There are many factors that help a church to be healthy and effective—biblical and theological faithfulness, creativity and boldness in outreach, members who are diligent and committed to growing in their faith. But few things can wreck a church faster than bad relational ethics. Relational ethics in a church are one of the most important factors in determining whether a church will be healthy, stable, fruitful, and honoring to God.
What do I mean by “relational ethics”? When I use the term, “relational ethics,” I am referring to the rules and habits that we follow when we relate to one another. Whenever you gather people together into a group of some sort, they develop patterns of relating to each other. Sometimes those patterns are intentional and conscious. Probably more often than not, those group patterns of relating to one another just sort of grow up over time without anyone thinking much about them.
Families, workplaces, clubs, sports teams, and, yes, churches all develop distinctive patterns of relating to one another. Those patterns can become quite ingrained over time to the point where the members of the family or workplace or church scarcely think about them or even notice them. And those habits of relating, often more than any other factor, will shape the character, determine the effectiveness, and define the reputation of that group.
So, what do good relational ethics look like? Well, in a general sense, good relational habits in a church look like the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It is not wrong, I think, to say that the first word in that list – love – summarizes all the rest. All of the words in that list describe what “love” looks like in action. Love is the soil out of which good relational habits grow in the church. Love desires the well-being of the other person. Every relationship in the church should be a visible expression of love.
But saying that good, healthy church relationships should look like love is still too general. So, I want to give you a few specifics about what good relational ethics look like.
- Talking about People Behind their Backs: Talk to people not about them. If you have a problem with another person, that person should be the first one you talk to about it. Complaining about someone or finding fault with someone behind their back is always wrong and always destructive of healthy church life. It destroys trust. If you’ll complain about Joe to me, I’ll immediately suspect that you’ll complain about me to Joe. Churches that tolerate this kind of relational behavior become places of suspicion, distrust, and resentment.
- Listening to People Complain about Others People: Do not allow people to criticize someone else to you. That’s how you stop the problem I just described above. If Bill wants to complain about Joe to you, you need to say to Bill, “You shouldn’t be telling me about this. If you have a problem with Joe, you need to go talk to Joe directly.” If Bill persists, walk away. If everyone in the church does this, the church will never develop the habit of talking about people behind their backs.
- Assuming People’s Motives: Do not make assumptions about people’s motives. Motives are never obvious. If we are going to make assumptions about another person’s motives, we should always assume they had good intentions at heart. Yet, how common it is for people to say, “Obviously, Mary intended to hurt me by that remark/action.” Then on the basis of that unproven assumption, we chose to be resentful and to think ill of Mary. Then the relationship is broken, and as likely as not Mary can’t figure out why you are suddenly cold and distant toward her. Instead, talk to one another. Say, “You know, Mary, when you said that, it hurt my feelings.” Then Mary has the opportunity to say, “Oh my! It never occurred to me that what I said might be hurtful to you. I’m so sorry. I certainly didn’t mean it that way.” And the relationship is restored, and trust is deepened.
- Affirmation vs. Criticism: Let affirmation be the norm and criticism rare. Affirmation, praise, expressions of thanks should set the overall tone of a church’s conversation. In a church, where the overall tone is one of affirmation and encouragement, people are build up. When everyone feels affirmed and appreciated, then they feel safe and are able to deal openly and honestly with mistakes and shortcomings without feeling personally attacked. If affirming and praising people is not a normal part of a person’s conversation, then that person has not earned the right to criticize anyone else. Criticism should generally not be offered unless it’s asked for, and even then it should always be accompanied by an offer to help. If your opinion has not been asked for and if you are not willing to help with the matter, then you should refrain from finding fault.
- Decide to be hard to offend: I had a wise friend who used to refer to some people as “having long toes.” The first time I heard him use the phrase, I was puzzled and had to ask him what he meant. He said, “Long toes are easy to step on without meaning to. Some people’s toes are easy to step on. They get offended easily.” God’s people ought to have very short toes. They ought to be hard to offend. There is a wonderful Greek word in the New Testament that speaks of this characteristic. It’s one of the fruit of the Spirit. In English it’s usually translated as “patience.” The Greek word is makrothumia, which is a compound word. Makro—which means “far.” And thumos—which means “anger.” Makrothumia means putting your anger far away, so that your anger in a place where it takes a long time to get to it. God’s people ought to be very slow to get angry and offended, and they ought to be very quick to forgive. Conflict rarely breaks out in a church like that. And if it does, it is resolved quickly and lovingly.
Lately, the Church of Jesus Christ in America has struggled with its relational ethics. The witness of the Church today requires each of us to work hard to get this right, to model the Fruit of the Spirit in all our interactions with other people – people inside the Church and outside the Church. All people bear the image of God, and all deserve to be treated accordingly, especially those we disagree with or find personally off-putting. Our ability to bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ depends on this. We need to model the exhortation from James: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). That’s the kind of people God wants us to be.
Let’s commit ourselves to fulfill the appeal that the apostle Paul issued to the church in Rome: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). If we do that, we will continue to be the kind of church through which God can work wonders.
“Love’s virtues are described as patient and kind, and not arrogant, rude, or irritable. The opposite of loving others is selfishness, or the love of self. So if you hear words funneling out of your mouth that are unkind, ungracious, and condemning, you can know that those words are not showing love to the person your are speaking to. You should stop and consider whom you are loving at that moment.” John Crotts, Graciousness: Tempering Truth with Love, page 61.
“This is the only way to attain that which is not only difficult, but utterly repugnant to man’s nature: to love those who hate us, to requite injuries with kindness, and to return blessings for curses. We should forever keep in mind that he is God’s image bearer. If we cover and obliterate man’s faults and consider the beauty and dignity of God’s image in him, then we shall be induced to love and embrace him. (Heb. 12:16; Gal. 6:10; Is. 58:7; Matt. 5:44; Luke 17:3-4).” John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, page 38.
©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.