A Membership Covenant is a Biblical Idea
One of the questions that gets asked at Bridge Baptist Church is whether we have biblical warrant to a Membership Covenant or not. Does this church really have the right to place expectations regarding belief and behavior on its members? Does Bridge Baptist Church have cause to ask prospective members to hold to a certain common faith and to live according to a certain Christian ethic? The short answer is: yes.
The book of Hebrews was written to back-sliding Christianized Jews, and the author of Hebrews discusses the differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant in chapters 8-9. The author is clearly trying to persuade these wayward Jews not to continue in their backsliding. He couches most of his prose in terms of covenant language. This is interesting. The sign of the Old Covenant was circumcision, and the sign of the New Covenant is Baptism. But both symbols have certain behavioral, doctrinal, and moral principles attached. They both carry an ethical guideline and anticipate that individuals who engage in those symbols of mutual Covenant will be accountable to those symbols, not because of the symbols themselves, but because of the realities that those symbols represent. The reason that the author of Hebrews is writing the letter is because these Jews got baptized but decided to go on living like Jews. It’s comparable to a man getting married, putting a wedding ring on his finger, and going on to hit on other girls at Cactus Jack’s!
Because of their behavior, the author of Hebrews starts discussing consequences for bad behavior in chapter 10, verses 26-39. If you think about it, Hebrews is nothing more than an explanation of the doctrine of Christ, an explanation of the differences between the two Covenants, and a demand that these Christians start living according to their Baptism. Warnings and blessings are scattered throughout accompanied by examples of people under the covenants who were either punished or blessed because of their faithfulness, and the letter concludes with an exhortation to certain moral behavior. Many historical church covenants have a lot of common ground with the pattern and purpose of the book of Hebrews. In fact, a Church Membership Covenant is really nothing more than a document that is based on the pattern of the book of Hebrews. It is a document that affirms adherence to a certain Christology and attaches certain moral and behavioral guidelines to faith in Christ. An appendix to the Covenant that discusses consequences or church discipline for a failure to adhere to those guidelines is nothing more than a snapshot of Hebrews 10:26-39.
In conclusion, a Membership Covenant is a biblical idea. A membership covenant does not violate the Scriptures but allows prospective members an opportunity to honor those Scriptures, and to make a commitment towards honoring the Scriptures.
A Signed Covenant is Counter to the Typical Church Culture and Helps Develop Koinonia Fellowship
We do believe in a Membership Covenant because we think it’s faithful to Biblical Koinonia Fellowship. With churches on every street corner it is way too easy for people to hop from church to church. They tend to hop from church to church for several reasons, and not all of them are necessarily bad. But at the end of the day the opportunity to church hop reinforces a mentality that church is nothing more than a country club that provides services and spiritual goods, and their interest is merely a consumer’s interest. When we approach the church of the Bible, we find a brotherhood. There were not churches on every street corner. So these guys were bound to each other like survivors in a life-raft on a hurricane tossed ocean. They needed each other, they loved each other, and they protected each other. At the end of the day we should view ourselves in the same way as flesh and blood brothers, not patrons of the same country club. Our loyalty should be to each other as family, not to the institution.
One of the things that we’ve seen happen in the Life Groups is the slow formation of true Koinonia Fellowship. The church is starting to become a tight-knit family, and that’s awesome to see! There has been healthy debate, and some members have had some disagreements with other members about the right way to pursue ministry, but everyone understands that they’ve made a binding commitment to each other. And everyone is seriously trying to work through those issues TOGETHER.
The reason we like a signed membership covenant is because you can talk about the formation of koinonia fellowship, and people will nod their heads and think that they understand it when they really don’t. As long as you have it in the back of your head that you can casually check out and go somewhere else, then you are kept from forming that relationship. A marriage is no marriage at all as long as both parties keep the reservation in the back of their heads that they can always get a divorce. A signature on a piece of paper is a person giving his word to certain things. We can buy a car on financing with nothing more than a signature. We can buy a house on mortgage with a signature. In our culture today when we make a binding commitment to something… we sign our name to a piece of paper that commits us to that thing. But when it comes to making a binding commitment to a church, one of the MOST important decisions we could ever make, we do it with a verbal commitment, a nod of the head, and a wink of the eye.
We live in an age in which every church on every street corner is attempting to lower the bar in terms of a binding commitment to a church because every church is trying to lure, entice, draw, and attract as many people as possible to their church. It’s the mega-church mentality run amok. Many pastors are attempting to build their own empire. So there are churches that are attempting to lure and entice our brothers away from our church so that they can build their own mega-churches. In doing this, they are inadvertently tampering with our church’s ability to develop true koinonia fellowship with each other, because to develop this koinonia will take time and energy. Koinonia doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years… The mega-church culture is attempting to build a large building with a lot of attendees in total disregard of Koinonia fellowship. However, a signed covenant means that people can’t easily and flippantly disregard their commitment to koinonia fellowship at our church when the church down the street opens up a really cool new ministry.
A Signed Covenant is a Useful Accountability Tool
Without a Membership Covenant it would be hard for any church to do two things: 1.) hold individual members to any standard of accountability, and 2.) hold the church congregation to a standard of accountability in seeking to be reconciled with any wayward members.
