles And Standards?
London: Parents must commit themselves to the Joshua 24:15 mindset, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” We must consistently fight for the moral fiber of our home and not allow the world to take one inch of turf. It is hard work being a parent. You must make decisions, be willing to say no, spend time with your children, and make sacrifices.
The church must reflect biblical teaching, not the latest church-growth trend in the body of Christ. I hear horror stories about Christian schools that have their morality on a sheet of paper, but not in practice. The church must stand up for basic values. The church must be willing to take a stand and help the families that do not have fathers or mothers and lack the stability that a family unit with two parents can provide. Within the next 10 to 15 years the church will be composed of mothers who have never been married or who are divorced, along with their children. What we have considered as the normal family unit is not going to be the model anymore. The church will need to substitute whatever is absent in that family unit.
How Can Pastors Better Teach Ethics In Their Home As A Model For The Families In Their Congregations?
London: The pastor must be unashamed of the gospel, decide early to discuss right and wrong choices in his own home, and do whatever is necessary to reinforce his values on his family. It would not be wrong for him to say to his family, “We are different. You may not understand at your age why we are different, but your mom and dad live by a higher standard with different parameters, traditions, and ethics than the average family. We have embraced these values because of our faith in God, our love for Jesus Christ, and our love for you as our children.”
Some pastors believe that their families must be perfect. But perfection is a goal we can never reach because we are human and prone to error. When striving for perfection it is better to err on the side of striving for perfection than fail by not setting your family standards high enough. A pastor needs to be realistic and measure the ability of each family member to adhere to the tradition and guidelines of the family. God will give us grace, gifts, and strength to do all we are able to do to come as close we as possibly can to reach that standard.
What Is The Negative Impact When A Minister Behaves In An Unethical Manner?
London: When a minister behaves unethically it represents failure. Not unforgiveable failure, but failure that reflects on all other clergy and on the body of Christ. It damages one’s influence and reputation.
A pastor endears himself to people. He may never have met these people, but his reputation preceded him. The damage of moral failure changes his image with the people he has influenced. The congregation that has been harmed by the unethical behavior of its pastor, especially financial repudiation, can wear a scarlet letter for years to come.
Some churches become almost suspicious and mistrusting of their spiritual leader. Pastors come and go, but they never find a place of trust in that congregation because the church has been betrayed to a point where they determine they will never get close to a spiritual leader again. This not only affects the senior pastor, but also the youth pastor, music minister, and continues its ripple effect within the body of Christ.
I have experienced this in my life. I was 16, a senior in high school, and an only child. I remember an unbelievable sadness that came over me when my parents told me my father would no longer be allowed to pastor the church he was presently serving. We would be moving out of our beautiful house to a walk-up apartment on the outskirts of town until I graduated from high school. I remember looking in my parents’ eyes and seeing the shame there, especially in my dad’s eyes.
As I grew older and became privy to what other people were thinking, I realized that the influence he once had was significant, but that his failure had disappointed many people. Even though he was restored and became president of a seminary, I saw the shame and the hurt in his life. When he looked at me and my mom, he realized he had done something to us that could never be reversed.
My father’s failure continues to shape everything I do. I do not want to hurt anybody the way he hurt me. I do not want to disappoint anybody the way he disappointed me.
Some Pastors Who Have Failed Use David As Their Role Model. But Joseph Is Also A Role Model. How Do You View These Two Men And Their Actions?
London: David’s behavior caused loss of life. Though David was forgiven, he lived in shame in many aspects of his life. His psalms seem to indicate that. On the other hand, when Joseph was propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, he ran from the house. He realized the implications of not only the accusations but also the consequences of his behavior. Joseph represents a type of Christ in the Old Testament. David does not.
David had a great heart for God, but so did Joseph. Joseph also had the ability to forgive those who had wronged him, to be patient and wait for the right moment when God would use him, and was patient when he was set aside for a short time because of the different circumstances in his life. David’s psalms are beautiful, and he may be better known than Joseph because of the psalms. However, in his psalms one can see the agonizing that goes on because of his behavior.
How Should A Minister Relate To Other Ministers Who Hold Different Theological Positions And Standards Of Conduct?
London: In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” A minister can be true to his doctrine and theology and still support and embrace a fellow clergyman who may not completely agree with his theology. Disagreement can make for healthy debate.
Can Uncertainty In Our Doctrine And Our Own Ethical Values Cause Us To Feel Intimidated?
