In my book, What’s it Mean to be a Baptist?, I chat a bit about church covenants for members. They’re important. They aren’t commanded in the Scriptures, of course, but I believe they’re a good tool to capture and convey the proper responsibilities members of a local church have towards each other.
Church members are in covenant with God because He’s saved them and made them members of the New and better covenant through His eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Being a Christian means a radical shift in priorities and self-identity. It means you want to live for the Lord, and not for yourself. The Apostle Peter has some good insight for us (1 Pet 4:1-3):1
So, because Christ suffered in the body, you also must arm yourselves [with] the same mindset, because the one who is suffering in the body is now through with sin, to no longer live the rest of his life according to men’s lusts, but instead according to God’s will. Because enough time has now passed [for you] to have accomplished the desire of unbelievers. You used to live a life of debauchery, wicked lusts, drunkenness, wild celebrations, drinking parties and disgusting idol worship.
God saves Christians to make them His priests, so they’d represent Him and mediate the Gospel to the world. “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (Eph 2:10). Our job is to serve Him because we’re His covenant children. And, our job is to also serve one another (1 Pet 4:7-11):2
Now, the end of everything has now drawn near, so be sensible and self-controlled for the sake of [your] prayers. Above all else, always keep [your] love for one another constant, because love always covers many sins.
Be hospitable to one another without complaining. To the degree that each [of you] has received a gift, use it to serve one another, like good servants of God’s multifaceted grace. If someone speaks, [do it like he’s speaking] God’s [very] words. If someone serves, [he must do so] from the strength that God always supplies, so that God will be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
To him [belongs] the glory and sovereignty for ever and ever! Amen.
When I say church members are in covenant with each other, I mean they understand they have obligations to one another. It’d be nice if we could take that for granted, but we can’t. The fact is that many Baptist churches (indeed, many churches in general) don’t take church membership seriously, so the members don’t take it seriously, either. I knew one senior enlisted man in the Navy who had this motto in his email signature block, “acceptable behavior becomes an acceptable standard.” I’ve never forgotten that, because it’s true. If churches don’t take membership seriously, then the people won’t either. This is where the idea of a formal church covenant comes into the picture.
A church covenant is an attempt to make what Peter wrote (1 Pet 4:7-11) a reality in the life of a congregation. It explains to new members what’s expected of them. They’re expected to serve. They’re expected to pray for one another. They’re expected to pray for the pastors. They’re expected to be there for one another. They’re expected to hold one another accountable. In short, they’re supposed to love one another. As one Baptist theologian explained, a church covenant makes it “clear that church membership involved a commitment that any regenerate person should accept.”3
Below, I’ve re-produced the handout we provide to prospective new members before the membership vote.4 It contains many questions I (or the other pastor) verbally ask the new members, if the vote is successful. We ask them to publicly affirm all of these in front of the entire congregation. We do this for a reason – because local church membership means something:
A Pastor will ask you these questions just after the membership vote. The answers are rather obvious, and they serve two purposes:
- They stress to the one who is joining the congregation (i.e. you!) how serious church membership is.
- They stress to the congregation, and to any visitors, how serious church membership is.
These questions function rather like those the pastor asks at a wedding ceremony (e.g. “do you promise to …”). Everybody knows how the groom will answer, but the ritual of asking and answering the questions formalizes the event; memorializing it as a very important moment. It says to the bride, groom and the audience that what’s happening is solemn, sacred and special. So it is with these questions for church membership. In effect, these questions form an oral church covenant between you and the congregation and solemnize the event.
Q1: To “repent of your sins” means to (1) confess your crimes against God (consisting of both sinful thoughts and actions), and (2) to pledge to forsake a life of deliberate treason against Him; your Creator and Sustainer. Have you done this?
Q2: To “believe in the Gospel” means to believe in who Jesus is and what He’s done. He’s the eternal Son of God, sharing the same divine nature, power, glory and honor as Father and Spirit. He’s (1) lived a perfect life for you, (2) died for your crimes, in your place, as your substitute, and (3) risen from the dead, to break Satan’s hold on sinners and rescue them from themselves. Do you believe and confess this?
Q3: Do you confess Jesus as your Lord, King and Master, and do you seek to obey our triune God because you love Him and you’re grateful for your salvation?
Q4: Do you promise before God Almighty and your Savior Jesus Christ to do your best to serve God every day because you love Him and want to prove your love by action?
Q5: Do you agree to worship and serve the Lord as best you can in this congregation, in peaceful harmony with your brothers and sisters in Christ?
Q6: Do you swear to love your brothers and sisters in this church “earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God,” (1 Peter 1:23)?
Q7: Do you swear to try your best to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1) in every area of your life, especially with brothers and sisters in Christ in this church?
Q8: Do you promise to be always trying to grow in your knowledge of God, your personal holiness, and your love for Him?
Q9: Do you promise to regularly read God’s Holy Word so you know how God wants you to live, so you can be convicted of your own sin, and so you can be encouraged to grow closer to Him, and be more Christ-like day by day?
Q10: Do you promise to be a public testimony for Jesus Christ by living a Godly life, and telling the Gospel message to others?
Q11: Do you pledge to remember your fellow church members in prayer?
Q12: Do you pledge to be willing to learn from other church members, and even be corrected by them, if necessary?
Q13: Do you promise to be a faithful and active slave for Jesus Christ, among the people in this congregation, as long as you’re able, or until God calls you elsewhere?
1 This is my own translation.
2 This is my own translation.
3 John Hammett (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005], 117). See especially Hammett’s outstanding discussion about how to reorganize an existing church around a new church covenant in order to make membership meaningful again (116 – 120).
4 In this scenario, assume the candidate has been baptized.