Question: "What items should be included in a church constitution?"
Answer: There is nothing about church constitutions in the New Testament. The need for church constitutions arose due to legal issues. Churches may be incorporated, own property, hire staff, pay some kinds of taxes and be exempt from others, and run other ministries that may or may not be similarly tax exempt or have a different level of legal protection than the church itself. A constitution is a legal document that gives the church direction in ministry and protection from lawsuits. If the church clearly documents what it is, what it does, and why it does it, and then follows the plan consistently, it will have more legal protection as well as a unified focus.
Since there is nothing in the New Testament about constitutions, what should be included is a matter of opinion and expediency. That said, here are the most common parts of a church constitution:
Purpose Statement: This part of the church constitution should not only be biblically accurate but also legally astute. As long as the church acts consistently within its purpose, it will have less exposure to legal attacks.
Doctrinal Statement: This important part of the church constitution should clearly and simply outline what the church believes about key doctrines, including the church’s teaching on God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, etc. Following modern legal advice, many churches also include statements on cultural hot topics such as gay marriage, divorce and remarriage, sexual harassment, etc. While it would be much simpler to say, “We believe the Bible,” clarification about what the church believes the Bible to teach is helpful because there can be much disagreement on key doctrines, even among people who say they simply believe what the Bible says.
Membership Requirements: The church constitution should clearly define who is a member of the church and what rights and responsibilities come with membership. There should also be a statement about the process of church discipline (see Matthew 18:15–20). In today’s legal climate, church members can sue churches over discipline issues.
Leadership Roles: The church constitution should clearly define the roles of church leaders, how those leaders are chosen, and how they are removed, if necessary. The constitution should be clear about who has the final human authority for making decisions: the congregation, a board of elders, etc.
Procedural/Legal Issues: With so many issues of church and state in flux today, the church has to be very careful about how it interacts with non-members. If the church allows non-members to rent its building for weddings, how will it respond when it gets a request for a homosexual wedding? If the church allows other organizations to use its facilities for meetings or community activities, can it deny usage by a group that is at cross purposes with the church? Will the church hire non-members or even unbelievers for any positions? If so, what are the lifestyle requirements for those employees? What are the requirements for staff or volunteers working with children? There should be consistent, coherent positions that align with the church’s stated purpose. If a church rents its chapel for weddings simply to raise money, it will have a hard time justifying its decision to reject a gay couple. If the church rents its chapel as a way to help couples who belong to other churches of like faith, then the church has some justification for being selective.
Provision for Amendments: As the church grows and times change, new challenges will arise that may need to be addressed in the church constitution. When that time comes, how will the constitution be changed? The constitution itself should detail a procedure for making amendments.
Finally, the church constitution should be as brief and clear as possible.
There is usually no need for a church to write a constitution from scratch. It would be advisable to study the constitutions of several churches that are of similar size, doctrinal distinctives, and focus. Perhaps adopting the constitution of another church, in whole or in part, might be the most prudent path to follow. It would also be advisable to consult an attorney who is knowledgeable in church law to make sure that there is nothing included or excluded that would leave the church open for a lawsuit. No legal document is foolproof, and churches must rely upon the Lord of the Church for ultimate protection, but it is wise to use all the tools available to minimize risk.