Establishing and Protecting a Church
by Using a Membership Covenant
Suppose you had some faithful Christians in your area and you wanted to form a church together, what could you do to ensure, or at least minimize the possibility, that your little local church is not subverted by all the egalitarianism and other perversions and declensions we see both in the church and in the general society today which are not addressed in the confessions of the Protestant Reformation era? How about some sort of covenant by which everyone agrees not only to adhere to certain beliefs, but also agrees to be bound to abstain from, or bound to practice, certain things in their lives? This could be a voluntary covenant that is based on biblical precepts, that expresses in detail what is expected of all the members, that is agreed upon by everyone before the church is formed, and with which new members would have to agree before they join.
These days, if a church wanted prospective members to agree to a covenant before they joined, a covenant which consists of rules for governing the lives of its people according to what the elders believe is the best way to preserve the church and protect its people, many professing Christians would likely scream: “THAT’S LEGALISM! even if such rules are in agreement with the Bible’s teaching. However, many of those same Christians will move into a community that is governed by a covenant enforced by a homeowner’s association (HOA) which dictates what they can do on their property, even sometimes to such an extreme as what color they can paint their houses, and they have no objection to it.
Objection: Trying to govern a church by a detailed set of rules creates a culture of phariseeism and tattletales. You can create all of the rules you want and if people’s hearts aren’t right, it will self destruct.
Answer: Of course an attempt to build a church will self-destruct if the people are unregenerate, but that is no reason not to make rules that spell out what is expected of everyone. Requirements based on biblical teachings are for helping the godly, not for controlling the wicked, and it is too optimistic and simplistic to think that godly people are going to work everything out between them without any standards to regulate their fellowship.
Objection: The confession is the standard for regulating our fellowship. We don’t need a covenant.
Answer: A confession is a form of a covenant. When you join a church that adheres to the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, you are making a covenant. You are acknowledging that the WCF expresses the beliefs of the church and that you either agree with it in totality or you at least agree with it enough that you can go along with its teachings and not do anything to oppose them or undermine them. This is a form of covenanting and there is nothing wrong with a group of Christians voluntarily binding themselves to another covenant that builds on the Westminster Standards and addresses all of the things that have been perverted in our modern world.
Objection: If you have godly, like-minded people, then you will not need an endless list of rules.
Answer: Yes, but first you have to ensure that you really have like-minded people on which to build a stable church and the best way to do this is to express the church’s standards in detail and have everyone acknowledge their agreement to them. It would not be “an endless set of rules” but a covenant that is detailed enough so that everyone agreeing to the covenant knows what is expected of them. Of course, those who want to rebel are going to rebel regardless of a covenant, but that is true of any contractual relationship and yet it does not stop millions of people from entering into contracts. As an example, if you are going to take on a complex construction project as a contractor, you would likely desire to have a detailed written contract spelling out exactly what is expected of you and the other party, even if you believe the other party is a faithful Christian. The detailed contract helps both of you properly fulfill your duties to one another and lessens the possibility of a misunderstanding that could lead to a conflict. Everyone sees the value in doing this for business relationships but when it comes to a church relationship many people think they can just “wing it,” as if they are saying, “I think we have enough agreement to form a church and the Lord will work the rest out for us.” This is not trusting in God, it is only presuming upon God to work out what Christians were too careless to work out for themselves. It is naive to think that we will be able to maintain and build a stable, long-term church fellowship these days without addressing all of the egalitarianism and other perversions that have infected the thinking and behavior of almost everyone in America today, including the vast majority of professing Christians, and this is not possible to do by only requiring consent to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the larger Westminster Standards, or any other set of Reformation-era confessional documents because such things were never addressed in those documents.
Objection: The Scriptures are our only rule of faith and practice and the confession is a basic agreement of what the scriptures teach.
Answer: The Westminster Confession is no “basic agreement,” it is quite detailed and expresses hundreds of points of doctrine within its thirty-three chapters. A basic agreement is what you see on the websites of most “evangelical” churches today that list perhaps five to ten points of doctrine. Again, when you join a church that adheres to the WCF, you are agreeing to be governed by it. Those hundreds of points of doctrine in the WCF have become hundreds of rules for you, and if you transgress them or speak against them, you can be disciplined for doing so even to the point of excommunication. So it is not true that a large set of rules is not necessary or is an imposition, and in fact this is exactly what every confessional church has had for centuries, and still has today, even if they are now lax in enforcing the same.
Objection: Our problem is not that we don’t have enough rules to follow but rather that we have a bunch of goats masquerading as sheep and wolves masquerading as shepherds.
Answer: This may be true but identifying the problem is not enough. We must have a plan for dealing with it. The reason we have so many counterfeit Christians today is because the preaching is very weak and the standards of the churches are very low. We must require that preachers proclaim a strong, confrontational gospel message that convicts of sin and demands repentance, and that they take a strong stand against the evil both in their congregations and in the society around them, and we must require that congregants manifest holiness in their lives by living out biblical teachings. Those preachers who do not preach such messages, must be booted out of the church along with the congregants who are living unholy lives. Of course, there will always be some tares among the wheat but hypocrites are much better at professing doctrine than they are at living it out, and the more you require people to adhere to biblical teachings in the way they live, rather than only in what they say, the fewer phonies you will have in the church. This requires rules and, as I explained above, the Reformation-era confessional documents, though they contain hundreds of rules themselves, are still not enough on which to build a stable fellowship because they do not address all of the egalitarianism and other modern degeneracy. It is nonsensical to believe that we can do without such requirements and just have a mentality that “the Lord will work it out” in regard to church fellowship, when we do not apply the same thinking to other facets of our lives because we know it is foolish to do so. That is to have a naive and dualistic view of God’s working in regard to church relationships vs. God’s working in the rest of life.
Keep in mind that I am advocating a voluntary covenant, just like a homeowner’s association covenant. If you do not agree to the church’s covenant then you do not join the church, just as you would not move into the neighborhood if you do not agree to be bound by the rules of the neighborhood’s covenant. If you later decide that you no longer want to be bound by the requirements of the church’s covenant then you are free to leave the church, just as you would be free to move out of the neighborhood if you decided that you no longer wanted to be bound by the requirements of the neighborhood’s covenant.