Recently, our college group formulated a servant-leadership covenant in order to clearly set the expectations of the college leaders as well as clarify accountability. As far as such covenants go, it was fairly standard, emphasizing salvation, discipleship, church authority, and upright behavior. However, church covenants, either membership or leadership covenants, are not uncontroversial, and many Christians do not understand the point of them. At best, critics think they are superfluous documents that merely restate the obvious; at worst, they are viewed as legalistic ways of control that are actually contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.
I will attempt to explain the nature of a covenant, why it’s biblically justified, and then answer common objections to it.
What is a covenant?
In simple terms, it is a solemn agreement that sets obligations or standards. Generally speaking, theologians often differentiate covenants with contracts in that contracts are typically business agreements that are about performing duties for material benefits while covenants are about relationships and based upon commitment. Even if one wants to just call covenants and contracts the same thing, however, the intent and nature of church covenants doesn’t change; it isn’t about business transactions but about commitment to community and ethics.
The Biblical Justification for Church Covenants
A common objection to written church covenants are the fact that they are not present in the Bible. This is true; of course, that also includes a boatload of other things, such as contracts for employed ministers, marriage licenses, Sunday School classes, and wedding vows, just a few matters that most Christians have zero problem with churches being involved in. Obviously, while such things are not explicitly stated in Scripture, they are hardly inconsistent with Scripture and may even flow naturally from biblical principles, so simply stating that the Bible doesn’t say something explicitly isn’t a great case on its own.
The real question is: Are written church covenants faithful representations of what bound churches together in Scripture? In that regard, I believe the answer is yes. First, I’ll talk about membership covenants before moving on to specific ministry/leadership covenants.
A good place to look at the nature of churches is, interestingly enough, passages on church discipline. There are two important passages for this: Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. I go over both of these passages in my post on church discipline, but here I’ll talk more about their implications for the idea of church membership.
In Matthew 18:18, the idea of binding and loosing is an expression of authority, and in 19-20, Jesus gives his endorsement of that authority. Essentially, when Christians gather together as a true church (this is actually one of the few passages in the Gospels that have the Greek word for “church,” ekklesia), Christ is there with them and backs their decision-making ability. This is not to say that any church is perfect, but only that they have been given authority by Christ and have responsibility in governing themselves.
The authority of the church is such that they can excommunicate a member who is unrepentently and seriously sinning. This can only happen if A) They have some sort of authority as an assembly and B) If the members agree to that authority and agree to live by the terms of the group. In other words, the idea of church discipline only makes sense if there is some sort of covenantal relationship between the members. If there is no defining element to the group, what exactly are they removing this member from? And if there is no implicit authority in the group, how can they even do it?
In reality, this is no different than almost any other organization. Any organization has a purpose, identity, and/or set of values, and they all set terms for membership. Breaking any of those terms is grounds for removal, whether it is a random organization on a college campus, a company, or a charity. People who officially join such groups agree, at least implicitly, that they will abide by the group’s major rules and standards.
Thus, we see that a local church has authority as an assembly under Christ, and each member submits to that authority when they choose to join. Also, it is implicit that members of a church should be regenerate, or basically saved. It makes no sense for Jesus to grant authority in spiritual matters to those who are still lost. Thus, it is vitally important for churches to give membership, and therefore authority and decision-making ability, only to those who have the Holy Spirit.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 echoes all of these principles. In verse 4, he states that, “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present.” Paul does not remove this person all by himself; he calls upon the assembly to hand out judgment in order to alert this person of his error.
In addition, there are passages that highlight that local assemblies should devote themselves to right teaching and fellowship (Acts 2:42), meet together with intentionality (Hebrews 10:25), mutually submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21), and submit to the authority of its leaders (Hebrews 13:17). The leaders certainly don’t wield absolute authority, but under the Chief Shepherd, Christ, they are charged with watching over the flock (1 Peter 5). Again, such authority only makes sense if it comes from Christ and if it is granted by the members of the church.
