Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

A Law Unto Themselves

Churches that fail to institute-and follow-a set of bylaws may be setting themselves up for disaster.
We as Bible-believing Christians often speak disparagingly about the Law because of Jesus’ and Paul’s comments highlighting the powerlessness of the Law for personal transformation. It’s tempting to dismiss the value of the rule of Law altogether under the premise that it’s an empty pursuit to try and gain God’s favor through obedience to the law.

However, there are strong exhortations to obedience and order in the Scripture, and we would be remiss to ignore the protective value of the law.

As the president of both a small network of churches called the Association of Life-Giving Churches and a huge network of networks called the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), I have the unpleasant task, from time to time, of helping a church walk through difficult moments. Sometimes these situations develop because of a failure in leadership, other times because of an unexpected development in the church.

I have observed a pattern in churches’ ability to weather these storms. On the one hand, when churches have detailed bylaws that give direction, everyone knows what needs to be done in the midst of the difficulty. Without exception in my experience, when there are specific rules of order in place, the potentially devastating situation is averted and the blessing of God prevails.

On the other hand, disaster strikes the churches that come into difficult times and don’t have a detailed system in place. Typically in these instances, the random decisions of leaders determine what needs to be done, and the consequences are often disastrous.

Without a set of guidelines that prescribe order and protect integrity, churches endure all kinds of needless strain. In the free-for-all environment that can emerge during crises, factions form, leaders are denigrated, people jockey for power, churches split and the reputation of the body of Christ suffers.

In my book The Life-Giving Church I included a sample set of bylaws because I don’t believe we can operate organizations without order any more than the church can operate in power without the instruction of the Bible. Written rules, principles, precepts and exhortations are vitally important for growth. Our bylaws include detailed systems for selecting a new senior pastor, borrowing money to build or buy land and all kinds of other potentially difficult situations that a church will face.

The bylaws prescribe a separation of powers among trustees (who possess fiduciary authority), elders (who are responsible for providing spiritual leadership), overseers (who discipline the senior pastor) and the senior pastor (who directs the staff and runs the day-to-day affairs of the church). Each person’s role is clearly delineated, and the result is order instead of chaos. The presence of detailed, sensible bylaws turns situations that otherwise would tend to weaken and divide into opportunities to strengthen and unite the body of Christ.

Thank God that America’s founding fathers thought about these things. If we as a nation didn’t have detailed laws in place, the dispute that emerged between Al Gore and George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential election would have ended up with tanks in the streets. Our nation’s governing documents prescribe detailed systems for such potentially incendiary situations such as the transition of power, declaration of war and creation of new laws, and the whole world receives the benefits.

We’ve all seen situations in which church bylaws were poorly written and poorly executed. This should not rule out the importance of our having bylaws—let’s be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Instead, I think all churches—especially independent charismatic churches—need to have a detailed process in place. In the event of a crisis, such as the death of the senior pastor, people know what to do. It’s the unexpected turn, the surprise that is certainly coming one day, that forces us to plan ahead.

With the Terri Schiavo debacle, I hope we’ve all learned the importance of a living will. And, certainly, every church leader knows the importance of wise estate planning and a will for all people before they step into eternity. We plan ahead and anticipate the unexpected in our personal lives. This same type of thought demands a good set of bylaws.

Simply put, our choice is order or disorder. Unexpected things will happen. When they do, if we have rules in place, order will prevail. If not, the potential for chaos is looming. Choose order.

Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of many books and is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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