A Church's Ministry in a Changing Legal Culture

With the many changes occurring in our culture and laws, the church is faced with many questions. It is not that the church will retreat, but there are different questions that are being asked, and different conversations that are happening. What do we as the church need to know? How do these changes affect us? How shall we engage with the gospel in this changing climate?

Christiana Holcomb, litigation counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, focuses on protecting the freedom and autonomy of local churches and other ministries. Recently she outlined 5 Actions Churches Should Take in a Changing Legal Culture in order to provide counsel to churches regarding how best to defend religious freedom and to remain faithful to the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.

1. Adopt a written statement of faith about marriage.

A church does not need to commit every detail of doctrine to writing. But marriage warrants special inclusion in church bylaws, statements of faith, or other policy documents, because the definition of marriage is hotly debated at the intersection of law, faith, and culture. A statement on marriage clarifies the church’s beliefs about marriage—both for the congregation and the culture—and serves as the starting point for any church decisions related to marriage and human sexuality.

2. Establish religious employment criteria.

Require all employees to affirm that they hold to the church’s statement of faith and doctrine and are willing to abide by them. Also ensure that each employee has a written job description. Each job description should go beyond listing the physical duties involved to specifying the position’s spiritual responsibilities and clearly explaining how it furthers the church’s mission. These details help reinforce the religious nature of the employment relationship.

3. Create a facility use policy.

If the church owns a facility that it permits others to use outside of normal church operation or events, the church should establish a written facility policy that details the terms under which it may be used. For example, the policy should establish an application and approval process, specifically detail the religious nature of the facility, and expressly prohibit uses that are inconsistent with the church's religious beliefs.

4. Establish a written marriage policy.

A church should have a written policy detailing both the marriages that the church will recognize and also the circumstances under which the pastor will solemnize a union. This policy adds another layer of protection for the pastor who is asked to perform a wedding that he cannot, in good conscience, officiate.

5. Adopt a written membership policy.

Only those persons who “unite” with the church have consented to the church’s authority over them. As a result, churches with formal members have greater legal protection when it becomes necessary to exercise church discipline. Churches are encouraged to adopt a written membership policy that explains the procedure for becoming a church member, procedures for member discipline, and procedures for rescinding church membership.

The Alliance Defending Freedom has also developed a helpful resource for churches to walk through practically these five steps: Protecting Your Ministry From Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity Lawsuits. This is an excellent resource.

I would also recommend the resource the Spiritual Heritage Committee wrote a couple of years ago for our EFCA pastors, leaders and churches: A Church Statement on Human Sexuality: Homosexuality and Same-Sex “Marriage” - A Resource for EFCA Churches.

I have one quibble with the statement from the Alliance. Please remember this is not “your” ministry but the Lord’s. This is vital to remember in this process. That determines both what and how we articulate and defend the faith. We are concerned and committed to be faithful to His Word, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to bring honor and glory to His name.

May we do so in this new day that presents new challenges to the faith, with new opportunities to trust in the Lord, with new and renewed hope to see the gospel flourish among all people.

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