So let’s review: Churches should be comprised of regenerate members who voluntarily assemble together under the authority of Christ, and who submit to each other and to their chosen leaders. What then of membership and written covenants?
While the early church probably did not have any sort of application process or written covenant, I hope it is clear that the idea of membership and membership covenants flows naturally into our culture from the principles of Scripture. Similarly, marriage licenses help make a marriage “official” in the eyes of the law and culture (although there is no biblical command for this), and contracts for pastors help signify their dedication and obligation to the church (and vice versa). It is a useful way in our culture to communicate what membership is about, set the standards of membership, and set accountability. It is also, unfortunately, often a necessary way for churches to avoid lawsuits from members who are disciplined and handle it in an immature manner.
If a church is not utilizing membership covenants, that doesn’t make them necessarily a bad or sinful church. However, they would need to be very intentional in other ways to protect the body. Written covenants are quite simply a practical, useful, and accessible way to apply scriptural principles, and it is especially useful for churches that have grown enough that it’s difficult to know everyone that well on a personal basis.
Now let’s move on to the idea of having covenants for specific ministries and/or leadership positions, such as for deacons, youth workers, college workers, etc. Many of the same arguments apply. No, they’re not seen explicitly in Scripture, but neither are youth worker applications, background checks for children/youth volunteers, and sex offender awareness training, though most parents will insist on such things if it is feasible for the church (rightly, because they want to protect their kids). Likewise, the responsibilities of leadership positions in church are great, and while the qualifications of a praise leader isn’t in the Bible (I don’t think they had electric guitars back then), the myriad of qualifications and commands to leaders such as in the Pastor Epistles and in 1 Peter 5 show the high responsibility of leadership in general, even if they are more specifically directed at elders and deacons. There is not space to get into those texts too much, but they are not meant to be job requirements such that people who have no interest in being either can say to themselves, “Oh, I don’t need to do that,” as if someone who doesn’t want to be an accountant may have no need to operate accounting software. They are characteristics that, ideally, would be present in all believers, but for leaders, they must be there in order to entrust them with the high task of serving and leading.
So again, leadership covenants are a practical, reasonable, and useful way to apply scriptural principles regarding leaders and teachers. They help clearly set the standards and expectations of leadership, and people are free to sign or not to sign it. They help protect the body from those who want to lead but do not want the responsibility, and they help grow the leaders because it sets the ideal. Once again, if churches are not utilizing leadership covenants, they aren’t sinning, but they should be intentionally finding other ways to hold their leaders accountable and set the standards and expectations. If they’re not doing anything, they’re being unwise.
I’ll go through some common objections against the idea of written covenants.
Aren’t written church covenants of any kind inherently legalistic?
The objection goes something like this: Since we are now under the grace of the New Covenant and not under law, we do not need to have external “laws” put on us. Making written covenants, even if what’s in them is consistent with the Bible, is legalistic.
The problem with this objection is that it confuses application of biblical principle with the creation of a new law. Just as creeds or confessions of faith should be useful summaries for whatever is there in Scripture, covenants are ethical summaries of Scripture; in fact, they have been called the ethical counterpart to confessions by guys like John Piper. To be sure, that means that they are subject to scriptural criticism just as confessions or creeds are, but that does not make them automatically contrary to the Bible.
Furthermore, legalism, by definition, is the belief or practice that one must earn righteousness through acts. Covenants may clarify standards, but no good church covenant would ever claim that salvation hinges upon the covenant itself. It is worth noting that written covenants are not (or should not) be means of nitpicking at people. Everyone makes mistakes, and churches don’t simply break covenant with members who mess up, just as marriages should not break simply because one party makes a mistake (or no marriage would ever last). However, while grace and forgiveness should always be present, those ideas don’t make sense without a clear indication of wrongdoing.
Written covenants are too controlling. People need to make their own choices.
