There is a growing trend among evangelical churches to require members to sign a church covenant. In most of these churches, there is a legitimate desire to see the regular attenders, or members, engage in meaningful fellowship or community in order to maximize their potential for the greater glory of God. The leaders of these churches see the membership covenant as an effective tool to combat the apathy and narcissism which is so prevalent in Western culture. They would argue that biblical community is the antithesis of radical individualism and this individualism will continue to dominate the mindset of most churchgoers without a tangible tool like a membership covenant.
Not only does this narcissistic individualism undermine biblical community, advocates of membership covenants would contend that it undermines the vision that is cast by God-appointed leadership in the church. Vision casting is a concept advocated by Peter Drucker, (a noted Harvard business guru), adopted by the prosperity gospel heretics and popularized within mainstream evangelicalism by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and the modern church pragmatists. This concept, simply stated, is that God gives a “divine” vision or mission to the pastor and it is the pastor’s responsibility to both God and his congregation to develop philosophy, strategy and practice that drives the behavior of the church members in such a way as to be in 100% agreement with this extra-biblical, “God-inspired” vision and to always be functioning in complete submission to the pastor’s ideas & methods in order to accomplish the goals of the vision. While most Christians would agree that radical individualism or narcissism is incompatible with biblical fellowship, I would contend that a membership covenant is a carnal means to overcome a spiritual problem and results in a works oriented approach to sanctification and community which undermines the very end it was designed to achieve. In addition I would contend that extra biblical visions do not come from God and the practice of vision casting is an attempt to manipulate church members to achieve an ideal state of community but in reality creates an illusion of community which will not withstand adversity, nor will it last long past the tenure of existing leadership. When the practice of requiring membership covenants is combined with a manipulative practice of vision casting, the end result is often an authoritarian, controlling and manipulative environment which results in abuses similar to those seen in the shepherding movement of the 70s and 80s. Current examples of this can be seen in the abusive and unethical actions taken by leadership at multisite churches like Mars Hill of Seattle and Sovereign Grace Ministries of Louisville, KY.
The individualism that many of these churches are actually railing against is not the radical, narcissistic individualism of post-modern culture, generation x and beyond, but the individualism that dares to take seriously the responsibility of each Christian to understand the scriptures, theology and the church fathers effectively enough to function as Bereans, holding fast to Sola Scriptura and holding the church and her leaders accountable to the one true standard for faith and practice. The constant emphasis of this theme, combined with the practice of vision casting and the requirement of covenant membership appears to be used at many of these churches to develop a heavy-handed, controlling, and domineering mode of operation by leadership toward the congregants. Any questioning or disagreement with the vision that has been cast by the pastor is seen as divisive and an act of rebellion against the leadership and the God-given vision. Chris Rosebrough has done a thorough and biblical analysis of the manipulative practice of vision casting and its roots, so I will refer you to his radio broadcast for more detail than will be covered in this posting: Vision Casting & Other Unbiblical Practices Employed By Purpose-Driven Leadership. To summarize, anyone, whether in leadership or otherwise, who questions the vision or the methodology employed is an enemy of God’s divine plan for the church and should be dealt with as a sinner in need of church discipline and, if necessary “shot’ or ‘run over” in order to get them out of the way of God’s plan. Be assured that I’m 100 percent a churchman in that I’m a firm believer that Christians should be regularly fellowshipping with a local body with relationships built on worshiping God in spirit and in truth as a congregation. I’m a solid presbyterian (little p) in that I believe that the local congregation should have elders appointed who will shepherd the flock with loving-kindness; elders who are biblically and theologically astute and who are known and actively involved in the gentle shepherding of the sheep; elders who are equal in respect and authority rather than the idea that the pastor sits on the elder board as the first among equals. I’m fine with church membership as long as its sole requirement is a clear understanding of the Gospel accompanied by a profession of faith in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior, and even when this is accompanied by an acknowledgement of the basic, foundational doctrines of the faith. Where I think I diverge from the idea of community as emphasized at a growing number of churches is that it seems that there is a controlling aspect that tends toward a heavy-handed manipulation or a “lording” over the sheep in order to achieve the extra-biblical vision. It’s as if they can force the idea of “community” on the flock to the degree that it results in “covenant members” who actively serve, actively give and actively exhort one another to righteousness and good works that align with the vision. Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the multipage contract that must be signed at many churches in order to wholly fellowship with the body (or engage in community). Many of these churches have even gone so far as to require members to renew their covenant membership on an annual basis. This practice further increases the level of control that leadership lords over the members and takes the manipulation of each individual to a whole new level. As much as these churches attempt to use scripture to justify this practice, the reality is that there is no scriptural, theological or historical basis (unless we want to undo the Reformation) to justify this type of requirement.
