The leadership landscape of 21st Century organizations is littered with ethical failures of leaders. No organization is exempt from unethical practices or behaviors including churches, non-profits, governments, and businesses. Unfortunately, as leadership author and expert, Joanne Ciulla rightly stated: “We live in a world where leaders are often morally disappointing.” Take, for example, the recently reported ethical debacle at the ride-hailing company Uber, where sexual harassment was a systemic problem, which led to the founder and CEO stepping down from that leadership role.
As we ponder how ethics play a role in 21st Century organizations, it is important to note that even though the Christian Scriptures, the Bible, were written thousands of years ago, God’s word still informs our understanding of ethics in our modern times. In fact, the Bible is foundational to Christian ethics. Christian ethics not only guide those who profess to be Christians, but they also influence the ethical behavior of those around the ethical Christian. Had the CEO of Uber embraced the following ethical principles, perhaps he and his company could have avoided the ethical pitfalls that ensnared them.
Introduction to Ethics
Understanding ethics is not as straightforward as one would think. However, Kyle Fedler’s book “Exploring Christian Ethics” is an invaluable resource that explains the theories of ethics, as well as illuminates our understanding of ethics from the Bible. Fedler’s book provided the framework for many of the biblical insights that follow.
Before we look at some surprising ethical insights from the Scriptures, it is important to understand what we mean by “ethics.” Often, the discussion about ethics is hijacked by discussions of ethical dilemmas where one has to choose between two paths that are both unsavory. For example, how do we choose between saving the life of one child versus a group of senior citizens? However, there is much more to ethics than making decisions in the face of hypothetical moral dilemmas.
Some people focus on what ethicists call “deontological” theory which is more rule-based and categorizes our actions into “right” and “wrong” behaviors that should be embraced or avoided. Others focus on “consequentialist” theory where what is considered important is the end result of our decisions. In consequentialist theory, the means are not as important as the ends. Both of these views have merit. However, it appears looking at the whole of Scripture, God is interested in more than just right and wrong or the end results. Rather, the theory of “virtue ethics” appears to align significantly with the Bible.
Virtue ethics focus on the moral virtues of a person, and how they impact our ethical decision-making. As Christians, we should be transformed people, and our ethical behavior should reflect the transformation God is doing in us. As believers in Jesus Christ, our ethics should be rooted in our faith and beliefs and will guide our ethical behavior. Furthermore, our distinctly Christian ethics should impact the organizations for whom we work and the faith communities in which we serve.
Old Testament: Creation & Imago Dei
One does not have to venture far into the pages of the Bible to find the first surprising ethical insights. In Genesis 1:26-27, we read God created both men and women in His own image (Imago Dei). This image-bearing, which each human being possesses, makes us unique in all of God’s creation. As such, humans have a special relationship to God. Highlighting the importance of Imago Dei to Christian ethics, Fedler wrote:
“The purpose for which God creates is covenant life. This belief stands as the very foundation of Christian ethics, because it tells us why human beings were created. It tells us that human beings have a twofold end or purpose in life: to be in relationship with one another and to be in relationship with God.”
The fact that all human beings are created in the image of God impacts how ethical Christian leaders treat people. As a result, racism, sexism, and objectifying women are all unacceptable to Christian leaders because we recognize the individual worth and design of each person.
Old Testament: The Law
Our next surprising insight into Christian ethics is found in the Old Testament Law. It would be a logical assumption that the laws of the Old Testament, like the Ten Commandments, help us understand ethics by giving us a list of rules to obey. Although following God’s commandments is an important part of Christian ethics, it falls short of God’s standard for ethical behavior.
Christian ethics is not just about following the rules. Fedler explained it is also about being “set apart” by God. Fedler noted that Israel’s God, Yahweh, is not like the “other so-called gods” of the day. Rather, Yahweh is different, and his people should be different. The laws God gave His people to follow set them apart from the nations around them.
Likewise, as Christians, we too are set apart from the world, and it should impact our ethics even in modern times. Although there is a component of rule following in Christian ethics, God is more concerned about our character and who we are becoming. This view of ethics is known as virtue ethics, which focuses on character formation, and in the life of a Christian, reflects God’s sanctification in our lives.
