CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) Israel hosted a group of leaders, pastors and others involved in ministry on Feb. 17 for the “Law and Order, Ethics, Morals and Integrity” conference at the Messianic Culture Center in Ramat Gan.
Attorney Dana Hason gave two important lectures discussing these issues and how biblical principles pertain to Israeli law. Following the lectures, there was a Q&A panel hosted by four different leaders and counselors from the body of Christ in Israel.
As we arrived at the conference, we were greeted by Arik Pelled, head of the Family Department with CBN Israel (formerly E.L.Y. Israel) and Naamah Smith of Mercy Fund of CMJ.
Pelled began by introducing their ministry and then noted that our God is the “God of the little details.” God doesn’t just stop at the Ten Commandments after Exodus 20, he said, but goes into our everyday life and gives detailed instructions. Jesus also didn’t speak high and complicated theology. Instead, He spoke in parables and talked about practical issues in our daily lives.
Hason then took the stage for her first lecture. “We will speak of sensitive subjects, and they may evoke emotions, but it’s important to me that these lectures are not intended for criticism but for building up, so please keep this in mind,” she began.
During the first lecture, Hason provided basic definitions of the main topics: morals, law, ethics and integrity. She defined morality as a system of ideas, beliefs and norms. She went on to explain how, as believers, we see biblical morality as binding, specifically as defined by Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount.
Laws are a system of rules and regulations with the specific purpose to keep the order in a society by enforcement, she said. In the Bible, we see these in the Mosaic law of the Torah, as well as in the Ten Commandments.
Ethics, Hason explained, is the practical implementation of the morals and the laws. For example, it’s immoral to kill, but in a given situation in a war or in self-defense, the ethical thing to do might be the opposite. Some professions have specific ethical rules that they are bound to, like lawyers, psychologists or journalists. We can see examples of this in the Bible too, in the priestly laws of the Torah and in Paul’s specific rules for elders and deacons.
Integrity was described as an ideal standard for a moral and an ethical way of living. The more important a person is in a society, the more important his personal integrity is. We see examples of this in the Bible when Abraham refuses to receive gifts from the king of Sodom, or when King David insists on paying for Arnan’s threshing floor instead of receiving it for free. These acts demonstrate not only morality but also going the extra mile to remove all doubts so that no one can accuse you of immoral behavior.
At this point, Hason asked the participants to think about how those principles are implemented in Messianic congregations today? She posed these thought-provoking questions:
- Who supervises that leaders and deacons are living according to the list of standards that the Bible requires?
- What is the level of integrity expected of leaders?
- What kind of training is required?
- Is anyone doing a background check on them?
- Does a leader receive spiritual and professional guidance?
- Who is he accountable to?
- Who can a member turn to if there is a problem with the leader?
Hason said that sometimes we hear a touching story of a person with a difficult background of crime and/or drugs who turned his life around, and then we trust him with representing our congregation in fundraising or evangelism.
“It’s amazing how God can change us, but it’s not necessarily a good idea to entrust ourselves with a person like this without some sort of supervision and guidance. There is still a process of sanctification required. It’s not wrong to wait with these people until you see some evidence of fruit in their life,” she said.
Hason then brought up the authority of a pastor or leader in a congregation and how the position can sometimes open a door for exploitation, whether intended or not. The challenge for the leader is, therefore, to know his boundaries and to create a balance between his responsibility to lead his flock and also to encourage free independent thought and allow freedom of choice for congregational members.
There are congregations where the leadership is expected to help their members in all aspects of life, which extends beyond the spiritual to include both economic and practical help, according to Hason. This kind of leadership can be unhealthy in both directions when members try to exploit the congregation, but also when leadership tries to use this as a means of control.
Instead, if the congregation knows it has boundaries and shouldn’t intervene in all aspects of life, it’s healthy in both directions, as it both gives the people more independence and enables the congregation to be more effective in its charity.
“The Bible defines different offices. In the Old Testament, we have the king, the priest, the prophet, the general. In the New Testament, we have the apostle, the prophet, evangelist, the shepherd, the teacher. Each one has boundaries, and it’s defined what each one does and doesn’t do,” Hason stated.
