Facilities Policies: Changing Your Church’s Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsThis is the fourth installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Waylan Owens. This post is Part 4 and was written by Dr. Owens, originally appearing here. For the first three parts are “There’s No Time Like the Present,” “We Believe…,” and “Wedding Policies.”

Many years ago, I (Waylan) attended my first wedding in a Roman Catholic church. Though not my first visit to a Catholic church, the wedding has lasted in my memory and still forms one of the bases of my experiential understanding of Catholicism.

When I pass by church buildings, I look for a sign. Then I think to myself, “That is a Baptist church” (or a Methodist church or a Catholic church, according to the message on the sign). Now I know that no denomination believes that its buildings are the church. Yet when I see a building or walk inside, I still think to myself, “So this is ‘Such and Such’ Church.”

And I attribute to that church whatever I see happening in and around the buildings. If I know that the Boy Scouts meet in the church buildings, I assume the church endorses the Boy Scouts. If I see the buildings used for the feeding of the homeless, I assume the church is benevolent, even though none of the members might participate in the ministry. If I see a wedding involving a couple of two men or two women, I do not think, “Oh, someone must have borrowed the building.” I think, “This church must approve of homosexual marriage.”

I am not unusual in this regard. This is a normal way of thinking for people, and for most non-members, the buildings of a church are the most consistent witness of the church. Because of this, it is vital for churches both to have policies for the use of its facilities and to be intentional in keeping them.

The Alliance Defending Freedom observes, “Put simply, a church has a right to only allow uses of its facilities that are consistent with its religious beliefs and to deny all other uses.” Notice that the key is that the facilities are used in ways that are consistent with religious beliefs only. ADF continues, “The best way to protect your church is to adopt a facility usage policy that outlines the religious nature of the church buildings and restricts usage of the facility to uses that are consistent with the church’s biblical beliefs.”[1]

To protect their witness and to simplify things, some churches have held to a policy that only church members may use church facilities. However, what happens when a church member, perhaps one on the church’s membership list but who has not attended church in years, decides to use the church facilities for events outside the church’s beliefs or in ways inconsistent with the church’s witness? What if an active member accesses the hall on behalf of someone else, a friend or a relative, who then uses it in such ways? Does every church member agree with every position of the church, or could a member who disagrees on some point knowingly use the facilities in ways of which the church body would not approve?

These questions and others beckon local churches to state clear facilities policies in writing. From our vantage point, we believe facilities policies should focus on, at least, four points:

  1. Church facilities have been dedicated to God and are to be used in concert with, and not outside of, the teachings and truths of His Word and His Great Commission as understood by the church.
  2. Church facilities give witness to the community of the church’s priorities, biblical beliefs, and moral standards, so no activities or use of the facilities should occur that are in any way contrary to the church’s biblical beliefs and standards.
  3. Church facilities are owned by the church and are not public accommodations and, therefore, give no implied right to anyone, including church members, to use except by express permission of the church.
  4. The authority to grant use of the facilities is vested in one group or committee. This group could consist of three to five of the most mature and trustworthy members who agree with and have a history of adhering to the church’s beliefs and moral standards. A church might allow one person to make these decisions, but this is a great responsibility that requires wisdom and accountability to the church. A church might set the congregation as the decision-maker, but this could be quite cumbersome, and it could keep the congregation’s focus off other urgent matters like the Great Commission.

A thorough facilities policy is a practical benefit, but given recent court rulings, a policy might become more of a legal necessity, it seems. We are not attorneys and are not giving legal advice, but one does not require legal training to see one important change in the legal landscape.

At least two Christian businesses, a bakery and a florist, have come under fire, including a court ruling against the bakery, for refusing use their creative talents to help put on gay weddings. (See here and here.) These things are happening first in states with anti-discrimination laws based upon sex or gender, and though such laws often have exclusions for churches, these efforts by homosexual advocacy groups are likely not to remain confined. Churches could fall under this sort of attack, especially if the church gives permission for use of its facilities in ways that are deemed to be arbitrary. And though the church might win, lawsuits can be costly in many ways. Many churches receive requests for the use of their facilities, and we believe the best way to protect the church’s witness is to enforce consistently a clear policy that is in line with its belief statements.

[1] ADF provides helpful information and a sample facilities use policy: http://www.speakupmovement.org/church/content/userfiles/Resources/ThreePoliciesAllChurchesShouldHave.pdf

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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.

Wedding Policies: Changing Your Church Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsThis is the third installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Waylan Owens. This post is Part 3 and was written by Dr. Owens, originally appearing here. For the first two parts are “There’s No Time Like the Present” and “We Believe…

Churches long have understood that not everything that is legal is acceptable in Scriptures or in the church. (e.g., see Exodus 20:7-12; Ephesians 4:25-31) Though adultery is legal in America today, few churches openly tolerate it among its membership.

