Why do we have a church covenant? What is it and how is it important for church members? Matt Schmucker, from 9 Marks Ministries writes an helpful article on the topic below. Edits have been made to reflect the uniqueness of Helix Bible Church.
Professional athletic teams usually write a “moral clause” into their players’ contracts that will negate the financial package if the player fails to display at least a modicum of morally upright behavior. A few years back Jason Kidd was traded by the Phoenix Suns because he was charged with spousal abuse. Jason Kidd’s poor behavior off the court was reflecting poorly on the Phoenix Suns, and the Suns were concerned enough about the public reputation of their organization that they appealed to the moral clause in Kidd’s contract and disassociated themselves from him.
Back in the ‘80s IBM had a detailed dress code to which they required all their salesmen to adhere–dark suit, white shirt, dark tie. They wanted you to know when you were dealing with an IBM man; they wanted a certain image to be associated with their organization so that their corporate identity would have positive associations, and so that their corporate reputation would be excellent in the eye of the public.
These two examples underscore the importance of who we say we are, who we identify with, and how that public message and identification relate to how we actually live. In other words, we have to practice what we preach. And if this is true of the corporate world of computers and athletics, how much more is it true of the church corporately and of the Christian individually?
James warns us that “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (Js 1:26).
In other words, if you profess to be a Christian, but you don’t live a changed life, you should take no comfort in your faith. John says “We know that we have come to know him IF we obey his commands” (1John 2:3). In short, how we live matters. In this article, we’re particularly focused on how we live together as members of a local church.
WHAT IS A ‘CHURCH COVENANT’?
A church covenant can be described in five different ways.
- A church covenant is a promise – a promise made to God, to a local church, and to one’s self.
- A church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live. While our statement of faith is a good summary of what we believe, our church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live – more importantly, it is a summary of how God would have us live. It does not include every explicit command regarding obedience, but it does give a general summary of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.
- A church covenant is a sign of commitment – a commitment to God, to His church, and to personal holiness.
- A church covenant is an ethical statement. Historian Charles W. DeWeese writes, “A church covenant is a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith” (Baptist Church Covenants, p. viii). One theologian calls church covenants the “ethical counterpart to confessions of faith.” A church covenant can be an important part of applying a Christian worldview to every aspect of our lives. Inherent in the purpose of a church covenant is the understanding that church membership involves being held accountable to live in a manner consistent with a common understanding of Scripture.
- A church covenant is a biblical standard. A church covenant is helpful in a church that is practicing Biblical church discipline. As members of a church, we exhort one another to live holy lives, and we challenge brothers and sisters persisting in sin.
WHERE DO COVENANTS COME FROM?
Now that we know what church covenants are, where do they come from? Well, not from the Bible–not, at least, in the sense of being able to turn to the Book of Covenants chapter 3. But we do see examples of covenants both in the Old and the New Testament–covenants between God and man, and between man and man. Moses gives a covenant from God to the people of Israel. Ezra and Nehemiah do so as well. And in the NT we find that “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, which is the new covenant in Christ’s blood”. Primarily, church covenants come from the understanding that churches are to be composed of people who are truly born again. This is what we call regenerate church membership.
In the 16th century, men and women of deep conviction broke away from the Roman Catholic Church to form congregations who understood the importance of the doctrine known as justification by faith alone in Christ alone. No longer did baptism or membership bring supposed new life. Joining and being part of a church was no longer a civic duty or just part of growing up. It was becoming what it was always intended to be – a response of faith to the truth of the gospel. And in this response of faith we gain the most amazing callings: children of the living God, ambassadors of Christ, a royal priesthood; we become the bearers of God’s name in the world. Listen to God’s word on this issue. “I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek 36:23). We are called to be living witnesses of God’s holiness!
In contrast, listen to two examples of how modern churches have failed to protect the regeneracy of their membership. One church youth group commonly encouraged young people to be baptized by allowing them to observe the rite in a Jacuzzi that was built into the top of a fire truck! You might say, “So what? What’s the problem here?” The problem is that most kids would bow down and worship a hot dog for the opportunity to climb up into a fire truck and hop into a Jacuzzi! These kinds of gimmicks introduce the likelihood of inappropriate motivations for seemingly spiritual decisions on the part of young respondents. Did they get baptized because they genuinely repented and believed in Jesus Christ? Or did they do it so they could get their picture taken in a Fire Truck Jacuzzi? We often unwittingly do the same thing with adults, don’t we? We promise them changed lifestyles, increased self-fulfillment and self-esteem, increased success at work, and better marriages, if only they’ll decide to accept Jesus into their hearts. Who wouldn’t make a quick and painless decision for that kind of payoff? But if people’s motivations are wrong, then in congratulating them on their baptism or conversion and welcoming them into local church membership without ever observing the fruit of godly living as evidence of the genuineness of their verbal commitment, then we’re actually encouraging them to deceive themselves into thinking that they have genuinely repented and believed – we’re encouraging them to feel assured in their salvation when in fact they have probably never repented or believed at all. Far from doing them spiritual good, we’re doing them the greatest kind of spiritual disservice possible – and exactly the kind of disservice Satan hopes for us to provide.
