Citizen Church

Citizen Church December 4, 2019

What is a “citizen church?” To answer this question, we must look to ancient philosophy. Aristotle took Plato’s idea of ethics and made it practical. For him, morals mean nothing in a vacuum. Ethics only matter in relationship. We do not reserve citizenship only for people anymore. The law has created and refined the personhood of the group. We are a society of people and a society of groups made by people. As such, our churches must act ethically.

Plato, Aristotle, Ethics, Church
Notice how Plato points up while Aristotle, holding his book Ethica, points toward society.

Business Ethics

We have no problem holding other organizations to moral standards. Generally, people expect a business to act right. Plato believed that there are four virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Aristotle added virtues like integrity, generosity, and kindness. The ethics we expect from businesses depends on our perspective. For example, the stockholder will expect the business to act prudently. Furthermore, many expect businesses to be generous and charitable. Likewise, almost everyone expects a business to deal honestly. How are churches any different?

Church Ethics

Churches and businesses are both organizations. Therefore, we naturally expect both to act ethically. Churches do not have shareholders. However, they do have donors. Just as shareholders expect businesses to act prudently, donors expect churches to act prudently. In addition, no one likes a dishonest church. Above all else, people expect churches to act generously. Churches are, in fact, charitable organizations (see 26 U.S. Code 501(c)(3)). However, making moral decisions as a person is much different than as a group. Here are five models from business ethics that apply to churches as well.

The Classical Model

Under the classical model, businesses are ethical if the business brings value to its owners. However, churches do not have owners. We do have a leader though.

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. – Colossians 1:16-18

Jesus created the church and everything else in the world. He holds the church together, and is the head of the church. This is all so that He can have first place in everything, including our churches. As such, churches act ethically when they bring the most value to Jesus Christ.

The Contractual Model

Under the contractual model, businesses are ethical when they do what they say they’ll do. Churches have contractual obligations. For example, the church is under contract to pay the electric bill. Additionally, the church has a duty to pay the rent or mortgage. However, there are also implied contracts. When a person joins the church, they at least make an implicit agreement with the church. They attend the church, and the church provides religious services and ordinances. The church has a similar agreement with the government. The government provides charitable tax exemptions. In return, the church meets needs the government uses tax dollars to meet. As such, churches act ethically when they meet each of these and similar agreements.

The Stakeholder Model

Under the stakeholder model, businesses are ethical when they consider, hear, and act favorably to those impacted by a decision. Who might qualify as a stakeholder in the church? Members, guests, donors, vendors, neighbors, and the needy are just a few of many examples. For every decision, someone is impacted. Churches act ethically when they think about those impacted by the church. They act ethically when they consult those people. Finally, they act ethically when they act in their best interests.

The Agency Model

Under the agency model, businesses are ethical when they fulfill their mission. The church has a mission.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. – Matthew 28:19-20

Simply put, churches act ethically when they act in a way that makes disciples. Every action must move the church in that direction.

The Citizen Model

Under the citizen model, businesses are ethical when they work with others to make the world a better place. Too often, churches act as competitors. Churches should cooperate to reach and serve their community. In addition, a church can act as if it is an island. Churches must get their hands dirty and be in the community. In part, this deals with charity. However, in business it often includes concerns about the environment. We rarely applaud a business that pollutes the air or water. Businesses that act ethically under this model are attractive to the world. The church must be attractive as well to achieve our mission. That said, we cannot sacrifice our beliefs in exchange for attractiveness.


None of these models is perfect. Applying only one of them can still lead to bad conduct. However, we can be more certain that a decision is right when it is ethical under each model. The Church in America has a very visible black eye as the result of unethical conduct. Theft, sexual assault, coverups, and even greed have partially contributed to the problem. It is time for church leaders to start thinking organizationally ethically.

About Josh Bryant
Josh Bryant is the Managing Attorney at The Church Law Group (formerly known as Church General Counsel). He has been an attorney for almost twelve years and spent five of those years on staff at large regional church. He has spent seven years focusing his legal practice exclusively on helping church leaders with a simple, affordable, expert way to protect their churches. He earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Arkansas and is pursuing his Ph.D. in Biblical Ethics from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Learn more at www.thechurchlawgroup.com. You can read more about the author here.

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