Moral Authority and "The Big Three"
If we are going to be Christian leaders, it is essential that we live lives that are beyond reproach. This article describes why we need to live morally upright lives and addresses three common struggles in today's culture: chastity, sobriety, and excellence.
Optional Lectio Divina Prayer
- Read Matthew 5:13-16.
- Meditate on the words.
- Speak to Christ about this passage.
- Rest and listen in God’s presence.
- Discuss together.
There was seemingly little reason for the world to know about Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.
She was born into a middle-class home in the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century. She eventually moved to one of the poorest parts of the world and worked for decades in anonymity, caring for the destitute, tirelessly doing menial tasks no one else was willing to do to help them.
But slowly, news about her work started to spread. Women from other countries began to join her, and reporters started observing her life and writing about her amazing witness. Her work expanded to other countries, and people from around the world wanted to know more about her. In time, she became one of the most influential women of the 20th century.
In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon accepting the award, she spoke to the crowd about the demands of real love, how God was the true source of peace, and how abortion was the greatest destroyer of peace today. Everyone cheered, even though the crowd had many people in it who did not hold these Christian ideals.
In 1982, she gave the commencement address at Harvard. She received a standing ovation for a speech in which she told young people to embrace chastity and reject abortion. How was such a counter-cultural message received so well at a secular university like Harvard?
In 1985, the United Nations honored her at its 40th anniversary celebration and she spoke before the most powerful leaders in the world. In her speech, she told the crowd that they were children of God and that they needed to pray, because they couldn’t give what they didn’t have. More applause followed— the United Nations was praising a religious message!
Acts speak louder than words; let your words speak and your actions teach.
General Perez de Cuellar, Secretary of the United Nations at the time, said this when introducing her,
This is a hall of words. A few days ago we had, in this rostrum, the most powerful men in the world. Now we have the privilege to have the most powerful woman in the world. I don’t think I need to present her. She doesn’t need words. She does need deeds. . . . She is the United Nations. She is peace in this world.
Who is this woman whom the United Nations called “the most powerful woman in the world”? And what made her so powerful? Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu is now known as St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. And she became one of the most influential leaders in the world—not because of wealth or fame or any title or position she held—but because of the remarkable way she lived her life.
Discuss: What was it about Mother Teresa that made people want to follow her and listen to what she had to say? How was her kind of leadership and influence different from what people commonly think about leadership today?
WHAT IS MORAL AUTHORITY
Some people influence the world through their riches, fame or positions of power. Mother Teresa, however, exhibited a very different kind of authority, one that’s much more impactful and modeled by Christ Himself. And it’s the kind of authority to which any ordinary person can aspire. She had what can be called “moral authority.”
Moral authority is the ability to lead others not by title or position, but by the way we live. In leadership, far more important than one’s personality, talents, titles or techniques is one’s moral character. Jesus did not hold any official positions or titles in first century Judaism. He didn’t seek to make a name for himself or build a platform. It was his humility, his courage, his love— indeed, his entire way of life that inspired thousands to follow him and left a deep and lasting impact on millions throughout the world to this day.
Jesus’ example challenges us to ask ourselves what kind of leader we want to be: Are we striving to live outstanding lives like Christ? To pursue heroic virtue? To give God and the people in our lives the very best of ourselves like Christ did? Mother Teresa made many sacrifices and gave her all to serve the poorest of the poor around the world. Her actions spoke much louder than her words. Her amazing witness of sacrificial love inspired many people to live a little more like her and listen to her message. That’s the impact of someone who has moral authority.
How about us? Does the way we live our lives inspire others to follow Christ and listen to Christ’s message? Are we truly striving for greatness or are we coasting, settling for mediocrity, only following Jesus to the extent it’s easy, convenient and comfortable? God wants us to aim for something much higher in life. In the words popularly attributed to Pope Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort. You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Discuss: When have you witnessed moral authority (or a lack thereof) in your own life? Why do you need to live with moral authority?
The world offers you comfort. You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.
All this is especially true for anyone stepping into Christian leadership. Because Christian leaders represent so noble a King, they must strive to live beautiful, noble lives, reflecting what Jesus taught and participating deeply in Christ’s life. The more my life is conformed to Christ, guided by Christ, animated by Christ, the more my leadership will bear fruit. As St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
My leadership, however, will not be effective if I am not firmly rooted in Christ’s way of life. I am less likely to inspire others to daily prayer, for example, if I myself don’t have a daily prayer life. I won’t be effective in inviting people to follow Jesus if I myself don’t follow his moral teachings in a certain area. I can’t give what I don’t have. And even more dangerous is living contrary to Christ’s teachings, which completely undermines our leadership. We must go above and beyond, living beyond reproach—so that there is not even a question about our living a life of moral integrity. Because Christian leaders represent Christ, they will be held to a higher standard in the way they live. According to James 3:1, “Teachers…shall be judged with greater strictness.”