American legislation long since left the Ten Commandments behind. Of the ten, one is selectively enforced—bearing false witness—and only two are normally illegal—stealing and murder.

The time has passed in which the church could assume that everyone in a community would understand, much less accept, its standards. The time is now for churches to spell out their beliefs and how those beliefs apply to the life and standards of the church clearly in by-laws and policies. And establishing current policies on weddings and wedding-related events is an important place to start.

Five Areas

In its wedding policies, we believe each church should speak to, at least, the following five areas:

  1. Biblical and Theological Understanding of Marriage
  2. Biblically Valid Marriage/Wedding
  3. Member/Minister Participation in Weddings
  4. Use of Church Facilities for Weddings and Wedding Receptions
  5. Church Discipline

In this series, the second post laid foundations for areas 1 and 2. This post will address areas 2 and 3, and subsequent posts will provide help with areas 4 and 5.

Two Keys

Upon two keys hinge the entire wedding policies of the church. The first key is to what degree pastors, employees, and members of a church may participate in weddings, particularly in weddings the church considers to be outside the realm of biblically valid marriage. The second key is to what degree church facilities may be used to host or in connection with weddings. In this post, we will focus upon the first key.

Churches generally have given pastors great latitude in deciding which weddings to perform and under what circumstances. While that has worked well in the past, we believe that this is becoming a dangerous practice for churches for at least two reasons. First, the church should protect the pastor who should not be left out on an island of shifting cultural and legal sands. Having clear statements and standards tightly affixed to God’s Word allows the church to take pressure off and to stand beside the pastor. Second, as churches come under review of the courts, inconsistency in the treatment of requests might make it more difficult for churches to defend denials.

Worship Services

Weddings, for Christians, are worship services. Even for the non-Christian, a wedding in the church has all the earmarks of a worship service: prayer, Scripture, music, sermon/homily, and commitment, everything but an offering.

Prerequisites

Therefore, we believe wedding policies, at a minimum, should answer the following questions related to prerequisites for a pastor, employee, or church member to participate in a wedding ceremony or related event:

  1. What biblical qualifications must the couple meet?
  2. What biblical standards of decorum and behavior must be accepted by those responsible for the wedding and whether those standards apply to any wedding-related reception or party, wherever those events are held?
  3. To what set of biblical beliefs regarding marriage must those requesting a ceremony adhere?

Couple

Marriage by or in the church should demand appropriate humility by the couple and deference to the holiness of matrimony as an institution established and defined by God. In setting qualifications for couples, the church should point directly to its statement on marriage, gender, and sexuality in its constitution and by-laws. Here the church would confirm that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. As can be stated in the by-laws and affirmed here, a biblically valid marriage is one between one man and one woman who: 1) have never been married or are widowed and are not engaging in sexual sin; or 2) who have a biblically valid divorce(s) according to the church’s understanding of the Scriptures as stated in its by-laws. A couple engaging in fornication or living together would be required to repent and to show evidence of repentance prior to the wedding.

Decorum

People attending events in the church facilities will receive a witness from the event. In fact, people who attend a church wedding can consider a reception/”after party” held elsewhere to be representative of the church. The church should protect its witness by establishing parameters of decorum both for the wedding and for any wedding-related events (rehearsals, rehearsal dinner, reception, even “bachelor parties”). These parameters include the sorts of decorations that can be used (Are cupid decorations consistent with the church’s witness?), the behavior of the wedding party (What if the wedding party comes down the aisle doing backflips? Have you seen the video? Or drunk?), the use of alcohol or marijuana or other drugs, dancing, music (Usually music must be approved by a pastor or designated member of the church.), etc. Churches might differ on some matters, but all churches should think on and state what a wedding is and is not.

Statement of Beliefs

The church should develop an abbreviated statement on marriage and weddings that comes directly from and refers to its larger statement. This statement should include key affirmations about marriage and the wedding, including, but not limited to, that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, that a wedding is a worship service, and that a church wedding gives a witness of the church to the community. The statement also should include statements on gender, sexuality, and other beliefs of the church on matters the church deems important to its witness (e.g., the use of alcohol, lewd behavior, coarse jesting and language, etc.). All involved in putting on the wedding should sign that they will adhere to the statement and will do nothing to change the church’s testimony in the community in this regard. (Note that “adhering” to a statement does not require “agreement” with the statement, necessarily.)

The church also should develop a facilities use policy, and we will address that in the next post.

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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.

“We Believe…”: Changing Your Church Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsWe are all theologians in a sense. Not everyone has pursued formal theological education to attain a degree that gives “theologian credentials,” but we all have at least some basic belief about God, man, sin, and salvation (or the lack thereof). When new churches start, they often spend countless hours laboring over how to express their theological beliefs in a written statement so that prospective members will know exactly what kind of church they are joining. In a perfect world, such statements of belief will find their way into the constitution or by-laws as the articles of faith or statement of belief.

