Lee A. Carter
In the 2018 survey of ethics in the U. S. workplace, the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI) reported that 47% of respondents had observed conduct within their workplaces that violated either law or organizational standards (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2018). While the good news is that this percentage is down eight percent since the last survey report in 2013 (Ethics and Compliance Initiative, 2018), the reality is that the percentage has averaged around 50% since 2000. In addition, the survey reports that, while 69% of respondents reported the misconduct they observed, which is a 23% increase since the ECI began its research in 1994, 16% experienced pressure to compromise standards and 44% experienced retaliation because of reporting wrongdoing (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2018). The rate of retaliation, in fact, doubled since 2013 (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2018). As troubling as this news is, the ECI concludes that only one in five respondents reported that their company has an organizational culture that encourages and supports ethical conduct, or what the ECI names as the “single biggest influence on employee conduct” (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2018). This trend has remained static in the past decade (Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2018). Despite the highly visible and severely damaging ethical failures of the past 25 years, ethics remains an unresolved, and often overlooked, challenge to the moral legitimacy of our leaders, institutions, and our lives.
In the context of this ethical climate, Christians who desire to live faithfully as citizens of the Kingdom of God wrestle with its counter-cultural ways. Even since Christianity’s inception, the apostles and church founders were eager to demonstrate the moral superiority of its ethics over those of the surrounding cultures (Fedler, 2006). In fact, the apostle Paul frequently wrote to the churches throughout the Roman world with exhortations about the appropriate way to live as believers in Jesus within the pagan contexts in which these churches found themselves (Fedler, 2006). Throughout the generations since, many well-intentioned pastors and leaders have quoted Paul’s writings to endorse various social, political, and theological positions regarding a manner of living that fulfills the design and function of human beings (Robbins, 1996). Besides the controversial and divisive nature of political positions, the essential problem of thinking about Paul’s imperatives as a universal law code for human ethics is that it misrepresents Paul’s intention in writing to these churches who faced specific moral and ethical dilemmas as followers of Jesus. He wanted to contextualize Christian ethics as an inhabited reality within the overarching narrative of God’s redemptive work that was (as is) forming a multicultural community of people whose ethical behaviors witnessed to the supremacy of Christ in the world (Fedler, 2006). Christian ethics, then, is not primarily about compliance to universal moral laws or strict adherence to spiritual disciplines as the measure of faithfulness. Rather, Christian ethics is ultimately an embodied story of Christ incarnated in the life of the communities of God’s people, wherever they are found, in very specific contexts.
The Enlightenment and Christian Ethics
Much modern conversation about ethics, even within the church, is deeply influenced by the central tenets of the eighteenth-century intellectual and cultural revolution called the Enlightenment. According to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright (2005), the Enlightenment claimed that reason was the core human faculty from which objective truth was discoverable through historical and rationalistic inquiry. The Enlightenment proposed that the “real” evil in the world was that people did not think or act rationally, as opposed to the evil previously understood as the antagonistic spiritual forces that act in cooperation with, or even upon, willing sinful human agents (Wright, 2005). The Enlightenment sought to discover through reason the fundamental and universal principles for resolving ethical issues (Badaracco, 1997). And so, its main project was to create the social and political systems that cast off the shackles of the medieval Christian worldview so that human progress could advance through scientific and technological knowledge (Wright, 2005). Even many Christians in the past 200 years, influenced by the greater culture’s devotion to rational skepticism, have read and understood their Bibles through the lens of a private piety and an otherworldly hope with little relevance to the social, political, and economical realities of the world in which they live their lives (Wright, 2005). Essentially, the Enlightenment removed God from daily realities, “kicked him upstairs” as it were, and left the politicians, scientists, and economists in charge of advancing true knowledge through “objective” rationalism (Wright, 2005).
