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Why is one covenant not enough?

Posted by on Aug 16, 2010 in community, fellowship, members | 18 comments

Why is one covenant not enough?

According to Jesus, all of those who belong to God are now covenanted with God. For example, Jesus said that his blood represents this new covenant:

And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28 ESV)

In the same way, Paul recognized that he currently served people who were under a new covenant with God:

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6 ESV)

Finally, the author of the book of Hebrews explains how Jesus (as our high priest) is a better mediator of this new covenant:

This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. (Hebrews 7:22 ESV)

So, all of those who are in Christ – who have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ – are covenanted together with God… not based on their (our) ability to keep a covenant, but based on God’s promises (for example, see Hebrews 10:23).

We are in a covenant with God, and are therefore covenanted together with one another. Our covenant with God includes new familial relationships with others who are covenanted with God. Just as God is our father, his children (and all of his children) are our brothers and sisters. Our familial responsibilities toward one another are included in our relationship with God.

Thus, I cannot choose how I should treat someone who is in Christ. That relationship and those responsibilities are already ours because of our joint relationship with God.

So, the question that I’ve been struggling and wrestling with is this: If we are already covenanted with God and if we are already brothers and sisters with one another, then why do we need a separate “church covenant”?

A “church covenant” can only do two things: 1) It can remind of us our relationships and responsibilities which already exist, whether we have a covenant or not. And 2) it can specify with whom we share those relationships and responsibilities.

If we are relying on a “church covenant” for reason #1 above, then the “church covenant” is nothing more than a reminder of the new covenant in Christ. We are already covenanted with God through Christ, and therefore covenanted with all other people who are part of the same covenant. Thus, this is really not a “church covenant” but the new covenant.

The problem with #2 above is that our relationships and responsibilities extend to all brothers and sisters in Christ that God brings into our lives. If we use a “church covenant” to include some believers and exclude others, then we are dividing the body of Christ and making distinctions that only God can make. We are trying to choose who to love and who to serve. (Of course, this makes life much easier, but it doesn’t make it a life that lived according to the gospel.)

So, why do we need a “church covenant”? Why is one covenant (the new covenant in Christ) not enough?


18 Comments

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  1. 8-16-2010

    Hey Alan, Missing you already.

    Good thoughts here. I have been struggling with this for almost two years. It’s good to hear someone else raising this question.

    I heard one response a while ago. It goes like this. “In order to practice church discipline you need to have a church covenant that everyone submits themselves to.” But this would fall under point #1 above. Church discipline should be based on the covenant of God not man’s covenants. If man’s cov’t is something different than the New cov’t it is illegitimate. And if the church’s cov’t is really based on the New Cov’t then it becomes redundant or superfluous.

  2. 8-16-2010

    Great post, great question and point well made. The Bible really is enough, isn’t it!

  3. 8-16-2010

    Alan,

    A few years ago during a time when my family was going to a “church” the gentleman who was pastor had resigned on his own accord and the “worship leader” became the new pastor.

    In that transition time the Lord was dealing with me on why and how we meet in the churches.
    The new pastor decided to get a “covenant” document together so all the people could sign it.
    Out of all the heads of the families and single people who went up during the service to sign it, I stayed seated and didn’t sign it.
    I felt in my heart the Lord telling me it wasn’t right.
    Later after the service the pastor then came and gently asked me why I didn’t come up and if everything was ok.
    I told him what I felt the Lord showed me.
    Another gentleman came and asked the same thing. He too wasn’t forsure if he should sign it, but fell to peer pressure.
    Needless to say it was a few weeks after that the Lord had called my wife and I out of that situation.
    Also the full purpose for the new pastor having that document was so that if anyone was out of line he felt more at liberty to institute “church discipline”.

    The only covenant God recognizes is His that was bought with His sons blood. And that in itself is enough.
    As Jesus stated on the cross:
    “It is finished”

    Amen

    Steven

  4. 8-16-2010

    I think the “church covenant” is often used as a tool (for church discipline, or whatever) in the absence of true relationships.

