01 July 2010

The Scylla and Charybdis in church constitutions

by Dan Phillips

Another email from a reader brought up the topic of church membership, specifically in terms of the commitment a church demands up-front, and the shape of the constitution. I stride forth to offer a few thoughts.

Now, it is important that we note this right at the start: we are not reinventing the wheel here about church membership. I am assuming that you are grown-up enough to see its importance. Honestly, any time someone trots out the whine-line of "why should I have to join a church?", my main mental response is "Oh, grow up!" I had that same thought when a well-read, white-haired brother started it up: "Dude, grow up." So if that's your thought, there's my response, and it's not a topic for this discussion.

Having said that, what should a church ask from folks, and lay on folks, in order to admit them to membership? Here I see two extremes:

First extreme: stuck in the 60s. This is the attitude that a local church can detail no more requirements than God places on people to become His children. Any Christian can become a voting member, period, just by professing to be a Christian.

That sounds mighty spiritual, and to some is a discussion-ender. But meanwhile, here on Planet Earth, we aren't able to see hearts and control events sovereignly, and God has entrusted to us the responsibility of seeing that things run decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:10). Pastors have to lead, even insistently (Titus 2:15). It's their job.

Also, is the mere profession of Christian faith, as defined by the professor, sufficient? Is there any fruit? God Himself calls on all converts to be water-baptized. Has the application taken at least that initial step of discipleship? What's the shape of the faith he professes? These questions can't just be ignored.

Plus, there are legal issues that we must keep in mind in America. On the one hand, God demands that churches maintain discipline over sinning members (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; Titus 3:10, etc.). But in America, unrepentant sinners can and will take churches to court and ruin them, if some in-writing preparation hasn't preceded the situation.

Finally, there has to be some mutual understanding about how things work. That's part of the point of having a local assembly, as opposed to occasional free-wheeling spontaneous outbursts of group chaos in Christ's name. Who's in charge? How do they get to be in charge? What are the ordinances? How are they observed? How is discipline handled? How are finances handled? What are core, non-negotiable beliefs? How can any of the above be changed? These are the sorts of minimal details a constitution should explain.

But then there's the...

Second extreme: control-freakism. Other groups yield to a tendency to front-load everything, and lay it all on the applicant. They go far beyond the minimal concerns laid out above. Their documents are longer than the American Constitution, and could be the text for a very dense semester course in a college.

(Full disclosure: I once composed a constitution for a local church. It was twelve pages, total. Those included the statement of faith [which you can read here] and the church covenant. There were truckloads of Scriptural references. I tried.]

To become a member, you must commit to specific patterns of church attendance (beyond Sunday morning), of financial support, of family devotions, of personal ministry. You are probed thoroughly about your spirituality, and expected pretty well to have your flesh completely contained. You must be mature and arrived, spiritually and doctrinally and emotionally and behaviorally. Then and only then, you maybe can be admitted into the rolls.

Confronted with this, one of my first responses is itself clichéd, but I think it's appropriate: this approach doesn't leave much for the Holy Spirit to do. The person needs to be There, before he can be Here. But then, what is the church for? What are the elders for? People have to get everything in order before they can become members? So elders have no responsibility for helping people to get There? They have no need of patience, forbearance, long-suffering, parent-with-child, nurse-with-children, shepherd-with-sheep slow work of ministry? Is that a Scriptural model? I don't think so.

It's one thing to have the essentials in place: this is what we believe, this is how we operate — will you commit to that? There should be no objection to such a table-setting minimum. But it's quite another thing to say, Please initial these forty-seven demands, submit your résumé, and then we'll consider your application and get back to you in 2-3 weeks.

Again, I find myself uncomfortably reaching for yet another cliché, but... where's the trust in God? One feels that this approach is trying to render trusting God unnecessary, by getting everything in writing from the start.

I'm hardly advocating admitting just anyone who applies, but really, you just don't want to be troubled with imperfect, slow-learning plodders? Is that it? You don't want to have to persuade anyone, win anyone, convince anyone, motivate anyone? Is it all about getting around the need to keep up the pastoral ministry of visitation, of one-on-one (or one-on-family) discipleship? Is that it?

Otherwise, why is everything all front-loaded on the applicant? Where is the elder-board's (or whoever's) list of commitments to the applicant, initialed by each one of them? You know, such specifics as
  • I promise to avoid multiplying rules on the church that don't directly derive from Scripture
  • I promise to treat the time of church attenders with respect
  • I promise not to become lazy, self-indulgent and undisciplined in how I conduct public meetings
  • I promise not to go off on personal hobby-horses
  • I promise always to put people over programs
  • I promise never to take faithful long-timers for granted, in preference to seeking and cultivating exciting newcomers
  • I promise not to view members in terms of what they can do for me and my ministry, but in terms of how I can serve them for God's glory
  • Thus, I promise not to neglect members when they enter their twilight years
  • I promise to lean equally on each word in the phrase "servant leadership"
  • I promise never to become incapable of accepting criticism humbly and graciously
  • I promise to remember that I am the only one who gets paid to do church-work fulltime, and that almost everyone else in the church has jobs, responsibilities, and commitments
...stuff like that.

