Why a Church Constitution Is More Than a Necessary Evil
There’s a set of people for whom things like rules, constitutions, and by-laws are endlessly fascinating, people who salivate at the prospect of being asked to revise or—even better!—write from scratch a set of procedural rules for an organization. There is a set of people like that. And then there are normal people! For most of us, constitutions and by-laws are far from fascinating; they’re legal documents, necessary administrative evils at best, and at worst, a kind of desiccated straitjacket that hinders the Spirit and turns what should be Spirit-led churches into hide-bound bureaucratic behemoths.
In my experience, though, the people who are most likely to have that sort of low opinion of rules, constitutions, and the like are people who are about to lead something, not people who have actually led. They’re people who are going to plant a church or take a pastorate but haven’t yet found themselves having to make real decisions in real time in a real congregation. But once you’re in a leadership position, it becomes clear pretty fast that solid rules aren’t a necessary evil at all; they’re an indispensable weapon for safeguarding the unity of the church.
At the most basic level, rules—whether a constitution or by-laws or governing policies—are just a way of clarifying up-front, for everyone, who can do what . . . when . . . and under what circumstances. That’s not a minor thing. Get that right, and you’ll head off many potentially church-killing arguments and disagreements. Let’s explore why that’s the case, and why good rules are so important.
First, a church constitution is a profoundly theological document.
Ultimately, a constitution presents a congregation’s way of looking at the Bible’s commands about how the church should be structured and organized and then working together to figure out the best and wisest ways to obey those commands. So, the Bible says we’re supposed to have a plurality of elders? Great, so how are we supposed to get them? Well, at Third Avenue, for example, we have standing rules that specify that electing an elder requires the recommendation of the elders themselves and then a 75 percent vote of the congregation. That process isn’t specified in the Bible. Still, it’s our way of trying to obey what is specified—the command-by-example to churches to have a plurality of elders who are not hastily appointed and whose authority is recognized by the congregation.
Here’s another example: The Bible says that elders are to lead the congregation but that the congregation has final earthly authority (at least in some matters; there is no time now to get into that). So how do you navigate that tension? How do these authorities coincide? At Third Avenue, we’ve tried to thread that needle in a couple of ways. For most actions like bringing members in, seeing them out, and electing elders and other officers, the elders’ recommendation and the church’s vote are required. The elders lead, and the congregation executes. There are a couple of actions, however, that the congregation can take without the elders’ recommendation or even over their objection: They can remove elders from office, and they can amend the constitution (which effectively gives them the right to take back to themselves any authority they have delegated to anyone else). All those authority structures took some thought, creativity, and work, but they’re our way of trying to obey the commands and examples we see in the Bible.
Second, a good church constitution allows good-faith wins and losses.
In my experience, most church fights don’t ultimately happen because of an argument’s substance. They happen because one party to the argument feels hard-done-by and cheated by the other party. Maybe they lost a key vote at a members’ meeting, but the rub comes because they think the meeting wasn’t adequately announced or the correct procedure wasn’t followed. Clear rules help to cut off, in advance, that feeling. When everyone knows who can do what, when, and under what circumstances, it allows both wins and losses to be accepted in good faith. Most Christians are okay with losing a vote fair and square on mundane matters. It’s when they think the vote was illegitimate that gets them riled up.
Thank God, we haven’t yet been close to any church-wide disagreement at Third Avenue; the Lord has been kind. In fact, most of the close-run votes happen in our elders’ meetings, so we’ve found it enormously helpful to have a set of by-laws not just for the church as a whole but for the eldership more particularly. Those by-laws have cut the fuse of more than one potential fight.
To give you an example, a few years ago, one of our elders called me before a meeting and asked if I, as chairman, would at some point ask another elder to step out of the room so that the elders could discuss something concerning him. Naturally, I called the brother and asked if he’d be willing to step out, and he said, “No, I think it’s important for us to have that conversation all together.” Frankly, neither of those guys was being unreasonable; I could see the benefit of both. But we were stuck. Could I, as the chairman, require that a duly-elected elder leave the room? Could the board as a whole? Or did that elder have a right to be there as someone the church had set aside to be an elder? What if the board wanted to exclude an elder from every meeting? Could they do that? You can see the problem! We worked through that specific instance without any real problems, but it was a close-run thing. So, when we adopted by-laws for our elders, we specified a process for asking an elder to leave. It says: “Pursuant to §3.2.9 of the Constitution, the Board may not exclude any Elder from any Meeting of the Board, or any portion thereof, without his consent or the concurrence of three-quarters of the Full Number of Elders.” Since we adopted that provision, that problem hasn’t come up again. Everyone is fully aware of who can do what, when, and under what circumstances, and it has cut off one line of attack that the enemy could use against our board’s unity.
