Most churches have written bylaws or policies that explain how they are governed, what their belief system is, and what the rights and responsibilities of members are. Most churches have in their policies, rules about what to do when members “do each other wrong”, and when members “do wrong in the community”. Most churches have rules for who they will marry and under what circumstances. Most churches have rules stating the requirements for becoming a member or for holding church offices (elders, deacons, etc). Most churches have rules about what to do when a member of the staff or a volunteer leader misbehaves.
I think that having these rules is necessary. Many of the Pauline Epistles are filled with direction to the church around these types of issues, and their resolution, so it is clear that God values our conduct in these matters. But as important as having the rules is living by them and enforcing them with complete impartiality. A sure way to destroy a vibrant congregation over time is to continue to allow minor infractions of written rules and bylaws without consequence. In fact, I am quite sure that inconsistent application of rules is a sin. This sin has a name, “Partiality”. This sin has a more serious name, “Injustice”.
In my experience, more mature believers leave churches over this issue than many others. They feel wronged, or mistreated by “the leadership”, because rules were not applied fairly in their eyes. When they feel wronged, they start to look for the first time, at whether the “system” is just or partial in general. They start to look at everything with a more critical eye and ask themselves if the system has any integrity, if the leadership is willing and able to handle the tough cases.
Perhaps it starts with a case of them or someone close to them being confronted with a sin, other times it could be that they or someone close to them were hurt by the sins of others and they are waiting quietly for that to catch up with them. Perhaps it is a system of catering to and enabling those who should know better and who should be mature and well enough to handle their own issues. Sometimes it is merely the way leaders communicate about these things.
Sometimes it is family connections that creates the appearance of partiality, other times it is material financial contribution, still others it is because a volunteer gives so much time and energy to ministry… Whatever the rationale for not enforcing rules, or not confronting sin, or not maintaining accountability, it is harmful to the person who is not accountable, and it can harm the integrity of the leadership in the eyes of the congregation.
I want to be clear, I am not talking about enforcing a legalistic behavioral standard. I am not talking about a “police state” church. What I am talking about is a church leadership organization that is willing to confront sin within its membership, and gracefully restore the repentant to healing through some restitution or reconciliation, while holding the unrepentant accountable for their actions. I am talking about is a church leadership that cares for all of the body of Christ as if they were their own family members, their own children. Like we all treat our penitent children with flexible grace, and our rebellious children with unbending love.
So here are my suggestion:
1) Leaders, examine your policies very carefully. Take a long hard look at them and decide if you are willing to enforce them. If not, revise them. If you are willing to enforce them, consider your children, and how you would feel if your own child were caught and were subject to an enforcement procedure. Examine them again, in this light, and decide for yourself which of these you are still willing to enforce. If a policy does not pass this test, then it must be revised – so that you can continue to be impartial in their application.
2) Every elder, deacon, or other leader who is charged with enforcing these policies must be willing to commit to this level of impartiality before being ordained into that office.
3) When the congregation ordains or calls leaders it should be clear that they are agreeing to be accountable to these leaders. They will accept enforcement of policy from these leaders willingly. If they feel that these persons can not or will not administer the policies faithfully, and justly, then they should be disqualified. This formality is as important as the formality in suggestion 2. This is true, somewhat regardless of the church’s organization structure whether it is hierarchical, centralized, or congregational because “…the greatest among us is the servant of all.”