Are membership covenants justified by biblical covenants?
The idea of the covenants as they relate to the people of God and to individual faith are always in the context of a covenant between God and man, where God actually fulfills both party’s responsibilities within the covenant. In addition, the Biblical covenants are monopleuric as opposed to dipleuric. This is critical in the evaluation of both the Biblical covenants and what is passed off as a dipleuric church covenant required for membership. A monopleuric covenant is a covenant in which the superior party dictates terms to an inferior party. A dipleuric covenant is a covenant in which both parties voluntarily define and agree to terms, but there is no obligation to enter into covenant whatsoever. From the Biblical perspective, a monopleuric covenant is summed up by the following characteristics:
- Covenant is established by God (the superior party) over man (the inferior party); God establishes the terms of the covenant as the condition of relationship with no input from man, whatsoever.
- God is under no obligation to provide a covenant for man to obtain a relationship with God, but He does so out of His abundant grace and mercy, and for His glory.
- Man is under full obligation to God to abide by the gracious terms of the covenant, whether he agrees with the terms or not.
- Man is fully bound by the terms of the covenant, whether he even acknowledges the existence of the covenant, or not.
Each individual is responsible to fulfill his individual terms of the covenant, regardless of his ability to do so, but because God is abundantly merciful and gracious, He fulfills man’s responsibilities for whomever He chooses and it is this work of God that binds these individuals to one another as adopted children of God. This work of God that fulfills man’s responsibility is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and this atonement was agreed upon between the persons of The Trinity before the foundation of the world (Covenant of Redemption). Since each adopted heir is a child of God, each adopted heir is inextricably bound to all other adopted heirs by the very fact that they are siblings within the King’s family. Their fellowship together is based solely on the fact that they are children of God, fellow heirs to the divine promise, operating in unity to worship and serve God as a people: the church. Because it is God’s work through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ that binds each individual to the family of God, the requirement of another covenant in order to enter fully into fellowship with local, fellow heirs is a man-made requirement that imposes an additional responsibility not required by God. The terms of this extra covenant are defined and dictated by the church leaders, even though there is no instruction in scripture to create this extra-biblical requirement as a basis for fellowship. Because the terms of this requirement are dictated by one party to another party, this “covenant” in effect functions as a monopleuric covenant. Not only is this problematic because it is inferior and incomplete as to what God actually expects of us, but also because these covenants usually add additional requirements that aren’t required by God, i.e. regular, confession of all sin to other individuals. Not only is this concept of “membership covenant” problematic because it is not even implied in Scripture, it is also problematic because it puts a group of fellow heirs in a position of divine sovereignty over another group of fellow heirs, even though they are neither divine nor sovereign. I would argue that this creates an environment that is a breeding ground for authoritarian abuse by the “superior” party, fostering the lording of authority over the “inferior” party. I’m not aware of a single instance in scripture where there is a covenant between individual men, whether monopleuric or dipleuric, that results in these men uniting and functioning as the people of God, worshiping in spirit and in truth. The efforts to justify this practice scripturally are so poor in hermeneutical principal that it baffles the mind. One of the primary justifications for this practice was the appointment of deacons, in Acts, to properly minister to the church’s widows in Jerusalem. The argument is that because they could identify the widows, this implies church membership; therefore membership is biblical and necessarily implies a man-made agreement. Additional arguments of a similar vein will be used (the appointment of elders, the expulsion of the sinner in first Corinthians, etc.). Each of these arguments requires a quantum leap in hermeneutics and exegesis that borders on the ridiculous. All other attempts that I’ve seen as justifying this practice scripturally are equally unsupportable by any acceptable hermeneutical method. I firmly believe that this is a fleshly attempt at making “covenant members” fulfill their biblical responsibilities towards one another and towards the lost world in which they live by working towards the pastor’s vision. It is akin to the Judaizers in Galatians requiring circumcision, with even less justification, because there was at least a way to use the Old Testament scriptures to attempt to justify that practice. No such scriptures exist that can be misapplied to justify this practice. The true children of Abraham, the true circumcision, the true Israel, the true children of God will worship in spirit and truth through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, by God’s sovereign design out of a changed and thankful heart. God has prepared their good works in advance:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. [NASB, emphasis added]
