Drafting church constitutions has never been my favorite pastime. The job is positively tedious. About the only task more mind-numbingly dull than writing a constitution is reading one.
Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so. I’ve been in plenty of business meetings in plenty of churches with plenty of different constitutions, and plenty of times I’ve found that no one in the meeting had any clue as to what the church’s constitution required. Baptists seem to treat the pages of their church constitution as if they were leaves of lettuce from one of those fast-food places where you can catch salmonella.
The truth is that I don’t know anybody who actually likes church constitutions, and this leads to a question. Why bother with them? Why not simply dispense with church constitutions altogether?
The prospect is tempting, and not only to me. Before we completely ditch the things, however, we might want to ask why they’ve been around so long. Why do we have church constitutions to begin with? What are they supposed to accomplish?
The first part of the answer is negative. A constitution is not what “constitutes” a church as a church. A body of believers becomes a church by virtue of the members purposing to be a church and their agreement of what that means. In other words, a church exists by virtue of its covenant, not its constitution.
Nor does the constitution specify the doctrinal character of the church. That task is performed by the confession of faith. The confession may be included in the constitution, but in principle it is a separate document.
What the constitution does (or aims to do) is to make provision for the church to function decently and in order. The constitution specifies the procedures by which the most important business of the church is transacted. It decides how members can be distinguished from nonmembers by determining the way in which individuals are received into and dismissed from membership. It outlines the flow of authority so all the church will know who gets to make what decisions. It prescribes the methods by which church officers will be chosen, installed, and released. It establishes the processes by which decisions will be made in and for the body. It stipulates who will handle the money and how.
In short, the church constitution is an organizational document the purpose of which is to anticipate ambiguities of procedure and to resolve them ahead of time. Aside from the biblical caution to do all things “decently and in order,” constitutions fill no particularly biblical requirement. We adopt them because churches must do certain things, because Scripture does not specify the exact procedures by which those things are to be done, and because we need to agree upon one way of doing them together. There is no moral reason that we could not have a verbal agreement or even a tacit understanding instead of a constitution—if all church members were clear about the understanding and willing to abide by it. Since our understanding is sometimes hazy and our memories falter, however, we have found it expedient to write these procedures down.
Of course, if a church wants to seek legal incorporation, it will be required to state at least some of these procedures. Depending on the situation, the church may outline procedures in its articles of incorporation, its constitution, or its bylaws. For the present discussion, I am not treating these as distinct documents (though there is some difference). The provisions and procedures for transacting business will be specified in some document, and that is all that I am addressing here.
The important thing to remember about church constitutions is really rather simple: say what you mean to do, and then do what you say. This advice is easier to follow if the constitution is brief and uncomplicated. A constitution does not need to address every conceivable situation, but it does need to address the mechanism by which the congregation will decide how unforeseen situations will be handled. Within the parameters of the constitution, churches are capable of developing ad hoc procedures. These decisions will be recorded in the church’s minutes and become its guide for similar situations in the future.
A church should not knowingly violate its own constitution. In most instances, a properly adopted constitution is a legally binding document. If a church violates the terms of the document, then it leaves itself open to litigation. In some instances, a disgruntled minority has been able to gain control of their church’s property and assets by showing in court that the church acted contrary to its own constitution. Situations like that can be avoided by simply following the procedures within the constitution.
I know of instances in which churches have voted by a simple majority to “suspend” their constitutions so that they could transact some specific piece of business. Their rationale was that amending the constitution would take too much time and would require a greater-than-majority vote, which might not be given. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems incredible that a church could suspend a constitution with fewer votes than it would have to receive in order to amend it. In the position of pastor, I would not want to lead a church to take that risk.
Having a constitution is not a matter of biblical obedience. Doing things decently and in order, however, is. Most modern churches have found that decency and order are greatly enhanced by adopting and following a written constitution. Prudence dictates that each church detail for itself how it will pursue the necessary organizational matters that Scripture leaves unspecified.
Christopher Smart (1722-1771)
O GUIDE my judgement and my taste,
Sweet SPIRIT, author of the book
Of wonders, told in language chaste
And plainness, not to be mistook.
O let me muse, and yet at sight
The page admire, the page believe;
‘Let there be light, and there was light,
Let there be Paradise and Eve!’
Who his soul’s rapture can refrain?
At Joseph’s ever-pleasing tale
Of marvels, the prodigious train,
To Sinai’s hill from Goshen’s vale.
The Psalmist and proverbial Seer,
And all the prophets sons of song,
Make all things precious, all things dear,
And bear the brilliant word along.
O take the book from off the shelf,
And con it meekly on thy knees;
Best panegyric on itself,
And self-avouch’d to teach and please.
Respect, adore it heart and mind.
How greatly sweet, how sweetly grand,
Who reads the most, is most refin’d,
And polish’d by the Master’s hand.
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|