What is a church covenant?
“What is the purpose of a membership covenant and why is it so important to the local church?” This is a great starting point. Membership covenants function to promote church health and bolster the reputation and witness of the local church within the body and in the community. Within the church body, the importance of a membership covenant seems pretty obvious. Professor Chuck Lawless concluded after researching church membership patterns, that many church leaders find covenants vital to the health of a congregation because “a covenant…puts [clear membership] expectations in writing.” When it comes to a healthy reputation within the community, the church covenant answers the question “how do Christians in a local church commit to living together?”
In the words of Mark Dever, “the form of the covenant is the way we express our commitment. The content of the covenant is the way we understand our commitment.” Membership covenants help clarify the expectations of membership by providing a biblical standard of behavior and educating individuals on what it means to be a member of a local church. Generally speaking, a church membership covenant is ‘a commitment to God and to one another as to how we will live out our faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ A church membership covenant is a reflection of the local church’s understanding of what the Bible teaches and expects of Christians associated with a local church. While many churches have a statement of faith that articulates their theological convictions, a church membership covenant functions to articulate how those beliefs are to be lived out within the local body. In the words of many theologians, a membership covenant is the ‘ethical counterpart to a church’s doctrinal statement.’
It would seem that membership covenants are a key element to defining what the local church actually is. Historically speaking, a local church body is a group of believers who have associated by covenant and gather together around God’s word, thus distinguishing themselves from other local bodies and establishing the community to which the individuals are primarily committed and accountable.
The “J. Newton Brown Covenant” movement in Baptist life.
After examining the use of membership covenants, it becomes quite clear that one of the most widely used church covenants in Baptist churches was written in 1853 by J. Newton Brown. This covenant was published in the Baptist Church manual and later popularized by Broadman’s publication of the Baptist Hymnal. According to John Hammett, many Baptist churches have adopted this “extremely popular” covenant since its publication. However, the language of this covenant is very contextualized to the time period from which it was written. In fact, it could be argued that its language is so out of date that several of the expectations are unclear to the contemporary reader. Furthermore, several of the expectations in this covenant are either unbiblical ones or were articulated very differently than we would articulate them today.
If one closely examines Brown’s covenant, it becomes obvious that it is not sufficient for use because the membership expectations go beyond the teaching of Scripture. This is out of line with the Baptist conviction that the Bible is the final standard and authority for faith and practice since it is adding expectations the Bible does not demand. Furthermore, and possibly because of this, it is my opinion that Brown’s Covenant is not a document that a church could actually use without apology.
Arguments for the use of membership covenants in the Baptist church
1. Using Membership Covenants is consistent with Baptist history.
During the ferment following the Reformation, free churches, including Baptists, developed what came to be known as congregationalism. According to one historian, these early Baptists argued that the church was “congregational, gathered by an act of mutual confederation…expressed in a covenant.” The innovation of a congregational church associated by covenant had significant implications for ecclesiology. Stanley Grenz argues that “the move to covenant came to imply that the church exists only in local congregations. Where there is no covenanting community, there is no church. And the covenant is by its very nature local, being the agreement among a particular, visible group of believers.”
Historically speaking, Baptists have adopted church covenants. In fact, as mentioned above, many have adopted a covenant that is as old as 1853, but Baptists have been using covenants since at least the 17th century. In Charles W. Deweese’s study entitled Baptist Church Covenants he writes,
“Baptists worldwide have written and used hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of church covenants since initiating that development in England in the early 1600’s. They had viewed covenants, along with believer’s baptism and church discipline, as means of nurturing and safeguarding the New Testament emphasis on a regenerate church membership. Covenants deserve careful evaluation because they helped shape Baptist church membership standards and practices.”
The argument from history is sound – church covenants have been an important aspect of Baptist history for hundreds of years. Even the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states that “a New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel.”
2. Using Membership Covenants follows the New Testament pattern for the local church.
The authors of the New Testament always assumed that the local churches to whom they were writing had a clear understanding of who was a member of the church and who was not. A church membership covenant that has been agreed to by each church member clearly demarcates the boundary of the local church.
In New Testament times, there was only one church per city, and thus all believers in a city were members of the same church. Accordingly, when Paul wrote to believers in various cities, he was writing to the local assembly of Christians in that city. In I Corinthians 5, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for continuing to allow an unrepentant sinner into fellowship. He commands them to remove the man from the body in verse 2. Later in the passage he tells the church not to associate with the man. How could he do this unless there was a clear understanding of who was a committed accountable member and who was not? In Colossians 4:5, Paul distinguishes between those in the church and outside by calling the Colossian believers to walk in wisdom toward outsiders. In Galatians 6:10, Paul tells the believers in the Galatian churches to do good to everyone, especially to those of the household of faith. Simply put, this could only have been done if they knew who was “in” and who was “out” of the covenant community.
Deweese even notes that early Baptists based their church membership ideals and practices upon New Testament patterns. They reached four basic conclusions:
- Admission standards for membership should be high.
- Believer’s baptism is required for membership and helps safeguard the regenerate nature of church life.
- Church members should consistently meet biblical requirements for doctrinal soundness, repentant living, and faithful covenant relationships.
- Discipline should be administered according to the covenantal expectations of church membership.