London: When a charismatic/Pentecostal church goes mainstream to be accepted by a world that may not agree or embrace every aspect of its theology or doctrine, that church loses a great deal. It may grow in membership and in numbers, but do the people who attend the church understand the values and traditions of their charismatic roots? I would say that applies to my church, the Church of the Nazarene. I do not think the average person sitting in a Nazarene church understands what the Church of the Nazarene is, where it came from, or why it came into existence.
How Has The Church Minimized The Issue Of Sanctification Or Holiness?
London: I preach and teach frequently on holiness. The Word of God in Leviticus reads, “Be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44,45; 19:2; 20:26). In the New Testament, Peter taught holiness (1 Peter 1:15,16; 2 Peter 3:11). In Ephesians 4:24, we read we were “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” That is the epitome of what ethics is. Ethics is character. Ethics is who we are and what we are when we are alone, watching televsion, on the computer, standing before a congregation, with our family, with another group of pastors, or when we are with worldly men playing golf.
God wills us to be holy. I believe He sees us as holy. We may not feel holy or other people may not see us as holy, but God sees us as holy. Our command is to do the will of God.
When I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, I heard the words santification,heart purity, and perfect love before I even knew what they meant. As I look back, I understand salvation to be when the Lord comes into your life, but salvation includes sanctification — God in control of your life.
In the process of sanctification, I surrender myself to Him as an act of my will, and He takes control of me. Surrendering my will to God does not mean I will never sin again. It means I have the will not to sin so my behavior is consistent with God’s will for me. That is how I understood God’s will for me. I look at salvation as a relationship — my love for my Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Father’s love for me. That love causes me to avoid anything that would embarrass God or bring dishonor to Him.
As I grew up in the church I did not always understand the rigidity of the doctrine as well as I should have, but I understood the essence of it. I was to live as close as I could to the will of God, which meant intimacy with God. The more intimate I was with my Lord the more likely I was to please Him and do the right thing.
What Are Some Aspects Of The Positive Influence Of Ethical Behavior In The Pulpit And The Pastor’s Home?
London: The positive influence in the pastor’s home is the relief and spiritual well-being gained in knowing you have done the best you can to set an example for your family and have guided them in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord. You can lay your head on your pillow at night and not feel as though you have abused your position as pastor.
The positive influence of ethical behavior needs to be felt in the pulpit. I struggle with what I call ecclesiastical dishonesty. This is an ethical issue. I see so much arrogance and ego in ministry today. It is as though we have replaced “thus saith the Lord,” or “to Him be glory and honor,” “with listen to me, hear me, buy my books, buy my tapes, and you will learn anything and everything you need to know about life.”
We make a mistake when we put spiritual leaders on pedestals so people almost bow at their shrine rather than at the Cross. I see pastors young and old abdicating study, prayer, commitment, and devotion to embrace a book, a tape, or a paradigm. This harms their own spiritual development and the spiritual development of their congregations.
How Can We Diminish Individualism In Our Own Life And Congregation Without Negating Our Personal Relationship With God?
London: Men and women should not be falsely humble. There is nothing uglier than that. But every day we need to pray, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” We need to begin our day asking, “What would Jesus do?”
The Scripture I pray is that I would become less and He would become more (John 3:30). We must come to a place where we preach with transparency and confessionally. We need to help people realize we are not superhuman. We are human vessels that God has chosen. Jeremiah said that we are cracked pots that God must mold and make into instruments of His service. If people see us as haughty, selfish, or rude (1 Corinthians 13), we need to be reminded of it and let God continue to mold us. We cannot get to a place in our life where we take the place of God or the Holy Spirit in someone’s life. We are vessels. When a vessel is God’s vessel, it is to be used the way our Lord would want it to be.
What Words Of Encouragement Or Admonition Do You Have As We Close This Interview?
London: When I was called into ministry there was a childlikeness about it. There was a giddy excitement about the fact God would choose me. I am just a vessel that many people looked at and thought how could any good thing come from that. But God saw something in me that had value, worth, and could be used. In those youthful days of my call God knew my enthusiasm, sincerity, sensitivity, and intimacy with Him. Those feelings and emotions can be lost. Ministry is tough, demanding, and many times unfair. We can become calloused, jaundiced, selfish, and self-protecting to the point we care more about our own success and security than we do about the message God originally called us to preach.
If I could do it over again, I would go back and recapture some of that childlike innocency that once was so relevant. I would try to take away the trappings of prestige, power, position, and placement and become like Paul, who cried out when his heart was strangely warmed, “O God, here am I. I am not worthy, but use me however You want to use me. I will do whatever You ask me to do.”
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