There’s No Time Like the Present: Changing Your Church Constitution and Bylaws, Part One

The following is the first in a series I am writing with Dr. Evan Lenow, professor of ethics at SWBTS. Dr. Lenow authored this first post. You can see this post and future posts on his site here. Disclaimer: This series of posts is not intended to provide legal advice regarding church law, membership issues, or lawsuits. While the posts have implications for potential legal matters, we suggest you consult an attorney for answers to any legal questions related to the subject matter of these posts.

The state of marriage, gender, and sexuality is changing right before our very eyes. The prospects of same-sex marriage, fluid gender self-identification, and acceptance of a plethora of sexual expressions outside of heterosexual monogamous marriage were unfathomable within evangelical circles just 25 years ago. But times are changing.

Same-sex marriage is now at least partially legalized in 38 states, and 20 of those states have been added to the list since May 2014. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage across the country this spring and issue a decision in the summer.

States and municipalities have passed legislation making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. In Houston such an ordinance led to a request by the mayor to subpoena manuscripts of sermons from pastors when they preached about sexuality.

While the application of these laws and ordinances to churches have been rebuffed by the courts so far, the day is likely coming when motivated and well-funded activists will attempt to sue churches for disallowing membership, refusing to host a wedding, or actively taking a stand on issues related to sexuality and gender identification. I am still confident that any lawsuits ultimately will be dismissed by the courts on the basis of the First Amendment; however, there are steps that we can take to ensure those lawsuits are dismissed promptly.

In addition, many evangelicals who support traditional marriage are probably satisfied with the stances of our pastors, ministerial staff, and congregations on the matter. Yet, there could come a time when a pastor, minister, or church member changes his viewpoint and desires to effect change in the church. What would that do to the historic position of the church? What would change look like? What would we do in such a situation?

These are the questions that prompted this series of posts related to church constitutions and by-laws. This is the first of several posts that will delve into why churches need to consider updates to their organizational documents in the area of sexuality and gender identity. It is an area much broader than homosexuality versus heterosexuality. In fact, our goal is not so much to exclude certain behaviors and identities from the church so much as it is to state clearly what we believe in these areas.

I understand that talking about constitutions and by-laws is not the most exciting conversation. I also recognize that many churches have not updated them in decades—if ever. Yet, this is a crucial area of church governance that can serve us well in the midst of difficult days.

The goal of updating a church’s organizational documents is not necessarily to create another step in the membership or hiring processes. Instead, the goal is to affirm what we believe from a positive standpoint while the culture attempts to steer us in a different direction.

With that being said, I believe there is no time like the present to do a thorough review of your organizational documents and make the necessary changes to protect the church from legal action and to protect the integrity of the church from biblical and theological drifting. Change isn’t always fun, but in this situation it is necessary.

Working in conjunction with Waylan Owens, Dean of the Terry School for Church and Family Ministries and longtime pastor of churches in Mississippi, Alaska, and North Carolina, we will endeavor to offer some food for thought and resources for churches that can be useful for standing for truth in a world that calls us to acquiesce. Our suggestions are not intended to be exhaustive but rather instructive as to what you can do to help your church navigate the waters of these changing times.

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