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How do you implement a new constitution and by-laws?

By Mark Dever

Dr. Mark Dever, Pastor Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
(Excerpted from an interview):

One of the main changes in our own constitution is that we have elders.Now, we don’t have elders in a Presbyterian sense or even in a John MacArthur-Bible Church sense, in that the elders are not the final determining body in the church.We are still a congregational church.But we understand that to be the case with the New Testament, that you actually had elders in churches, and yet the congregation was the final authority.The elders did have a particular responsibility for the teaching and spiritual health and direction of the church, that the congregation recognized these elders as gifts from God in order to perform that function for the church

But I knew that, first of all, most Baptist churches, I don’t know, have ever had elders. Certainly there were a lot of Baptist churches in the past that did, and there are now, again, growing numbers of Baptist churches that do, but most, certainly, most Southern Baptist Churches, do not have elders. Even though you’d find the first President of the Southern Baptist Convention, W.B. Johnson, wrote a manual on church Polity back in 1845, in which he advocates a plurality of elders in each local congregation. So it’s not an unBaptist thing to advocate, it’s just been an uncommon thing for Baptists, for Southern Baptists especially.

But I thought for a number of reasons, not only does the Bible commend it, but I can understand why, in practical wisdom, it would be a good thing to have the leading body in the church not just be the hired staff, but be those people in the church who actually live there, who take responsibility for their own spiritual lives over the spiritual health of the congregation.  But I knew this would be a new idea.  So I thought, well, it’s going take time, and I told the pulpit committee, when they first talked to me, I told them about this immediately, that I thought this is what the New Testament taught, but I would never try to split the church over it.  I didn’t think you had to have this, I simply couldn’t lie.  I thought this is the model that the Bible lays out. 

So we went to, we gave a draft of the constitution to the Deacons, the Deacons nominated a particular subcommittee to look at it as a Constitution subcommittee, it then—they had it for a year—it then went back to the Deacons, the Deacons hammered on it for a few months, they then gave it to the congregation.  That’s a shortened version of what happened.  The congregation had it for a few months, several open meetings to go over it, amendments were taken all the way along, both at the Deacons, the Constitution Committee, the Deacons again, a subcommittee of the Deacons, which was the Constitution Committee, the Deacons again, then the Constitution Committee composed also of members of the church at large, the Deacons again, then the congregation as a whole had it, and we finally passed it this past May, 1998, but it was in that process for about two years.  But that whole time, it was a good time of education, as people were looking and thinking about Scripture together, and at the end we only had one vote against it.  And even that, there was no malice or rancor