Your Constitution Is a Theological Document
“Church constitution.” There—when I said that—you could just feel the spiritual and theological power roll over you, couldn’t you? Probably not. In fact, most people—even church leaders—don’t tend to think of their constitutions as theological documents at all, much less as something having any real spiritual value. That kind of worth is reserved for covenants (the promises we make to one another as church members) and statements of faith (the cherished doctrines of Christianity that we hold together to be true). Those are the kinds of thing you can give a breathy, meaningful sermonette about in your membership class!
RULES AND PROCESSES CAN BE SPIRITUAL AND THEOLOGICAL
But a constitution? How on earth can something as mundane and boring as rules and processes possibly qualify as theological, much less spiritual?
Well that’s the counterintuitive proposition I want to convince you of in this article—that your church constitution (or set of by-laws, if that’s what you call it) is a profoundly theological document and is therefore part of your church’s spiritual act of worship to King Jesus. The case comes together in a few steps:
First, we must recognize that, at its essence, a constitution is simply a definition of your church’s structures of authority. Most fundamentally, it defines who can do what and under what circumstances. So, for example, it defines who can nominate elders, who can elect elders, who can remove elders, who can adopt and amend a budget, who can remove a member of the church, who can change the church’s constitution, and probably dozens of other things. By its very nature, the church of Jesus Christ often needs to do things as a corporate body. A constitution defines how and by whom those things get done.
Second, it’s a basic scriptural truth that all authority in the church flows from Jesus the King. When I teach our church’s membership class on the constitution, I’ll often start with that question—“All authority in the church flows from where?” And I get all kinds of answers: the assembled congregation, the elders, the senior pastor (if only!!), the convention, the bishop (!). But none of that is finally correct. Authority in the church—all of it—ultimately comes from King Jesus.
Third, it’s important to recognize that the church is, at root, King Jesus’s Embassy in this fallen world. Read Matthew 16, 18, and 28, and you’ll see that once Peter becomes the first person to recognize in a saving fashion who Jesus really is, the King at once begins the royal work—this is what kings do—of organizing the people of his kingdom. So in Matthew 16 he constitutes (or creates) the church; in Matthew 18, he charters the church, granting it authority (symbolized by the keys of the kingdom) to speak in his name; and then in Matthew 28 he commissions it, telling it what it is to be accomplishing until he returns. Essentially, Jesus is exercising his royal prerogative as king to establish the Embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven in the world.
Fourth, like any king would, Jesus has given his embassy, the church, a set of instructions for how it is to organize and conduct itself until his return. Those instructions, of course, are found in the Bible. Now that’s not to say the instructions are exhaustive in their detail. No king tells his ambassador precisely how to do everything; he simply gives some general instructions for how things are to be done. That’s what we find in the Bible. Through his Spirit inspiring the apostles, the King tells us for example that churches should have elders, that they should have deacons, that they should preach the Word and administer the ordinances and identify members and exercise faithful church discipline, and other things as well. And because we are his embassy in the world, we are bound to obey those decrees from the King—that is, to make sure that our churches are organized faithfully according to the broad instructions the King has given.
But that raises a fifth issue, doesn’t it? Like we mentioned before, the decree from the King gives general instructions; it doesn’t give us all the particulars of how the King’s instructions are to be carried out. For example, how is a church supposed to elect elders—by simply majority vote, by a supermajority, through some other process? How is it supposed to elect deacons, or adopt a budget? What exactly is the process of membership and church discipline supposed to look like?
MOVING FORWARD AS AMBASSADORS OF THE KING
Those questions aren’t answered in every particular in the Bible. So how do we decide those questions? I’d suggest that it’s through Spirit-directed wisdom exercised by the congregation itself. The church as a whole considers the clear instructions of the King as found in Scripture and then, led by the Spirit, tries to come to wise decisions about precisely how to carry out those instructions. In short, we try to act as faithful, obedient, and wise Ambassadors of our King. And the document that emerges from that—one that defines wise processes for how we will obey the king’s instructions—is a church constitution.
Do you see then? A church’s constitution is not just a technocratic document demanded by your state’s tax office, nor is it just a necessary evil for trying to avoid or mitigate conflict in a church. It’s a deeply theological and even spiritual document. That’s because both the creation of it and the following of it are acts of worship; they represent our heartfelt efforts as a local church—as an Embassy of the High King of Heaven—to obey our beloved Sovereign.