    -Alan

  5. 8-16-2010

    Interesting question. I think the answer is that one covenant is enough especially since the typical church covenant is meaningless. I recall when I was hired as a bi-vocational pastor at a small SBC. In the entry way was the church covenant, signed by the members of the church at that time. At the top of the list was the pastor and his wife, but they left for a full-time pastoral gig. Many of the other members who had signed on also left, many because that particular pastor left. Ever since I have seen these “church covenants” as both an extra-biblical tradition and an essentially meaningless document. We should absolutey be committed to those we regularly gather with but we should also be committed to all who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. A church covenant seems like an excuse to ignore those who are not part of “my church”.

  6. 8-16-2010

    Oh, Alan!

    “the “church covenant” is often used as a tool (for church discipline, or whatever) in the absence of true relationships”

    How much that explains about the organization, processes, measurements, and control mechanisms in the “church” today.

  7. 8-16-2010

    Alan,

    I fully agree with your thoughts in this necessary article! Church covenants are often used like as a guarantee of non dissent. If a member of the congregation happens to disagree on some matter, the fact that they have signed the covenant is brought to their notice, whether the issue has any bearing on the content of the covenant or not.

  8. 9-28-2011

    ‘Churches’ use a covenant simply as a means of control. It seems the pastor wants to assume the ‘head’ position of Christ and exercise this assumed authority. It also finds purpose in the tally of tithes so the CEO/pastor can budget and cover ‘business’ expenses. It is unbiblical, but we shouldn’t stop there. Church in itself is unbiblical in the sense and model we know it to be. We are the church and function as such only by the regeneration and power of His Spirit. It is compromise to partake in the ‘model’ most refer to as church. If we are not living as the church DAILY, then maybe we are just settling for accepted religion. He paid the highest price… and we are content to play church? ENOUGH!!

  9. 4-10-2012

    Belonging to a denomination that is BIG on covenants I have wrestled with this quite a bit. In fact, I was placed in a position where I had to weigh one covenant over another (marriage vs. ordination) and still have lingering negative feelings about it. That said, I would defend the idea of church covenant if it serves to challenge and clarify the individual’s role as church member within the context of the new covenant with Christ. Our membership covenant outlines the church doctrines and behaviours related. Where administered properly this provides for a basic understanding and consensus for membership that enhances the covenant with Christ through understanding and commitment to action. The covenant used for leaders / clergy is similar and more involved. They are not inherently negative.

    But this is where fallen man fouls it all up :) What often happens is that the ‘secondary’ covenant becomes the ‘law’ covenant – being both upheld and administered as a punitive document. The good intention of these covenants is usurped by the neglect of the context wherein they are made – the covenant of Christ and therefore grace and mercy. Sadly we are all too quick as humans to point out the splinters in one anothers’ eyes, especially when we have provided for ourselves a magnifying glass with which to view them!

    If we can have a church where the members understand the covenant of Christ and live it – without supplementary vow or documentation – then we have soemthing wonderful indeed. If a church can utilize a membership or leadership covenant to bring clarity to doctrine and a clear understanding of the relationship that member has in the congregation, within the context of the covenant of Christ, then we’ve nothing to fear. Either task is incredibly hard and will require much grace and love to implement. So to me the question lies in whether the individual finds value and help by making a secondary covenant that defines their beliefs and relationship to the church. Making a covenant to define a relationship is a holy event provided it is taken seriously and does not supersede the relationship with Christ. It’s not the covenant that’s bad.

  10. 10-19-2012

    Forgive me for my ignorance. I have been part of 7 different denominations over my 38 years, spanning three countries. Never once have I heard of a church covenant! I didn’t even get what you were talking about Alan until I read the comments. I can’t think of a greater tool for human control, simply disgusting and out of order on so many levels. It goes without saying that you are right Alan, but I am surprised that such a concept even existed (but why should I be, that is the wont of institution I guess).

  11. 10-19-2012

    Paul,

    That’s interesting. Yes, church covenants or church membership agreements are very common among the groups that I’m familiar with.