Unfortunately, much of ethical thinking of the past centuries has followed suit by attempting to discern and prescribe right and wrong behavior from rationally discerned universal principles. Even Christians have appealed to their Scriptures as a common-sense standard of right and wrong against which they judge the actions and decisions of all, including those who do not subscribe to the Christian faith. But the Christian Scriptures do not take the form of a litany of laws or doctrines as authoritative standards of principles of Christian life, but as an overarching story that constitutes and creates a people whose lives act out the very ethos of that story (Wright, 2005). As missiologist and Old Testament scholar, Christopher J. H. Wright, explains:
Yet it is plain that what God has given us is a Bible, not a classified collection of principles. What he has given us is a wonderfully particular portrayal of a people through many generations. This portrayal comes to us through their narratives, laws, wisdom, worship and visions, their memory and hope, their achievements and failures. It comes to us as a rather untidy and incredibly complex assortment of very complex individuals, over multiple generations, in different nations. Treating all this great collection of texts merely as the expendable container for independent universal principles we can express more simply and tidily denies the character of the Bible as God has given it to us, and might even seem to render Bible reading a waste of time. Regarding the biblical texts about Israel as providing us with a paradigm preserves their historical particularity and forces us to observe all the non-reducible hard edges, all the jarring tensions and all the awkward corners of earthy reality within them. (Wright, 2004, p. 70-71)
The Bible does not merely present good moral instruction for its adherents; it presents a story that tells of the founding of a community through Jesus and their way of life that embodies his story (Roberts, 2012). The narrative of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, or what is commonly referred to as the Christ narrative, animates and energizes the entire life of the community he founded and motivates how it interacts with the larger cosmos now subjected to Christ’s authority (Roberts, 2012).
The Renewed Humanity of Colossians 3:1-17
Paul’s letter to the Colossians outlines the boundaries between two communities: that represented of the wider pagan cultures who “were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” and that now constituted by Jesus through whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:19-21, English Standard Version). His purpose in writing the letter was to help his readers understand that a truly Christian ethic is the incarnation of the Christ narrative embodied in the community life of God’s redeemed people:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, New International Version)
The death and resurrection of Christ creates Christian ethics that are inherent of the “new self” (Colossians 3:10), a figure of speech Paul employs to describe and distinguish a community set apart from the unregenerate “old self,” to which the Colossian believers once belonged (López, 2011). Consequently, Paul expects the ethical behaviors of the Christian communities to emerge from the embodied Christ narrative as it defines, distinguishes, and demonstrates the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10). In Colossians 3:1-17, Paul reveals how Christian ethics is born out of the Christ narrative’s telling of human redemption and the consequent human commitment.
Human Redemption. The text opens a view into the transformation of human life through God’s divine activity (Robbins, 1996). Indeed, Paul’s focus is a new humanity initiated and constituted by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Col. 3:3). The newly constituted lives of Jesus’ followers are birthed out from the Christ narrative. God’s people are, in fact, the incarnation and continual retelling of the story of Christ’s great redemption. Theirs is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self (Blackwell, 2014). So, Paul instructs the Colossian believers, as we have seen, to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col 3:10).
The language of the image of God points us back to the creation narratives of Genesis. Here, we read that God created the man and woman “in his image.” The creation of people in the image of God signifies its uniqueness from the rest of creation in both essence and function (Johnson, 1992). Essentially, people bear God’s image in their capacity to relate to one another and to their Creator (Johnson, 1992). Functionally, people are mandated to rule over the creation: to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). As God’s image bearers in the world, we are commission by God to “regard our role within creation as that of kingship exercised through servanthood” that “reflects precisely the pattern established for us by the Lord Jesus Christ” (Wright, 2004, p. 125). This pattern brings relationship (with God, others, and ourselves) and rule (as loving cultivation, not as exploitative domination) together in a fruitful and creative enterprise that takes the project of creation and extend the good rule of God over the entire cosmos (Wright, 2010). Or, as Author Andy Crouch describes, we take the world as God gave to us and make something good of it, extending the horizons of what is possible (Crouch, 2009).
