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Spotlight

on a Ministry Principle: 

Transparency

 

Imagine two people who start dating each other.  They wonder if they are a good fit for marriage.  Early on, one person recognizes that her/his own health condition, or position on an issue (e.g. politics, money, ideas about gender roles, not wanting children, etc.), might be something the other person would view as a deal-breaker.  Is it not passively manipulative to delay that conversation?  Would it not be more caring to be proactive?  Similarly, must we not also proactively help someone discern about Jesus, or a particular church community?

 

Several women were not told up front by their church leaders that they would be asked to stay or reconcile with husbands who were physically abusive (see this, this, and, to see that this is associated with a broad coalition of churches, see this).  Not only did they have to go through attempts at getting help and then a messy divorce, navigating child custody issues.  They were later effectively excommunicated for not continuing to pursue marital reconciliation with their ex-husbands.

 

Now it's one thing for church leaders to hold a contested position about marriage and divorce, with which many others disagree.  It's another thing for them to not disclose it far in advance.  If that is the position the church believes is faithful and leads to spiritual life, then they should happily feature it on the church's website, on some printed literature, or in a membership exploration class.  It really hurts to find out about a position like that when your marriage is in crisis, divorce is immanent, and maybe you feel like your life is in jeopardy.

 

Here's another example:  A college freshman looking for community finds a Christian fellowship.  Unafraid of letting people know that he's gay, he's pleasantly surprised to find that the people are so accepting.  He looks through the group's website and finds nothing about their position on sexual orientation.  He even checks the group's student constitution on line.  He has some conversations with a few students about it, but they are not sure of what they think, and not sure how it matters in the group.  But next semester, the annual leadership selection process starts.  He discovers at that time that the group's leadership is not "open and affirming," as he had thought, and requires new leaders to hold the same position.  He wonders why no one told him sooner.

 

In Boston, most recent new churches have been planted by denominations and men who do not believe in women in church leadership, as this July 2016 article discusses.  Some people who attended these churches were surprised to find that out because their church's leadership didn't proactively disclose it.  If you care about leadership opportunities for women, wouldn't you like to be told that sooner rather than later?

 

In the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), how much money for church planting comes from slavery and segregation?  How about in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), considering stories like this?  If you're thinking about receiving funding for church planting, or wondering how your church is funded, wouldn't you like to learn these things sooner rather than later?

 

Sadly, in my observation, liberal Protestants tend to be transparent about their theology, because they agree with secular liberal culture.  Meanwhile, some conservative evangelicals hide their positions when they disagree with the culture.  Some hide the troubling implications of penal substitution, or the cost of defending Augustine on predestination.  They seem to hope that people will have more motivation to change their views to become more conservative once relationships are at stake.  A few argue that because Jesus 'hid' his messianic identity for a time while he redefined it for his disciples, church leaders don't have to be fully transparent about positions and policies - an interpretive error, in my opinion.  Jesus never hid his ethics.  

 

When other people are considering joining a Christian community, Christian leaders there should proactively share what positions they hold on the front end.  What is the position or biblical interpretation on 'X' here?  What are the policies?  When ministry leaders do not communicate this well in advance, we disrespect the ninth commandment: "Do not bear false witness."  That is, "Do not lie and do not give false impressions, including about yourself, especially when you know other people will be affected."  In this case, we need to be truthful witnesses not only about other people, but to other people about ourselves.  That, too, is taught in Scripture.   See below. 

 

Christians have a rich heritage of transparency.  Christian writers of the second century relied on an ethic of maximal transparency about theology and church practice.  They defended their positions at the front end.  The Epistle to Diognetes was probably addressed to the tutor of Marcus Aurelius.  Athenagoras of Athens addressed his Plea for the Christians directly to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the whole court, and "all philosophers."  Justin Martyr of Rome addressed his First Apology to the Emperor Titus, "the sacred Senate, with the whole people of the Romans."  (pictured is the earliest known manuscript of the First Apology, dated to the 4th century).  He addressed his Second Apology to the entire Senate.  They obviously intended their letters to be read by the general public.  Christians may have disguised their meeting locations from persecutors at times, but they do not seem to have disguised their beliefs and practices.

 

Although these Christian writers wished to be politically tolerated, they could not separate that from their Christian responsibility to do evangelism by telling the truth.  Anyone could easily disprove any false information presented, simply by walking into a Christian worship service and interviewing members of the community.  So the Christian writers had to give clarity, not obscurity, about Christian faith and practice.