Regular readers will all know that I am not driven to the middle. That is, I never ever approach problems by asking "Where are the extremes, so I can camp out in the middle?" But in this matter, I really think it's the case.

Wisdom, I think, rests between the extremes.

Dan Phillips's signature


Chuck said...


Our church is updating the covenant and constitution, and as associate pastor I'm an ex-officio member of the committee along with the pastor. So far it's been great, but we're in the very early stages of what looks to be a long process. Your post articulates what I have long thought (but not necessarily communicated). Thanks.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I once served in a church where the head pastor did not believe in church membership. He apparently thought it was an extra-biblical requirement. He refused to conduct membership classes and only wanted to do baptisms.

He eventually left, the church shrank, and we ultimately left too.

DJP said...

Well then, Chuck, I invite you to hide behind this post. Print it up, take it in, distribute it, and say, "Hm. So... what do you think about that."

I am large enough to hide behind.

DJP said...

It now occurs to me, post eventu, that this post flows pretty well from Frank's post, which flowed from my previous....

It's Flow Week at Tempyro.

olan strickland said...

DJP: Regular readers will all know that I am not driven to the middle. That is, I never ever approach problems by asking "Where are the extremes, so I can camp out in the middle?" But in this case, I really think it's the case.

Wisdom, I think, rests between the extremes.

Amen Dan! On the one hand people are unrestrained and on the other people are over-restrained. The Biblical model provides the necessary framework for proper disciple-making so that both unBiblical extremes are avoided.

Barbara said...

Flow week?

Ya wanna rephrase that?

DJP said...

Oh dear; if Barbara says it, I must be missing something. But what?


Paula Bolyard said...

ROTFLOL Barbara! Secret Girl Talk on the Pyro blog!

Charles Churchill said...

Re: Flow week.
Ask your wife.
Also, no Pyro graphics for this one...

DJP said...

In fact, I just did ask my dear wife, and oh my gosh, you sisters are killing me.

I take it back. Uh... Unfolding Topic Week. Or something.


< /blush >

Paula Bolyard said...

I had an interesting discussion about the various extremes just last night at church.

My friend came from a Apostolic Christian church which was extremely legalistic in its membership policies...to the extent that their marriage was arranged, there were mandatory dress codes, and upon leaving, they received threats that their salvation was in jeopardy.

However, it is more or less a closed system. People are born into that denomination; almost no one joins as an adult and they'd probably like to keep it that way.

Our family, OTOH, came from a mega-church, where membership was treated more like joining a social club. Sure, there were a few required membership classes and there was an application in which we had to affirm that we were actually Christians and that we agreed with the church statement of faith, but no one ever actually had a face to face conversation with us about it.

When we left (after nearly 20 years - 17 of those involved in youth ministry), no one called us to ask why we weren't in church. There was no inquiry as to whether there were sin issues that were keeping us from church (or medical or family problems, for that matter).

We recently became members of our wonderful GARB church. I think it strikes a good balance between the two extremes.

In order to become members, we were required to meet with a group consisting of the senior pastor and the deacons. We shared our stories of salvation and they asked us questions about our current Christian walk. They also ascertained that we had been baptized (DH shared that he believed he was not saved when he was baptized so he agreed to be re-baptized along with our younger son).

Shortly thereafter, in a quarterly meeting, the congregation voted to accept us as members (slightly awkward in our presence).

Members agree to certain standards (with God's help) such as attending services regularly, regular giving, serving, not fighting, quarreling, gossiping, etc.

There are, however, higher standards for those in teaching and leadership positions.

They include such things as being modest in appearance, demonstrating the ability and desire to witness, maintaining a stable home life, reading God's Word and praying daily, absolute abstinence from non-prescribed substances, not put anything before my eyes which is unwholesome in the name of entertainment, etc.

Tom Chantry said...

The person needs to be There, before he can be Here. But then, what is the church for? What are the elders for? People have to get everything in order before they can become members? So elders have no responsibility for helping people to get There? They have no need of patience, forbearance, long-suffering, parent-with-child, nurse-with-children, shepherd-with-sheep slow work of ministry?

