the weblog of Alan Knox

The Church Covenant…

Posted by on Jan 16, 2007 in discipline, members | 10 comments

As a child of God, I am in covenant with God – the New Covenant. This is a covenant that he made with me, that he secures, and that he regulates. He sets the responsibilities and duties for this covenant. He also determines the blessings of this covenant. In ethical terms, this is a “political covenant” as opposed to a “social covenant”.

Our church also has a covenant. Each person who desires to “join” our church covenants with one another.

Now, church covenants can be a very good thing. Church covenants can remind us of the responsibilities and duties that we have toward one another: responsibilities and duties that given to all believers by God. In fact, Scripture speaks frequently of these requirements. Most of them include the phrase “one another”: love one another, accept one another, forgive one another, encourage one another, admonish one another, etc.

However, church covenants can have a detrimental effect on believers. Many times church covenants are used to separate the church into exclusive groups.

For example, I was recently asked if I felt that I was responsible for meeting the needs of a believer who was not part of “our church”. (Note, this was not asked by someone who was a part of our church.) I answered, “If God reveals a need to me, and provides the means to meet that need, then I am responsible for meeting that need, whether or not that person is a member of our church.” The other person disagreed with me. Why? Because I was not “covenanted” with the other believer. According to this person, I was only responsible for those with whom I was “covenanted”.

Also, the idea of “covenant” is sometimes suggested as a limit to church discipline. A person is only responsible for “disciplining” a believer if he or she belongs to the same church, i.e. they are covenanted together.

In these two examples, the “church covenant” is used as a means of separating the church into mutually exclusive groups.

However, I cannot find an example in Scripture of one believer being “covenanted” with another believer. Every Christian is in covenant with God, and because of the New Covenant, we have responsibilities, some of which describe how we should relate to other believers. In Scripture, these responsibilities are not limited to certain believers. Yes, I understand that I cannot carry out these responsibilities toward people that I have never met. I am not arguing for that. Instead, I am arguing that we are responsible for how we relate to all believers that God brings across our path, not just those believers with whom we share membership.

I enjoy reading the church covenant with our church. It reminds me of the responsibilities that God has placed on me… but not just toward certain believers… toward all believers.


10 Comments

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  1. 1-17-2007

    I see the whole ‘my church’ vs. ‘your church’ thing differently since I have been in Middle Earth. There were only 3 believing families in the first city I lived in. Visitors came. Other agencies came. We hosted and helped all we could. Hotels here were a nightmare then and little better now. We served everyone, prayed with everyone, had communion with not a few. I don’t even know the denomination of most of them. They were brothers and sisters in need and even a cursory reading of the NT shows us that a key doctine of true followers of Christ is hospitality. So, here we are debating the so-called local church thing again. There are lots of good scrptures to back it up. Like that one that says ‘One faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all…’ Oh, wait not that one… how about that guy who asked who is my neighbor? Oh, wait, that might not be a good example either. I know, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ You know the Lord never really answered that one straight out did he?
    Bottom line for me? We can draw lines in the sand all day long but Almighty God declares us to be one family and he will not recognize our artificial divisions. You will be held accountable for everyone you were supposed to have loved and did not.

  2. 1-17-2007

    About church discipline: “Moreover if your brother sins against you,” (Matt 18:15) … so if church discipline is only between covenanting members, then they are the only ones we can call brothers.
    So when Ananias calls Paul “brother Paul” (Acts 9:17), he did that because they had just covenanted with one another. Also based on that understanding, all the other uses of the term brother (34 times in Paul, 22 times in the general epistles) are really restricted to covenanting members. Wow, that really gives me much freedom while I am in Europe … no brothers there that I might make stumble!
    Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated the absurdity of the concept.

  3. 1-17-2007

    Strider,

    You said, “We can draw lines in the sand all day long but Almighty God declares us to be one family and he will not recognize our artificial divisions.” This is key for me. If God holds me responsible, then my excuses and justifications are meaningless. Keep searching Scripture for commands to separate from one another. If you find one, let me know. I’ve been looking… haven’t found anything yet.

    Maël,

    Again, great thoughts concerning church discipline. You’ve been thinking about discipline quite a bit lately. Should I be concerned?

    -Alan

  4. 1-17-2007

    Alan,
    Covenant language in churches makes me a little jumpy due to some of the extremes and abuses you mentioned.

