Six Common Problems with Church Bylaws

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. Bylaws can become means for control and consolidation of power. As I 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 fifteen 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.
  5. 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 twelve times. There was no mention of evangelism, discipleship, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, or any other biblical mandates.
  6. 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.

Posted on May 14, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Two experiential observations in 40 years of church ministry..
    (1) churches may only read or use their bylaws when trouble/conflict is brewing.
    (2) as churches grow/evolve through the years (eg solo pastor to team of pastors, deacon-led to elder-led, roles of women in the church, etc) they should audit their bylaws to reflect the current leadership model and biblical insight they are “now” committed to living out.

  • Robbie Norman says on

    There are cases in churches where church members know the bylaws better than they do the Bible. There are those who bring the bylaws with them to church and read over them before/after services. They seem to have a meticulous study of it.

    The Bible mentions nothing about bylaws when it speak about church governance. This doesn’t mean that bylaws should be done away with. It means we need to be careful in how we construct, amend, and implement. There are bylaws of churches that mirror nothing of Scripture and bylaws of churches that use Scripture as a filter and the Great Commission as the focus on the how, what, and why.

    I agree that bylaws are important and when used correctly they can serve the church well. However, churches can look like little political machines due to bylaws which is unscriptural and is extremely uninviting to those outside of a church.

  • Janet Kelly says on

    We are in the process of rewriting our bylaws. Our main problem was that too much policy was in the bylaws to the point that people only pulled the document out when it suited their interests. And although they are scriptural, constitution and bylaws can be brought to court, policy not so much. Definitely get a lawyer or a professor of administration from a seminary to read it over before adopting something new. Bylaws, if written well, should not need to be changed often. Policy can be reviewed yearly by the administration or a committee.

  • Brian Horton says on

    Thank you for such a timely article. We have just set in place a by law review team that will begin meeting soon. Certainly there is a risk when this action is taken, because it can be viewed by some (maybe older members or even charter members) as a threat to the historic foundations of the church. It can be viewed as an attempt to circumvent power bases. As I have tried to lead this process as a pastor, I have explained like this: The by laws of our church are like a foundation. They are solid and upon which the ministry and activity of the church is built and maintained. There are storms around us, earthquakes even. These would be the rising tide of liberalism and increasing persecution of biblical doctrines. When the storms come, we need to make sure the foundation is secure to withstand them. We need to occasionally review them to ensure that, when the forecast calls for rain, we will still be standing. By laws should not be reactive, but proactive. We must review them and add to or delete from in order to, at the end of the day, maintain, “on Christ the solid rock I stand” and that the mission of the church is unhindered and our doctrinal positions unchanged. The bylaws are a declaration of what holds us in commonality as a Great Commission church.

    In regards to #1 in the article, issues such as that should be, in my thoughts, regulated to policies and procedures. A process of operating under a set of P/P can be stated in bylaws, but the P/P’s themselves are not subject to church vote to change, i.e, bringing soda into the worship center. Committee or department leaders and or deacons can make those changes as situations arise. Otherwise, we will busy ourselves with nonsense and never get around to doing the true work of the church, and this I believe is just as much a tactic of Satan as false doctrines.

    I welcome anyone’s comments and advice in this matter!

    • By-laws really should answer the legal and spiritual questions, i.e.,: how are we formed, how are we governed, how are decisions made, what is the flow of decision making etc. The question of by-laws is somewhat easier in a hierarchical denomination (like the Episcopal Church) but is more difficult because of the growth of national Constitution and Canons (a better choice of words in my opinion).

      The problem tends to be those administering by-laws don’t always understand their function. As you say, policies and procedures are the place where most churches should be operating. By-laws should be foundational and direct. P&P should focus on where the rubber meets the road.

  • Are there good examples of bylaws available for reference? Or legal resources that help with bylaws?

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      Click on “Preferred Providers” on this home page. Church General Counsel has some great resources.

  • Bylaws are funny things. In my experience they seem to be used by power groups or weak leaders to conceal their motivations, but they can also be ignored or broken by power groups with no ramifications.

    I was the only eligible applicant for an elder position on the date of the elder board election (there were two open seats). The existing elders ignored the bylaws and just skipped the election part of the church meeting. They then went out and recruited two of their friends to run for the open positions and removed my name from the ballot. They voted a month late and got the seats filled with their friends. When I pointed to the bylaws and asked why they had been ignored they said they were really more of suggestions than actual governing principles.

  • I understand the bylaws in the sense of legal protection, but shouldn’t the church get its organization and structure from the Scriptures? I have never been in agreement with church bylaws even though every church I have served in has had them. They did not have them in the First Century Church and I’m not sure why we need them now other than for legal protection from worldly things. The Scripture in my opinion should be enough and greater than any man made bylaw could ever be.

