Posted by: Bro. Lawrence D. | August 11, 2008

Agonizing Over Church Membership/Fellowship Part 2

How about I give you the conclusion of this post now? That way you can decide now, whether or not you wish to keep reading. It is basically a continuance of the sentiment that I wished to express in Part One of this same subject. In that post, I attempted to put forth my conviction that requirement for membership in a local fellowship of believers should not extend beyond that which is required to be a part of the universal body of Christ. In anticipation of the many objections to such a simplistic notion, I have prepared to answer them in advance of their being raised.

But before I do that, allow me to add fuel to the fire. I reject any formalized doctrinal test, written or verbal, as a prerequisite for membership. I reject any prescreening or application process, including a required probationary or “waiting” period, as a prerequisite for membership. In fact, I believe a profession of faith is the only requirement for admittance into the fellowship. 

Although this post will not focus on any of these in particular, I do believe that the objections I raise in regards to the actual subject matter of this post, will address these as well. I will go step-by-step in answering what I anticipate to be serious and sincere rationalizations in favor of these kinds of requirements, including the immediate subject matter. Rationalizations such as: 1) We have to do this to keep the church pure, or 2) People need to know what we stand for so they can know what they’re getting into, or 3) We only want committed Christians in our church, or 4) We don’t want Christ’ church to be taken lightly, or 5) This way of enacting membership has worked for years in this church or 6) We do this to make ourselves distinct among other churches.

 Please feel free to offer any of your own rationalizations or reasons that I do not address. Keep in mind that I realize a profession of faith is no guarantee of a person’s spiritual condition. Nor is it a clue as to their ability to contribute to the health of the fellowship. However, as I hope you will see, none of these other requirements are either.

 

This post is about what I believe to be the error of “church covenants”.

Now before you tune me out because you believe church covenants to be legitimate, understand a few things first:

1) I am not going to use one of the “we’re not supposed to swear oaths” scriptures, as I believe that there was another context in view when both Christ (Matthew 5:34) and James (James 5:12) stated that command.

2) I am also not going to say that those who do require it are in sin but I will say that they are in self. This practice is not of God so far as I understand the scriptures and logic. This seems to me to be a tool of pragmatism or some other -ism. But not of God. And…

3) Since it would be too easy and probably considered a cheap shot by some, I won’t ask for an example of a signed or affirmed covenant as a requirement for church membership. No matter how reasonable I believe the request would be.

 

Now what brought this on was a sermon I heard preached by Pastor John Piper. The title of the sermon is “Resting and Wrestling for the Cause of Christ”. In the sermon, Pastor Piper was encouraging his members to actively participate in the “small groups” ministry. In the introduction, he is explaining that the elders will be held responsible for the task that they do in “taking heed to all the flock”. He feels that the task is made easier in the small group setting because it allows for more intimate fellowship and service. So far, I agree. However, by way of illustration, Pastor Piper uses the specific example of his own church. At about four minutes he mentions:

“There were forty-three hundred people in worship last Sunday, in seven services. Among those, about two thousand are covenant members. We feel a very special obligation for those who said ‘This is me. I’m here. I’m committed. I’m covenant.’ We don’t feel the same responsibility for the two thousand hangers-on. Our exhortation to them is, ‘Come on in or go to another church.”

I must admit I was angry, confused and saddened, by this comment. Being from the COGIC and being used to hearing things such as this, all I could classify it as was manipulation.

But more than that, the idea that people, whom I presume to be Christians (The way Pastor Piper usually preaches, I don’t see unbelievers being “hangers-on” long enough for him to make such a statement about them.) and I believe Pastor Piper presumes to be believers also, would be denied membership because they won’t conform to the requirement to sign a piece of paper, just seems so unChristian. Where’s the lowly servant/elder who doesn’t care about their affliation? Where’s the lowly servant/elder who sees Galatians 6:10 as an imperative and the “household of faith” not being limited to his local church but applying to the entire Body of Christ? Look, I understand the limits of men to render service to so many people. (I believe he has just over thirty elders on staff.) If they were unable to serve so many, I would at least be sympathetic. Though that would raise another issue. But to actually “feel” differently about them, because they hadn’t signed some paper, seems patently unbiblical. Even anti-biblical!