But let’s be clear. Moral authority is about much more than making sure we “practice what we preach.” As important as that is, we must realize there’s a profound spiritual principle at work here: to the extent I’m living deeply in Christ, living according to his plan—morally, spiritually, sacramentally—Jesus can work through me in amazing ways: in my family, in my friendships, in my workplace, in my mission. But if I’m not rooted deeply in Christ and living fully according to his plan, then my leadership will suffer. Christ will not work through me as powerfully as a leader. I become more of a roadblock to the Holy Spirit than his instrument. Whether we become leaders on campus, in the workplace, in our parishes or in our own homes, let’s strive to be leaders with moral authority. As Thomas Dubay once wrote, “we are affected more deeply toward God by a ten-minute visit with a saintly person than we are in ten years spent with a mediocre individual.”14 Others are depending on us to live our lives well. Let’s not settle to be mediocre people. Let’s strive to be saints.
Discuss: Are you living as a faithful representative of Jesus? Is your life a witness to the Gospel? How can you allow Christ to work through you more powerfully?
THE BIG 3
Three key areas are particularly important for living with moral authority today: chastity, sobriety and excellence. It’s worth giving attention to these because it’s especially challenging to live these virtues in our secular world. The culture often promotes just the opposite: unchaste living, drunkenness and mediocrity. If we’re not intentionally careful to live like Jesus in these three areas— to live beyond reproach—our ability to influence the world for Christ will be severely undermined. Let’s look at each one:
(Note: If you have already studied these topics in one of FOCUS’s other resources, like the Big 3 Bible study, or if one of these topics is not a struggle for you, consider skipping one or two sections and focus on the area that is most applicable to your situation.)
The definition of love is to will the good of the other—to seek what’s best for the other person. Jesus’ teachings on chastity are all about equipping us to experience and give this kind of authentic, lasting love, which is the kind of love we long for. Our culture, however, tends to confuse love with lust, which is focused on self—on what I get out of the other person. When I look at other people with lust, I reduce them to mere objects to exploit for my own pleasure. Jesus’ teachings on chastity are rooted in the fact that what opposes love is not just hate, but use.
Every day we are faced with many choices to love or use others— in our thoughts, in our glances, in our physical actions. Jesus says in Matthew 5:27–28, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Here Jesus illustrates that chastity is about more than simply not having sex outside of marriage. At its heart, chastity is about having the ability to love others the way that God has called us to love, with a pure heart and mind and not as a slave to selfishness or lust. We do this in two main ways.
First, we must live purity in our hearts. In a world filled with immodest images, pornography, sexting, hookup aps, and sexually explicit content, we must go out of our way to guard our eyes and maintain purity in mind and heart. Jesus says in Luke 6:45, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil.”
Second, we also need to live out chastity in our bodies. Sex is not just a physical act of pleasure. The physical union is meant to express a profound personal union between husband and wife. In giving their bodies to each other in this most intimate union, spouses are giving their very selves to each other. Sex itself and the sexual actions leading up to sex are intended by God for marriage. That’s why premarital sex and any physical action that causes arousal in you or your boyfriend/girlfriend (e.g., touching sexual body parts, mutual masturbation, oral sex, etc.) is immoral outside of marriage, for it is not an act of total self-giving. The couple experiences the pleasures that are particularly associated with sexual union apart from a total commitment to the other person.
But to live moral authority in terms of chastity, we must do a third thing: We must be careful not to cause scandal. Resting in the same bed, sleeping over at your boyfriend/girlfriend’s house, or imprudent one-on-one time late at night may not only tempt you—a near occasion of sin—it also may give others the wrong impression. A Christian leader does not merely avoid doing evil but is held to a higher standard (Jas 3:1). He or she must live beyond reproach and avoid doing anything that could give the impression of immoral behavior.
Chastity is a triumphant affirmation of love.
(For more on this topic, including sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion, pornography and same-sex marriage, please see our Cultural Apologetics series at focusequip.org.)
Discuss: How are you practicing the virtue of chastity? How do you still need to grow?
To discuss chastity further, please see the Chastity Supplement on page 210.
