Of Church Organization, Part 1

The Church Covenant

In The Nick of Time
The ecclesiology of the gathered church centers upon the notion of covenant. Gathered churches are also known as “free churches.” They are distinguished by the fact that their membership is voluntary. Gathered-church ecclesiology contrasts with the parish system, in which an established “community” church includes all the people within a particular geographical area. Traditionally, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed churches have operated according to the parish system. Anabaptists, Congregationalists, Baptists, and their spiritual kin have insisted upon gathered churches.

The parish system normally relies upon civil authority to enforce the requirements of church membership. In the most extreme cases (Zwingli’s Zurich, for example), the distinction between church and state dwindles to the point of imperceptibility. In the modern world, most countries have separated church from state. This has forced most parish churches to adapt in ways that make them more similar to gathered churches.

Gathered churches cannot rely upon civil authority to enforce church matters, and they would not use it if they could. On the contrary, each gathered church relies upon its covenant to distinguish it from the surrounding community. It is the covenant that sets a church apart from other institutions and makes it a church.

Not every gathering or organization of believers is a church. Mission societies, Christian camps, and Christian educational institutions may be organizations of believers, but they are not churches. They have no authority under the New Testament to perform ecclesiastic acts or to exercise church discipline.

What makes a church a church? A church is a body of believers (Baptists would add that it is a body of immersed believers.). It is a body of believers who are organized. It is a body of believers who are organized with the purpose to be a church. It is a body of believers who are organized with the purpose to be a church and whose members have united in an understanding of that purpose and its obligations.

The church covenant is the document that states the understanding of the members as to the nature and mission of the church. The covenant specifies the obligations under which the church’s members are placing themselves. Without such a covenant, no church exists. Next to the Bible itself, the covenant is the most important document that a church possesses. The covenant is what makes a body of believers into a church. The covenant is where the church’s members specify the solemn obligations that they purpose to fulfill toward the Lord, one another, and the world.

A covenant is a solemn promise. It is more than a contract, which becomes void when one party violates its terms. A covenant remains in force even if one party fails to maintain it. The covenant represents the sworn word of a church’s members.

Christians are never justified to enter into any church covenant when they do not agree to abide by the terms of that covenant. In some cases, a believer may possibly disagree whether all of the provisions are really necessary. In every case, however, the believer who enters the covenant becomes morally bound to abide by its stipulations. A believer who will not abide by those conditions must not enter the covenant.

The church covenant does not take the place of the Bible, of course. Ultimately, each church must be governed under Christ by Scripture alone. The purpose of the covenant is to specify the congregation’s understanding as to the biblical understanding of the church’s being, nature, and obligations.

Preparation for membership in every church ought to include a detailed explanation of the church’s covenant. Because of the spiritual decay of contemporary Christianity, such delineations of membership are rarely offered. In fact, many church members are only marginally aware that a covenant exists. Rarely can a church member explain the meaning of the covenant. This is a grave matter, for when the covenant is lost, the church is a church in form only but not in reality. Members received without the covenant are not properly members, and a church that exists without the covenant is not properly a church.

This is not to say that every church has always had a formal, written document that expressed its covenant. Probably no New Testament church had such a text. In every case, however, a true church exists by virtue of two details. First, the members purpose to be a church. Second, they agree in what that entails. If that is how a covenant is defined, then the New Testament churches did indeed ground themselves in a covenant.

The modern custom of formally specifying the covenant in written form has come about in reaction against the parish system. Gathered churches find it necessary to document their understanding of the covenant because other Christians sharply disagree about the nature of the church and its purpose. Thus, the covenant becomes both a banner and a barrier for a local church. On the one hand, the covenant serves as an invitation to membership for those who agree with that local church. On the other hand, it stands as a warning against membership for those whose vision of the church is not compatible with its terms.

New converts and immature believers are not expected to understand every implication of a church covenant. What they must understand is that they are placing themselves under the discipline of the entire church body and that the church will guide them (i.e., disciple them) in understanding and living by the covenant. The willingness to be discipled or disciplined is the attitude that must characterize every believer who comes under a church covenant.

Recognition of mutual accountability and submission to the discipline of the body is the irrevocable mark of the church as a covenanted body. Such a covenant is not onerous. Inasmuch as it unites those who are of like faith and practice, it is a tremendous blessing. The covenant relationship of church membership strengthens each believer who enters into it. That is one reason the typical church covenant takes the form of an oath sworn “in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully to enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ.”

Where no covenant exists, no church exists. Without a covenant, a body of believers cannot be a church. It is merely some sort of a Christian club. To form a church, believers must purpose to be a church. They must agree in what a church is and what it is for. They must make themselves accountable to one another in living up to that purpose. A church is, by definition, a covenanted body.

For Thine Own Sake, O My God

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Wearied of sinning, wearied of repentance,
Wearied of self, I turn, my God, to Thee;
To Thee, my Judge, on Whose all-righteous sentence
Hangs mine eternity:
I turn to Thee, I plead Thyself with Thee,—
Be pitiful to me.

Wearied I loathe myself, I loathe my sinning,
My stains, my festering sores, my misery:
Thou the Beginning, Thou ere my beginning
Didst see and didst foresee
Me miserable, me sinful, ruined me,—
I plead Thyself with Thee.

I plead Thyself with Thee Who art my Maker,
Regard Thy handiwork that cries to Thee;
I plead Thyself with Thee Who wast partaker
Of mine infirmity,
Love made Thee what Thou art, the love of me,—
I plead Thyself with Thee.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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