Third, a good church constitution clears logjams and encourages forward progress.
Imagine a scenario in which the elder board of a new church plant presents to the congregation a budget for the first full fiscal year of the church’s existence. Now imagine that even after all the prayers for unity and calls for Christian forbearance, the church votes “no” on the budget. If you don’t have any rules, what do you do when the budget fails? Do the elders give it another crack? Does the church elect a budget committee to try again? In the worst-case scenario (but certainly not a far-fetched one), the church could literally be torn apart by not knowing what’s supposed to happen next.
A good constitution can prevent that by allowing the church to specify precisely, in advance, what’s supposed to happen in the wake of something like a budget failure. I mean, that’s essentially what rules are, right? They’re the church making some decisions in advance and saying, “Under these circumstances, here’s what we want to do. We don’t, for example, want to elect an elder unless the other elders recommend that we should.” Or, “We don’t want to adopt a budget unless this church officer has signed off on it.” Or, in the example of the failed budget, “Here’s the process we want to follow in the event a budget is voted down.” To be sure, that process could take many forms: maybe the church mandates a committee to be elected; maybe it tells the elders that they must try again.
At Third Avenue, for what it’s worth, our constitution allows the elders to basically force the budget through by process of attrition! That may seem harsh, but the beauty of it is that when the congregation adopted that constitution provision, they were saying, “Under these circumstances of a failed budget, we don’t want our no-vote to logjam the church. We want our elders to listen to us, but finally, we want them to have authority to force it through so that the church can continue moving forward.” See the point? Good rules prevent the church from being locked in a months-long struggle over something like that or even breaking apart altogether. They clear the logjam, allow the church to sail on, and do so in a way that enables good faith wins and losses.
Above all, a good constitution protects the unity of the church.
I’ve often thought of our rules at Third Avenue as a kind of “explosion containment unit.” They take disagreements and fights that otherwise might spread uncontrolled through a church, dampen them, and channel them into productive places. Here are some of the things our rules have allowed me to say to various members over the years, things that I think have cut off potentially damaging fights within our church:
– “Brother, I understand that you want to nominate Jim to be an elder, but the church has decided in its constitution that it doesn’t want elder nominations to come from the floor of a members’ meeting. It wants its elders to nominate new elders. Of course, the church can change that rule by amending the constitution if it wants to, but for now, it would be out of order for you to nominate Jim from the floor.”
– “Sister, I know you want to have a church-wide conversation about how often we take the Lord’s Supper, but the church has specifically asked the elders to have that conversation among themselves and make that decision. Of course, the church can change that decision by amending the constitution, but for now, it’s decided it doesn’t want to have that conversation as a committee of the whole.”
– “Brother elders, I realize that we would unanimously prefer if we could spend this money for a missionary in a closed country without taking a congregational vote on it. But when the church adopted its rules, it reserved for itself the right to vote on certain-sized expenditures that aren’t in the budget. Maybe it would be wise to carve out some more exceptions to that rule for the future, but we’ll have to do that by asking the church to amend its rules. Until then, we can’t make this expenditure without a church vote.”
– “Sister, I know you feel like two weeks isn’t enough time for you to consider your vote on this pastoral candidate, but in its constitution, the church decided for various reasons that all it wanted was two weeks to consider this question. You can ask them to change that and lengthen the time in the future, but the way to do that will be by offering a constitutional amendment.”
I hope you can see what I mean by saying that a constitution is a deeply theological document and a powerful defensive weapon against disunity. Satan is endlessly creative in figuring out ways to fracture churches, and of course, any church’s unity is ultimately preserved only by God’s grace and power. But at the very least, don’t underestimate how much good rules can cut off some of the enemy’s most obvious lines of attack—dampening, redirecting, and even preventing some of the fights and disagreements that otherwise would have the potential to destroy the church.