Sobriety is the exercise of the virtue of temperance (self-control) when it comes to alcohol. When of legal age, there is nothing wrong with drinking alcohol in moderation; Jesus’ first miracle involved his changing water into wine for a wedding feast. But St. Peter cautions us to stay alert: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). Getting drunk or being high on drugs like marijuana impairs our reason and makes it harder for us to make good, free, deliberate choices and live virtuously. When we drink in excess, for example, we intentionally inhibit our intellect and lose control of that which is most intimately ours—our free-will—giving the devil an opportunity to wreak havoc in our lives and setting us up to make bad decisions that can harm ourselves and others. As a result, St. Paul lists drunkenness as one of the sins that keeps a person from the kingdom of God (Gal 5:21). St. Thomas Aquinas explained that drunkenness is a grave sin because it breaks our relationship with God.15
As with chastity, to live moral authority in terms of sobriety, we must not merely avoid drunkenness. We must also be careful not to cause scandal by being too closely associated with drunkenness taking place around us. Jesus loved everyone and reached out to people of all backgrounds, even sinners. He was known for having meals with drunkards and prostitutes. But we never read about Jesus hanging out with the prostitutes at a brothel while they were seducing their men or having drinks with drunkards during their drinking binges. Our presence in certain settings might give the impression that we are okay with the sinful activity or, even worse, that we ourselves participate in it. When St. John Paul II once explained the proper balance in his own ministry of accompaniment, he said God called him “to live with people, everywhere to be with them, in everything but sin.”16 If we want to be leaders with a deep, lasting impact, let’s courageously take up the Cross and strive to be saints. Christian leaders representing Jesus are the kind of people who follow Christ’s example and live beyond reproach, avoiding things that easily could give the impression we approve of immoral behavior.
Discuss: How are you practicing the virtue of sobriety? How do you still need to grow?
To discuss sobriety further, please see the Sobriety Supplement on page 212.
Excellence is the ability to give the best of ourselves in our vocation and daily responsibilities. The person committed to excellence does not settle for mediocrity, especially in the things that matter most in life. For married couples, this means striving to be the best spouse or parent they can be. For students, this means giving their finest effort in their studies, for that is their primary responsibility during their college years. Whatever jobs, tasks or projects are entrusted to us, we should always seek to give the best of ourselves, realizing that we are ultimately serving Jesus in these endeavors. For as St. Paul wrote, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23–24).
The pursuit of excellence also challenges us to reflect on how we use our time, especially down time. Do we spend a lot of time playing video games, being addicted to our phones and social media, binge watching on Netflix and other streaming services or wasting a lot of time on YouTube? While there’s nothing wrong with moderate use of these media, these passive forms of entertainment weaken our will and character when we use them habitually. The amount of time spent in these activities greatly impacts your ability to do great things with your life. Are you training your will to deny yourself, make sacrifices, take on challenges and persevere through difficult tasks? Or are you training your will to prefer being passively entertained and your mind to be constantly distracted and entertained? Do you fill your mind more with the true, the good and the beautiful—that which spurs you on to greatness—or do you fill your soul more with frivolous amusements and images that drag you down? As Christians, we should be pursuing excellence in every area of our lives.
Discuss: How are you practicing the virtue of excellence? How do you still need to grow?
To discuss excellence further, please see the Excellence Supplement on page 214.
THE IMPACT OF MORAL AUTHORITY
Chastity, sobriety and excellence are three key areas for developing our moral authority. The example of Mother Teresa gives us an idea of what an impact our example can have on the world. Don’t underestimate the influence you can exert simply by the way you live your life.
How will you develop moral authority in your own life? What key steps do you need to take to grow in chastity, sobriety and excellence? Consider using the included freedom plan to help you grow in these areas (p. 208).
Moral authority is the ability to influence others by the way we live, not by any position or title we hold.
- Because Christian leaders represent so noble a king, they must live beyond reproach—so that there is not even a question about their living a life of moral integrity.
- Because Christian leaders represent Christ, they will be held to a higher standard in the way they live. According to James 3:1, “Teachers…shall be judged with greater strictness.”
The Big 3: In order to have moral authority in today’s culture, we especially need to live out chastity, sobriety and excellence.
See page 212 for additional resources on Chastity, Sobriety and Excellence.
14 Dubay, Thomas. (1987). “…And You Are Christ’s”. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 121.
15 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Questions 150, Articles 1–4.
16 Weigel, George. (2005). Witness to Hope. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 104.