3. Membership Covenants provide a clear expectation for church membership.
Ideally a covenant would be reaffirmed at membership meetings and read aloud before partaking in the Lord’s Supper to clearly remind members of their commitment to one another. A church covenant should also be initiated and agreed to by potential members before joining. Thabiti Anyabwile argues that many people are indifferent, ignorant, and indecisive towards church membership. These stances come from a “failure to understand or take seriously God’s intent that the local church be central to the life of his people. People don’t become committed church members – and therefore healthy Christians – because they don’t understand that such a commitment is precisely how God intends his people to live out the faith and experience Christian love.”
It could be argued that many people today do not realize that by joining a church, they are agreeing to be a part of a body, and are thus held accountable by that body. Adopting a church covenant and having all members agree to the covenant, ideally ensures that everyone in fellowship understands this facet of church life. On the other hand, if people want a clear explanation as to what is involved in joining a local church, a membership covenant provides those expectations. Covenants also provide clear guidelines for loving church discipline which is vital to maintaining the health and witness of the church. If there is no clear expectation for the believers in a church, then the congregation has no basis for rebuking a fellow member in sin. While the Bible is the final and ultimate standard for faith and practice, it is absolutely necessary that we establish our understanding of the biblical teaching since the Bible is interpreted so differently from church to church.
If the church were ever to be sued by a disgruntled member who had been disciplined by the church, the church would be legally protected from any accusation if all members of the church agreed to the membership covenant. This may seem like an unlikely hypothetical situation to some, but this would not be out of character for our society.
4. Membership Covenants establish a clear teaching as to the nature of the church.
A membership covenant provides church leaders with a helpful tool for explaining and teaching potential (and current) church members what it means to live in a Godly way in relation to one another. The American Church as a whole struggles with consumerism, nominalism and individualism. A membership covenant could effectively combat and confront the idea that church is a place where ‘I come to get my needs met.’ It also combats the idea that the Christian life is ‘only’ about me and my personal relationship with Christ. Finally, it combats the idea that I can grow up in the church and be a Christian and just do whatever I want without any consequences. A membership covenant teaches that there are ongoing responsibilities and expectations of those who claim to follow Christ.
Addressing potential objections to the use of membership covenants in the Baptist church.
Objection 1: “Membership covenants are not Baptistic.”
Historically, Baptists have in fact found covenants to be central to their church life. Baptist historian R. Stanton Norman points out that, “Seventeenth-century Baptists customarily formed new congregations by ‘covenanting’ with God and with one another to walk together in the ways of Christ. The persons who were to be constituted as members of a church would write their covenant, and they would sign their names to the document at a public meeting.”
As recently as June of 2008, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming the importance of regenerate church membership. Baptists have always believed that membership covenants are a vital aspect to ensuring this in the local church. So clearly, the concept of a membership covenant is not only Baptist, but it has always been central to Baptist life and polity.
Objection 2: “Our only standard is the Bible, not human documents.”
This is an important objection because at face value, the idea of a church membership covenant seems to violate the Reformation principle of ‘Scripture alone.’ But, as mentioned before, a church membership covenant should be a summary or a reflection of the biblical teaching. Because the Bible is quoted by so many and interpreted various ways, it is important for us as a church to clarify the standards we think Scripture teaches in a document.
While we believe that Scripture is the ultimate and final authority, doctrinal statements clarify our understanding of the doctrinal teachings of Scripture. Again, Baptist theologians have often said that a membership covenant is the ‘ethical counterpart to a doctrinal statement.’ Both are needed to clarify the local church’s understanding of both faith and practice.
Objection 3: “Requiring that all new and current members agree to a membership covenant is too exclusive and demanding.”
This objection seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the nature of the church. The church is made up of believers only. Only those who have recognized their sin, repented, and trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins are allowed to join the church. Those who truly believe in Christ and repent will turn from sin and thus commit themselves to live holy and righteous lives. The church is therefore an exclusive community, but an exclusive community that seeks to proclaim the gospel so that other may enter into it.
Also, if we were to be inclusive and allow people to join the church who refuse to commit to holy living and accountability, we do more harm to non-believers and to Christ. We harm non-believers by giving them comfort and assurance that they are saved when in fact they are not. We harm Christ by destroying His reputation in the church by allowing unrepentant people to claim to be His followers.
Objection 4: “By requiring new members to agree to the membership covenant, we will discourage people from joining.”
This objection might be true, but only for some people. Take three different people as examples: 1) non-Christians, 2) Christians with a misunderstanding of the biblical model of membership, and 3) other Christians.
In order to protect the church, leadership would hopefully want to discourage people who refuse to repent and believe in Jesus from joining. So, this requirement might discourage people from joining who should not join, which is a good thing. But, there are those who truly repent of their sin and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins who, due to the tradition they have been taught, do not think they should have to agree to such a document to join a church. In this case, requiring such action might discourage them from joining, but it may also provide the church with the opportunity to teach a healthy understanding of Christian community. It is wise for Christians to commit themselves to others and hold one another accountable.
Finally, it might actually be the case that for a good number of Christians, requiring that new members agree to a membership covenant will attract people to the church because they will see that we take following Christ and the commitment to maintain a healthy body seriously. As Baptists, this is the core of our confessional nature, which understands that is a privilege for a person to say, “I stand on these truths with this covenant community. And as a matter of mutual accountability before God, and under the authority of Scripture, we join together to hold ourselves accountable to contend faithfully for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, even as we address the urgent issues for the contemporary hour.” (Albert Mohler)