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Church Bylaws

Attorneys & Counselors at Law – Syracuse, New York

The following article emphasizes the importance of church bylaws. Anyone thinking about revising the bylaws of a church should carefully consider the points made in this article. Anyone thinking about ignoring church bylaws and calling it a waste of time to bother with such things, should even more carefully consider the points made in this article. The article was originally published in the July 1995 issue of Syracuse Metro Voice.

Who’s In Charge Here?

By: Raymond Dague

If asked, “What is the most important document in the church,” most Christians would reply that it is the Bible. And so it is. But suppose we asked, “What is the second most important document in the church?” On this there would be widespread disagreement. A poll would get many different answers. The answers would depend on individual preferences, the denomination involved, or the particular theology of the persons asked, but there would be little consensus. Some would say the hymnal, others would argue for a prayer book, others would claim the Bible concordance, and still others would say that various other books or publications are important. Yet all of these second choices are wrong.

The second most important document is the church bylaws. What! Why most people have never even read their church’s bylaws. The pastor might have to scrounge around the church office for 20 minutes or so to even find a copy. And when he finds it, the yellowed paper, the rusted staple, and an old date indicate that it was last amended years ago under some prior pastor. Who even cares if the church has bylaws! Surely anyone who says it is the second most important document in the church has lost his senses, or simply likes to provoke others with the arcane and obscure.

Not so. Bylaws define the structure of how the church is governed. They state who has the power to make the decisions. They set forth the procedure for the selection of a new pastor. They outline how the money is handled. In summary, bylaws set forth the rules of who in the church has authority, and the issue of authority is the enduring question of this and every age.

Last fall’s election can be described as the latest installment in the ongoing argument between conservatives and liberals over whether the federal government or the states should have control over our national policies. This same issue is what the American Civil War was fought over. Congress, the president and the supreme court are always in a tussle over authority. Labor unions and their employers engage in a constant battle over authority in the work place. Within the family husbands and wives struggle with issues of authority, as do parents and children.

The church is no exception. Who defines orthodox Christianity? How does a church deal with issues which are not explicitly addressed in scripture? When there is a disagreement over speaking in tongues during the Sunday morning service, or whether the church parking lot should be paved, who makes the decision? Is it the pastor, the board of trustees, the deacons, the bishop, the denomination’s national church board, the congregation, or some combination of them? So long as everyone agrees, questions of authority can be fudged. But when Christians disagree, one must ask, “Who has the authority to decide for the whole church?” That is when somebody must dust off that old copy of the bylaws.

Some Christians believe that the people in the pews assembled at a monthly meeting should have the ultimate authority. This is called a congregational form of authority. Most Baptist churches subscribe to this model. Other Christians believe that a leadership of elders should have the ultimate authority. This is know as an episcopal form of church authority. Most Presbyterian churches fall into this category. And there are many possible combinations of the two.

Chapter 6 of Acts of the Apostles describes a dispute which arose in the early church over whether Jewish Christians were getting more favorable treatment than non-Jewish Christians. A first century discrimination lawsuit was brewing! To resolve the dispute the apostles suggested to the entire body of Christ that the body nominate seven men to serve as deacons to see that everyone is treated fairly. The body accepted this idea, and chose seven committed disciples who were then ordained by the apostles. They had no written bylaws, but there seemed to be a consensus about authority. Here the authority to decide this issue was shared by apostles and the rest of the body. Both the leadership and the people had a significant role in resolving this dispute.

Most churches in New York are incorporated under the Religious Corporations Law. Many denominations have a specific chapter of that law which allows them to organize their churches as their denomination requires. Denominations without a specific chapter fall under one of the chapters for “other denominations,” “free churches,” or “independent” churches. The Religious Corporations Law and the “certificate of incorporation” of the church sets forth the basics of church authority. But since the statute and certificate of incorporation usually give few directions about the specifics of who has the authority in a church, it is up to the church to have specific bylaws answering these questions. For denominational churches some of these issues may be settled by rules or bylaws (sometimes called canons) of the denomination, but many are left for the local church to define. For independent churches or churches with much autonomy from their denomination, the question of “who has the authority” must be settled entirely by the local church. A local church can structure any sort of church government it likes, so long as it complies with its particular chapter of the Religious Corporations Law.

Whatever form of church government, it is essential that it be clearly spelled out. The place to spell it out is in the bylaws. Bylaws let everyone know what authority is vested in the congregation, the trustees, and the pastor.
So who should have the ultimate authority in the church? Should it be the folks at the top (the pastor and other elders) or the folks in the pew (the people)? As I read the scriptures on the questions of church authority, I find that the New Testament has a mixed sort of authority. It takes some carefully drafted bylaws to take these principles and adapt them to a local church.

Disputes within a church are always troublesome. They can be disastrous if people cannot even agree about who has the authority to make the decision. The body of Christ has been torn by many disputes down through the ages, as any reading of church history will readily disclose. A good number of these disputes are over the issue of authority. Many such problems can be avoided with carefully thought out bylaws.

The pastor and other members of the church should dust off that old copy of the bylaws, read them, and give careful prayer and thought to whether they clearly state what the Holy Spirit desires for their local church.