    I wonder if as we broaden our understanding of the ekklesia, perhaps we should consider ourselves responsible to love all of our brothers and sisters with that same sense of covenant.

    I would be interested in hearing about what distinguishes your covenant relationship with a local brother in Christ from your relationship with another local brother in Christ that you aren’t “in covenant” with.

    I always enjoy hearing your thoughts about how the church functions.

  5. 1-17-2007

    Grace,

    Thanks for stopping by. You asked, “What distinguishes your covenant relationship with a local brother in Christ from your relationship with another local brother in Christ that you aren’t ‘in covenant’ with.” In one word? Nothing. In fact, as I tried to say in this post, I am in covenant with God. My relationships with others flows from my covenant relationship with God, not from a covenant with other believers.

    -Alan

  6. 1-17-2007

    Alan,
    I got confused with which “our church” you were referring to.

    I misunderstood that you had implemented a covenant with “your church” when it looks like you are saying that “a church” that you are a part of uses a covenant.

    My mistake. Sometimes discussions about church can be like an episode of “who’s on first.” :)

    Anyway, all of that to say, I totally agree with you!

  7. 1-17-2007

    The church definitely exists on local, national and international levels as the body of Christ, but I can’t think of a single Scripture that makes the participants in a local fellowship of believers uniquely “covenanted” to one another above the needs and concerns of believers in other gatherings. What about the collection taken up for the brethren in Jerusalem? By this concept of church covenant, that was entirely unnecessary.

  8. 1-17-2007

    grace,

    Wording is so tricky in this area… “Our” church – that is, the church that my family mainly gathers with – does have a church covenant. I see it as a reminder of our responsibilities toward all believers, not as excluding others from those responsibilities. I hope that makes sense.

    Adam,

    Again, welcome. So far, I have not been able to find any Scripture that indicates that some Christians are isolated/separated/excluded from other believers (except in the case of discipline).

    I have one question about your comment. What did you mean by this statement: By this concept of church covenant, that was entirely unnecessary.

    -Alan

  9. 1-18-2007

    I had been wondering for sometime if there would ever be a discussion concerning church covenants on this blog.

    A while back after I had already become convinced that the origin of church covenants was not to be found in Scripture, I came across an article on the 9Marks Ministry website (www.9marks.org) written from a Baptist perspective entitled “Membership Matters – What is Our Church Covenant?”. As you noted Alan, church covenants can be a good thing and the article highlights this fact. However, after answering the question “What is a ‘Church Covenant’?”, the article provided the following explanation for the origin of church covenants:

    “Now that we know what church covenants are, where do they come from? Well, not from the Bible – not, at least, in the sense of being able to turn to the Book of Covenants chapter 3.But we do see examples of covenants both in the Old and the New Testaments – covenants between God and man, and between man and man. Moses gives a covenant from God to the people of Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah do so as well. And in the NT we find that “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, which is the new covenant in Christ’s blood”. Primarily, church covenants come from the understanding that churches are to be composed of people who are truly born again. This is what we call regenerate church membership.

    “In the 16th century, men and women of deep conviction broke away from the Roman Catholic Church to form congregations who understood the importance of the doctrine known as justification by faith alone in Christ alone. No longer did baptism or membership bring supposed new life. Joining and being part of a church was no longer a civic duty or just part of growing up. It was becoming what it was always intended to be – a response of faith to the truth of the gospel.”

    Given this explanation, I was left to ponder a number of questions (…What exactly is the author calling a church? When is a church not always composed of born-again believers? On what basis can born-again believers dictate who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the temple of the Holy Spirit? Why are there more references to the Old Testament than to the New?…) but one in particular that is relevant to the current discussion: As Christ is the Mediator of a better covenant, could any single church covenant ever hope to capture and convey in a brief written statement all that His new covenant entails?

    In the same way that I believe denominationalism causes groups of Christians to focus on one set of biblical truths at the expense of others, I see church covenants as having a similar effect. (At least among churches that take them seriously…which is another topic altogether.) There’s not only the concern of creating divides between fellow groups of Christians but also in representing the new covenant that believers share in Christ disproportionately.

    I think the kids are all asleep now. My cue to join them.

    Stan

  10. 1-18-2007

    Stan,

    Since you have known for some time that the convenant discussion was forthcoming, I’ll assume that you meant you were waiting to respond.

    I agree. Church covenant do not originate with Scripture. Therefore, they are unnecessary. And, as you pointed out, they can be dangerous.

    -Alan