A bill pending in the Illinois senate that would require pastors to take state-regulated classes in child protection raises important questions: Shouldn’t pastors do all they can to protect children? That’s how one colleague phrased it. Yes, obviously, but at what risk to religious communities’ First Amendment rights?
And, as important is this question: Why aren’t clergy engaging in stronger self-policing using a mechanism most already have in place, the ministerial code of ethics?
Senate Bill 912 introduced by Melinda Bush of Lake County is surely purely motivated, but this means of child protection draws immediate objection based on First Amendment grounds: if the state requires pastors to receive certification in this well-intended and altruistic concern, then what’s next? There aren’t many steps from this bill to government licensure of clergy and churches. That’s why the Illinois Family Institute is urging Christians to notify state lawmakers of their objection based on religious liberty. “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” isn’t a sufficient argument to allow government regulation of pastoral work.
And, there’s a better way.
As a seminary student, I was required to write for myself a ministerial code of ethics. I studied a dozen examples and came up with my own list of biblical and ethical ways for dealing with people, issues, and sticky situations.
A year or two later, I was the grader for that class, and I read scores of codes of ethics submitted by students. Most of these aspiring pastors took the assignment seriously, considering how they should handle counseling and confidentiality, reporting of abuse or neglect, the pastor’s relationship to the law and enforcement agencies. Some addressed euthanasia, and a few spoke to sexual identity and relationship issues just entering public discourse at the time.
Some of these students laid a good foundation for engaging and regulating their future work, so when hard questions arose, they already had in place biblical ways of processing the issues not based on emotion and reaction.
A good ministerial code of ethics guides pastors in their ministry to children and families in jeopardy. It requires that pastors stay up-to-date on the issues and the law. Through such personally adopted codes, pastors police themselves. They may join in voluntary association with other clergy in their enforcement.
Our Baptist polity—respecting the autonomy of the local church—doesn’t allow the denomination to enforce rules on pastors. Neither does the U. S. Constitution. That’s why we must take responsibility to govern ourselves.
For the sake of the children.
Eric Reed is editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.