On the Importance of Constitutions

In 2010, I wrote a blog on the function of constitutions. The reason was that there was an uproar in the United States at the time about a huge and sweeping healthcare bill. Many knowledgeable people said that this bill was unconstitutional. Others, seeing things differently, and apparently focused primarily on the desired result, said in essence, “Just ram it through.”  

Today, we hear questions about the constitutionality of the Centers for Disease Control’s eviction ban, giving tenants a breather from potential financial ruin, yet depriving landlords of the ability to collect rent on their properties, possibly to their financial ruin. Those protesting this ban note that the CDC is an agency of government, not its legislature, and only the latter could legally institute this ban.

In both above examples, there seem to be those focused mostly on the short-term gain, at least for one party in the matter. On the other side are those not only speaking up for the disfavored party, but also for the Constitution, and the terrible damage the nation might suffer due to its violation.  

As I said in 2010, lightly edited: 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, teachers’ federation, or Christian denomination.

I also said that in both Canada and the United States neither average citizens nor the highest leaders are to assert authority above what a constitution allows. I acknowledged of course, the availability of a process of amendment.  

This ordering, defining, and sometimes restraining of a people by its constitution can also apply to church life. A local church or denominational constitution sets doctrinal standards, rules of membership, and governing procedures to regulate the life of the body and prevent disorder.

Living east of Eden, as we do, it is not surprising that the clear laws of both nation and church institutions are repeatedly subjected to challenge. Humans seem inclined to continually search for loopholes to serve this or that purpose.

This push against constitutional order in the church can of course be made more attractive by appealing to “flexibility” or “love,” while skillfully sidelining those speaking for legality of process and outcome. This is how revolutionary change can be brought to both doctrine and institutional practice.  

I recall chairing (with the help of an interpreter) an annual conference of the Free Methodist Church in another country and culture. When a controversial issue arose, voices became loud. Thankfully, the constitution of the denomination spoke to the issue clearly. As I gently taught the people their constitution’s directives, emotion subsided and thoughtfulness took its place.  

In this case, it was not the authority of persons nor the loudest voice, but ecclesiastical law enshrined in a constitution that calmed the gathering and preserved unity and harmony. 

In my experience, when a constitution is charismatically or cunningly ignored in pursuit of a goal, this may seem to do no harm, but in the long run it creates dangerous precedents and restless division in the body. It “deconstitutes” a people.

Where should Christians stand on that matter of constitutionality of state or church? 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” (Romans 13:1).

It seems to me that a constitution is a governing authority, and that Paul’s instruction is a solid, sacred word that 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.

Image info: Travis Wise (via flickr.com)

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