    -Alan

  12. 3-29-2013

    It sounds to me that they are more common in America, which confirms my suspicion that American Evangelicalism is far more legalistic. Wow… and ouch!

  13. 4-2-2013

    Paul,

    That could be true. I’m much more familiar with the church in America, and in a couple of places in other countries that were highly influenced by certain traditions among the church in America.

    -Alan

  14. 6-24-2013

    Alan,

    I’m a brother who sees some positive value in a church covenant on both fronts that you mention. The implication of your first question is we don’t need any help enumerating responsibilities for fellowship because they are already given to us in the new covenant, which I imagine you would say includes the descriptors given in the Bible of how to live that out. But I suggest we do need some help with such guidelines that promote fellowship and speak to responsibilities. In Acts 15 the church leadership put together a church covenant of fellowship for the Jews and Gentiles to worship together. They didn’t call it that but that’s what it was– some guidelines to promote fellowship. They enumerated two things that the believers were to commit to do in their local churches. Abstain from meat with blood in it and sexual immorality. Why didn’t the leaders at Jerusalem just say, “Hey guys, the new covenant is enough. Why should we specifically point out anything you need to do for fellowship with one another?” The answer, I believe, is they recognized the need to help with some specific tangible things that promoted and encouraged fellowship– a church covenant can do that for us in our day.

    And in regard to the second question, though I agree that I have responsibility to all believers that God brings into my life, in our very mobile society with literally tens if not hundreds of assemblies to choose from, and so many professing believers bouncing from assembly to assembly, having a church covenant truly does help us know who sees themselves as a part of our church family.

    I appreciated the commitments of your church family. We are more ‘institutional’ than Messiah but at the same time desire to reflect the heart of some of your commitments.

    -Jimmy

  15. 6-24-2013

    Jimmy,

    Thank you for the comment and the thoughtful response. I actually think that your example from Acts 15 proves my point. The church in Jerusalem did not send that letter to one church to be a covenant for that one church. Instead, that letter was sent to all churches to help all churches deal with Gentile/Jewish relationships among believers. Today, “church covenants” are only intended for one group of believers. This is the problem.

    -Alan

  16. 6-25-2013

    It’s funny how that works brother. We both look at the same example and see it meaning two different things. I think it’s evidence that its ok to single out some specific commitments for fellowship and you do not. Though our covenant is directed specifically at those who own BCBC as their church family, I do believe that the covenant agreement we have made is the same covenant agreement Messiah should be making as NT believers. You may word it different, in your case you may not word it at all. I by no means believe that makes me right and you wrong or vice versa. I guess it just means that we each must answer to our Savior and what is not of faith is sin. And so the body continues to divide into small fellowships seeking to follow our Savior as faithfully as we can. I look forward to, even long for the day, that Jesus comes and brings the ultimate unity we have in Him. For now we continue to walk in the unity of the Spirit that we have in Christ though we may do things a bit different.

    Blessings brother,
    Jimmy

  17. 6-25-2013

    Jimmy,

    For me, the question is this: Does your covenant with one group of believers extend to all believers who God brings into your life (i.e., coworkers, neighbors, family members, school mates), even if they are not “in covenant” with you? If not, then that covenant is separating brothers and sisters from one another based on an organization (i.e., one church organization versus other church organizations). If it does extend to all, then the covenant is not necessary.

    -Alan

  18. 11-16-2013

    Thanks Alan,
    These are my sentiments exactly. I went through the membership class at the church and was basically told if you are not a member than you are looked at this way or considered to be this and if you are, you can have these privileges and will be under these rules and will be treated this way. Wow that is not Christ! Membership does have it’s privileges. My wife and refused to sign the covenants and I also shared my thoughts with our pastor and was told that’s not what it’s about and told thank you for my thoughts. I have really felt divided and conflicted since then, but not as much as the day my pastor said, if God has placed something on your heart and you need share it come on up, but “member only” please. That “members only” statement devastated me. I have since withdrawn from this congregation and really feel like an outsider now. Thanks for your thoughts