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      Agreed. But legal organizations must have bylaws. For example, a church is a nonprofit, but it could not have its nonprofit status without bylaws.

      • Doug Miller says on

        Nor can they be incorporated in many states.

      • Why are churches “legal” organizations? Why incorporate? Origin of incorporate: 1350–1400; Middle English < Late Latin incorporātus past participle of incorporāre to embody, incarnate. ( Are we embodied in and/or by the state? If so, then we have willingly chosen one master over another. It is written, we can not serve two masters.

      • Daughter says on

        Legal status as non-profit equals tax free. No legal status, these gifts become taxable. I get what you are saying though. There is a great risk of becoming an entity under the thumb of the state such as having our free speech not so free after all. Hence, churches that vocally support a political candidate can have their tax exempt status revoked. I believe in rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and being free from the over-reaching authority of the govt. That is what the Bible says.

    • I believe we need some orderly laws in the church with all what is going in the world today against churches. Even Jesus said, he didn’t come to abolish the law but fulfill them.
      So, a church of God needs bylaws and constitution to function in the godly manner, especially when it comes to taking some legal actions pertaining to the church. However, church leaders still must be led by the Holy Spirit when fulfilling their responsibilities that are vested upon than more than dwelling on the bylaws or being hindered by it to follow their God given spiritual gifts.
      So, I wouldn’t condemn church bylaws or constitutions entirely.

  • Some bylaws were crafted to make people feel important while preventing them from having any power. That said, if you know how to “work the system” then the bylaws are merely the SOP, and everything is fine because few people understand them. The only people who don’t like the quirky bylaws are the ones who are too new to understand the system but trying to effect change. Being new while trying to effect change is playing with fire.

  • Think you should have also addressed the age of the bylaws.
    Sometimes the church is quite old. (mine is 93) and We changed something regarding divorce & remarriage.
    It was a 93 year old bylaw provision. But much of the Bylaws had not been reviewed in nearly 73 years. And the sheer language of the bylaws needed updating and help when it came to being more direct. What does”Spiritual oversight” mean? What does “Consultation” mean? What are the consequences to a board member not behaving according to the biblical standard laid out in the C&B? These sorts of things were not laid out because no one ever thought in a million years anyone would struggle with these issues or have questions. But a new generation has questions and interprets things differently. So every generational shift it might be good to examine the language of the bylaws lest the dated language get you into trouble with the current culture.

  • Coleman Walsh says on

    All good points; however, I have seen the bylaws used as the “whipping boy” for poor, ineffective leadership. Good leadership will always find a way to overcome a poorly conceived governance structure, but an excellent governance structure will never overcome bad leadership. When I hear staff complaining about the “cumbersome bylaws” I have asked then to specifically identify the provision that is preventing them from effectively pursuing the Great Commission. I am still waiting for that provision to be identified. Our church by-laws are far from perfect, but they aren’t the obstacle to ministry some portray them to be. Let’s not confuse poorly worded or conceived by-laws with ineffective leadership.

    • This comment is worded perfectly and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thank Coleman for stating the truth. Bylaws are not the Bible. My father founded a church 12 years ago and has Parkinsons now. He is retiring after 50 years of full time ministry. 1 man is overtaking everything and appointing himself chairman. It is disgusting to watch evil he into the church and forget about the gospel.

  • I served in a church that had a bylaw provision that any 20 members of the church could call a business meeting for any purpose. This was put in place years ago for some to maintain power and control when they no longer served as lay leaders. This provision was used to call meetings for various things, including “vacating the office of Pastor”

    • Thom S Rainer says on


      • Eric Stevens says on

        Our church only needs three members in agreement to do this

      • James Fogle says on

        our church has to have 12 members and two deacons to hold a meeting, and the pastor has no vote in this, we redid out bilaws three years ago, now because of a new pastor he had twisted things in the current bi laws to benefit his self in a power play in business meetings; he sits on the committee, he has no vote but he wants to change the name of the church now and put the word OF in it for some reason;;; he throws out their that hehas 25 to 30 years of legal know how on this matter::

  • Kathie Kania says on

    Thank you for a good article. Several years ago when I didn’t know better, I had joined a church that warned, in the bylaws, that no member shall drink ANY alcohol. I was not, and am not interested in alcohol, but I realized that this is NOT SCRIPTURAL. (They weren’t Nazarites, either). So what then, did that mean no dose of Nyquil?

    • Great insight Kathie – and that church will need to examine their people to insure no more drinking probiotic health beverages Kumbucha, Kevita. WWJD and WWTD (Timothy)?

1 2 3