Stop Wielding “Best Construction” Against Propriety and Ethics

It looks like a scandal of sorts has cropped up in LCMS circles, as it’s being reported that Concordia St. Paul, under the leadership of President Ries, sold a property to Susie Ries Interiors (operated by President Ries’ wife) which is now being flipped for a profit after 2 years of extensive renovations. The asking price is $850,000 above the price paid, and the profit margin looks to be in the neighborhood of $100K-$200K. It looks shady at first glance, and I’ve seen several Lutherans passing the story along with that shadiness in mind.

But, wherever the shadows of Lutheran scandals fall, cries of “Best construction!” are reflexively raised in response. For my non-Lutheran readers, the phrase comes from Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment (“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”) in his Small Catechism which reads, “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” In other words, “best construction” in the face of a scandal entails giving people the benefit of the doubt, guarding their due process, and so forth.

Now, there is a good side to this reflex and a bad side to it. The good side is, of course, that whenever we encounter a scandal, we should look to God’s Law as a guide to whether we’re treating the subjects of said scandal in a way befitting of Christians. The bad side is that these reflexive responses are very often impoverished of critical thought. In other words, “best construction” is often used as an excuse to dismiss or ignore a scandal rather than as a guide to investigating and evaluating it properly. As I regularly find myself face-palming when reading fellow Lutherans’ ideas about best construction, there are a few aspects of it that are worth clarifying.

Best Construction does not require naivete

As Luther himself points out in his Large Catechism, there is a difference between knowing of our neighbor’s sin and judging that sin. And please note that Luther clearly isn’t considering the recognition of sin as sin to count as judgment (as so many people do today.) That is to say, we aren’t supposed to stick our heads in the sand and pretend to be either unaware of what happened or unaware of whether what happened is sin. Rather, we do not take it upon ourselves to punish sin or pass sentence unless these things are part of our vocations. When we come across a red flag like a university president personally profiting from the sale of university property, best construction does not require us to practice volitional doubt–a deliberate choice to dismiss any and all allegations of wrongdoing.

Best Construction does not require the abandonment of vocation.

Again, Luther explicitly states this in his Large Catechism: “Although no one personally has the right to judge and condemn anyone, yet if they are commanded to do so and fail to do it, they sin as much as those who take the law into their own hands apart from any office. In that case necessity requires one to report evil, to prefer charges, to give evidence, to examine witnesses, and to testify.”

Like it or not, LCMS church polity is such that pastors and laity are given a measure of influence over how our institutions are run. This vocation does not require us to judge and condemn, but does require us to hear and to speak about public matters so that, if necessary, we can influence our institutions to take appropriate action.  Certainly, private matters should be either kept private or dutifully reported to the appropriate authorities.  But when it comes to public scandal–which this is, as it is already reported in numerous secular media–there is a measure of responsibility to participate in public discussion. While it is not ours to judge and pronounce a verdict of guilt on President Ries, it is certainly ours to say, “This looks shady; people need to find out what’s going on here.”

Best Construction does not eliminate the requirement for propriety and ethics.

Propriety may be an increasingly lost art in the modern West, but it is, nevertheless, a Biblical command, for Paul instructs not simply to avoid evil, but also the appearance of evil. This means that we deliberately avoid putting ourselves in situations where it looks like we might be sinning. For example, when a pastor is counseling a woman privately, if he is wise, he takes certain precautions against misunderstandings–for example, he only does so when someone else is nearby in the building or he doesn’t close the door.  He takes deliberate action to make it clear that the counseling is not a cover for any indecency.

In the same way, when a man stewards an institution that he does not own, he deliberately avoids situations in which the interests of that institution are put into potential conflict with his own interests (including the interests of close family members.) Selling an institution’s property to one’s wife, for example, creates a very clear conflict of interest. The best course of action is, of course, to avoid such situations altogether. However, even when avoidance is impractical, the office-holder still needs to take deliberate and transparent steps to make it clear that he is not abusing his office. Most commonly, the person would recuse himself from any and all deliberations concerning anything in which there is a conflict of interest.

This is not adiaphora. This is a Biblical command. One need not prejudicially assume that the sale was somehow fraudulent to recognize that there is something wrong with this situation. Not only does an insistence on ethics and propriety not violate the 8th Commandment, it goes a long way towards making it possible to put the best construction on everything.

It is shameful that these simple points are lost on so many Lutherans seeking to rebuke their neighbors by means of the 8th Commandment. What have I seen instead? I see quibbling about how much profit was made on the sale–as though the conflict of interest disappears if they only made $100K. I see people claiming that anyone who thinks there’s a problem should simply ask President Ries about it personally–as though that somehow substitutes for a real investigation. I see people claiming that that the matter should be kept private–as though it isn’t already appearing in multiple newspapers as a matter of public record. I even see a defense of Susie Ries based on how selling property makes her a Proverbs 31 woman–as though the ethics of the sale are somehow irrelevant. Ironically, this amounts to a bunch of man-made rules being substituted for actual Biblical instruction.

The truly relevant questions are whether and how President Ries recused himself from deliberations regarding this sale. Now, I do not know the answer to those questions, and so I do not know whether President Ries erred. (Although, if he did not, then the journalists reporting on the matter seriously failed at their jobs by not publicizing the steps he took to avoid the conflict of interest.  If that’s the case, this should be brought to light simply to expose the shoddy journalism.)  However, as a member of the LCMS, I have both a small  interest in its subsidiary institutions and a small measure of responsibility to urge ethical governance over them. When those of us in such roles hear public reports of situations like this, best construction does not mean assuming everything is fine. Best construction means supporting a fair investigation of the situation and letting others know that further investigation is warranted. This means that the details of any recusal by President Ries should also be made public so that the public situation no longer has the appearance of evil (and to highlight the reporters’ failures to report.)  If that is not done, then this is a violation of propriety. If it cannot be done because no recusal occurred, then it is both unethical and unbiblical even if the sale occurred at a fair price without any favoritism towards potential buyers.

So do you really want to put the best construction on the situation? Then support those who want to bring the situation into the light of day instead of legalistically insisting on leaving it in darkness.  Despite all the criticism, the people reporting on it and passing along those reports are the ones closest to actually putting the best construction on the matter.

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