I am reminded of a rather snooty fellow who once got upset about one of the common minor disputes which comes up in most churches. He dismissed the whole thing with an airy remark: "I suppose I'm just used to a church context in which people are a bit more mature" To which a friend of mine replied, "How sad! All those wonderful, mature people locked away in their own church with no one to disciple!" Later the two of us agreed that we were glad God hadn't called us to associate with a congregation full of that sense of what a "mature church" is.

Tom Chantry said...

Nice post title, btw.

Solameanie said...

In Wisconsin, they have "flowages." Look on the map. I'm not making it up.

As to the church constitution thing, it is unfortunate that we have to have things like bylaws and constitutions, but our litigious society makes it necessary. It seems a reasonable solution just to cite specifics in Scripture about how the churches are to be governed, and try to not go beyond what is written. Maybe that's overly simplistic of me, but it makes the most sense, at least to my limited mind.

Tom Chantry said...

And now, for something on the question of the post. We constituted as a church two years back, and I had my first opportunity to contribute to a confession. I have three basic observations:

1. Constitutions are meant to set the parameters of a well governed church, not to actually govern the church. A constitution which fails to set useful parameters falls into your first trap, while one which tries to answer all future questions falls into the second. Ground-rules are necessary, and they help to determine how umpires will call the game, but good umpires matter a lot more than good ground-rules. That is why Paul didn't spend any time telling us what a church constitution would look like, but spent a lot of time telling us what the elders who administer that constitution would look like. Trying to fix all potential church problems from the pages of the constitution is both impersonal and counter-productive.

2. Constitutions must differentiate between what qualifies a person for membership and what qualifies a man for office. Many of the extraneous qualifications which people want to put on membership are more suited to the officership of the church. There we want mature men, both in doctrine and in conversation. A good example is the doctrinal standards of the church. Members must know what they are and be willing to submit to them. Officers must know them well and actually agree with them much more fully. Elders must be prepared to teach them effectively. To hold every member to the last standard is either to make a mockery of the qualification for elder or to constrict the membership of the church to an unbiblical level.

3. The Law of Unintended Consequences functions just as well in church government as it does in secular government. Too many ideas make it into church constitutions because someone says, "Here's a neat idea," and no one asks, "What damage might that do?" As a result, churches can find themselves unreasonably constrained by a poorly written constitution. It is important to pay close attention to what has been effective in other churches. If another church's constitution is being used as a model, it is a good idea to ask the leadership of that church what they would change if they could. A bit of creative pessimism toward every new idea could prevent much of the absurdity which has been engendered by over-written constitutions.

DJP said...

Deucedly good contributions, Tom. Thanks.

Tom Chantry said...

This is ever-so-slightly off topic, but too good a story to not tell. My apologies to our host. To illustrate my third point, here’s the worst conceived idea I’ve ever heard of in a church constitution:

A new church was drawing up a constitution and came to the question of the selection of church officers. They were concerned that the officers be chosen by the moving of the Holy Spirit in the church, not by mere “politics.” Their solution was that nomination to office had to come from at least two thirds of the members of the church acting independently of one another and without prompting from the existing officers! In other words, two thirds of the members had to spontaneously and simultaneously think, “Hey, Bob would be a good deacon.” They couldn’t talk to each other about it, nor could their elders ask them to think about who would be a good deacon.

When they started out, they had a tiny membership - less than thirty people. Everyone already knew who the teachers were and who the servants were. They also all realized that they needed officers right away. So the constitution worked - for the first and last time. Two men were nominated for elder and two for deacon - all four by a unanimous vote.

As the years went by the little church flourished and doubled in size. The officers grew older. The need for new officers was evident to everyone. But the elders couldn’t say anything about it, and the people weren’t really supposed to talk about it. If anyone did, someone quickly accused them of violating the constitution. Instead they waited for a simultaneous and spontaneous nomination from two thirds of the congregation. Now anyone who has ever so much as attended church knows that when you have sixty people, forty of them are never going to think the same thing at the same time! So the church languished with insufficient officers.

Eventually the founding pastor (one of the original two elders) retired. At that point they realized they had a real problem on their hands. There was no way for them to call a new pastor, because there was no way to nominate a candidate! Finally the remaining elder decided that he loved the church enough to risk being dragged into the courtyard and stoned, so he stood up and said, “Brethren, we simply must amend our constitution!”

They eventually got it straightened out, but they would have really benefitted from what I call “creative pessimism.” Someone needed to ask the question, “How could this go wrong?”

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Tom Chantry's excellent comment reminds me of another pastor who informed me that when he went through the process (and a difficult one it was!) of formalizing a Church Constitution and Bylaws and Membership Covenants that he was looking at the document as a discipling document to some limited degree.

When he said that, it really helped me understand how important it was.

Gary Benfold said...

