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Covenants, Contracts, Community, Catholicism, Communism and Extra-biblical Visions (or The Shepherding Movement: Alive and Well in 2014)

April 21, 2014

Pope-and-Swiss-GuardThere 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Man is under full obligation to God to abide by the gracious terms of the covenant, whether he agrees with the terms or not.
  4. 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:

Ephesians 2:8-10

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:

Galations 3:2-4

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]

Final Observations

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. [24]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? [25]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]

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