For the most part, a church’s articles of faith will lay out the basic beliefs of the church regarding the Bible, God, Christ, man, sin, salvation, the church, ordinances and office, membership, and perhaps a handful of other things. This raises the question of marriage, sexuality, and gender identity—where do they fit in a statement of belief? Do they even belong in the first place?

Within a classical understanding of doctrine, a statement regarding marriage, sexuality, and gender identity could fit easily under the category of anthropology. The doctrine of anthropology is the study of human nature and existence. This doctrine asks the questions: Who am I? How did I get here? What is my purpose in life?

The best place to start in answering those questions is the first chapters of Genesis. Here we see some key truths about human nature that we must not forget. First, we are created by God—that is how we got here (Gen 1:26–27). Next, we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27). While the image of God includes a number of different aspects, we can at least affirm that it includes the fact that we are created for a relationship with God. Third, we have been given stewardship over the rest of creation (Gen 1:26, 28), which means that we have the unique responsibility of caring for everything else God has made. Fourth, we see that God created us in two distinct genders—male and female (Gen 1:27). And finally, we recognize that God intended for the man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). These points will become very important as we see below.

When we move to Genesis 2, we learn about how mankind is created to relate to one another. In verse 18 we read, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” In the verses that follow, we see the creation of the woman and the first marriage. God takes one of Adam’s ribs and fashions the woman out of it (Gen 2:21–22). He then brings the woman to Adam and presents her to him as his “suitable partner,” or his wife. In verse 23, we read Adam’s response to God granting recognition that this woman is “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Finally, verse 24 gives us the divinely inspired commentary on this union. We read, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”

What we learn from the creation narrative is that marriage is a comprehensive union of a man and a woman in an exclusive, monogamous, covenant relationship designed to endure for a lifetime and directed toward the rearing of the next generation.

Not only do the opening chapters of Genesis point out God’s design for marriage, but they also lay the foundation for our understanding of gender and sexual identity. Note that God created two genders—male and female. He did not create the multiplicity of genders or sexual identities in the ever-expanding LGBTQ nomenclature. There are simply male and female, and they are designed to be complementary partners to one another. This is most clearly expressed through the institution of marriage.

Marriage between a man and a woman then becomes the only biblically authorized context for sexual expression. Any sexual expression apart from an exclusive, monogamous marriage between one man and one woman is sinful according to the text of Scripture.

It is this understanding that we want to put into the governing documents of our churches. Thankfully, we do not need to re-create the wheel in order to get an effective statement on anthropology, marriage, and sexuality into our church constitutions and by-laws. The first place that you ought to look is the statement of faith of your own denomination. Many denominations have such statements that will give you a starting point for appropriate language to use. The statement of your denomination might not be comprehensive enough for what we face today, but it should a good place to start. You can add to those denominational resources the helpful input of groups like Alliance Defending Freedom who have composed language that could be adopted into your constitution. Their work is more generic in order to appeal across denominational lines. My preference is to combine both such resources to develop a unique statement that addresses the needs of your specific church and the distinctive of your faith tradition. For example, below is my proposed statement that I believe works well within a Southern Baptist context.

We believe that God have created humans in his image and in the two distinct and complementary genders of male and female. These two genders are expressed in both physical biology and roles. Any departure from the biblical standard of male and female, whether that be a rejection of biological gender or an attempt to alter biological gender, is a violation of Scripture. (Gen 1:26–27; Matt 19:4; Mark 10:6; Eph 5:21–33)

We believe that marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in an exclusive, monogamous, covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and his church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race. (Gen 1:26–28; 2:18–24; Prov 14:1; 17:6; 18:22; 31:10–31; Eccl 9:9; Matt 19:3–9; Mark 10:6–12; 1 Cor 7:1–16; Eph 5:21–6:4; Col 3:18–21; 1 Tim 5:14; 1 Pet 3:1–7)

We believe that any form of sexual immorality (including adultery, fornication, homosexuality, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, and pornography) is sinful and offensive to God. (Exod 20:14; Lev 18:6–23; 20:10–21; Job 31:1; Prov 5:1–20; Matt 5:27–28; Mark 7: 10–23; Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9–20; 7:1–5; Gal 5:19–21; Eph 5:3–5; Col 3:5; 1 Thes 4:3–5; Heb 13:4; Jude 7)

We believe that God offers redemption and restoration to all who confess and forsake their sin, seeking His mercy and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. (John 14:6; Rom 3:23; 6:23; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 John 1:9)

We believe that every person must be afforded compassion, love, kindness, respect, and dignity. Hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes directed toward any individual are to be repudiated and are not in accord with scripture nor the doctrines of the church. However, identifying particular behaviors and identities as sin does not constitute harassment or hate. (1 Cor 13:1–13; Gal 6:1; Eph 4:15, 32; James 1:19)*

Let me suggest that you work on your own statement of beliefs in the area of marriage, sexuality, and gender so that your church can have a clear position on the issue. You may use the one provided above or adapt it for your own purposes. Remember, the purpose of such a statement is to state clearly what you believe about marriage, sexuality, and gender.

