Friday, April 18, 2008

Are Church Covenants Biblical?

In my previous post titled, Without a Vision, I made the statement, “Membership in a local church is a covenant agreement whereby the individual pledges accountability to the body.” Someone asked me if there was a Biblical justification for a church covenant.

We don’t find church covenants in Scripture as an explicit command, but there are many things that the Bible teaches implicitly rather than explicitly. The church covenant falls into this category. The concept of covenant is an important theme running throughout the Bible. Both the Old and New Testaments explicitly express the relationship between God and His people by way covenant. The elements of God’s covenants include: (1) Our relationship with God, (2) Our relationship with other people within the covenant, (3) Our relationship with people outside the covenant. The Christian is united to Christ in a covenant relationship. The covenant was ratified in the blood of Christ. At the last supper Jesus said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). The New Testament teaches us about this covenant relationship: (1) Our relationship with Christ, (2) Our relationship with other believers (His body), (3) Our relationship with unbelievers. The church covenant speaks to these relationships.

The local church is a local representation of the church universal. These local bodies are vested with authority. We can see this authority in Matthew 18 as the procedure for church discipline is outlined. At the close of the passage it is written, “Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Thus, the local church is a group of people organized together under the authority of the whole. It is autonomous and self-governing under the authority of Christ – a Christocracy. Christ raises up elders who are then vested with the oversight of His church.

Every organization will have certain expectations regarding the behavior of its members. Churches should expect their members to seek to conform their lives to the righteousness of Christ and exercise discipline in cases where this righteousness is abandoned. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, for example, we see a system of authority and a system that determines when this authority is exercised in the form of discipline. In this example we find a breech of conduct, the church gathering together to examine the offender, and the offender being excluded from the body for a failure to repent. It is incumbent upon a local church to clearly establish its expectations of behavior. The church covenant is merely a statement of what the Scriptures teach concerning behavior within the church – what the rules are. The church covenant is a reminder of what God requires of His people. It doesn’t invent new rules. It is simply a restatement of God’s rules. In like manner, our Confession is a statement of what we believe the Scriptures teach about the doctrines of the faith. You can’t find a confession of faith in Scripture either, but every solid church since the Reformation has held to some Confession. In fact, the creeds dating back to the early centuries of Christendom declare the need for clarification of what the Scriptures teach. To someone who takes issue with the concept of a church covenant I would simply ask them does the church have authority? Then what is the basis of that authority? They would answer, “The Scriptures.” I would reply, “What do you believe the Scriptures teach about applying this authority? Does the church have the right to have certain expectations regarding the behavior of its members? What are those expectations?” These expectations are essence the covenant. The church covenant, of course, is not exhaustive in its content – the Scriptures are. But the church covenant provides a basic framework to which a person joining the church agrees to commit.

Timothy George writes: "One of the much neglected features of contemporary Baptist church life is the congregational covenant, an expression of communal commitment in responsibility, setting forth the ethical standards and obligations incumbent upon all members. Historically, Baptist church covenants have encouraged not only public worship, personal devotion, and congregational discipline but also a caring and pastoral attitude on the part of each church member toward every other member" (New American Commentary, Vol.30, page 415).

The Christian individual can choose whether or not to join with a particular local church. By joining, however, he is agreeing to abide by certain expectations of behavior, expressed by way of covenant – which, again, is simply a statement of what the Scriptures teach. Our church covenant not only provides prospective members a framework of expectations to which they must commit themselves, it also provides an expression of identity to the community. Our confession tells them what we believe; our covenant tells them how we live.

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