7 Tips for Writing (Or Revising) Your Church Constitution

Article
03.29.2016

You’re planting a new church, so your “to do” list is long. But there is one constant. At the bottom, it always says: “draft the constitution.” Those words stay at the bottom because, if you’re honest, you’re mildly afraid of the job—which seems better suited for a lawyer.

And if you’re even more honest, the work seems, well, B-O-R-I-N-G.

Presented with the opportunity to (a) get to know some new neighbors, (b) spend time with your kids, (c) prepare a Bible study, (d) rearrange your sock drawer, or (e) draft the constitution, you’ll pick (a)-(d) every time.

Or maybe you’ve been at your church awhile and have looked over the constitution (which some churches call the “by-laws”; we’ll use “constitution”), and perhaps you’ve even relied on it a few times. But you’ve realized that, on the whole, it just doesn’t reflect how your church works. And no wonder. Only a few of your members even know you have a constitution, and just one—you—knows where to find a copy. You know you probably should rework the thing some time. But really, who has the time when those socks need to be rearranged?

If these descriptions sound anything like you, we have good news. As two who recently helped plant a church and draft its constitution, we can say that writing (or revising) your constitution is not really lawyer’s work, and it need not be drudgery. In fact, it can and should be invigorating. A church constitution is a powerful tool for bringing happiness to your people. It orders their life together according to the Word of God. Indeed, in our years as church leaders, we repeatedly have seen good, biblical constitutions yield rich dividends far beyond the work invested in drafting them.

To help you get started, here are seven tips for writing (or revising) your church constitution that we gleaned from writing ours. We’ll focus largely on writing the document from the get-go, but you’ll see that many of these principles apply to revising a constitution you’ve already been using (or not, as the case may be!).[1]

1. Consult your Bible long before you consult a lawyer.

This may surprise you (especially as one of us is a lawyer), but don’t call a lawyer right away. Sure, the document will have a few legal implications, and eventually you should run it past a good corporate lawyer to be sure it satisfies state law and won’t needlessly inflame the IRS. But a church constitution at heart is a biblical document. And as we witnessed firsthand in drafting our constitution, even a Christian lawyer may reach for a template written by an unbeliever with only secular organizations and state law in mind.

But Jesus didn’t spill his blood for his church only to leave it governed by lawyers and legislators. He left elders to govern the church, following instructions in his infallible Word. We should consult the Word first!

Listen to Jonathan Edwards on this: “Whatever ways of constituting the church may to us seem fit, proper, and reasonable, the question is, not what constitution of Christ’s church seems convenient to human wisdom, but what constitution is actually established by Christ’s infinite wisdom.”[2] J. L. Reynolds, a Baptist leader from the nineteenth century, agreed: “The Scriptures are a sufficient rule of faith and practice. The principles of ecclesiastical polity are prescribed in them with all necessary comprehensiveness and clearness. The founder of the Church has provided better for its interests, than to commit its affairs to the control of fallible men.”[3]

In short, these men are saying, God’s Word thoroughly equips us for “every” good work (2 Tim. 3:17)—including constituting our churches.

So, rather than texting your lawyer buddy, first grab your Bible, a pen, and a piece of paper (or, if you prefer, your laptop or tablet), and list the aspects of church order addressed in the New Testament. We’ll even get you started. Does the New Testament address the formal purpose of the local church? Yes (see, e.g., Eph. 1:6). Does it address church discipline? Yes (see, e.g., Matt. 18:15-20). How about whether the church should meet regularly? Yes, that, too (see, e.g., Heb. 10:25). What offices the local church should recognize? Yup (see, e.g., 1 Tim. 3:1-13). How disputes should be resolved? Mmm hmm (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 6:1-11).

We could go on, but we trust you see the point. The Bible of course won’t tell you, say, which accounting software to buy; but Reynolds was right: The principles of polity are prescribed in the Bible “with all necessary comprehensiveness and clearness.” A constitution is nothing more than a specific description of how those principles will be applied in your local church. So begin with the Bible.

2. Don’t start from scratch.

Begin with the Bible, but don’t start from scratch. What we mean here is that, once you have your biblical thinking cap on, save time by consulting constitutions actually used by congregations that agree with you on basic organizational matters. See how those churches encapsulate the biblical teaching you’ve just reviewed, and even consider using a Word version of one of their documents as your starting template.

Being biblical does not necessarily require being inefficient, and it certainly does not require thinking you have all the answers.

Please note: We’re not saying to copy one of those constitutions. Like people, each church body will have its oddities that need not (and sometimes should not) be imitated. And even otherwise healthy churches may be structured in ways that you conclude could be more biblically faithful.