Another church agonized over the decision of whether or not to allow a Porn Shop owner to lead music for worship on Sundays. What does this say about what it means to be a mature, model Christian? It says that a person can verbally profess to be a Christian – even a model Christian by whom others can be led – and simultaneously live in a way that many pagans would even consider unethical. It says that Jesus doesn’t care about whether we live holy lives – just whether we say the right words, or pray the right prayer, or participate in the right church program. But Christianity is about living a different kind of life, not just talking about different kinds of concepts.
The church is called to live and act differently. In agreeing to a church covenant, one is agreeing to be held accountable by a body of believers. Likewise, one is agreeing to hold a body of believers accountable. To hold accountable simply means “to take responsibility for.” A church covenant, void of this responsibility, is a worthless document.
SCRIPTURE HIGHLIGHTS OUR NEED FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
- Read Matt 18:15-17 – We do not have a license to sin. More than that, if we do keep on sinning, we risk proving that we have not been given new life from God. Matthew 18 gives us instruction about what to do with a persistently unrepentant sinner.
- Read 1Cor 5 – If the Corinthian congregation allowed this man to remain a member of the church, he (and others) may get the wrong impression that his sexual immorality is consistent with what it means to be a Christian. Weaker members of the body will be confused and hurt as well. And the church will risk losing her reputation in the local community.
There will always be sin in the church because we all sin. What we are talking about is how to deal with people whose lives are characterized by sin, people who agree with their sin against God and His Word, and who try to rationalize their sin instead of pleading before God for forgiveness. The purpose of such accountability is not to judge people worthy of hell-fire – that’s never been the church’s role. It’s to protect them from deceiving themselves about their own spiritual state, to protect the corporate witness of the church from being smeared by the non-Christian behavior of professing believers, and to restore the disobedient person to right relationship with God and warm fellowship with the church.
What then should we expect out of a church covenant? Expect it to be biblical – rooted in scripture. Expect it to be focused on the whole body of believers – it should be corporate not private. And expect it to be brief.
WHAT DOES OUR CHURCH COVENANT SAY?
To help understand HBC’s own church covenant we have divided it into three parts. First, the introduction; second, the promises; third, the benediction.
We can be tempted to pass over the introduction too quickly in our rush to get to the meat of the statement. Don’t do this. The introduction is rich with valuable points. Let me draw your attention to three.
a. First, the covenant is to be made by Christians. Borrowing Jesus’ words from the opening verses of Mark, the HBC covenant is to be made by those who “repent and believe” in Jesus Christ.
b. Second, the covenant is to be made by baptized Christians. The church covenant is to be made by those who have been baptized upon their “profession of faith.” In other words, those who have been baptized as believers.
c. Third, the covenant can only be kept with God’s help—“relying on His gracious aid.” Any ability we have to fulfill the promises of the HBC covenant is attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit, not us! This means first that we can do all things through Christ Jesus our Lord, and second, that we should have no reason to be proud of spiritual success in our lives. God gets all the credit and all the glory.
2. The Promises
a. We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We should pray that God’s peace would show itself in the body as a whole. Whether we are gathering for a Sunday morning service, or thinking through matters of church business at a members’ meeting, we are to pray that the Holy Spirit would move us together, in the same direction. Unity is a fragile thing.
b. Exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require. Are we bearing each other’s burdens? Are we looking out for each other? Are we challenging each other when we sin? Are we entreating one another to a holy walk? Are we doing these things for people who are outside our demographic group? It is insufficient if you are only caring for those who share your demographic profile. This idea is contrary to most church-culture thinking. But it’s biblical. This is what it means to be a part of a church.
c. Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Christians don’t meet simply so they can be blessed; we meet so that the church can glorify God. As we learn about Scripture together, praise God together, pray together and serve together, Christ’s bride is being made ready for her bridegroom. So we’re not here merely to have our own needs met. Nor are we a stationary Billy Graham Rally – hearing the word for someone else. Attending regularly is vital because it is the first step toward being held accountable. If you are not attending regularly (maybe you’ve moved, maybe you’ve become ill, maybe you have left for school, maybe you’ve simply chosen to attend another church) LET SOMEBODY KNOW . . . preferably the pastor. Non-attendance is either a portal to sin or a reflection of sin. It is prevented by formative church discipline, and remedied by corrective church discipline.