She then offered general guidelines to identify when a congregation might be operating like a cult, such as requiring interpretation of scriptures through manipulation; intimidation and guilt; pressure to obtain a specific spiritual standard; demands to deny yourself for the leader’s sake; attributing unique spiritual gifts to the leader that may not be questioned; demands to volunteer in excess for no salary; direct and indirect pressure to tithe, language of “us” and “them”; demands of blind obedience; strict surveillance of members’ private lives; public and humiliating confessions of sin; and excommunication and shunning for those members who do not conform. The more a congregation tends to operate in these ways – and the more severe they are – the more likely it’s a cult, Hason explained.
When leadership leads the flock with responsibility rather than abuse, it will include teaching the word of God with humility, acknowledging that we don’t know everything, encouraging people to think for themselves and ask questions, allowing room for doubts and questions, different opinions and even disagreements.
“If I trust the Lord’s ability to bring everyone to the truth, then I’m not threatened by different opinions, and I can allow a discussion,” she said. Ideally, the responsibilities should not be concentrated upon one person but be delegated to other members of the leadership, which should be diverse and represent different perspectives. A leader needs to be able to receive criticism.
At this point, Hason opened up a Q&A session and was asked her opinion about personal responsibility of the congregation members.
“Shouldn’t we also encourage people to ‘vote with their feet’ against malpractices in congregations by leaving, because “congregations are, by definition, voluntary frameworks. It’s not a school or an army where you are required to attend,” stated the audience member.
Hason agreed, but also said that people who are new to the faith or young children cannot be expected to know these things and make the right choices.
“There is always more responsibility on the shoulders of the person who claims to speak for God,” she concluded. “The person who is in the more powerful position is the one with the responsibility not to abuse that power,” she said.
The second lecture covered practical Israeli law including what it states and the requirements for religious leaders.
Hason discussed the “law of confidentiality” in personal counseling and in which cases one is allowed –or even obligated – to break the secrecy. A leader is obligated to sound the alarm if there is danger of suicide or if there is a suspicion of abuse against a minor. For other cases, breaking confidentiality is only permitted if the patient agrees or if there needs to be coordination with other caregivers.
She listed which laws are often broken in Messianic congregations, not by intention but by sheer ignorance of Israeli law. Some examples are as follows: A religious leader can be criminally convicted if he encourages physical punishment of children; photos of people in the congregation cannot be published in congregation fundraising campaigns or social media posts without their consent; and all male staff or volunteers that work with children in any capacity must have a police approval proving they have no record of sexual crimes in the past 20 years. Another law that is often not implemented sufficiently is that every workplace must have a published policy of prevention of sexual harassment. She also pointed out that if a religious leader suspects that domestic abuse is currently taking place, he is required by law to notify the victim of her rights and who she can turn to, and document that he took that action on an official form. If he has any reason to suspect abuse against a minor, he is required to notify authorities.
Hason discussed the financial aspects of operating under the law and listed a few common unethical practices, such as overspending and misuse of funds, pastors defining their own salary, receiving gifts without issuing receipts for taxation, using funds for private needs, fraud, embezzlement and others.
There are anti-corruption laws in place which restrain politicians and religious leaders from receiving gifts and benefits. As believers, she said, we should strive to not only fulfill the minimum required by law, but to have a higher ethical standard.
Someone pointed there are instances where pastors are expected or forced to work for a low or even, no, income. And unethical situations where salaries are paid “under the table” or given directly from a donation overseas. Despite the illegality of the practice, she explained, ultimately it hurts the person, as he will stand without a pension fund.
Israeli law for non-profits was also discussed, with Hason explaining that any not-for-profit organization must be under supervision of a non-salaried board and operate accordingly – convening at least once a year in order to the meet with the pastor and scrutinize the financial reports.
Many times, she said, the board is appointed by the pastor to be a “rubber stamp,” without real economic oversight. Besides the illegal aspect, it’s not healthy for the congregation or ministry to operate without any kind of constructive criticism or suggestions to make things more efficient.
The board should ideally be composed of people with a relevant background and some experience. While there is no law that states congregational leaders must present the financial report to the entire congregation, Hason stated that it’s still a good and ethical practice to do more than the minimum legal requirement and have an annual meeting, to be open with the members of the congregation on the finances, so they see where their tithing is going. It’s not only about scrutiny, but it also builds trust. We should also strive for transparency in decision-making and in the selection process of the leadership staff. “Walk in the light, as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7).
Hason concluded with some practical advice on how to adopt ethical rules to avoid these legal problems.
Besides adopting the existing laws, she recommended defining ethics and standards that go beyond the law, to have the team go through professional training and to commit to transparency within the congregation. She gave examples of ethical rules that congregations could vote upon.