In our case, we looked at several constitutions from familiar churches, and ultimately we chose as a starting template a document from a church outside of our closest network. We then tweaked that template to accord with our understanding of the New Testament.

3. Ask elementary biblical questions.

Which leads to our next point, which is to go back to the Bible—this time to ask really elementary questions concerning what you’re seeing in the various constitutions laid out before you. And we do mean really elementary.

In our case, we noticed that several constitutions created an office of “senior pastor,” with various “pastors” beneath him descending in rank and authority, followed by “elders” with still less authority by virtue of term limits and lack of the title of “pastor.” But when we turned to the New Testament, we saw no example of a formally recognized “senior” or “lead” pastor—much less any instruction to create such an office, or subsidiary offices.

True, Timothy and Titus functionally exercised some authority over local churches (e.g., 1 Tim. 1:3-4, Tit. 1:5), but there is no evidence that they held formal titles placing them over, or ahead of, their fellow elders (assuming Timothy and Titus could be considered elders). Instead, their extra authority was derived from instructions from the Apostle Paul. If even that did not earn these men special titles, we reasoned, then it seemed more sensible to adopt the Apostle Peter’s language and refer to all elders solely as “fellow elders in the Lord” ( Pet. 5:1; cf. Matt. 23:8-11).

Similarly, we saw no distinction in the New Testament between “elders,” “overseers,” and “pastors.” Yet several constitutions we reviewed consistently reserved the term “pastor” for paid elders, without offering any biblical warrant for this distinction. Which led us to ask: Why bake this extra-biblical distinction into our church’s constitution? In our very word-choice, we did not want to encourage the congregation to see a difference between elders that we did not see—and, in turn, to give certain elders more formal authority (and work!) than God had given them by virtue of their gifts.

Accordingly, under our constitution, paid and unpaid elders alike are all “pastors”—period, full-stop. And the congregation has happily adopted that language, referring consistently to “Pastor Thabiti,” “Pastor Matt,” and “Pastor Jeremy,” even though only “Pastor Thabiti” is paid. We have already seen good fruit from this simple step, which has encouraged folks to trust all three men as real, full-fledged pastors by heeding their preaching, following their instruction, and seeking their counsel.

We trust, too, that giving each man an equal title will make it harder for Satan to “decapitate” the church by picking off the “senior pastor” with some especially powerful temptation. A pastor may fall (though we pray against it!), or indeed the Lord may call him home, but he will never be perceived as the “head” of the church by virtue of his special title—because we have no special titles.

In short, as you sample constitutions, take the opportunity to question your assumptions about how church is “done”—even on something as basic as elder titles. And especially where you see something unsupported by Scripture, pull on that thread.[4]

4. Think long-term.

In addition to looking down to the pages of Scripture, we recommend also looking forward into the future. Only God knows what tomorrow holds (James 4:14), yet he rewards careful planning (Prov. 21:5).

For us, this meant trying to imagine our fledgling church decades from now facing decline and spiritual sickness. Which led us to ask whether it should be easy or hard for the congregation to change the church’s leadership.

We could see arguments on both sides. In our zeal to draft a spare, elementally biblical constitution, we had lowered almost all requirements for church-wide decisions to a simple majority (see 2 Cor. 2:6). With this in mind, one brother commented that, if the church had indeed grown widely diseased, a bare majority of carnal, typically absent members could commandeer the church by pushing out any remaining faithful pastors (i.e., elders). The flip-side, another brother pointed out, was that a high bar for swapping out pastors could make it harder to heal the sick church—because even a majority of healthy members seeking to install new, faithful pastors could be trumped by an entrenched minority of carnal members.

Ultimately, the latter argument won the day, and with the exception of constitutional amendments, it was decided that all congregational decisions would be made by a majority vote. You may reach a different conclusion, and so may we down the road. The point here is simply to look forward and consider how a structure adopted today might work—or not work—should the seasons change.

5. Make clear that it will be changed.

As you may have noticed, we just mentioned changing the constitution we just adopted. Why? Do we lack confidence in all this work we’ve done? Not really. We’re just recalling J. L. Reynolds’s caution that “the founder of the Church has provided better for its interests, than to commit its affairs to the control of fallible men.”

Very simply, this means that our church constitutions must never become the functional equivalent of Holy Writ. They should be hard, but not effectively impossible, to change. As Protestants, we know that the church must be always reforming to reflect the Word of God—and this truth extends to church structures prescribed in our manmade constitutions.

To help folks remember this, we recommend teaching from the outset that the constitution is a tool, which inevitably will be modified to reflect more biblical judgments, changed circumstances, and wiser practices.

