Chapter 18

Squeaky Clean

It is just as hard for the preacher to be truly ethical as for the CEO or the local building contractor. Here are three essential areas of focus for the preacher who wants to do right.

This week I met with one of my favorite young pastors. Normally this young man energizes me with his passion and his optimism. This time I found him broken, confused, and embarrassed. His ministry is over, at least for now. He has his excuses and some of them are compelling, but the fact is, he cannot preach the Word when people are not sure they can trust him.

Good ethical practice is foundational to preaching, and good preachers know it. For most of us there is no question about our intent to be ethical in the pulpit. The question is whether we will know what is right and whether we will we be able to do it.

Personal Integrity

The foundation of preaching integrity is personal integrity, and we cannot take it for granted. Three areas deserve special attention.


I recently met an old friend while waiting for an airplane. I remember how her preacher husband had left her, allured by the appeal of another woman. Now years later I found her well, growing in her faith and in her person, yet the experience had left her family deeply scarred. I was heartened by her courage but saddened by her pain.

Privacy cannot be promised to the one who claims to speak for God.

No preacher intends to fall victim to sexual infidelity, yet many do because they do not set up wise boundaries for avoiding straightforward sexual temptation, or they do not understand the relationship between sexual temptation and other nonsexual, emotional desires in their lives, such as the desire for power, intimacy, security, acceptance, and approval. If we are not mature spiritually, emotionally, and relationally, we are more open to sexual temptation.

If we recognize immaturity in ourselves, we should seek guidance from a mature leader, for sexual sin committed in private quickly becomes public. The result is always ugly, as families are scarred and ministries defeated. God himself is dishonored when his servants sin with sex.

Sexuality is of such great concern in human life today that we preachers need to talk about it, but we need to do it appropriately. We must decide in advance that there are things that we will do and things that we will not do. We will, for example, establish distinct relational boundaries, well clear of danger. We will not indulge in humor laced with sexual innuendo. We will not allow ourselves to let pornography gain a toe-hold in our consciousness. We will invest our passions in our marriages and make sure our spouses know they can trust us. Remembering Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 14 about stronger and weaker brothers, we will be careful in our use of movie-based illustrations because some will have problems with sexual portrayals elsewhere in the movie. We will be willing to pay a price to help people avoid temptation.


Paul claimed that preachers do not peddle the gospel for profit (2 Corinthians 2:17). This has certainly been true for generations of preachers who have labored in poverty. Yet that very poverty can lead underpaid preachers to be tempted by money. The same is true of well paid preachers who have grown accustomed to money's charms.

Several important actions can keep us from these dangers. Mismanagement of our personal finances can lead us into temptation, fear, or the bitterness that can easily find its way into our preaching. Therefore it is wise to follow a personal budget. Over time we should train our church how to support its pastor. Most laypersons simply lack knowledge on this subject. If our church is not being realistic or responsible in our salary, we should have the courage to negotiate with wisdom but without grasping. When we receive an honorarium, we will do it graciously and not as if it is required. The best way to make sure that people sense we are not driven by money is not to be. We should regularly examine our souls to see if we are marked by contentment.


The apostle Paul had confidence enough to invite people to examine his life and character as evidence to the truth of his message (1 Corinthians 11:1). That could be a higher level of scrutiny than many of us might welcome. The more we are aware of our own sin, the less we feel competent to stand and preach. Yet privacy cannot be promised to the one who claims to speak for God. Listeners have a right to ask whether we are going to practice what we preach.

Rather than despising this accountability, we ought to welcome and even encourage it. We must resolve to establish strong relationships with people courageous enough to ask us hard personal questions in order to keep us from these destructive impulses. We are well-advised to limit intentionally our personal freedom by avoiding even the appearance of evil. Nothing compromises the credibility of the message like a life that denies the words the preacher speaks. Character counts.

An example can be found in the ministry of Billy Graham and his team. In 1948 Graham and his teammates, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Grady Wilson met in Modesto, California, to determine the ethical parameters for their preaching ministry. The resulting code, nicknamed "The Modesto Manifesto," described four key commitments. They deliberately determined that they would avoid even the appearance of financial abuse. All money would be carefully accounted for and fully disclosed to the public. They determined that they would be absolutely honest in their publication of statistics. They chose to exercise care to avoid the possibility of any perception of sexual impropriety, never appearing alone with a woman not their wives. They agreed to cooperate with any local church that could subscribe to their view of the gospel so as to avoid any sense of competition among churches.

Many would have thought they had taken precautions beyond what was necessary. Yet decades later Graham's ministry stands as a paragon of ethical propriety. The credibility of Graham's preaching has been immeasurably enhanced by these commitments to character deliberately chosen and carefully maintained over all these years.

We will mess up, sometimes spectacularly. Yet if we mess up, we'll clean up, and we will rest heavily upon the grace of God.

Good ethical practice is foundational to preaching, and good preachers know it. For most of us there is no question about our intent to be ethical in the pulpit. The question is whether we will know what is right and whether we will we be able to do it. In the first article in this series, we looked at the importance of personal integrity. Now we turn to two other concerns of preachers who would do right.


