Church Covenants Are Reflective of the New Covenant


Historic Membership Vows

I have to level at least some disagreement with this article by Wade Burleson on church covenants. I don’t see any reason to adopt one extreme in reaction to another–simply because some use church covenants to abuse others does not mean that they are inherently bad. A few things…

1) Sig
ning a church covenant does not automatically rule out the Spirit’s work or the influence of others in your life. Nor does it mean that the elders are the only authority in a church–think about it–a covenant is a voluntary engagement on the part of an individual or family to abide by legitimate authority (or at least it should be). That in and of itself should communicate that entering into an agreement means you have some level of power and protection as a member of the body. To assert that a covenant makes you powerless simply because you’ve given your permission in agreeing to it is groundless. What if the covenant contains proper hooks for the behavior and obligations of elders as well? Doesn’t this really depend on how a covenant is written?

2) The assertion that a church covenant establishes a mediatorial role between God and the person signing is simply baseless. All Christians are priests of a sort and function in a healing or intermediary way–that fact doesn’t make the mediatorial role of Christ any less and simply recognizing legitimate authority in the church on the part of her ministers in writing doesn’t disturb that in the slightest.

3) A church may believe that the church is equivalent to the kingdom of God but not all churches do nor do all church covenants contain such an equivocation. In fact, most church covenants I have read do not seem to confuse the matter.

4) A church covenant is designed typically to help provide discipline for its members and to enable members to commit to the Christian way of life together. Abusive environments may use it to enforce authoritarian structures, but I venture to guess that most covenants are simply lining out what they think the Scriptures teach about elders, ecclesiastical authority, and faithfulness to the gospel in the life of a church. Are we really going to argue that there shouldn’t be any authority in churches and that such should never be reflected in any sort of written format? I think that’s a bit anarchic and extreme. Clearly, the Scriptures endorse some levels of authority in the churches.

5) Matthew 5:37 does not forbid oaths or contracts (after all, no one I know has an issue with wedding vows!). Matthew 5:37 has a problem with disingenuous speech that invokes oaths when one isn’t certain they can keep the oath or may not really be interested in fulfilling their vow.

Additionally, I also have to object to the notion that churches who disagree with Baptists about how to work out details between the church and the state are necessarily abusive. This contention by Wade is doubly ironic when he’s comparing 17th century Church of England proponents to Baptist elders in the 21st century. The matter is simply apples and oranges. Anglicans and Presbyterians who believe that the church should be involved with the state do so on principled grounds and not because they are engaging in ministerial abuse. It’s an inappropriate and anachronistic comparison.To me, however, the largest problem with Wade’s article is that it is very individualistic and seems to only speak to his rights or concern in the matter. But, the problem is that the church is a community of people united with a common purpose and creed. You can’t simply write off the fact that there are some basic things about being a Christian that one should follow.

That said, I agree that some church covenants are bad and some elders in particular environments misuse them. But, again, in such a case it’s not really the covenant that is the problem but rather elders behaving badly. A lack of a covenant, too, won’t help with the real problem of elders that abuse the flock.  In fact, in some cases it may make the matter worse and harder to spot.

When someone is baptized or joins a church via a profession of faith, they essentially are introduced into *the* New Covenant. That carries obligations as a disciple–and the covenants that people draw up today are emblematic of the reality of the matter in that regard. You simply can’t bypass the obligations of being a church member and Christian because you want to be free and independent. While I agree that the pendulum shouldn’t swing to overly authoritarian and abusive elders and covenants, we also can’t let it swing to the sort of anarchy and wackiness we have in place in many circles today where being a Christian is actually more like participating in moral therapeutic deism than it is obeying
the commandments and following Jesus Christ with all that you are. These sorts of membership covenants are a reaction against that and in many cases, a legitimate reaction. Biblical wisdom is called for–not extremism.

Last, we have to remember that church covenants aren’t new and they aren’t extreme.  Christians have been using membership vows in Reformed and other circles for hundreds of years.  They didn’t simply originate in reaction to today’s spiritual excesses on the part of the American church but reflect a long tradition of faithfulness among Christ’s disciples.