Note to reader: This is the second post in a series on church covenants. In the first post I introduced wording that I am recommending Emmanuel Baptist Church adopt as their church covenant. In this second post, I hope to defend the need for our church to use a formal church covenant.
Why does a church need a membership covenant? Let me answer this question with a question—Why does a church need a statement of faith? A church adopts a statement of faith as a summary of its understanding of the basic doctrines of the Scriptures. It uses a statement of faith as a measure for membership—churches ask members to affirm the statement or support the teaching of the church as given in the statement. The Articles of Faith is a statement of what the members believe concerning the doctrines of the Bible. This is the primary reason a church needs a church covenant: it is a summary statement of how the members understand what the Bible teaches concerning how Christians should live together.
Written church covenants are a matter of biblical freedom (Leeman, 354). That freedom is often exercised to attempt to codify the numerous, unique obligations Christians have toward one another in the context of the local assembly. One example of this unique relationship that exists is 1 Corinthians 5. A member of the church at Corinth had committed an egregious act of sin and Paul commanded the church to discipline him from their number. Paul reminded them that they were to hold one another accountable and exercise discipline. Those inside the local church (i.e., members) were accountable to each other for their conduct whereas those outside the church (i.e., non-members) had no accountability to the rest of the church (1 Cor 5:12). The church knew who was in and who was out—Paul assumes this. There must have existed some kind of list, whether formally or informally. The Christians at Corinth had voluntarily agreed to mutual accountability and they knew who each other was.
Church Covenants in History
Agreements between Christians is not a new concept. God’s people have been using summary statements to define their relationship for centuries. Here are two examples, one from the Old Testament, one from early church history. First, King David and Jonathan were close friends; they loved each other, their souls were knit together. First Samuel 18 records a significant event in their relationship: “Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” They made an agreement to one another. Another example is from early church history. In the second century AD, Pliny mentions “moral pledges” between Christians (Dever, 114).
Formal church covenants first appeared around the time of the Reformation in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to the Reformation membership in a church was a function of geography. Parishioners were “members” of and expected to attend the church in the region where they lived. As Christians began to come out of the Catholic Church they formed their own congregations. Anabaptists, Scottish Reformers, English Separatists, and Congregationalists began to use covenants as a mechanism to define the boundaries of their voluntary gatherings. They determined that their congregations “should be composed of the faithful who gather together voluntarily upon their own profession of faith, desiring to unite with others in the same area and for a Christian congregation” (Dever, 114). Local churches have been using covenants since the Reformation. Historically, church covenants have been accepted as a biblical means for working out the commands of the New Testament on Christians.
Church Covenants Today
Many churches have let their covenants fall out of use. Perhaps they are included in the constitution along with a statement of faith, but they remain unfamiliar to the members of the church. That is the case at Emmanuel where I pastor—perhaps as many as forty percent of the members had never seen the words to the covenant when I came.
And so I want to conclude this post by giving a few reasons why a church needs a covenant—that is, why they should use a church covenant.
- Using a church covenant lets members know they will be expected to live out the statement of faith (i.e., the church’s understanding of the Scriptures).
- Using a church covenant provides a succinct biblical standard of behavior for members. It reminds them of the their obligations to one another in the context of local church membership, including lifestyle choices and interactions with one another.
- Using a church covenant reminds members that individualism and unrepentant sin are inconsistent with what it means to be a member in good standing.
- Using a church covenant makes church membership meaningful by clarifying spiritual and relational commitments that local church membership represents.
Historically, local churches have used covenants to create boundaries for what it means to be members of a local church. The New Testament indicates that local churches had some way of knowing who was in and who was out of their membership. The use of church covenants has significant benefits for members in a local church. Local churches should have a formal, written covenant that represents their answer to the question, How does the Bible explain we are to live together? When the members answer this question together in the form of a church covenant, it enables unity within the body and God is glorified.
- Bauder, Kevin. Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order. Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Books, 2012.
- Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.
- Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005.
- Hiscox, Edward T. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches: A Guide to the Administration of Baptist Churches. 9th ed. Kregel Classics, 1980.
- Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
- ———. The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline. IX Marks. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2010.
- Menikoff, Aaron. “Which Church Documents? And Why?” 9Marks, March 4, 2016. https://9marks.org/article/do-we-really-need-church-documents/.
- “Why a Church Covenant?” Desiring God, January 31, 1993. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-a-church-covenant.