But sin resulted in an indelible marring and radical limitation of the human’s capacity to bear God’s image faithfully (Johnson, 1992). But in the Colossians text, Paul reveals that the Gospel creates the equally radical renewal of that image (Col. 1:15). He points to Jesus as the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Paul’s repetition of the terms “image” and “create” (Col. 1:15; 3:10) is significant. The word “image” has the same referent to Jesus in both verses (Johnson, 1992). But the form of the word “create” in Colossians 1:15 refers to “creation” while its form in Colossians 3:10 refers to the “Creator.” Paul is articulating that Jesus, the preeminent manifestation in creation of the invisible God, is in fact the renewal of the image of God in a new humanity which he has constituted by his death and resurrection (Johnson, 1992). So, Paul declares boldly that Jesus is now “your life” because “you have been raised with Christ” and “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-4). Christ is the sole standard for the renewal of humanity as God’s image in creation (Johnson, 1992). The human delimitations of culture, ethnicity, or economic status are inessential categories to identify this new humanity! Rather, as Paul exclaims, “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
Human redemption is the renewal of the image of God as the ultimate hope held out in the Christ narrative: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority” (Col. 2:9-10). Because Jesus himself fills his disciples, the Christian ethic flows out from the incarnated story of his redemption worked out in the circumstances of their lives. The death and resurrection of Christ is the foundation of moral actions in the world (Fedler, 2006), not because of his good example but because of the indwelling fullness he gives his people as the renewed image of God. Participation in the story of Jesus Christ, then, requires the disciplined commitment of incarnating that story in daily our daily, embodied lives in which put off the old self and put on the new self, the imagery of which is poignantly displayed in baptism.
Human Commitment. The Christ narrative, as the defining logic of the new humanity, compels a response from those in whom that narrative lives. It is a story that must be embodied in spiritual formation. The human commitment of Christian ethics has discipleship in its view (Robbins, 1996). The Christ narrative takes on flesh and blood as Christians put off the old self and put on the new self as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Col. 3:5-17). As Paul highlights (Col. 2:12), baptism is the unifying theme of Colossians 3:1-17 because it enacts in bodily form the spiritual reality of dying with Christ and being resurrected with Christ (Swart, 1999). Baptism signifies a believer’s identification with Christ (Swart, 1999). It changes the believer’s orientation toward God and the world as it demonstrates a participatory relationship in Christ (Blackwell, 2014). Paul indicates that to be filled with God requires the experience of dying and rising in Christ (Blackwell, 2014), for in Christ “the fullness of Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). As followers of Jesus take off the garments of the old self and put on the baptismal robes of the new self (not only in the baptismal sacrament, but as a daily way of life), they incarnate in discipleship the Christ narrative (Swart, 1999). They live the death of Christ in a humility that dismisses all earthly passions and draws its life from God alone (Blackwell, 2014). And they experience the resurrection of Christ that transforms them into the image of God that participates fully in his life and glory (Blackwell, 2014).
Paul articulates that new self that believers put on is “being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:10). In the beginning of the text, he invites the Colossian believers to reflect on the cosmic reality in which their lives are now caught up (Barram, 2005). Resurrection radically reorients the believers’ position before God and their identity in this world (Barram, 2005). In classic form, Paul’s imperatives to “put off” and “put on” follows from his indicative statements of verses 1-4: “…you have been raised with Christ…” (verse 1); “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3); and “…Christ who is your life…” (verse 4). Because the Christ narrative is the new logic of their renewed selves, no other point of reference can adequately serve as the basis for the believer’s ethical conduct (Barram, 2005). As Michael Barram (2005) declares, “the source and motivation for appropriate behavior is rooted in the cosmos-altering resurrection story into which each believer has been incorporated” (p. 190).
But while the believers’ position before God has changed in Christ, their ethical conduct is not automatic. They must be trained in living out the Christ narrative. Developing the ethics of the Kingdom of God depends on growing in knowledge of that resurrection story, the goal of which is their renewal as the redeemed image of God in Christ (Col. 3:10). Paul instructs the Colossian believers to “set your heart on things above” precisely because they have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1). Paul is not referring to knowledge that is abstract or “otherworldly,” such as the empty philosophies that Paul is eager to expose as deceptive and hollow yet continually seduces the Colossian believers (Col 2:8). Instead, he is contrasting such empty philosophy with the fullness of God present in one divine identity (Blackwell, 2014), in “Christ, who is your life” (Col. 3:4). Therefore, Christ is the standard for the renewal of humanity and “seeking the things above” refers exclusively to growing in knowledge of Jesus Christ who is “seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1; Johnson, 1992). This knowledge animates Kingdom ethics so that the life of Jesus becomes visible in his people. In fact, Gerhard Swart (1999) retranslates Colossians 3:4 as follows: “If you let it become visible that Christ is your life, then to his glory it will also become manifest that you have been raised to a new life with him” (p. 175).