I have heard preachers share stories from their personal experience and then heard other preachers share the same story as if it had happened to them. I could only assume one of them was lying. Listeners must know they can rely on the preacher's words. Anything that could cause hearers to doubt our credibility is an ethical problem. There are three areas of concern.

Our points are never enhanced when we bend truth in the direction of our own interest, even when we do it because we think it serves the gospel.


Truthfulness begins with sound exegesis. God's Word is given in human language, and language inevitably requires interpretation. This is not to render preaching entirely subjective; it is to say, however, that there is a certain amount of human discretion involved in the preacher's use of Scripture. We abuse that discretion, though, if we knowingly use our position to manipulate meaning for personal purposes: to please or impress hearers, to "improve" the sermon, or to gather a larger following. We are responsible to present the plain truth as it is found in the text.

People should not have to take our words with the proverbial grain of salt. Some preachers are known to embellish stories or to speak "evang-elastically" in the use of statistics, but our points are never enhanced when we bend truth in the direction of our own interest, even when we do it because we think it serves the gospel.

This is not to say we have to be slavish to the details of the stories we are telling. In our use of the Bible, for example, we can imagine a puzzled look on the face of the rich young ruler or a tear in the eye of the prodigal son. The text does not give us those details, but we are not violating the intent of the text when we provide them.


Plagiarism is a particular concern for the truthful preacher. While many would suggest that the pulpit allows latitude in the use of other people's ideas, unauthorized, uncredited appropriation of intellectual property is theft. Plagiarism occurs whenever we pass along someone else's idea or words as if they were our own.

In my reading I often get excited about the way the writer has put the point. I wish I could have been smart enough to put the matter just that way. The temptation is to use the writer's words in my sermon as if they were my own. If I do it, however, I am not being truthful. A more substantial problem lies in the practice of lifting entire sermons from books or the Internet and claiming them for our own.

Preachers do stand on the shoulders of others. It is good practice, for instance, to benefit from concepts, commentary, and even sermon constructions offered by others. In some of these cases, the ideas are essentially in the public domain and no longer need to be cited distinctly. In other cases, where either the ideas are unique to a particular source or where the use is substantial, we will want to identify who it is that we have benefited from. This is not difficult. It can be done orally ("I like the way Rick Warren put it"), on the overhead screen, or in the printed bulletin.

A further area of concern is the use of motion picture content without appropriate permissions. A judiciously used movie clip can add much to a sermon, but just as we have learned to do with music, we must purchase a blanket license allowing limited usage.


I once had a listener stand up, wave his fist at me, and yell, "That's not true." I probably had it coming. I had challenged his point of view, and he had no appropriate way to respond. I was standing in the pulpit, and I had all the power. Ethics in preaching demands that we speak and act respectfully toward our listeners. The pulpit is a place of power if for no other reason than the traditional sermon offers little opportunity for dialogue or interaction. Any half-truths or untruths can be devastating to people unable to defend themselves.

We usually have the best of motives. We preach so that people will find faith in Christ and that the followers of Jesus would serve to bring God's kingdom here on earth. Rare is the preacher, though, who does not feel the subtle strains of temptation to manipulate the listener even just a little. Facts can be stretched, stories exaggerated, and rhetoric heated to the point where the listener finds motivation, not simply in the power of the message or the call of God's Spirit, but in the manufactured emotion of the moment. Seminaries don't teach this, but still we learn it well.

We must be careful to motivate people but not to manipulate them. We manipulate when we coerce listeners into beliefs or actions they would not normally accept. Manipulation occurs when we surreptitiously affect an unwitting change in the listeners thought and life.

Motivation is different. Preachers who motivate lead people to a considered redirection. This is not to say that the listener fully understands all of the depths and implications but that the preacher leads the listener to a point of intellectual discovery or emotional congruence. The listener is engaged by the moment, not mesmerized by the hype. There is a subtle line between manipulation and motivation, and we must learn to stay on the right side of it.

We must be careful not to use the pulpit as a means to bully people into submission. While we may feel disrespected and maligned, the pulpit is no place to get even or to "set the record straight." Preachers, adept at the use of words, can damage and defame, all the while sounding spiritual and upright. It may be that a pastor is struggling with the church board over a question about strategy, but the Sunday sermon might not be the best place to try to win the battle. It is not a fair fight, given that the board has no similar opportunity to express their views.

For two years while studying in Texas, I belonged to a special church. I have never known a pastor to know such deep respect from the people he was called to serve. The man didn't look much like a preacher. There was little hype or holler in his ways. The people loved him because they trusted him. As he offered them the wisdom he found in God's Word, the people didn't have to question whether or not he was going to live congruently. He lives openly and honestly before his people, and they respond to him like few preachers I have seen.

I aspire to that kind of ministry, for we serve a holy God whom we love and who will hold us to account. "Be ye holy," the Bible says, "because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16).