When I teach church planting, I always talk to the students about basic church documents. A new church needs some basic documents that provide it with a good, solid foundation. Older churches need these foundational documents, also. Ok, what are they? All churches need a statement of faith, a church covenant, and a constitution and by-laws. Why so?
Statement of Faith
Churches should be certain of their beliefs, and they should be able to point prospective members to a statement of faith. A statement of faith will guide the preachers and teachers in the church as to what constitutes sound doctrine. A clear statement of faith will help seekers decide whether they want to unite with your church. Of course, many churches simply use the current Southern Baptist Statement of Faith and Message. This is what our church does. Other churches prefer to write their own. Working through the process of composing a statement of faith is a good way to teach biblical doctrine. Another advantage of a statement of faith is that it provides an objective measure for judging false doctrine. For example, imagine that a Sunday school teacher in your church begins teaching false doctrine. When you confront him, he says, “I’m not teaching false doctrine.” “Yes you are.” “Who says so?” You can extrapolate this conversation. However, if your church has a statement of faith, you can point to that for confirmation. In my life I’ve taught at several of our SBC seminaries, as well as the International Mission Board. All of these required me to affirm a statement of belief and promise to preach and teach in accordance with it.
The church covenant describes how the members of the church will conduct themselves in their Christian lives and how they will relate to each other. It is a “covenant,” that is, a sacred agreement between parties. You could say it is a spiritual commitment the church members make to each other. Many churches still use the old Southern Baptist church covenant. It used to be printed in the Baptist Hymnal, and many rural churches kept a large, framed copy in the foyers of their buildings. (William Thornton will remember this.) Other churches find the language and emphases of that covenant outdated, and they have composed new covenants. A good resource for writing a church covenant is the Broadman Church Manual. Our church in Texas just celebrated its 100 th Anniversary, and we seized the opportunity to write a new church covenant. The members were all encouraged to sign it. Some churches have an annual covenant renewal ceremony, often on the church’s anniversary. I believe a church covenant is a good way to teach and reinforce the responsibilities of church membership.
Church Constitution and By-laws
The constitution and by-laws prescribe how the church will govern itself. This document explains how new members can join or be discharged. It lists the officers of the church, and the way in which the church will call a pastor. It explains how the church will conduct its business meetings, and many other details of church administration. If you church plans to incorporate, then it must have a constitution and by-laws. Your church must be incorporated in order to own its own property. Of course, laws pertaining to incorporation vary from state to state. So, your association and state convention can advise you on this and provide examples from other churches. You may find it helpful to consult a Christian attorney. conform to modern practices. Certainly, it is good to review this document periodically to ascertain where changes are needed.
So, a statement of faith describes what a church believes. A church covenant describes how church members should behave, and the church constitution and by-laws prescribe how the church will conduct its business.
What has been your experience with these church documents? Have you revised any of these in recent years? How did that go? Do you have any advice for others?