Covenants, by nature, do not take away anyone’s choice; they merely set the expectations and standards and plainly state possible consequences of certain choices. People are free to refuse to sign the covenant or break anything in the covenant, but the church leadership are also free to, with the Spirit’s and Word’s leading, do what they think is best for the body. When God told the Israelites that obedience would lead to blessings and disobedience would lead to curses, he clearly gave standards and spoke about consequences, but it does not follow that he was taking away the Israelites’ choice. In fact, what he did was, by its very nature, affirming of the fact that they have a choice. This is not equating any church leader with God, but it’s only to refute the notion that setting boundaries inherently removes people’s choices.
Furthermore, such an objection betrays a notion that people’s ability to choose is more important than living rightly, or that a choice is only free if it is free from consequences. The right use of free choice involves setting boundaries on what is sinful, unhelpful, or unwise, on the way to becoming virtuous. I know that American culture holds “freedom” as the highest good, but Scripture simply does not agree.
Don’t covenants have things in them that aren’t in the Bible?
Some covenants, mostly leadership covenants, may have added standards that aren’t in Scripture. For many Baptist churches, many leaders are told never to drink alcohol, which is not a command from Scripture. Others may tell leaders not to go clubbing or date anyone under them in their ministry. What gives?
Given that leaders should strive to be above reproach, the church leadership may view certain activities as unhelpful or ripe for mistakes. Thus, many churches feel that the right application in their context is for their leaders to steer clear of certain activities. This is not merely subjective; it is an honest appraisal of how Scripture applies to their situation.
This takes a lot of wisdom, and of course it should be open for criticism (from the Bible and reason, not just from people’s feelings). For instance, in the covenant that I drafted, I asked the post-graduate college ministry leaders to generally not begin any romantic relationship with an undergraduate student. Is there a verse in Scripture that states, “Thou shall not begin dating a college student if thou hast already graduated?” No. But given the perceived power difference between leader and student, the danger of people trying to join and use their older age to influence impressionable youngsters, and the danger of inappropriate favoritism or distractions, I think such a standard is justified. It would cause unnecessary hurdles for the ministry in trying to reach students for Jesus, and thus it should be avoided. This is not just a personal preference, but an application of a biblical principle that we should be willing to give up nonessential activities in order to avoid stumbling others (Romans 14).
It sounds like covenants can easily be abused.
I agree; covenants are not inherently legalistic, controlling, or unbiblical, but they obviously can be if improperly utilized. This is why covenants should not be drafted lightly or signed lightly, and it’s probably best that writing them is reserved for those in leadership. Also, they should be open for discussion and criticism from Scripture and reason from other members, lest the leadership think they can just slap anything on a covenant and try to bind people to it.
Why can’t my verbal commitment be enough?
I would answer this by saying that while verbal agreements should be enough, it is still helpful to have things written down to not only provide clarity but to protect against misinterpretation or forgetfulness. Also, as I alluded to above, some churches have had issues with members trying to sue them for enacting church discipline, and unfortunately, it’s a practical way to avoid that nonsense. I would additionally argue that if one is confident in his verbal commitment, he shouldn’t have a problem signing a covenant that reflects that commitment accurately.
Covenants make people feel pressured to behave a certain way.
This is possible, but it is not always the fault of the written covenant itself. It is good for leaders to explain what the covenant is to dispel legalistic notions, and it is good to reassure people that covenants are not meant to be weapons against them. However, a certain “heaviness” is actually a good thing when it comes to signing covenants. Being a committed member is a big deal, and so is being a leader. Christians should not take such things lightly, and even Scripture puts extra “pressure” on teachers to watch what they teach (James 3:1). It is, after all, one of the very things a written covenant should communicate: That the task is not an insignificant matter.
Written covenants are not explicitly commanded in Scripture, but I think they are practical, reasonable, and effective ways to apply and communicate the commitment, seriousness, and standards of being part of a church and/or leadership. Churches do not have to use them, but they need to find other ways to hold each other and their leaders accountable. Thus, written covenants are hardly unbiblical when used rightly, and they have helped many churches foster a healthy membership and strong leadership.