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Ethics and Religion Talk: Must You be Morally Pure to Dispense Sacraments?

Can there be Evil men - and women - who do and teach the works of God?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Cathy writes:

“We have been encouraged to follow the Lenten Gospel Reflections of Bishop Robert Barron during Lent. I am still reeling from an article in which he says ‘In the fourth century, St. Augustine faced the challenge of the Donatists. They claimed that only pure and morally upright priests could legitimately dispense the sacraments. Augustine said, no, the personal evil of a minister does not compromise the validity of what he does sacramentally. Augustine says that there can be evil men who do and teach the works of God.’

“I find this deplorable and unacceptable! Is this where ethics and religion part ways?”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“It is a privilege, an honor, to serve the Christian sacraments. It is a privilege and honor to represent God to the people and the people to God in any religious ritual.  No one human can ever be sufficiently morally upright and pure to merit this responsibility. In my denomination we speak of ordination as being ‘set aside for a purpose,’ not being raised to a higher plane due to individual holiness.  It is God’s righteousness which is celebrated in the sacraments, not that of the celebrant. A character of humility is of utmost importance.

“Having said this, a religious leader who engages in unacknowledged or unconfessed ‘personal evil’ is hypocritical and should expect criticism from his or her congregation along with accountability to a denominational authority or board. Such a religious leaders should not be surprised if congregants retreat to a different congregation whose leaders demonstrate greater integrity, and humility.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Certainly, we should hold clergy to a high moral and ethical standards, but congregations need to remember their leaders are human too. All of us make mistakes. I think all clergy in general better serve their congregations if they are aware and reminded of their own humanity, frailty, shortcomings, and faults. Some of my failures have made me more sympathetic and understanding of others’ mistakes. I am not sure what is meant by personal evil, if it means any form of abuse then I would vote to remove that person from the ministerial service.”

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“The validity or effectiveness of the sacraments does not depend on our personal holiness. However, their credibility does. Lack of credibility in the person officiating can easily compromise the sacraments because the person receiving them is receiving them by faith in Christ--whom we ministers represent. Therefore, it is the leader's responsibility to not jeopardize his brother's or sister's faith by misrepresenting Christ and his Truth. Instead, the minister is called to live in purity holding himself or herself to Christ's moral standards of living and loving God with all his/her heart, soul, and mind and loving his/her neighbor as one would love oneself. (Matthew 22:37-39)”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Heresy is ‘the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 507). Donatism ‘was originally a schism and then a heresy that claimed the validity of the sacraments comes from the moral character of the minister, with no sinner capable of church membership’ (

“The Catholic Church teaches the validity of the sacraments comes from God through the ministry of the Church. Therefore, the validity of the sacraments does not come from human beings but is divine in origin. Unfortunately, human nature is such that perfection is unattainable until we are born into eternal life.

“Further, the Catholic Church teaches ‘that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of evil’ as demonstrating by ‘the greatest moral evil ever committed – the rejection and murder of God’s only son, caused by the sins of all [people].’ Still, ‘God brought about the greatest good, the glorification of Christ and our redemption’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp 82-3)

“Therefore, despite the personal sinfulness of a priest or minister, God may affect good, and God’s goodness may flourish despite the faults of the priest or minister.”

The Rev. Steven Manskar, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Of course, the character of a priest or pastor matters. Pastoral integrity is essential for effectiveness in ministry. The first rule of pastoral ministry is to do no harm. The way to assure this is to live and work with integrity and holiness. When pastors fail to abide by this rule, they do much damage to individual lives and to the witness of the Church.

“But that is not what the Donatist controversy was about. The Donatists insisted only priests who were themselves holy were qualified to administer the sacraments of the church. Augustine argued such a requirement is contrary to Scripture. To support his argument, he pointed to the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-31) in which Jesus argues the church is a mixed community of sinners and saints. Only God can judge. Augustine also argued the efficacy of the sacraments are not dependent upon the character of the priest because God is the one acting in and through the sacrament with the priest and the congregation. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, conveys grace through the priest and the congregation and the ordinary signs of water, bread, wine, oil, and laying on of hands.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“At the risk of shocking you even more, I will disclose to you that there is a great deal of ‘personal evil’ in the heart of every minister you have ever met. All Christians are sinners by nature, including those whom God calls to the work of the ministry. All we can expect of ministers is that they fight against the evil that lives in them, in dependence upon God’s grace; but that is the duty of every Christian. Sinless perfection is a goal attained only after death, in the life of the world to come (see Heidelberg Catechism, QQ. 114, 115). If sinless perfection were a prerequisite for the Christian ministry, we would have no ministers at all.

“Presbyterianism teaches that ministerial acts, such as administration of the sacraments, do not derive their validity or efficacy ‘from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them’ (Shorter Catechism, Q. 91). We can only be thankful for this truth, since there can be hypocrites in the pulpit, as well as in the pews of any church. But God still speaks by His Word, Christ is still present to bless His own institutions, and the Holy Spirit does not leave any true Christian uninstructed or uncomforted, although the human instrument is flawed, perhaps even fatally so.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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