Is unhealthy polity a grounds to leave a church?

I have written a number of times before about the importance of ensuring we have healthy polity and structures in our churches. For example, you can read this, this and this. But there are plenty of others you can find on this blog too.

Let’s just assume you have become convinced of the need for healthy church polity. However, you happen to be in a church that doesn’t have very healthy structures. What should you do? Is it a matter to immediately leave over? But if not, then what?

In my opinion, if you have joined a church with unhealthy structures, I don’t necessarily think that is a reason, of itself, to immediately leave. If it is your position that has changed, and you joined the church knowing the terms in which it operates, it probably isn’t fair to leave when you are the one who signed up to membership there knowing the score. I am not even convinced that a church with healthy polity that you joined, changing its position to something less healthy, is necessarily a reason, of itself, to leave at that point. Of course, I’m not saying there never comes a time when those things show and do become leaving matters, I’m just not sure that is the point at which you ought to go.

So, you are in your church with unhealthy polity. If not at the point when you have come to realise the problems with the structures, at what point should you leave? Given that you aren’t going to leave at that point, what should you do about it whilst you’re there?

Talk to your leaders

In the first instance, go and share your concern with your church leaders. It may be that they hadn’t even considered the issues and you will be helping them to think about them a bit more clearly. It may be that you haven’t fully appreciated how the existing structures operate and they are, actually, healthier than you thought. It may be that your leaders happen to agree with you and want to change. It may be that they don’t and want to defend as biblical what you consider unhealthy. But, at the end of the day, you won’t know unless you talk to them. And you certainly can’t hope anything will change if you don’t make your views known to anyone in any position to do anything about it.

Submit to your leaders

It can’t be right to raise the issue of health and then not act in a healthy way ourselves. If you are concerned that there isn’t biblical polity at work in the church, the answer to that can’t be insubordination and a refusal to submit to your leaders. We don’t solve unhealthy situations by behaving in even unhealthier, sinful ways ourselves.

So, let’s say your leaders don’t agree with your assessment. You believe the polity is unhealthy; they disagree. Well, let’s remember, you joined the church and signed up to the situation you are in. You agreed to submit to the authority of those leading that way. As long as they are not asking you to sin, or pushing you into sin, though the polity may not be what you think it ought to be biblically, I would not leave at that point but gently make clear (in theoretical terms) the problems that could unfold if the issue isn’t addressed.

Serve well

Why should this matter? For one, submitting to your leaders despite your different views and choosing to work for the good of the gospel regardless shows your leaders that you are not offside. You are not picking fights for the sake of it. You are raising issues that you believe matter but are trying to do so in a godly and god-honouring way that will not affect your love for Christ or his church. And that will be seen as you continue to serve joyfully.

But more than that, if there are unhealthy structures, serving well is the first step on the road to being recognised as a leader. And if there are issues requiring elders to be appointed, you are (potentially) putting yourself in a position where you might be able to help resolve that problem. If you are making a case that members ought to be involved in certain church decisions, you help your leaders to see that as a reasonable thing to do when you are serving well, and not making yourself a thorn in their side and a cause of groaning. Most importantly, if you are calling for more accountability, it helps that your elders see you are not against them – and your service and submission back that up – but that you are genuinely for a healthy church.

When to go?

As I said at the start, I don’t think identifying unhealthy polity is, of itself, grounds to leave the church necessarily. Most structures are there for protection. They either protect the church from wolves (whether in the membership or leadership) or they protect the leaders from either themselves or from being left out on a limb in front of the membership.

Now, unhealthy polity puts the church, its leaders or both in a potentially dangerous position. But that doesn’t mean there is any particular sin going on within those unhealthy structures. The structures are there to address sin adequately, wherever it might arise, when it happens to come up. If you have joined a church with unhealthy polity, I wouldn’t look to leave at the point I begin to notice the issues. I would begin to take the steps outlined above.

However, there is a point at which I would leave. When there are issues of sin that cannot be addressed because there are no structures to deal with them, then I would look to leave. Noticing, before any sin is being committed, that the polity is unhealthy is not grounds to leave a church. But if sin arises and cannot be dealt with – particular where that arises among the leadership – such that it cannot be dealt with, and you are having to submit to people against whom there are no processes to employ to deal with their sin, at that point I would leave.

The issue of unchecked sin in the church is a major issue. If you are having to submit to people in sin, that is a major problem. If a leader has disqualified themselves but there is no means of removing them from post, that is a major problem. Noticing that those things could be a problem in future because there a no structures or processes to handle them should they arise, is not a leaving issue. It is, I would argue, a reason to share your concerns with your leaders and seek to help them recognise the issues. It is to lovingly care for them and hope to put them in a position where they won’t end up in trouble, and nor will the church be pulled down, because of their sin. Noticing such potential for problems, whilst warranting a conversation, does not necessitate leaving.

But if you are in the position where sin is apparent but there is no means of addressing it, that (in my opinion) is the time to go. When effective church discipline cannot or will not be exercised, then the church is lost. It is one thing for that to be theoretically possible – someone in future might sin and there may be no way to handle it – but it is an altogether different situation when someone is in sin and there is no means of addressing it.

Unless there is sin on display, that is not being addressed, and cannot be because of unhealthy polity, I would suggest those structures and processes are not a grounds to leave but a reason to seek to stay and encourage the church toward health. But polity may become a grounds to leave when sin is being lived out in the open and there is no means to address it and, worse, no real desire to address it either.