The Law has one more surprising lesson for us: Christians should not be deluded into thinking that we are above unethical behavior. We are reminded, instead, that even a “man after God’s own heart,” like King David, was lured by his own sinful nature into unethical, immoral behavior including adultery and murder. The presence of rules to guide our ethical behavior does not guarantee we will follow them. Only the transforming work of God in our lives and growing in character will safeguard us against unethical conduct.
Old Testament: The Prophets
The Old Testament prophets surprise us when we realize how applicable their calls for justice are to 21st Century organizations and leaders. According to the prophets, business practices matter to God. The prophet Amos highlighted God’s standards for business when he said:
“Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?” Amos 8:4-6 English Standard Version
Fedler commented that our modern world and the ancient world were not that different, and we share their focus on materialism, possessions, wealth, and power, often at the expense of the poor.
In response to the cry of the prophets, modern-day Christians are still called to ethical business practices that do not take advantage of the poor, or “deal deceitfully” while transacting business, or treat employees unfairly. Although the applicability of the prophets’ messages may surprise us, we should not be surprised that God’s standards and love of justice have not changed.
New Testament: Jesus & the Disciples
The next ethical insight from the Bible comes as no surprise to us. Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40) is, in fact, a summary of the Old Testament Law. What is surprising is how broadly Jesus applied these commandments. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrated that loving our “neighbor” included even other people groups whom our culture instructs us to hate. Fedler concluded:
“There is no one we can exclude from loving as our neighbor. Every human being with whom we live and work is created in the image of God and worthy of our love. Ethically speaking, this requires us to have a heart of forgiveness and compassion to the most annoying of our co-workers and neighbors.”
Jesus’ ethical standards push us beyond just following the rules. His ethics require us to treat people in a manner reflective of their worth in God’s eyes. No longer can we feel ethically justified in our law-abiding actions if they do not demonstrate love for people.
Another ethical insight from Jesus’ life and teaching is how he elevated the status of women and valued them as partners in ministry. In a culture where women were considered by many as property, Jesus demonstrated compassion to women and interacted with them. Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman took his disciples by surprise. His handling of the situation with the woman accused of adultery who was about to be stoned to death teaches us the importance of forgiveness even when someone has broken the rules.
Jesus’ view of women highlights the fact that all people, male and female, bear the image of God and deserve to be treated ethically and equally. In spite of all of the progress we have made in valuing women, even in our modern culture women are still too often treated unethically through sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and unequal pay. Uber’s systemic problems with sexual harassment are but one example of how these issues plague our culture and businesses still.
The good news is that Christian leaders (men and women) can and should elevate the ethical treatment of women in 21st Century organizations as a reflection of Jesus’ life and teaching.
A final surprising aspect of Christian ethics is that it requires transformation and sacrifice. For Jesus’ disciples, following Jesus meant they had to leave their occupations, families, and communities. A modern-day equivalent would be missionaries who leave careers, family, and “home” behind in order to take the Gospel to those who have not heard. However, there are other sacrifices that must be made by those living and working in their home culture to embrace Christian ethics and transform not only themselves but their workplaces and communities as well.
A profound result of living ethical Christian lives is that we cannot be entirely driven by our own desires and comfort and still fulfill God’s ethical requirements. We must sacrifice in order to be the ethical Christians and leaders God wants us to be.
A Christian business owner may have to sacrifice some profit margin in order to compensate her employees fairly. A pastor must demonstrate self-control in interacting with church members and not fall into sins of anger or passion. Living ethical Christian lives requires us to sacrifice our own selfish desires in order to meet and joyfully live out God’s ethical standards.
For many people, ethics is a vague concept about right and wrong and following the rules. However, the Bible surprises us with many teachings that inspire us to live ethical lives in our 21st Century organizations. We are surprised how humankind’s bearing of Imago Dei impacts our ethical treatment of all persons. The Law surprises us by showing there is more to ethics than just following the rules, and that God wants us to have ethical character as well. The prophets of old surprise us with the relevance of their words even today, reminding us that God is just and that business ethics matter to Him. Jesus too surprises us with sweeping calls to love God and neighbor and to value women as equal image bearers. Lastly, Jesus’ disciples remind us that Christian ethics require sacrifice. No longer can we do as we wish or desire if we seek to live out the ethical teachings of Bible.