The church where I serve has a church covenant. It is available on our website and along with it is a document with my own commentary on the church covenant, what the sections mean and how we live it out in the life of the body.
We use the covenant originally appended to the New Hampshire Baptist Confession. It was written in 1803 and was first published in 1833. This covenant focuses on church life and discipleship and calls on us to voluntarily join together for the cause of Christ. It begins with caring for one another and continues through worship, family religion, personal piety and discipleship. It has room for the exercise of one’s liberty of conscience and though it is quite clearly voluntary, it serves as a good reminder of our responsibilities as members of Christ’s church, specifically, the responsibilities to our particular local body. We have had much success in using this covenant (and my own teaching on the covenant) to lead people into spiritual growth and service. Other churches have also used my teaching on the church covenant to instruct their churches in church life and discipleship.
Lately, however, a shift has ocurred. There is much talk about membership covenants in the last few years after several instances where such covenants were used in what appeared to be an attempt to control members or to protect or stifle criticism of church leadership. Such “membership covenants” (as they are sometimes called) have become standard in neo-Reformed circles. But these membership covenants are much different than the ones that have historically been used. Historically they were not as detailed as one finds today and they focused more on discipleship and congregational life rather than policy and procedure. For example, they didn’t contain details for how marriage difficulties were handled. And beyond simply stating that someone who leaves the church should unite with another church, there wasn’t anything about having to get permission from the elders to leave and similar items.
Here’s a brief comparison-contrast to illustrate how bureaucratic these covenants have become. Our church covenant is less than one page and we do not require a signature nor attendance at classes where we explain it, though we do give it to every person who inquires after our church. The Village Church’s membership covenant (which is being discussed due to the Jordan Root fiasco), however, is four pages long (pdf), not including the title page. It is double-columned, footnoted, and, if I understand properly, requires a signature from the prospective member. I know for a fact one must attend classes in which the membership covenant is explained in detail.
These membership covenant are now being used more and more to bind members in ways that I don’t think the Scriptures necessarily permit. For example, there are churches who have placed members under discipline for attempting to quietly leave when disagreeing with leadership. This seems like the preferable resolution for both parties so it’s hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to control the membership and I don’t think shepherding and controlling are the same thing.
Somewhere along the way, church covenants became membership contracts and now some church leaders are acting more like lawyers and judges in enforcing these contracts than elders and shepherds caring for God’s flock.
I’d like to say that this is something inherent to the neo-Reformed movement because then it would be easy to dismiss as an aberration but the fact is, leaders of all stripes have for tried to hold on to power by manipulating the church covenant, or the Book of Order, or the church’s by-laws, or the business meetings, or the board meetings, or whatever their respective tradition uses to make decision and wield power.
I’m not saying that we don’t need order in the church or accountability in the church (in fact, we could use a little more accountability in the church in both directions). But such controlling and manipulative activity is not representative of the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) who would have us shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:2; Acts 20:28), serving as examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3), willingly spending ourselves and being spent for them no matter what love they give in return, if any (2 Corinthians 12:15).
Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders to “shepherd the flock of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The reminder of whose flock it is and how it was purchased should give every pastor and church leader a humble spirit that seeks the good of those under their care whatever the cost to the pastor, the power structures, the covenants, or anything else.