It is abundantly clear that any good works that we perform are done solely on the basis of God’s grace and sovereignty (including biblical community) therefore it must be concluded that no number of pages in a man-made contract will result in true spirituality. I would argue that in the same way the Pharisees practiced their rituals in order to rack up points for the approval of men, the requirement of a signed contract for full fellowship creates a carnal, works-based community with the following results: a reason for pride, a reason for self-deception, a “paper circumcision” gaining the approval of men and by way of practice, a domineering and controlling environment where people are “purged” or “run over by the bus” (see Chris Rosebrough’s analysis of vision casting) if they dare question any action or decision by leadership (not submitting to the elders). By contrast, true believers will participate in and experience a new covenant lifestyle in the same way that they participated in and experienced regeneration: by the Grace of God, through faith from God, in the power of the Holy Spirit as their minds are renewed through personal study and consistent, expository preaching of the transforming Word of God. My challenge to the leaders at these churches is this:
This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? [NASB, emphasis added]
in my research of the current emphasis on the accusation of radical individualism if one dares question leadership’s strategy or disagrees in matters of conscience in the practice of one’s faith and the disturbing trend of many churches to require a membership contract as if somehow this will eradicate the dreaded individualism and enforce community, I’ve found two constants:
- Roman Catholic literature is filled with the similar terminology and consistently emphasizes the idea that the Reformation and the Reformers individualized the nature of faith, conscience and practice; it considers this as an attack on the true nature of the church and as detrimental to the true practice of Christianity: a Christianity that they define as a faith that is wholly centered in and subject to the authority of the centralized church and its traditions.
- The same ideas and terminology are found throughout Marxist/Communist literature and in this literature, individualism is a detriment to the healthy function of a society and results in capitalism and greed. Oh, and by the way, anyone who dares question the decisions of leadership in these systems are purged as well (run over by the bus?).
It appears to me that radical individualism/narcissism has been confused with the individualism of the reformers: Christians who dare use their mind, study the scriptures, the church fathers and writings of old, daring to be the Berean, asking questions of authoritarian leadership when they are operating outside of scripture in faith and practice. It’s as if they are undoing the reformation, not by reuniting with Roman Catholicism, but by creating a new centralized, authoritative structure where pastors are “little popes” who speak ex cathedra and establish divine direction and practice for the congregants. I will end with this excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together, which is almost prophetic in that it seems to capture the essence of what is happening today in the name of community:
On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian communal life [Zusammenleben] should be, and they will be anxious to realize it. But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and to abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture. For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth. Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both. However, a community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.
God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly. They stand adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the community. They act as if they have to create the Christian community, as if their visionary ideal binds the people together. Whatever does not go their way, they call a failure. When their idealized image is shattered, they see the community breaking into pieces. So they first become accusers of other Christians in the community, then accusers of God, and finally the desperate accusers of themselves. Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. We thank God for what God has done for us. We thank God for giving us other Christians who live by God’s call, forgiveness, and promise. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily. And is not what has been given us enough: other believers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessing of God’s grace? Is the gift of God any less immeasurably great than this on any given day, even on the most difficult and distressing days of a Christian community? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.
[excerpt from Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp 34-35, Kindle Edition, emphasis added]
I know that I’m about 4 months late in commenting on Driscoll’s plagiarism, but hey, I was sick most of the winter. If Driscoll can use sickness as an excuse during an interview, I can use it as an excuse for being a little behind the times. What’s more interesting is that the the follow up documents after the interview proved unequivocally that Mark Driscoll committed overt plagiarism of D. A. Carson. If a pastor/elder is to be above reproach, and blatant lying, or in this case, plagiarism, would disqualify that pastor/elder, shouldn’t Mark step down? D. A. Carson has said as much about pastors who plagiarize ([5 Pt. Salt: Pulpit Plagiarism…] as noted by the folks at The Wartburg Watch). Well, Mark? I think it’s telling that half of Driscoll’s time seems to be performing damage control because of his actions and yet, as in this case, no appropriate action is ever taken to solve this embarrassment to Reformed theology and the church as a whole. I never knew that “worm” theology referred to the spineless nature of many of my fellow Calvinists when one of their own needs discipline.
