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In the shadow of the Supreme Court, churches urged to reexamine bylaws


DISTRICT HEIGHTS, Md. — Now, more than ever, Churches of Christ need clearly defined bylaws, said Melvin Otey. 

The former U.S. Justice Department attorney recently spoke to a diverse, multiracial crowd of ministers and church leaders from up and down the East Coast. They gathered in the auditorium of the District Heights Church of Christ, about seven miles east of the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 26, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of recognizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Willie Hubbard
“We are at ground zero,” said Willie Hubbard, minister for the District Heights church, who invited Otey to speak after the landmark decision. 

Otey, now an associate professor at Faulkner University’s Jones School of Law, has traveled the country advising churches about updating their bylaws to avoid potential lawsuits. The Montgomery, Ala., university is associated with Churches of Christ.

Bylaws — the rules and regulations that provide a framework for a church’s operation and organization — can be a source of contention in a fellowship that claims “no creed but Christ,” readers told The Christian Chronicle. 

In response to recent coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision, several church members balked at the idea of relying on man-made statements for legal protection.

“Is Scripture alone not sufficient for our faith and practice?” one reader asked.

Otey stressed that “bylaws don’t control us. But they can help keep the government off of us so we don’t have to spend money fighting in court.”

“Every church needs to pull their bylaws,” he added. Church leaders must examine these policies “with a completely fresh eye in light of the circumstances and update as necessary to deal with the current environment.”

Melvin Otey
Among the policies churches should reinvestigate are those pertaining to the use of church-owned facilities, Otey said. Churches need clearly defined rules for permitting their facilities to be used for weddings and what genders are allowed in church bathrooms. In some cases, churches must define “gender.”

Otey stressed the need for churches to tie all policies to the Bible to protect against lawsuits by same-sex couples or transgender individuals.

Adopting such policies presents challenges for churches as they seek and save lost souls.

“We are obligated to love those who are in sin,” said Roger Kondrup, minister for the Salisbury Church of Christ in Maryland. But churches must not function in a way that promotes sin, he added.

The Salisbury church’s bylaws were written in the 1950s to meet state requirements at the time, Kondrup said, and will “absolutely have to be changed” in light of the Supreme Court decision.


Ministers and church members listen to Melvin Otey during a meeting hosted by the District Heights Church of Christ in Maryland. (PHOTO BY HAMIL HARRIS)

Other ministers, including Ed Maxwell of the Suitland Road Church of Christ in Maryland and D. Anthony Goodman of the Capital Church of Christ in Annapolis, Md., said they would revisit and revise their bylaws based on what they learned at the meeting.

“The worst thing that we can do is nothing,” said Leonard Wooten, who traveled from Miami, where he ministers for the Goulds Church of Christ, to attend the meeting.

As they strive to meet the legal requirements of a changing society, churches shouldn’t stray from their mission, Otey said. 

“We have to preach what the Bible preaches,” he said. “We can’t be afraid to preach the truth, but we have to be loving and wise in saying what the Bible says.”
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