In the Western Church we may encounter average church goer, Joe and Sally, who live in blatant and unrepentant sin. They believe, erroneously, that they can do whatever they want with a subtle disregard for the interests of the church and the interests of Jesus Christ. They often make decisions that lead to subtle forms of idolatry – the most blatant and obvious being the inherent belief that they can leave the church whenever there is any disagreement and seek out a church that caters to their individualistic and personal whims. Joe and Sally at times will leave the church, abandon their family in Christ, and selfishly pursue whatever tickles their fancy. This is an all too common occurrence. By abandoning their church family they have removed themselves from their spiritual family which hinders their growth in Christ and helps them combat the ongoing struggle of sin. Sometimes Joe and Sally leave because they have grown weary in their struggle against sin, or worse – they have been enticed by the deceptive pleasures of sin and do not want the church to hold onto them in love. A signed membership covenant PROVES that there was a clear understanding between various parties at the beginning of the relationship BEFORE there was any conflict. A church that utilizes a signed membership covenant can honestly say that Joe and Sally fully knew what they were doing when they joined the church. A signed membership covenant becomes a piece of evidence in a court of law when members violate the other members of the church or selfishly pursue their own interests. It helps to establish a baseline and the church can hold people accountable to that baseline because the church can prove that they explained that baseline of behavior to Joe and Sally before they joined the church.
A Signed Covenant Empowers the Congregation to Reach Out in Love
It also helps to hold the church to a standard of accountability. Many in the church may not know Joe or Sally or do not have a relationship with them. As a result, many members in the church may be reluctant to pursue reconciliation with Joe and Sally. In the beginning of confrontation and conflict there may be a tempting desire to allow Joe and Sally to go in peace without confrontation over their subtle idolatry. But every member will know that this is not an option that will carry water with the leadership. Why? Because they also signed a covenant that clearly articulated certain responsibilities that were incumbent upon them in moments of crises. The church knows that they have a responsibility to Joe and Sally, to reach out to them and to love and care for them during this moment of crises. And so the church steps out in obedience and can call Joe and Sally back to church attendance and begin to appeal to Joe and Sally via the membership covenant to resolve their differences amicably. The church leadership is effectively able to hold the church to a standard of accountability to engage Joe and Sally in an act of reconciliation and redemption when few may want to. And this is very helpful. Because it further compounds Joe and Sally’s guilt for so flippantly disregarding their church. They have had a loving family reach out to them and appeal to them to repent and come back to the church. Any insistence upon departure is, in cold-hearted fashion, a rejection of the loving appeals of their fellow brothers and sisters.
A signed covenant is a piece of evidence that can show to a watching world that there was a clear-cut understanding among various parties involved. As evidence, it cannot be denied! Therefore, it is useful in holding people to a standard of accountability.
A Signed Covenant protects the Leadership
Hebrews 13:17 says that Elders will have to give an account for the members of their church. This is the most frightening passage that we’ve read about what it means to pastor God’s church. How can the elders stand before God and give an account of their pastoral ministry if no one has made a commitment to them to adhere to certain Biblical principles? How can they shepherd people who secretly refuse to be shepherded? We are asked, as pastors, to make a huge commitment to people that will result in our greater judgment (James 3:1), but too often the congregation is not asked to make any commitment to the pastors, and they are not asked to make any commitment to the Bible. This is a farce and a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
For any pastor to assume responsibility for another person’s soul without any formal understanding of what shepherding should look like in the church is extremely dangerous. We are voluntarily taking upon ourselves greater judgment and greater responsibility, and we’re not going to ask for anything in return? Hebrews 13:17 says that members of a church congregation should “Obey and submit to church leaders.” How does the church realistically ask people to submit to the leadership? How does the church ask people to obey? This is a two-way relationship after all. As pastors we have a good understanding of our coming judgment (at least we think so). But church members need to be informed of their responsibility in the two-way relationship as well. They also need that understanding. As a result, we personally need a signed membership covenant from the members of our congregation so that we can sleep a little easier at night knowing that we have a reciprocal relationship with each other and knowing that they know it too. We can’t even begin to explain to you the number of hours that we’ve stayed awake over various member situations. We sometimes feel that in some way we have failed various members as their pastors, and we take this very seriously.
It Protects Pastors from Themselves
A Pastor's own mind, lured and enticed by the common idolatry of being a people pleaser and wanting everyone to like him, will work very hard sometimes to believe the various lies, to take blame on himself, and to try and create a compromise situation where everyone can get their own way. In this situation -that he creates in his own mind- he can be well-liked again, and everyone can live happily ever after -the only exception being God who is usually greatly dishonored in such compromise situations. But then the pastor drives to work. He pulls open his file drawer and takes out the membership covenant, and the bright shining light of truth floods the darkness, and he knows that to compromise on the bedrock truth of Scripture would be a disservice to the church by allowing the cancer of sin to remain, and a disservice to churches all over the world. We’ve learned that a signed membership covenant protects the church from the pastor's own weaknesses, and it protects him from himself.