There's a church in London whose constitution states that no-one must occupy the pulpit who has been to Bible College (American readers: 'seminary'). It was drawn up during the Downgrade, I think, when colleges were turning men liberal. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The church in the latter half of the twentieth century got round it simply enough, though: when a man who HAD been to Bible college came to preach, they stood a lectern in front of the pulpit...

Phil said...

Tom, that story is the second worst thing I have heard on this thread.
Flow week is the winner.

Tom Chantry said...


That is incredibly rich! Setting up a situation in which the church must ignore the spirit of its own constitution in order to function!

donsands said...

Good post. The Church and the local church are the same and yet different.

Your title made me think of this artist and song:


David Regier said...

I was once a member of a church whose constitution had a measure that, by trying to avoid certain unintended consequences, created a whole new realm of further unintended consequences. And what it boiled down to was being squishy about what sort of man was scripturally qualified to eld and deac. It led to some squishy elding and deacing.

Excellent post,Dan, and great comments, Tom.

Word verification: sinin

bp said...

My husband (who is an unbeliever), became an elder at our former church after going through a very lengthy and thorough Q & A session. It went something like this:

Pastor: Do you want to be an elder?

Husband: Ok.

Pastore: Great! Your an elder.

He nominated him, and it was a done deal. Slightly different than Bethlehem.

bp said...

I hope that wasn't any more off-topic than Tom's post. :-/

Aaron said...

The seeker sensitive church I went to just required you to attend their membership 101 class where you learned the history of the church. Then you fill out your own certificate. My present church actually has a form and an interview process!

The Squirrel said...

"It's Flow Week at Tempyro."

Flo? The Progressive Insurance gal? She's posting on Pyro?

I'm so confused...

(Squirrel, who grew up with two older sisters, ignores the meaning alluded to by Barbara...)


Chuck: Having been through the process of reconstituting our church from a document of the #2 type to something a bit more... Bibly 5 years ago, I advise you to read as many existing church constitutions as you can get your hands on. Make notes on what you like about each one, and why as well as what you don't like about each one and why. Then repeatedly re-read Tom Chantry's comment above.


Ted Bigelow said...

This pastor recommends the following:

View the Constitution as nothing more than a legal document, not a shepherding document. Why? Because God gave us a shepehrding document. 'Round here we call the Bible ;).

Rely on godly men to be shepherds, not documents.

Realize that constitutions are historical documents the Holy Spirit never intended for the guiding of His people.

Constitutions (dare I say it) rarely reflect a biblical polity. For example, voting.... Where is that in the Bible? OK, one reference - Acts 26:10. Ouch. Scary.

Kirby said...

Wow, I learned at least THREE things on today's post.

A) Flow week. Which has permanently derailed my thinking from the original post. And I'm married 17 years with two teenage daughters, and I've never heard this.

B) Scylla and Charybdis: could have been sisters, could have been Shakespeare characters, could have been famous swords of lore, but now I know.

C) Church membership, which I believe was the main point, is a precarious need in the church, and that we ought to assiduously avoid extremes, and do the hard work of elders to overcome the shortfall. THIS is the tremendous (read that, convicting) challenge of the post.


D) Thanks to donsands for the 1983 retro moment with the Police.

Deb said...

Thank you for a great post! You have an excellent way of articulating and pulling together so many ideas that I have flitting through my thoughts. Just wanted to thank you and say that I thought this was an excellent post!

Sir Brass said...

I guess it's that time of the month @ Team Pyro .

Sorry, couldn't help it, but the joke was so wide open :P.

I think my church has a fairly well balanced method for membership. Essentially, we won't take someone who just walks in off the street. They're welcome to stay of course, but we watch and wait and look for consistency and fruit for a while. Then if the person desires membership, he or she will be examined by the elders (my examination wasn't too bad, but they did ask some exacting questions such as, "Why do you believe you are a regenerated man?"), and if necessary will be baptized.

Then, after all that, will the person be presented to the congregation for membership. It may sound strict, and it is, but it is fair and the elders aren't looking for doctrinal purity, but for solid fruit indicating the person's profession of faith in Christ is genuine and real (as far as we can tell, that is).

bp said...

I take it back. Uh... Unfolding Topic Week. Or something

I say go with the flow.

Couldn't help it either.

philness said...

Unfortunately for us sheep coming in with these detailed inquiries always labels us as trouble makers, preacher correctors, or arm chair theologians, not to mention the individual preaching to from behind the pulpit. Seen it done to too many people. Never me of course.

And so with Pastors being hyper sensitive to anyone creeping into their church its probably best to let them take our theological temperature up front.

Rachael Starke said...

I couldn't comment on this because I was in interweb Siberia for a few days (rural Fresno), but, for the record, and aside from the excellent points in the post,

funniest comment thread ever. I think I sprained something, I laughed so hard.