Participants offered suggestions, including the ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) in the United States as an example of something that could be useful in Israel. Another suggested having a box for anonymous complaints and suggestions in the congregation to help the leadership have a better pulse on what congregants are feeling and thinking.
After lunch, there was a second Q&A panel with four delegates: Yonas Belay, who serves as an elder in Ahavat Yeshua congregation in Jerusalem; Danny Kopp, pastor in the Baptist church in Jerusalem and chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Israel (EAI); David Zadok, pastor of Grace and Truth congregation and manager of HaGefen publishing; and Lilian Granovsky who, with her husband Sasha, has been providing couples and individual counseling within the framework of the Messianic body in Israel for the past 17 years. Granovsky also leads the newly-formed ministry for people with special needs, Makom BaLev.
When asked what the qualifications are for someone to become a leader or elder of a congregation, Panelist Kopp emphasized the lack of accountability.
“There is no mechanism for this, and no supervision, and let’s face the facts – there won’t be. We are, praise God, not like the Catholic Church with a clear hierarchy. We don’t want to be that, and not having such a hierarchy brings a lot of benefits. But the lack of a hierarchy also has disadvantages. You talked about qualification, but we have no such process. If a person is not biblically qualified to be a pastor and he still is – who will tell him that he needs to step down? I believe most of us who came to this conference are here because we are part of congregations that are already pretty healthy. Correct me if I’m wrong. But I think that the reason that the body of the Messiah in Israel has so many bad cases of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse, or just leadership structures that are more cult-like – is our fault. We, from the healthy congregations.”
“As Edmund Burke said, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. And that’s the situation we have,” Kopp continued. “We are all deep into a conspiracy of silence. In this aspect, we are like the Catholics who don’t speak up about sexual abuse from priests. Whenever a case comes up with a pastor who is still serving, we keep quiet. And if someone raises their voice, they hear ‘don’t judge’ or ‘this is libel,’ or ‘he also did a lot of good things.’ And sometimes all we have are rumors, and we hear that if there is no clear evidence, you’re not allowed to even speak.”
“Now I agree that there is an opposite side of the spectrum. We don’t want to attack or discredit people constantly, but we have run too far to the other side where we don’t even speak up. And I think that pastors, just like politicians, should be held to a higher degree of integrity. We need to be exposed to the highest degree of scrutiny, and not be afraid of people who say things about us, even if only about half of it is true. We need to be the ones who model for the congregation how to receive criticism, and how to face it. If not, even we can’t model that, then the ones stuck in cultish congregations have no chance. I prefer the risk of libel rather than risking leaving hurt people without help. Because this is the chief reason people leave congregations today. Those who were hurt leave, and the people who see that we couldn’t address the issue or even talk about it will also leave.”
Someone added, “I think there’s a big fear of ‘exposing the dirty laundry’ so to speak. The moment it comes out to the world, or to anti-missionary organizations, it will give them ammunition against the Messianic body.”
Hason posed the question, “How can a leader balance between the responsibility to lead the flock and also allow free thinking?”
Panelist Zadok responded that it will depend on the leader’s confidence. If he is constantly worried about criticism, he will be less open to feedback. Another important biblical principle is to have more than one elder involved.
Panelist Belay advocated for a less-concentrated model of leadership, where the leader delegates responsibility to other elders as a way to help strike this balance, while maintaining open and constant communication among the leaders.
Panelist Granovsky recommended all pastors join an existing closed Facebook group for Hebrew-speaking Messianic believers with over 2,000 members. “You wouldn’t believe the things some people write there – often anonymously. People say things there that they probably wouldn’t say openly in a congregation,” she stated. “I don’t recommend engaging and debating there, but to read and see what the issues are that come up.”
“I don’t go in there a lot. It’s a hard place, but I prefer the horrors and slander there a thousand times over the conspiracy of silence,” Kopp added.
Hason summed up the conference by asking participants how they recommend elders tackle these issues.
“In one sentence,” Kopp answered: “Don’t be afraid to speak up, mention names, give details, and give healthy constructive criticism.”
Zadok added “Awareness, and knowledge of these issues go a long way, and read the booklet on Law and Order that has been sent out to all congregations – it’s only 30 pages.”
Pray that this will help the local body to handle these issues in a way that honors God.
If you are interested in receiving the conference presentation in Hebrew, or a list of emergency numbers, contact [email protected].
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7