But before I could allow myself to get too worked up, I took a trip over to his site to see if I could get more info about this covenant. Here’s the link so you can read it:

Now on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much here to complain about.  But I took note of a few things. Note: 
1) He calls covenant membership a “concept”. Shouldn’t a requirement for membership, if it is above the requirement for membership in the universal Body of Christ, be based on more than a concept?
2) Over and over he equates “committment” with signing or affirming a covenant statement. I don’t know about you, but it seems that lots of documents are signed by well-intentioned people, even Christians, who sincerely endeavor to fulfill every obligation. However, later they find themselves unable to fulfill the obligation and, therefore, in default. Should Christians be tempted, by the Church, to sin in this way? 
3) He seems to believe that signing or affirming a covenant will keep a sinning member from denying the Churches’ jurisdiction over them. What?! First of all, why would a pastor expect Christians to behave this way? Shouldn’t he expect just the opposite from Christians? Secondly, where is the confidence in the Holy Spirit’s work in a pastor just preaching and teaching the requirements of church membership from the scriptures? Does a covenant helped to insure success where the scriptures miss?
4) Next he equates accountability with signing/affirming a covenant. Again, do Christians need this? Aren’t Christians accountable to Christ (Romans 14:4,11; II Corinthians 5:10) first and foremost? Because of that, won’t they be accountable to one another if they are taught to do so from the scriptures? How does the covenant help to solidify what is already clearly taught in scriptures? 
5) Check out this statement for further evidence: The covenant allows for freedom of conscience in areas where the Bible is not definite in its guidance. The covenant focuses on principles, especially as they relate to our corporate life together. Uh Pastor Piper, so does the bible! Why does a Christian, whose allegiance is to Christ through what is clearly taught in scripture as to his/her duties, need the covenant alongside the bible? How is it different than the cults and psuedo-Christian religions, who have their own books and covenants to go alongside the bible?

Now look at some of the statements in the covenant. Refer to the link if you have to. I’ll make comments according to their numerical order.

1) Other than the fact that I believe this to be totally unnecessary, there’s not much to complain about.

2) Why “this church”? Why not to “the body of Christ everywhere and whenever we encounter them”? I’ll answer my own question. Because it’s about “this church”. And why would the “spread of the gospel” be the last mentioined item concerning contributions? Is this a case where a church is too large and the budget to demanding to put the gospel and the poor as first priorities?

3) No one has a right to dictate to another as to the nature of their personal or family devotion. That’s pure worship control. For the most part everything else is commendable. However, I thought that the covenant allowed for matters of conscience. If so, then why is there a committment made in that very area. Food? Drink? All drugs? Does that include medication? And who decides what is harmful to another’s body? I know, that’s another post.

4) Personally this is without anything with which to object. But I must ask, isn’t all this in the bible? Aren’t the elders supposed to be teaching this anyway?

5) Why does this covenant follow an individual wherever they go? I would say that it is because of the nature of covenants. But again, if it’s all in the bible and we’re dealing with Christians, then the covenant would seem patently unnecessary.

I know this has been a long post. But dear reader, by now you should be asking some of the same questions that I have. Or you should at least be preparing answers to them. I am agonizing over this issue in an honest manner. I am really struggling to see this as something that our Lord and Savior had in mind when he said “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” (Matthew 16:18b) What about the next verse you ask? Well, again if you can show me where the Apostles have bound us to covenants, I will recant.

Otherwise, I say let’s follow Paul’s command in Romans 15:1-7 which ends with “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.”

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Responses

  1. Brother are you ready to take on the machine? I hope you are. Well hey when we are kicked off of others site then at least we have each other and Rob Bell! LOL!!!!!!!

    On a serious note you brought out some issues that I have been wrestling through namely:

    1. We are not covenanted to a local church but the obligations and imperatives laid out in scripture is from every Christian to every Christian.

    2. It seems that most covenants are driven by Church discipline not service!

    3. Why not trust the Spirit. Isn’t He who Christ said would guide, teach, convict and empower?

    4. There were no church covenants for at least the first 100 years of the church how did they flourish so well and how was church discipline enforced then? Maybe the maturity of the Christians but we have so many infants but as you said that is a different post.

    Brother this is real talk!

  2. Bro. Lionel,

    I have to wonder out loud how any of this is connected to Christ’ promise to build His Church. I do not wish, at all, to make excuses for those who reject fellowship. But when you have these extra yokes being placed on the necks of God’s people, I can definitely understand there being a little pause on the part of the ones who desire to abstain from membership.

  3. Yes, Lawrence, I do like this post very much. Of course we are in covenant… with God! He brought us into convenant with himself through the blood of Jesus Christ. Through that covenant we are now his adopted children. Our responsibilities towards one another does not come from any human decision, but from the fact that we are now related to one another as real family. When we try to limit our responsibilities only to those who share membership with us, then we are denying our relationship with others through Christ.

    Great work! Keep it up!

    -Alan

  4. I love the way that you think son. If more of us would allow the Lord to speak to our hearts as opposed to men who in most cases can never know our hearts we would be far wiser in our dealing with the serious walk with our Savior. You keep on thinking with that agonizing mind of yours.

  5. I’ll tell you guys this that acts 2:46 would be more like it today without the temples we have today. None of this was going on about membership then. You are either with Christ or not it has nothing to with membership in the less. Membership of what is the question and why. To join who’s what! It is sad when Christ is not enough for today’s body of Christ who needs more for what I don’t no. Yes I do no for what to prove our loyalty to men not Christ. It’s very “hard” for me when I can’t find this stuff in the bible in context. Yo’ professor keep it up! it’s good stuff you and that cat “loinel” what you guy’s are bringing up.


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