But it certainly can’t do everything. Biblical, workable, understandable constitutions, by-laws, governance systems and policies have their place, but they also have their limits. Specifically, here are some things which structure can and cannot do:
- Good structure can support life, but it cannot produce life. Colin Marshall and Tony Payne “nailed it” with their illustration involving The Trellis and the Vine.
A good trellis (structure) gives the vine (a living church body) something to grow on. But the trellis is never the focus. Nobody wants their neighbors to admire their trellis; they want their neighbors to admire the vine.
- Good structure can provide strength, but it cannot provide flexibility. Strength is added to an organization when its simple, understandable structure provides something for people to fall back on. But structure can’t provide the flexibility which will be needed to change the structure when it outlives its usefulness.
As great as a particular structure might be in 2016, it will probably need changing by 2020. If I had to choose between the “perfect” structure for today and the flexibility in the church culture which will enable us to change the structure tomorrow, I’ll take the flexibility any day.
- Good structure can prevent some people problems but it cannot fix problem people. Many of us know how helpful it can be to have a great covenant which clarifies the “rules of the game” for how church board members will treat and support each other.
But concocting such a document, or a new covenant for the whole church, or any other structural solution, to try to cure an ongoing people problem is a fool’s errand. It will only increase the anger level of the already volatile individual(s).
- Good structure can make decision making easier, but it cannot make good decisions. Excellent by-laws are excellent because they are simple and clear. I don’t know how I can say that strongly enough: simple and clear. Could a fifth grader attend your membership class and understand how decisions are made at your church? This really is possible!
The limitation here is that somebody still has to make good decisions. Decisions can only be made by people and they are only made with excellence with a lot of help from the Holy Spirit in answer to desperate prayer. If those decisions are not good, the people who made them will be replaced by others!
- Good structure can make conformity to God’s ways easier but it cannot produce godliness. Good structure makes conformity to God’s ways easier when it is based solidly on Scripture. However much we disagree about church government models (congregational, episcopal, elder leadership), every church leadership team should be totally convinced that its leadership model is as Biblical as they know how to make it. We should be able to tell our congregations that “We’ve done the best we can with this; if you see some way to make our system more closely adhere to Scripture, please show us.”
But in the last analysis, of course, no governance system can make Christians godly, and no church system is going to be better than the people who use it.