Church bylaws are a necessity, both from a legal and an organizational perspective. They provide the framework from which the organization exists and operates.
So, hear me well. I not advocating the elimination, eradication, or minimization of church bylaws.
But I am suggesting church bylaws are often used in ways that hurt churches. Indeed, some churches use bylaws well beyond their original intent. Let me briefly touch on six common problems with them.
- Some bylaw provisions are reactions to issues that should have been addressed outside of the bylaws. Let me give you a real-life example, one that I heard from a member of our Church Answers community. The students in the church were meeting in the worship center on Wednesday evenings. One student brought a soda into the worship center and spilled it. Within one month, the church had a new bylaw provision: Thou shalt not bring drinks in the worship center (okay, I made up that verbiage). Wouldn’t it have been better for someone simply to ask the students not to bring the drinks to the worship center? Sometimes bylaws are used to attempt to idiot-proof anything that can go wrong.
- Bylaws are sometimes used as a weapon. Here is another true example. The treasurer did not like the executive pastor. He constantly tried to derail his leadership and ministry. The treasurer’s most-used weapon was a provision in the bylaws that required a two-thirds congregational vote for “major administrative decisions.” The problem is that no one knew the definition of “major,” but the treasurer used the wording to hinder the work of the executive pastor.
- Bylaws can become obstacles instead of order. When bylaws are used properly, they bring legal and organizational order to churches. For that reason, they are vital and helpful. Too often, though, bylaws become obstacles for churches to move forward. In more than one church, the bylaws are used more than the Bible to make decisions. They become the metaphorical “tail wagging the dog.”
- Bylaws can become means for control and consolidation of power. As I have consulted churches over the past three decades, I have been fascinated with the history of specific church bylaw provisions. It is not uncommon to learn that bylaws were used by certain power groups in the church to gain or consolidate control. In one church, the bylaws required every undefined major decision to go through a church council. That provision was added 15 years earlier, when the chairman of the church council tried to usurp authority from the church staff. Today, that former chairman is no longer at the church, and the church council is not a functioning group. But the bylaw provision remains.
- Bylaws can be a distraction from the main thing. Here is another consultation example from my past. The pastor of the church asked me to attend the monthly business meeting. He also asked me to listen for the word “bylaws” in the meeting. There were no further instructions. Within five minutes, two church members referred to the bylaws as reasons for inaction. By the time the 70-minute meeting was over, the bylaws had been referenced 12 times. There was no mention of evangelism, discipleship, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, or any other biblical mandates.
- Bylaws can be sources of division. This last point is obvious in light of the previous points. In many churches, you can read the bylaws to learn stories of church fights, church splits, factions, and power plays. We were asked in a church consultation to interview departing church members to learn why so many were leaving the church. While the overall issue was infighting and division, one woman specifically referenced the bylaws: “I had to leave the church; it was not good for my spiritual health. There is so much division in the church, and every division becomes a bylaw battle. I think the church should change its name to The Church of the Bylaws.”
Good church bylaws provide structure, organization, and legal protection.
Bad and overused church bylaws can be divisive, distracting, and even disastrous.
This post was adapted from an article that first appeared at ThomRainer.com on May 14, 2018. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer .