How Ethical is the Clergy?

It may not be surprising to learn that non-Christians have a lower view of the clergy than self-identified Christians. What may be surprising is how low an opinion of the clergy both groups hold.

According to a study released by Gallup on December 26, 2017, only 25 percent of non-Christians rated the honesty and ethics of clergy as very high or high. That was far behind other professions such as nurses (83 percent), grade school teachers (71 percent), pharmacists (63 percent), and medical doctors (62 percent) to mention only some.

Non-Christians ranked the honesty and ethics of clergy behind newspaper reporters (31 percent) and even with local politicians (25 percent).

Obviously, the public perception of the clergy is not high among non-Christians. That may not be surprising since non-believers may not have much personal contact with Christian ministers. Their image of God’s vocational servants may be formed more by news reports and public media than firsthand experience.

If that is the case, the reports of clergy sexual abuse, religious hucksters on the airwaves and the negative depiction of clergy in media may have all contributed to this negative image. Few films and fewer news stories chronicle the self-sacrificing service of most ministers for the good of their parishioners and communities.

One would expect the appraisal of self-identified Christians, those who should have firsthand experience with ministers, to reflect a high appreciation for the honesty and ethics of clergy. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Fewer than half of the self-identified Christians in the Gallup survey (48 percent) rated the honesty and ethics of ministers very high or high. Again, these are the people who interact with pastors and other ministers and still, the ratings are low.

More self-identified Christians said nurses (82 percent), military officers (74 percent), grade school teachers (65 percent), medical doctors (65 percent), pharmacists (62 percent) and police officers (59 percent) have very high or high ethical standards than clergy.

When the two groups were combined, 42 percent of Americans view honesty and ethical standards of clergy as very high or high. That is the lowest rating in the 33 years Gallup has polled on this issue.

Ministers may never be able to change the opinions of those whose paths they seldom cross, but something can be done and should be done about the views of self-identified Christians. That this group expresses so little confidence in the honesty and ethics of their ministers is a tragedy that deserves focused attention.

In 1 Peter 5:3 the Apostle Peter writes to pastors urging them to “be examples to the flock.” He urges pastors not to do this from selfish motivation. He warns them against acting greedily for money or lording authority and power over others. Peter tells them they should “be eager to serve,” understanding that rewards come ultimately from Christ in glory.

In many places, the Bible outlines the kind of example ministers are to be. For instance, 1 Corinthians 4:2 declares, “It is required of those who have been given a trust to prove faithful.” That “trust” could be a position of leadership and influence. It could be responsibility for money. It might be privileged information. Whatever it is, the minister is not to use the information selfishly but is to be faithful to the one who gave the trust, whether it is a group or an individual.

Jesus addressed the issue of trust in Luke 16:10 when he said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can be trusted with very much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will be dishonest with much.” Honesty and ethics do not apply only to momentous situations. They are demonstrated most clearly in everyday experiences.

Writing to young minister Timothy, the Apostle Paul urged him to set an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). There must not even be a hint of sexual immorality, Paul adds in Ephesians 5:3a.

Integrity, honesty and ethical behaviors are required for all who follow God. That applies to leadership, to personal relations, to finances, to sexual conduct and more.

Perhaps the Apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote to the church at Corinth, “Men ought to regard us as servants of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1). When that is the case, honesty and ethics of the servants of Christ will go without saying.