Same Sex Marriage Information for Churches
Many of you have asked me for information regarding same sex marriage and what your church should do to protect itself. Below you will find a letter from the GBC attorney, Tom Duvall. Please take the time to thoroughly read this letter and it will help you understand the steps your church needs to take.
This is the information I have provided to churches as they look at same sex marriage and related issues. This has been getting a lot of attention since the courts have been issuing rulings on gay marriages and we are expecting a decision from the US Supreme Court in the near future. After we have a ruling from the Supreme Court we can determine how to more appropriately respond to the many issues being raised by churches and religious groups regarding human sexuality, same sex marriage, public accommodation, use of church facilities, church membership, etc.
However, even before the court’s decision I have advised churches that they should look at adding language in the church constitution or bylaws stating the church’s view as to what constitutes marriage and what marriages are allowed at the church. Because Baptist churches are autonomous and handle matters differently, there is not a one fits all statement for churches when dealing with same sex marriage and other human sexuality issues. However, churches should consider dealing with these issues in the church constitution or bylaws.
Generally, I find that the pastor and church leadership like to study the matter and review various options before stating or amending the church’s position on marriage. Often the church goes into detail and adds language and Scripture references regarding a Biblical view of marriage. I recommend that the church study this and come up with its own statement as to what constitutes marriage, what marriages can be performed by church staff, and what marriages can be performed on church property. The church can also address other human sexuality issues at that time. I have attached a number of links below providing good information with suggested language about these issues. Also, there is other information if you do a Google search on the issues.
I do not provide suggested wording for churches as that is difficult to do since I am not able to review the church’s constitution, bylaws, or policies to determine how it all fits together. Also, because of local church autonomy, Baptist churches have a variety of views and positions regarding marriage, use of church property, etc. However, the articles and information linked below go into detail about what churches should consider in their constitution, bylaws, or policies relating to these matters. I suggest that those in your church looking at these issues review the information, print out what is needed, and determine how your church wants to respond and amend its constitution, bylaws, or policies.
Some churches have questions about the use of the church property. Some of the information provided through the links below discuss how to deal with that. This issue is of more concern if the church rents its facilities to outsiders (non-church members) as compared with churches that only allow church members to use the facilities. In addition to the information below I have attached a section from one church’s bylaws which is very detailed going into human sexuality issues and the use of church property. I do not remember which church this bylaw provision is from and it may go into too much detail and be too wordy, but it has information and language on human sexuality issues.
Regarding the formality of the church adopting a policy or position on same sex marriage, generally the more formal the better and it is best to have it in the church constitution or bylaws. To amend either document the church should follow the process for amending as set out in the constitution or in the bylaws. The church should not attempt to amend either document except by carefully following the process required.
I also recommend that the church add a statement in its constitution or bylaws to provide that the church is the sole interpreter of Holy Scripture. That provides an affirmative statement that the church determines what the Scripture means as to any matter. It is important to have the church affirmatively state that it (through whatever process it uses) determines how Scripture is interpreted. Courts are reluctant to get involved in ecclesiastical matters, whereas a court will decide other matters such as personnel issues, property rights, etc. Making a statement in the constitution or bylaws that the church is the sole interpreter of Scripture as it relates to the church and its members is an affirmative way of saying that the church decides theological or ecclesiastical matters. There is more information about this in the articles linked below.
Please understand that I am not providing legal representation or legal advice for churches and am only providing general comments which are not meant to be a substitute for legal advice or counsel. As attorney for the convention I am not in private practice and I do not represent individual churches. Should a church need legal advice regarding any changes to its constitution or bylaws, or any other matter, they should contact an attorney who can discuss their specific situation and advise them how to proceed.
However, hopefully the general comments and information I have provided will assist churches as they look at this matter.
Thomas O. Duvall
6405 Sugarloaf Parkway
Duluth, Georgia 30097