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*Much of this statement has been adapted and/or copied from Article XVIII of the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) and “Five Things All Churches Should Have in Their Bylaws” from Alliance Defending Freedom. Both of these resources are available to the public at the links above.

This is the second installment of a multi-part series addressing why churches need to consider updating their organizational documents. The series is written in conjunction with Dr. Waylan Owens. Part 1 is available 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.

There’s No Time Like the Present: Changing Your Church Constitution and By-Laws

wedding ringsThe 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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This multi-part series will be posted on this blog and the blog of Waylan Owens. We have worked together on this series to bring together our unique skill sets and experience.

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.

A-Rod and the Apology

Spring Training for Major League Baseball teams begins this week with the opening ritual of pitchers and catchers reporting to their respective warm-weather training destinations. In baseball world, this week should have been punctuated by the optimism that accompanies a clean slate. Baseball fans everywhere are hoping that this year will be the year their team wins the World Series. However, another baseball story has stolen the headlines from an otherwise blissfully optimistic week. The story is A-Rod.

Alex Rodriguez is one of the most polarizing figures in Major League Baseball today. By most standards, his 20-year career, 654 home runs, and 3 American League MVP’s would ensure that he be enshrined in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there is one problem—he was suspended for the entire 2014 season for using performance-enhancing drugs and attempting to obstruct the investigation into his use of PED’s.

Today A-Rod issued an apology to the fans. The perception of that apology is characterized by just a few tweets and headlines. The Associated Press called his apology “vague.”

Local Dallas-Fort Worth sports journalist and former host of the Texas Rangers radio show Bryan Dolgin pondered:

Rodriguez has played for the Mariners, Rangers, and Yankees and has been part of some dramatic moments in postseason baseball. Yet, his apology for using PED’s has apparently fallen flat. The AP described his apology this way: “Alex Rodriguez has issued a handwritten apology ‘for the mistakes that led to my suspension’ but has turned down New York’s offer to use Yankee Stadium for a news conference and has failed to detail any specifics about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.”

Even Rodriguez acknowledged in his apology that some would not believe his sincerity. He stated, “I accept the fact that many of you will not believe my apology or anything that I say at this point. I understand why and that’s on me.” Rodriguez will return to the New York Yankees this season and fight for a job at third base or designated hitter. He has three years left on his record-setting contract and stands to make a fortune these last few years. But his once hall-of-fame image has been tarnished—perhaps forever.

What can we learn from A-Rod’s mistakes and apology?

First, we need to admit our mistakes. One of the reasons A-Rod finds himself in the difficult position of being one of the most hated players in baseball is that he lied about his actions. It was bad enough that he used performance-enhancing drugs to elevate his already spectacular game. Plenty of players have done the same through the years. But A-Rod compounded his problem by lying about his actions when faced with the evidence and attempting to obstruct the investigation into his misdeeds.

Scripture gives us some good insight on admitting our faults. In 1 John 1:8–9 we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Ultimately, we are responsible to God for our sin. Denying that we sin is simply self-deception. When we confess our sin to God, he forgives us.

Second, our reputations are worth more than we can imagine. A-Rod still has millions left to be paid on his contract. He has made more money than any other baseball player in history. However, he seems to have lost the trust and respect of the fans and his fellow players. No amount of money is worth losing a good name.

Solomon knew the value of both wealth and a reputation. He writes, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov 22:1). We often sacrifice our reputations for the perceived value of success, but it is not worth it. You can always find another way to earn a living or sign another contract, but it is almost impossible to rebuild a reputation that has self-destructed.

As Christians, how should we respond to this apology? Despite the headline that the Associated Press offered, I believe we should take his apology sincerely. His future actions will determine how sincere he was, but it is not our place to judge his heart. I may not cheer for A-Rod and his Yankees (a.k.a., the Evil Empire), but it has nothing to do with his apology. We need not pile on more pain and disgust when he appears to be trying to do the right thing.

Rodriguez will go down as one of the most talented baseball players of this generation, but his tarnished legacy will serve as a reminder to us that we can lose it all when we set our sights on success at all costs.

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Ronald Blum, “A-Rod makes vague apology, turns down news conference,” The Associated Press, February 17, 2015.

Alex Rodriguez Statement Text,” The Associated Press, February 17, 2015.

*Image Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr