Which Church Documents? And Why?
As unglamorous as church documents may be, they are a crucial component of a pastor’s toolbox. I want to focus on the importance of three: the confession of faith, church covenant, and constitution.
A statement of faith is a summary of doctrinal beliefs. Christians in the early church benefited from the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creeds (AD 325, 381), and the Chalcedonian Creed (451). These brief and simple statements reflected the common, Christian faith in God and the gospel he delivered to us. A flurry of statements in the Reformation era unified Protestant churches in the gospel even as they articulated key differences over church government and baptism. The Augsburg Confession (1530), Westminster Confession (1546), Savoy Declaration (1658), and Second London Confession (1689) spelled out the doctrinal convictions of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists, respectively.
Twenty-first century churches wisely build on this rich heritage by adopting their own statements of faith. Assent is typically a requirement for membership or leadership. Though you won’t find, “Thou shalt adopt a statement of faith in your church” in the Pastoral Epistles, it remains a wise practice we foolishly reject.
A statement of faith is a gift to the church, and it’s a gift to visitors who want to know what your church believes. Furthermore, visitors will be more inclined to trust you if you are straightforward about your doctrine. It’s also a gift to teachers longing to faithfully handle the Word. A Sunday school teacher, aware of his church’s statement of faith, may rightly conclude, “I shouldn’t tell everyone in my class they must believe in a pre-tribulation rapture!” A statement of faith is a gift to elders who need wisdom to know when to bind someone’s conscience: “Is there freedom to affirm same-sex marriage?” a member asks. “There is not,” replies the elder. “We’ve studied the Bible on this and have summarized our view in our statement of faith. Please read that statement, and then we’ll look at the Bible together to see why we’ve reached this conclusion.” Finally, a statement of faith is a gift to every church member because it highlights the doctrines that bind us together. After all, shared fellowship is only as deep as shared beliefs.
Of course, unlike the Bible, statements of faith are not inerrant. They can be emended for greater clarity. Many churches in recent years have, for example, added a statement articulating the biblical view of marriage.
Using a good statement of faith is like bowling with bumpers. Just as the bumpers keep the bowling ball on the lane, the statement of faith keeps us in line with truth so we don’t veer too far in the wrong direction. The Bible alone is our authority. After Scripture, a quality statement of faith is an important tool to protect and encourage sound doctrine.
Paul told Timothy, “watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16). If a statement of faith is a synopsis of right doctrine, the covenant summarizes right living. The covenant aids church leaders and members by describing what a Christian life looks like. Proper use of a church covenant encourages members to take responsibility for each other’s holiness.
After our statement of faith, I’ve found the church covenant to be most helpful in preparing Christians for church membership. They want to know not only what we believe, but also how we agree to live together. Walking through a church covenant is like a stroll through the park of sanctification. Those who don’t like the view quickly discern this isn’t the church for them.
We usually read the covenant aloud at my church when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Though this practice isn’t mandated by Scripture, self-examination is (1 Cor 11:28). What better way to do this than by remembering the promises we made to one another when we became members of this particular local church? We didn’t just promise to believe certain things, we agreed to live a certain way.
A church covenant is chock-full of commitments, like those about personal integrity, brotherly love, and faithful evangelism. The pursuit of a godly life doesn’t save us—that’s the Spirit’s work through the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. But a changed life is evidence of conversion, and keeping a church covenant front and center is a key way to keep sanctification front and center, too.
In my state, a church that desires non-profit status must have a constitution that describes its rules. In that very practical sense, a church constitution is “necessary.” However, I want to tackle this issue from a slightly different angle. Even if the state did not require a constitution, I’d encourage us to have one anyway.
When Paul concluded his discussion of congregational worship with the statement, “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40) he didn’t mean the church should adopt a constitution. He simply insisted congregational meetings should be without the discord that comes when nobody knows who’s in charge or what’s happening next. Though a statement of faith can go a long way toward establishing this kind of order, a good constitution fleshes out very basic questions: Who is qualified to be an elder or deacon? How are they chosen? Who handles the finances? Can membership be revoked?
Some consider such questions boring at best and unspiritual at worst. But clarity here helps sheep feel safe, especially those who have been abused by leadership in the past. A good pastor will tell his congregation, “If I ever commit to teach what is contrary to Scripture, you should get rid of me as quickly as you can.” A well-written constitution tells the congregation how to go about doing just that.
Jesus charged us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 1:16). We live in a world where churches come under attack from without and within. Churches committed to obeying Scripture will discipline their members for habitual, unrepentant sin. The procedures for excommunication will be found in a constitution and ought to be affirmed by every member before he or she joins the church. This won’t keep a disgruntled member from suing the church or elders for defamation (or worse), but it is one way to live wisely in a world that rejects biblical morality and may attack a faithful church.
A SHOUT-OUT FOR EVEN MORE DOCUMENTS
The statement of faith, church covenant, and constitution are the king, queen, and prince of church documents. But beyond this royal family, there are other documents worthy of your attention.
One way to love your children in the church (and their parents) is by adopting a child-protection policy. Child predators seek out unorganized children’s ministries. Failing to implement a child-protection policy is tantamount to neglecting your own children.
A church policy manual is another document worth considering. Important questions arise that are not addressed by a constitution. For example, what does your church do if there is a shortfall in receipts from tithes & offerings? What if there is an overage? What if Mrs. Smith wants to donate $500 to build a fountain in the front yard? What if Bobby wants to send a letter to every member of the church raising money for his short-term mission trip? How do you handle benevolence requests? Is your facility open to the community during the week?
Every church will address questions like these sooner or later. The answers would clog up a church constitution making it cluttered and unwieldy. A good church policy manual can fill in the administrative gaps and save tons of time for leadership in the future. In summary, a good constitution facilitates unity in the church when it comes to making decisions. And there is nothing “spiritual” about disunity.
Most of us don’t like to think through church documents, especially since we know Jesus is coming back and there is evangelism and discipleship to be done. I agree this is exactly what you want your church focused on.
Nonetheless, it’s worth assembling quality church documents. Picture your evangelism and discipleship ministries as a sports car. Good church documents are like a smooth, solid road underneath the car. When that road is properly maintained, the car is freed up to race to the finish line. But without a first-rate road, the car must slow down and may even need to pull over to replace a tire. Bad roads will inevitably disrupt even the best racecar.
Likewise, a church without good documents may be running fine right now, but without them you’ll soon find yourself distracted from the main mission. So spend some time adopting, refining, and using church documents. In the long run it will help your church focus on what matters most, the gospel.