Transformational Leadership Theory
Paul’s desire is the radical transformation of the Colossian believers (and for us now) by identifying with and participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This Christ narrative forms the foundational logic of the new humanity whose putting off the old self and putting on the new self demonstrates the Kingdom ethics of those whose “life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Paul invites followers of Jesus into the commitment of spiritual formation that is characterized by an ever-deepening knowledge of the Christ narrative embodied and experienced within the Christian ethics, a change of perspective and behaviors that aligns with their new identity and participation in Christ (Brown & Sandage, 2015). But Paul is not merely focused on the restoration of individuals. Rather, he has in view the restoration of a new humanity, of communities of believers who reflect the image of God in their lives together (Brown & Sandage, 2015). His goal is for individual believers to become whole persons only through their integration into the community of the new humanity in Christ (Brown & Sandage, 2015). Such transformation necessarily occurs through relationships that shape our formation into the image of God (Brown & Sandage, 2015).
Transformational leadership requires the relational currency that does not merely inspire followers to attain lofty external visions or goals, but rather embodies the Christ narrative so that those visions or goals is given birth within the community of the new humanity. As a modern leadership theory, transformational leadership is concerned with whole persons: emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long-term goals (Northouse, 2016). But transformational leadership theory espouses that relationships are primary in the formation of a leader’s followers as whole persons (Northouse, 2016). Transformational leaders engage with followers such that the motivations and morality of both are shaped and directed toward their full potential (Northouse, 2016). In contrast to traditional notions of leadership that are merely transactional in nature, transformational leadership theory considers and connects with the needs of followers to unlock their personal growth while still achieving corporate goals (Northouse, 2016).
Additionally, transformational leadership theory acknowledges that transformation is not fostered by hierarchies of command and control. Rather transformational leadership can occur at any level in the organizational and between people who are not necessarily direct reports on the organizational chart. In their leadership research, James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2012) found that the kind of leadership that moves people and organizations to greater extents of impact occurs through collaboration, trust-building, and facilitating relationships. They assert that transformational leadership is essentially a relationship through which others are mobilized and inspired to work together for shared aspirations (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). This kind of transformative relationship is at the heart of Christian leadership ethics as reflected in our Colossians text. Through participation in the community of the new humanity in Christ, individuals reorient their understanding of God, self, and others to a new cosmic reality of Christ who reigns at the right hand of God, and through spiritual formation practices that embody that reality in their daily lives, are transformed into whole persons (Brown & Sandage, 2015).
Transformational Leadership and Narrative Ethics
Traditional forms of ethics theory focus on principles, rules, and laws that define ethical behavior. This is, in fact, the offshoots of Enlightenment thinking (Montello, 2014). These theories fail to inform and promote more ethical decision-making and behaviors because they do not adequately consider the very human ways by which people make decisions. Business ethicists Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (2011) draw from social science research to find that ethical decisions often create conflicts for people between their desires and reason, or what they call the “want self” versus the “should self” (p. 66). Their research indicates that the “should self” dominates before and after decisions are made, but the “want self” often hijacks reason and wins in the moment that decisions are made (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011, p. 66).
In response to this disconnect between desire and reason in ethical decision-making, ethicist Robert Roberts (2012) proposes that narrative ethics are a more concretely psychological approach to contemporary ethical discussion because of its concept of character, not merely as a set of dispositions contained in a person, but as exhibited intentions, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors depicted in their life contexts. Narrative ethics looks to actions, intentions, thoughts and emotions as narrative cues that provide insight into what a person cares about as the central features of his or her character (Roberts, 2012). In other words, narrative ethics does not denigrate desire as an impediment or liability for ethical decision-making; rather, it regards desire as a human reality that can actually deepen ethics through a “conversion of the imagination” (Brown & Sandage, 2015, p. 180). Desire is the cradle of spiritual formation that reorients a person’s imagination with a compelling narrative of what a flourishing life means and looks like. Narrative ethics eschews universal principles that are devoid of emotional content in favor of an embodied ethic that formulates and animates the life story of the community.