d. Do not neglect to pray for ourselves and others. In our own devotionals, we are to pray that God would grow us in Christ. We are to pray that he would strengthen us to do His work. We are to pray for His direction. We are also to pray for others, that His Spirit would be at work in them. That’s why we encourage members to get a membership directory and pray through it a page a day all through the month.
e. Bring up such as may at any time be under our care . . . Maybe it’s those children we have a special commitment to; maybe it is that brother or sister you are praying with each week. We covenant together to be a part of one another’s lives. Discipleship or spiritual mentoring should be a daily goal.
f. Seek the salvation of family and friends. Do I know your friends? Do I know your family? NO! YOU do! The life we live during the week is to include sharing the Good News with family and friends. The proclamation of the Gospel is so important that we covenant together in order to encourage each of us to share our faith.
g. Rejoice at each other’s happiness. Sometimes seeing our friends fail make us feel better. There’s something wrong with that, isn’t there? In a world of envy, jealousy and greed, we are called to see other’s happiness and praise God for it. This may be one of the most difficult promises made in our covenant to keep. We truly are a selfish and proud people in need of God’s grace.
h. Bear each others burdens and sorrows. God did not design us to go through difficulty alone. As this promise from Galatians 6 points out, God ministers to us through others. One of the best ways we can be an example to the world is through being faithful brothers and sisters in Christ to one another.
i. Live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts. One of the reasons we covenant together is because we realize that we could use some help with our own Christian walk with God.
j. Support the ministry of the church. Through prayer, commitment to biblical teaching, finances and other means, each individual member has an important role in supporting the church body.
k. Evangelize.“The spread of the gospel to all nations.” Evangelism can take place in many ways. One of the most obvious ways is by us sharing the Gospel with unbelievers. We are called to do that by the church covenant. I think that this church covenant also calls us to evangelize in another way. God will show the world who he is through the church. We are a corporate witness, a display of God’s holiness, by his grace. Therefore, how we serve together and love together is a means God uses to communicate the Good News to a lost world. We see this in John 13:34, where Jesus shows His master plan for evangelism: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Get this point: we’re not just individuals assembling in the same spot. God intends us to be one body! And that alone can be an evangelistic tool.
l. When we move, we will unite with some other church. Membership isn’t about a particular affection for one group of Christians. Membership is about unity with the body of Christians God has physically placed you around. You are building the local church as you willingly transfer your membership. We all look forward to being together in heaven. Until then, we divide and conquer for the Kingdomof God.
These words may sound familiar. They conclude most services at HBC. More importantly, they are from 2Cor 13:14. We are a people who possess the grace of Jesus Christ, the saving love of our heavenly Father, union with His Son, and unity with all the family of God through the Holy Spirit.
There are just two final points to make about our church covenant. First, our church covenant should be a challenge. Second our church covenant should be a comfort.
a. Our church covenant is a challenge simply because there are times when living a godly life is hard. It is also a challenge because each member of the church now bears responsibility for the lives of other believers – this is that “accountability goes both ways” part. This is serious responsibility. Not the kind of responsibility you have just because you are somebody’s friend, but the kind of responsibility that comes from saying, before God, “I care for you and will work to encourage you in your discipleship.” This challenge is a serious thing.
b. This covenant isn’t just about us challenging each other to be better Christians. Our church covenant is also a comfort. A comfort to know you’ll be cared for and prayed for, not perfectly, but faithfully. The comfort is that by joining a church and covenanting with other believers, you now have Christians who are going to build you up when you are down. You have Christians who are committed, before God, to walk with you, pray with you, serve you. You have Christians who are so concerned about your spiritual walk, that if they see you break the covenant you have made as a disciple of Christ, they will exhort you to turn back; and if you don’t, they’ll do all they can to make the gravity of your sin clear. This is our ideal, our vision, what we strive for.
c. “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Download the Helix Bible Church Covenant
Having, as we trust, been brought by Divine Grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give up ourselves to Him, and having been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, relying on His gracious aid, solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.
We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We will walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian Church; exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require.
We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, nor neglect to pray for ourselves and others.
We will endeavor to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends.
We will rejoice at each other’s happiness and endeavor with tenderness and sympathy to bear each other’s burdens and sorrows.
We will seek, by Divine aid, to live carefully in the world, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and remembering that, as we have been voluntarily buried by baptism and raised again from the symbolic grave, so there is on us a special obligation now to lead a new and holy life.
We will work together for the continuance of a faithful evangelical ministry in this church, as we sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.
We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.