“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 has 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.