 

Sadly and ironically, the church is now associated with hiding abusive priests and abusive husbands. But perhaps we are all learning about transparency in authority.  I hope the church returns to its oldest convictions in more ways than one.  Imagine if Christians could insist that corporations and governments be transparent, because the church is.

The Biblical Basis for Transparency

 

Jesus tells us to fulfill our promises (Mt.5:33 – 37) and Paul tells us to discharge our debts and owe nothing to anyone (Rom.13:8). But when one party starts or changes the terms of a working relationship or ministry relationship without the other party’s knowing consent, the second party is not under oath to fulfill it.

 

Scripture consistently warns the more powerful person against modifying (i.e. breaking) oaths to more vulnerable people.  Scripture demonstrates that by condemning characters like Laban the deceiver, who changed the terms on the more vulnerable Jacob multiple times to basically enslave him (Gen.29 – 31).

 

Within the Sinai covenant, the overarching concern about the stability of contracts seems integrated into two commandments: the commandment to not steal and the commandment to not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ex.20:15 – 16; Dt.5:19 – 20).  Hence, in the very first section of case law following the Ten Commandments, Moses commanded protections for the betrothed girl who lived as a guest in another household waiting for marriage; if the betrothal was not kept, she was free to go with honor and without debt (Ex.21:7 – 11).

 

If your spouse cheats on you (Num.5:11 – 31; Mt.19:3 – 12), or perhaps had significantly falsified himself/herself to you prior to marriage (Dt.24:1), s/he has changed the terms of your relationship; while you could certainly forgive and remain with the person, you would not be under oath in principle to remain in the marriage.

 

Israelites were to not deceive the more vulnerable aliens and foreigners in economic transactions; so Israel had to have just weights, balances, and measures to be fully transparent with them in trading and making economic promises (Lev.19:33 – 36; Dt.25:13 – 16).

 

Then there is a set of principles highlighted by Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy is an extended reflection and elaboration of the Ten Commandments.  Two entire groups of commandments – commandments in Dt.21:15 – 22:4 relating to theft and in Dt.22:5 – 23:14 relating to telling falsehoods – support this ethic of transparency.  My conclusions do not depend on whether this literary arrangement of the book of Deuteronomy is correct, but the material is easier to perceive this way:


Parallels Between the Decalogue and

Structure of the Covenant Stipulations (Dt.12:1 – 26:19)[1]

 

Chapter Commandment Topics
12:1 - 14:21 1, 2, 3 (one God, no idols, swearing)

Purity of worship, exclusion of foreign gods, name of God

14:22 - 16:17 4 (sabbath, calendar) Holy rhythms of daily life and concern for the poor
16:18 - 18:22 5 (honoring parents) Respect for legitimate human authority: judge, king, priest, prophet
19:1 - 21:9 6 (murder) Situations dealing with loss of human life
21:10 - 14 7 (adultery) Marriage to a woman taken captive from wartime
21:15 - 22:4 8 (theft) Community ethos of care and compassion, especially towards neighbor and the vulnerable
22:5 - 23:14 9 (false witness)

Various commands about representing one’s self or others accurately

23:15 - 26:19 10 (covetousness) Various commands about greed, protection of the vulnerable
 

In the ‘false witness’ category are:

 

The law against cross-gender dressing (Dt.22:5):  Back then, cross-gender dressing might have been done to falsify one’s own appearance.  It might strain or break trust in many, many ways, such as: gaining someone’s trust dishonestly; forming misleading emotional entanglements; receiving the economic support by impersonating someone else; etc. 

 

The law against taking a mother bird along with her eggs (22:6 – 7):  Taking a mother bird would falsify one's relationship to your neighbor, since you'd be taking something that God meant for you to share.  It would also be falsifying Israel’s relationship to the creation which originates from God’s command to rule the creation in such a way that will lead to its flourishing and not its extinction.

 

The law requiring a railing on one’s rooftop (22:8):  Rooftops were like modern day porches or balconies - hangout spaces.  They needed railings for safety.  If a guest fell off, the owner would be guilty, says Jewish law.  Inviting someone to spend time with you without putting proactive safety measures in place endangers the guest and misrepresents you:  You give the impression that you're offering true hospitality as a good neighbor, but you don't, and you aren't.


The key principle seems to be:  Tricking a vulnerable person to accept a situation you know will affect them, or changing the nature of a relationship in a hidden way, violates the ninth commandment.  It involves falsifying yourself and bearing false witness to a neighbor about your intentions.

 

 


[1] Modified by Mako A. Nagasawa from Robert I. Bradshaw, The Book of Deuteronomy; http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_deuteronomy.html; last accessed May 5, 2015