Carl Trueman get’s it right in the article published in Reformation 21:
The controversy surrounding Janet Mefferd’s interview of Mark Driscoll is interesting for a variety of reasons. There is one aspect of it which has yet to attract comment as far as I can tell. That is the way it brings out another aspect of the celebrity culture which has so corrupted the young, restless and reformed movement.
My interest here is not who was right and who was wrong. That will no doubt be fairly easy to establish as the claims which Janet Mefferd made should be empirically verifiable. I would only comment that, in my own interactions with Janet Mefferd, I have always found her forthright but fair. I am concerned in this post only with what the reactions to the interview tell us about the culture of celebrity in the subculture that is evangelicalism.
I have tried a number of times to make the point that being a celebrity is not the same as being a public figure. Anyone who acts in public is, to a greater or lesser degree, a public figure. Celebrity brings with it such matters as a culture of false intimacy with complete strangers and a charismatic authority rooted in the person not in an institution. Thus, influence is often predicated on personality, not on the intrinsic merits of arguments etc.
The Mefferd-Driscoll controversy points to another aspect of celebrity culture: celebrities are routinely allowed to behave in ways which would not be tolerated in ordinary mortals. (read the rest of this post here)
A great new album from the Gospel Coalition called Songs from the Book of Luke.
For as long as God’s people have gathered, they have written poems and songs about the glory of God and the wonder of redemption. As the church, we sing to celebrate. We sing to remember. We sing to give voice to hope, even in the midst of life’s greatest trials.
Songs for the Book of Luke is an album by the church, for the church. The songwriters and musicians on this album all serve in congregations across the country, from New York to St. Louis to Seattle, to Dallas and many places in between. These songs have roots in the Scriptures (all of these songs are inspired by the Book of Luke) and seek, above all else, to glorify God and serve his people.
It’s been amazing to work on this project and see how much creativity is thriving in local congregations. More than 200 songs were submitted…(read more)
(to the tune of
My Favorite Things)
Sackcloth and ashes, and
days without eating,
Mortification and wailing
A hair shirt that scratches,
a nettle that stings,
These are a few of my favorite
Penitence, flagellants, memento
Spending nights sleeping on
rocks in a quarry,
The sound of a cloak’d solemn
cantor who sings,
These are still more of my
Tossing and turning and
yearning I’m spurning,
Passions aflame like an
Corpus and carnis and
wild drunken flings,
Forsaken are they for
my favorite things!
When it’s Christmas,
When the tree’s lit,
When the cards are sent,
I simply remember my
And then I can’t wa-a-a-a-it
I clicked over to Facebook today, just to quickly peruse the latest trivia of the various postings, most of which make me ask questions like this one: “Why do you think I’m interested in knowing how long the line was at Starbucks in the Philadelphia airport?” I’m usually hoping for something truly profound, but am usually disappointed. Of course, I think anything that I post on Facebook is important and is usually quite profound, but I suspect that others look at my postings with a yawn and the same questions that I ask of their trivia. Occasionally, I’m pleasantly surprised as I was today, when my old friend and Arminian brother in Christ, Eric Hulet, posted the article below about Rosario Champagne Butterfield and her conversion. I was stunned after reading this wonderful testimony and of the gentle witness of a gentle pastor and his wife, going to “dine with sinners”, just as our Lord. Dear Father, thank you for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and that you saved me from my depravity and forgive me for how often I have a sense of disdain for other sinners, rather than a heart centered on the Gospel and filled with the irresistible, gentle, kind love that you used to draw me to the flame. Thank you for that forgiveness!
From Christianity Today:
As a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Christians. Then I somehow became one.
