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The "Highest Standards" of Clergy Morality

by David K. Jaeger

The author is pastor of Niwot United Methodist Church in Longmont, Colorado. This article appeared in the Christian Century  October 31, 1984, p. 1006. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The ancient Hebrews thought of emotions as being generated in the liver. Western tradition has generally represented love as coming from the heart. United Methodism, perhaps unwittingly, has recently added to our corporeal mythology by rendering its judgment that fidelity is located in the genitals.

Ever since the 1980 General Conference declined to take a definitive position on the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” the 1984 General Conference, which met last spring in Baltimore, was targeted by several groups within the church to accomplish just that purpose. Through time the focus on homosexuality became judged too narrow, and thus the discussion was broadened to include clergy morality in general. Eventually, the majority report that seemed acceptable to the whole conference focused on the following phrase as a full and appropriate guide for clergy morality: “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” In its context, the statement to be inserted in the introductory section of The Book of Discipline’s chapter on ordained ministry reads:

While . . . persons set apart by the church for the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards represented by the practice of fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness. Since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.

The addition of the last sentence overshadowed the statement on clergy morality. Nevertheless, I would like to consider this entire, more far-reaching judgment on the part of the church.

Granted, we all understand that General Conference is made up of more varied parts than an Indian elephant. Some members opposed the idea, and others may have presumed to hear and conceive the language in a fuller sense. But at bottom there is no dodging the fact that the General Conference used this language with the intention that it have a genital referent. If the conference had added the words “among other things” following the words “represented by,” then I would not be so concerned. But the deliberate intention clearly is to say that “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” exhausts “the highest standards” of clergy morality in general. How appropriate is such an understanding?

Let us consider a parable of two pastors. Both happen to be men. Both have several years in the parish. Both are married to their first wives, both have two children about the same ages, and both feel they love their wives and children. The first is a good, hard-working pastor. In fact, he works too hard. His appointment book is always filled with a plethora of night meetings and weekend engagements, and he never takes a weekday off. He is not given to vacations. Only rarely does he give extended attention to his children. His wife has thought for some time of re-entering her career now that the children are older, but the idea makes him uncomfortable, so she hesitates to bring it up. He usually sends her to bed by herself while he stays up to read or write. When his bedtime does occasionally coincide with hers, he is usually too tired to make love, or at least to do it well. He says that he loves her, but his habit of inattention leaves her feeling uncertain. This pastor has never laid hands on another woman since his wedding day. Eyes, maybe, but not hands.

The second man is also a good, hard-working pastor. In addition, he manages to create significant amounts of enjoyable time to work and play with his family and friends. He takes an active interest in his children’s lives. He gives his wife ample encouragement for her work outside the home, which she finds fulfilling. He makes love to his wife often, with energy and enthusiasm. He tells her that he loves her, and she believes it. She feels loved. Because of his generous and outgoing nature it is easy for him to form deep, meaningful relationships with many people. In fact, over the years some of his relationships with women have led to sexual intimacy. He expects that some other relationships will also follow this course in the future.

Now I ask you, which of these pastors is faithful to his wife? Is either one? Neither? The judgment of General Conference is that the first is faithful, the second is not. Does this understanding represent the highest standards of morality?

For that matter, what of the possibility that both pastors in the above parable are faithful? Is it possible that one specific standard may not be appropriate across the board? With respect to the food laws, for instance, Paul upheld private conscience as the legitimate determiner of right and wrong, so that two different people could eat the same meat, and for one it would be a sin yet for the other it would not (Rom. 14:22 ff.). To what degree, if any, can the rule of conscience be applied to blessing or condemning sexual behavior? Clearly, the way in which some parsonage couples freely make love would be regarded by others as downright sinful.

All of these questions plead for a contribution from moral development theory. Without tying these comments to any single scheme of moral development, most of us can say that normal human development carries us through successively higher stages of moral perception and valuation. And surely we believe that not all adults attain the same level of moral maturity but that instead various stages of moral development are present within the adult population. Further, we recognize that the need to reduce moral dilemmas full of gray zones to black-and-white issues, and the desire to be able to declare moral certitude in tight, precise phrases, characterizes a stage of moral development which is somewhat less than the highest. Is it possible that the majority of the members of General Conference were just plain limited to a tight, legalistic conception of clergy morality because of their stage of moral development? We know, at least, that where differing stages of moral development clash in society, the result can be a melee, and that usually those at a lower stage simply cannot comprehend, and thus they resent, the moral suggestions of the more mature party. The classic example in our tradition is the encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees.

As they are portrayed in the synoptic Gospels, the Pharisees were a people whose moral understanding required a rigid code of specific, legalistic commands and prohibitions. They were both befuddled and angered by Jesus’ relative freedom, by his morality rooted in a grand vision of the respect for personhood and the abundant grace of God, who loves us like a doting parent.

I would contend that we in the United Methodist Church have settled for a pharisaism. In one tight, legalistic phrase we actually believe we have captured morality. Like all pharisaism, though, it is basically only wishful thinking. We would like for life’s moral dilemmas to be so easily discerned and treatable, so we define them as such, and pretend that our short-sightedness and intellectual sloth can pass for true morality. With the phrase “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” we have only constructed an artificial stage on which we now comfortably assume that we can honestly (faithfully) play out life’s dramas. In this we are guilty of a sad self-deception.

What practical effects of this action can we anticipate? The legislation is not very likely to change the basic sexual behavior of even one ordained minister. Twenty years ago Methodist clergy lived under an ordination vow to abstain from drinking and smoking; those who drank and smoked simply did so discreetly.

The real significance of the old morality language and the new is that they stand as opportunities for judgment and trial. The effect will be to cause people to live in greater fear and suspicion of one another. It will be to cause people’s real selves to sink further out of sight -- unavailable for honest relationship -- to be replaced to a greater degree by their shallow, defensive, political selves. The effect will be to provide greater occasion for destructive rumor and selective justice. The single minister is now an easier target for the church’s small-minded, of which there are plenty. There is no exoneration from rumor. Indeed, simply for having probed these matters as I have done here, my own moral behavior is bound to come under suspicion. There is no acquittal from suspicion.

The highest standards? They apparently were beyond the grasp of United Methodism’s General Conference. We have instead settled for standards well below the highest. So where is fidelity seated? Is it in the genitals, the heart, the will or the actions? Is it a combination of all these, and yet more? In any case, we can say with confidence that whatever fidelity is, it is much more intricate and complex than the shallow definition with which we have, in ostrich fashion, now prematurely satisfied ourselves. In our effort to define fidelity we have become unfaithful to the higher standard of moral perception and action to which Jesus sought to call the human community.


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