Loyalty is a virtue in many relationships. Let’s look at different types of loyalties and then ask, “Should you be loyal to your church?”
Four Types of Loyalties
On some level, society teaches each of us to be loyal. Here are four types of loyalties that learn from a young age:
1. Patriotic Loyalty
I learned patriotism from my dad, who wore red, white, and blue checkered pants on the Fourth of July (those were the 1970s). He took us to see fireworks displays, decorated our home with American bald eagles, and erected a flagpole in the front yard, so he could fly the Stars and Stripes. So, as I grew up, I naturally loved America. Over the years, I’ve been accused of being unpatriotic due to my opposition to Christian nationalism, which I have dubbed “the idol of Americianity.” Yet, if you love your country, you should be able to critique it. Loyalty to your country doesn’t mean blindly following—it means bravely asking your nation to be better and do better.
2. Family Loyalty
As a kid, I learned loyalty from my brother, who told others, “Nobody can pick on my brother but me!” When a parent got fired from a job, without hesitation I agreed that their boss was a jerk. As a parent, I was loyal to my children. If my kid was called into the office at school, and accused of disruptive behavior, I believed my kid’s story instead of their accuser’s. In marriage, I made the vow “to be faithful to one another, as long as you both shall live.” Loyalty belongs in certain relationships, but not in others.
3. School Loyalty
The Beach Boys sang, “So be true to your school now, just like you would to your girl or guy.” That’s a type of loyalty I just don’t understand. I mean, the school loyalty part, not the being true to your girl part. Sure, every romantic relationship needs loyalty, but why would you be true to your school?
I remember hearing stories about my dad as a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One night at a football game, kids from the other school got ahold of my dad’s high school flag (which happened to be the Confederate battle flag), and supposedly were treating it disrespectfully. As the story goes, my dad and a bunch of other boys jumped a fence and fought the guys from the other school. He told me this story to convey the virtue of loyalty. But while many relationships merit loyalty, I never understood being true to your school.
4. Loyalty in Business
Many employers complain about disloyal employees. But workers can’t afford to be loyal like they used to, when employers refuse to pay living wages and offer little to no benefits. In the good ol’ days, a person would work forty years for one company, retire, and get the gold watch along with a lifetime pension. Now, in business today it’s every person for themselves. Loyalty on the part of employees has gone out the window as employers have quit looking out for the benefit of their workers. Loyalty goes both ways. (Click here to read my article, “Pastors are Quiet Quitting the Church.”)
Should You Be Loyal to Your Church?
So, the question remains: should you be loyal to your church? One of the churches I served as pastor had a special day unique to that congregation. Observed on a Sunday in May just before everybody went away on their summer vacations, Loyalty Day was designed to promote fidelity to the local body. Perhaps it was derived from the national holiday, Loyalty Day, I don’t know. When I came to the church, they had been observing it for many years. (Click here to read, “Why Christians Should Resist Loyalty Day.”)
I was informed by the deacons that I needed to keep Loyalty Day on the schedule and preach a sermon about loyalty on that particular Sunday. I admit that I heeded their advice, but I tended to focus on other kinds of loyalty, besides the kind they asked for. I wasn’t sure if the word “loyalty” described the relationship a person ought to have with their church.
The concept of loyalty evokes feelings of unwavering devotion, regardless of the other’s rightness or wrongness. A loyal marine obeys the commanding officer and charges the hill, regardless of whether or not they think it’s a good order. They do so because they are “semper fidelis–always faithful.” That’s loyalty. It’s a concept related to the notion of duty. But should you be loyal to your church?
What if your church tolerates and even promotes it when the pastor starts preaching a doctrine or political idea that you can’t stomach? Should you stick around? What if you find the congregation affirming things you can no longer support—or withholding affirmation from things you do support? Should you remain loyal? What if it’s discovered that a leader has been abusive, and the church board covered it up? Do you remain at that church out of a sense of Loyalty?
What Words Should We Use?
Should Christians use words like “loyalty” and “duty” to describe their relationship with their own congregations? To describe my church experience, there are a lot of words that I would reach for. “Nurture” might be one. When it nurtured me as a young child, I would say I was devoted to the church. So “devoted” might be another. When that church ordained me to the ministry, I was grateful to the church, so “grateful” might be another.
But when the first church I served as a pastor became abusive, “hurt” felt more to the point. When the denomination that should have supported me turned its back on me and did not defend me, “resentment” seemed to fit. So, when I left for a time and joined a different denomination, was I “disloyal?” No. I was using common sense. It’s never good to remain loyal to an institution that won’t take care of you. Words like “loyal” and “disloyal” can often become manipulative terms that make you feel beholden to a church, when it’s far healthier for you to leave.
A Two-Way Street
Loyalty is a two-way street. When a woman leaves a man who has been unfaithful and abusive, she is not being disloyal. Instead, she is self-protective. When a man sends out his résumé because his current employer has no interest in taking care of his needs, he is not being disloyal. Instead, he is intelligent. So, when a person finds another church because their old congregation is abusive, neglectful, or hypocritical, they are not being disloyal. Neither are they being disloyal if they leave because of irreconcilable theological, ecclesiological, political, national, or other kinds of differences. Instead, they are being loyal to themselves.
Staying for the Wrong Reasons
To remain in a church that doesn’t fit you is disloyalty to yourself. If a person remains at their church because of loyalty, they are there for the wrong reasons. Church attendance, participation, and service should have nothing to do with duty and obligation. It should have everything to do with love and joy. Remaining out of the sense of loyalty feels more like conscripted military service than the intimate relationship that a church should be.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you that you need to leave your church whenever there are problems. You shouldn’t be like the person who jumps from marriage to marriage whenever a better one comes along. Neither should you walk away from a loving community simply because there are problems you need to work through. But don’t let anybody tell you that you need to remain because of loyalty. If you stay, you should stay out of love, not loyalty. If duty is the only reason you’re staying, then you’re staying for the wrong reasons.