The word Jesus stuck in my throat like an elephant tusk; no matter how hard I choked, I couldn’t hack it out. Those who professed the name commanded my pity and wrath. As a university professor, I tired of students who seemed to believe that “knowing Jesus” meant knowing little else. Christians in particular were bad readers, always seizing opportunities to insert a Bible verse into a conversation with the same point as a punctuation mark: to end it rather than deepen it.
Stupid. Pointless. Menacing. That’s what I thought of Christians and their god Jesus…(read more)
As we approach Easter during the last week of Lent, or as some would say, Holy Week, I was seriously pondering what I could give up in order to deny myself worldly pleasures so that I can be more in tune spiritually and be able to hear God more acutely in order to be a much more holy, spiritual Christian who is much closer to God than you, has much more wisdom than you, have my prayers heard more readily than yours, understand the scripture better than you and be much more mature in my faith than you. You see, unlike most Christians, I’m quite serious about my spirituality and I am making sure that I achieve the highest level of maturity and sanctification that I can possibly achieve in order to make sure that I am the best witness that I can be so that others will see Jesus in me. Because of this, I take Lent quite seriously and am always looking for new ways to deny my flesh in order to profit my soul.
As I was going through this exercise of analyzing my life to look for stuff I really like that I could give up for Holy Week, I was also multitasking by scouring the internet looking for ammunition. You see, I take my responsibility to be prepared for the coming collapse of our Christian nation almost as seriously as denying my flesh for my continued growth and sanctification. After all, we are told clearly in James that pure religion is looking out for widows and orphans in their distress and, we all would agree, that the most vulnerable people on the planet after the collapse of the U.S. of A. will be, who else, widows and orphans! How would I be able to protect the widows & orphans (or my own family for that matter) if I didn’t have 30 or 40 thousand rounds of ammo to fight off the atheist-commie-Muslim-Democrat-leftist-fascists-post modern-new age-“R” rated movie going- HBO watching-medical marijuana smoking, food stamp using, unemployed, dread locked, tattooed hordes who will try to break into my house in order to eat all my food, wear my clothes and (worst of all) use my fishing gear?
Of course, we all know that the reason for the coming collapse is all the fault of the Democrat controlled Senate & none other than President Obama! (it hurts, but I must use his proper title out of respect for our leaders) Where’s that good Mormon, Mitt Romney, when you need him? We all know that President Obama is a closet Muslim, hell-bent on forcing trips to Mecca, redistributing the wealth, blowing up evangelical churches with drone strikes, taxing our swimming pools AND our pickup trucks, forcing us to recycle, banning hair spray in Texas, Tennessee and Georgia to prevent global warming (if he would just ban Rick Perry from using hair spray it might have the desired effect), taking away ALL our guns & ammo, making us listen to NPR and watch Celtic Women on PBS, making Ebonics the official language of the U.S. of A…….but I digress.
Yes, I’m giving up hording ammo for Lent, even though it’s a righteous, pleasurable and necessary pursuit (just like food) so that I can have my ammo-deprived senses more acute in order to more effectively hear from God during my 4 A.M. daily quiet time & devotional (with at least 30 minutes a week dedicated to memorizing the book of Numbers). Amen & Hallelujah! I think I’ll raise my hands & maybe even do a little jig in the aisle at church this week because of my heightened spirituality!
PS: somebody please remind me to post this on Facebook and send it out in a tweet, not so that I can call attention to myself, but so that I can be a good and righteous example to new Christians who might be wondering about the observance of Lent.
Matthew 6:1, 16-18, Galatians 4:10-11, Colossians 2:16-22, Romans 14:5-8, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
It must have been six months or a year ago that I watched my iPhone—my brand new iPhone—sliding, then flipping, down a flight of stairs. I had just pulled it from my pocket and somehow lost my grip on it. It clattered down one step, then the next, then the next, all the way to bottom.
Idolatry has been much on my mind lately, idolatry ancient and modern. In the Old Testament there must be a hundred stories of the Israelites raising idols and then cutting them down again. The story repeats itself all through their history. Time and again they abandon God in favor of idols of wood and stone, violating the terms of the covenant they have made with him. The Lord is patient and through priests and judges and prophets calls his people to repent, to return. Eventually they do, and as a sign of their repentance they cut down those idols.
Have you ever considered what it would have been like to actually cut down an idol? (read more here)