How Much Do Constitutions Matter?

From a distance, the world watched recently as the American Congress hammered into being a huge healthcare bill that, it is charged, will bring about sweeping and costly changes to the healthcare of the nation.

Constitutional challenges already are being lodged against the bill saying that it violates the constitution. This is a good time for Christians to consider the importance of constitutions.

The function of a constitution is to “constitute” a body, giving it form, order and limits. This is a constitution’s function whether of a nation or a teacher’s federation or a Christian denomination.

From where I stand, this present healthcare controversy is only one example of the tendency in modern life to diminish the place and challenge the authority of constitutions.

Both Canada and the United States are nations defined by written constitutions. That is, neither average citizen nor elected leader is to assert authority that rises above what a constitution allows – at least without first achieving proper amendments.

And, it can be said that the same fact holds for church life. Whether our membership is in a denomination or an independent congregation there is a constitution that sets doctrinal standards, rules of membership, and governing procedures to regulate the life of the body.

The principle of constitutions can even be applied to healthy families. In families the definitive regulations may not be called constitutions but there are basic rules that bind them together, whether written or spoken. For example: there are such givens as the sacred covenant of marriage, the law of basic respect, and the agreed upon duties of each member in accordance with age and maturity.

One Christian sociologist said it this way: the nation is an institution of laws; the home is an institution of love; and the church is an institution of grace. These are helpful distinctions so long as law, love and grace are not set in opposition to one another. But all three bodies must first be “constituted” as institutions or it makes no sense even to discuss them.

The membership covenant of the Free Methodist Church of which I have been a part says, “As a people, we honor and support the God-ordained institutions of state family and church.” In other words, each has its appointed function under God.

However, the clear laws of all three institutions are repeatedly subjected to challenge. A search appears to be constantly underway for constitutional loopholes.

And at the level of the denomination members with revolutionary impulses may plead for flexibility in the realms of both doctrine and practice. Consider the call in some denominations for the approval of same-sex marriage in spite of the existence of timeless heterosexual norms which are biblically founded and even enshrined in constitutions.

Even in the domestic realm, we have been hearing arguments that the term “family” need not be limited to blood or legal relations. It is contended that families may have many configurations. Even five unrelated people living together should be allowed to constitute themselves a family. This robs the word of real meaning.

During unsettled times such as ours, the question is whether leaders in the state, the family, or the church will uphold established law or will embrace a sort of pragmatic flexibility that allows lawlessness to exist and even thrive.

I recall chairing an annual conference overseas when a troubling issue arose. Voices became loud. Even though I was hearing the proceedings through an interpreter I could see that the constitution of the denomination spoke to the issue clearly. As I made this known it was interesting to see the emotion subside and thoughtfulness begin to register on faces.

The idea that they were acting under ecclesiastical law as enshrined in a constitution and that this constitution was their lawful standard seemed to calm the gathering and hold them together.

Yet, the temptation under such circumstances is to take leave of constitutional norms. That is, to look at the result desired and trample on the process required. My experience is that when cunningly done, this may seem to do no harm but in the long pull it creates dangerous precedents and restless division in the body.

The results of the Roe vs. Wade decision by the American Supreme Court back in 1973 is a classic illustration. There are still weighty protests that the constitution of the nation was violated and in one country as a result an estimated 40 million unborn babies have been “legally” and mercilessly killed.

Where should Christians stand? Paul writes to Christians who lived under the shadow of Imperial Rome, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom 13:1).

It’s a solid, sacred word. It deserves our attention. Our disordered world needs to see Christians living out their freedom in Christ by living ordered lives within the institutions of the fallen order.

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2 thoughts on “How Much Do Constitutions Matter?

  1. “Constitutions”
    Thank you, Don. This is a great and pertinent blog. I am grateful for the clear and precise presentation on a much-needed topic. You have stimulated my thoughts for the day…and more.
    Bob McD

    • Hi, Robert: Thanks for your comment on my blog speaking to the issue of the Christian underpinnings for authority. Your comment is heartening because there seems to me to be a softness about this issue in our times — even among Christian people. Don

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