6. Keep it short.

Given all we’ve said so far, you might think we’re recommending that you write a book-length tome addressing every conceivable contingency. Just the opposite. We hope that all the time you spend drafting your constitution will pay off in a leaner, cleaner, more plain-language document that prospective members can easily digest and that you can use as a teaching handout.

A teaching handout—seriously? Yes. A long, jargon-ridden constitution left on the shelf is useless (except maybe to satisfy state regulators), but a tight, pithy constitution read and taught will shape the practice of the church—which of course is the whole point. So make it a short guide, not an exhaustive instruction manual. If you think that sounds impossible, consider that the U.S. Constitution has only 4,400 words!

To see what we mean by spare, let’s return briefly to our working example of elder titles. Consider the following passage from our constitution’s first paragraph on church officers:

The biblical offices in the church are elders and deacons, but the church is governed by the congregation. The biblical terms “elder,” “pastor,” and “overseer” are understood to refer to the same biblical office. All pastors-elders-overseers possess the authority and gifts of pastors, whether or not they are paid by the church.

Although surely not perfect, we think this is a pretty clear, straightforward way of introducing the topic of church officers to a wide audience. The sentences are short, the language ordinary.

But as this snippet also shows, short and simple need not mean harsh and cold. In fact, if you cut enough needless words and redundancies, you might even find you have room to add pastoral content. This happened to us. Our constitution was so brief that we were able to include the list of five emphases we hope will mark our congregation.[5]

7. Seek the congregation’s close review

Finally (and briefly!), seek the congregation’s close review, as to shirk review would misunderstand the purpose of adopting the constitution—which, again, is to shape the actual practice of the church. A constitution rammed through, as it were, is more likely to be ignored than a constitution patiently and with great consultation presented to the membership. It is also likely to be weaker because the congregation inevitably will see things you didn’t!

In our case, we scheduled a series of public meetings where the document could be discussed and amendments could be proposed. This led to good discussion and helpful changes. With all thanks to God, it also seems to have secured the flock’s buy-in; the document was approved unanimously on the first vote.

Now, this wont be the case in every church—especially if youre not planting with a likeminded teambut instead are revitalizing an existing church. Even in that casethoughwe urge you to be open with the flock and use the amendment process as a teaching opportunity, even if it takes extra time. And, yes, even if it means a failed vote or two.

* * * * *

So there they are—seven tips. We pray they bless you, and make that sock drawer look a lot less attractive.

And speaking of prayer, may we offer an eighth suggestion? Pray. Praise God for the privilege of serving him in such an important task, and for entrusting you with such a marvelous opportunity to bless your people. And ask for his blessing. For as with the human household, so with the household of God (Eph. 2:19; I Tim. 3:15): “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).

May God build our church homes with strong constitutions!

FOOTNOTES:

[1] For more on leading a church with existing, badly flawed documents, see G. Gilbert, Dealing With Bad Church Documents (available at: http://www.9marks.org/article/dealing-bad-documents/) (Feb. 26, 2010).

[2] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 12 (New Haven: Yale, 1994), 265.

[3] J.L. Reynolds, Church Polity or The Kingdom of Christ in M. Dever, ed., Polity (Nine Marks Ministries, 2001), 305.

[4] In forgoing special elder titles, we are aware of Paul’s admonition that elders who rule well are worthy of “double honor,” a phrase that in context plainly refers to payment—as shown by the immediately preceding verses on payments to widows and the very next sentence, which explains, “[f]or the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” I Tim. 5:18. Notably, none of the constitutions we consulted that distinguished between “elders” and “pastors” relied on this “double honor” passage—or, again, on any passage. For more on this issue of elder titles, see S. Wright, “The Case Against The Senior Pastor” (available at http://www.9marks.org/article/journalcase-against-senior-pastor/) (Aug. 29, 2011).

[5] The list reads as follows:

We aim especially to emphasize:

(1) the message of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-7);

(2) ministries of mercy to meet physical needs (Luke 10:35-37; Titus 2:14, 3:8, 14; James 2:15-16);

(3) helping men, women, and families mature according to God’s complementary design for men and women in their own households (Gen. 2; Prov. 31; Eph. 5:15-6:9; Col. 3:15-4:1; 1 Tim. 5:1-22, 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-15; I Peter 2:11-3:9) and in the church, which is the household of God (Eph. 2:19, 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17);

(4) multiplying Anacostia River Church as the Lord may allow by planting other churches in and around southeast Washington, D.C.; and

(5) sending missionaries around the world (Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 10:15).