Transformational leadership serves as an effective bridge into narrative ethics because of its focus on whole persons. Paul’s emphasis in Colossians 3:1-17 is not avoidance of bad behavior as if he is merely telling the Colossian believers to stop sinning. Rather, he is expressing the incompatible nature of old-self behaviors with their new humanity, the community constituted by Christ’s death and resurrection (Thornhill, 2012). The virtues of the new humanity listed in Colossians 3:12-17 reveal the transformation of people from self-interest to those who “radially and obsessively” live for others in servanthood (Thornhill, 2012). These are the virtues of the community of Christ who “let the word of Christ dwell in (them) richly” (Col. 3:16) and who understand their lives from the Christ narrative shaping their imaginations. This is the life story of those who hope for the appearing of Christ “who is (their) life” when they also will “appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).
Christian transformational leadership embodies the Christ narrative through habit-forming practices that energize desires and forms imaginations toward the flourishing life it envisions, a life of shalôm to which the Scriptures point us. Wright (2010) states that learning virtues does not come naturally but must be cultivated through discipline until character is infused with a fluency in the practiced virtues. He notes how even the brain structure changes to accommodate growing knowledge as we rehearse spiritual formation practices until they become second nature (Wright, 2010). Those who have practiced compassion, kindness, humility, patience and other virtues within the context of the community of the new humanity will be well-prepared to face the ethical challenges that arise in the complexity of our contemporary and continually changing world.
For example, Chris Lowney (2003) discusses the Spiritual Exercises that sustained the Jesuit movement for over 450 years. Early Jesuit novitiates sequestered themselves for a month to dedicate all their energy focus toward self-awareness (Lowney, 2003). During this time, they engaged in a training regimen that included “everything from scutwork to begging for food and lodging on a solitary long-distance pilgrimage” (Lowney, 2003, p. 28). Upon emerging from this training, the Jesuit would know “what they wanted in life, how to get it, and what weaknesses could trip them up” (Lowney, 2003, p. 28). Such spiritual exercises that include disciplined reflection on ethics is excellent preparation for the ethical challenges that represent defining moments in our lives (Badaracco, 1997). For the Christian, these defining moments represent opportunities to live out the Christ narrative in their real, context-delimited lives.
The community aspect of ethical formation is equally essential. Bazerman and Tenbrunsel (2011) note that the informal values imparted at work through the everyday language used and leadership examples modeled (not through formal ethics policies or codes of conduct) are what truly build and promote an ethical culture. Effective ethical formation necessitates identifying the informal, “watercooler” values that influence ethical behavior more powerfully than expensive ethics training programs (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). Accountability between espoused values and actual behavior is the key to shaping those informal values. Accountability, by its nature, establishes an individual’s identity in relation to others (Shearer 2002). Accountability creates an intersubjectivity in which self-interest contradicts one’s moral identity within a community (Shearer, 2002). It creates a feedback loop in which colleagues speak into each other’s ethics to help them maintain an honest, uninflated assessment of their actual ethics so that they can align with what the community values (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011). Therefore, transformational leaders take care to align informal values to the espoused communal or organizational values through spiritual formation practices of accountability in which the interests of others, rather than self-interest, drive performance.
Paul’s exhortation of Colossians 3:17 summarizes his hope for God’s holy and beloved people: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” The ethics of the new humanity are derived from the reality constituted by the Christ narrative: Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and now his eternal reign seated at the right had of God. This new identity is the logic underlying reality for the people of God: “Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:9). Yet, it is also an identity that is “being renewed in knowledge…” (Col. 3:8) through spiritual formation practices of discipleship. Transformational Christian leaders influence and shape the ethics of others so that their behaviors align with their new identity in Christ through the habits and disciplines that embody the story of Jesus within their lives. Through thoughtful reflection and accountability, that story is formed in their desires and imagination so that they no longer live for the self-interests of their old self but don the garments of their new self which embodies Jesus in service to others and as an ongoing expression of thanksgiving to him.
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