What do you think of membership covenants for congregations? Are they helpful, or harmful?

Guest reply by Malcolm Cox (Watford, UK)

Lately, from a number of sources, I’ve been hearing discussion about membership covenants. I am aware of some churches who have adopted them. I will not write a full treatment of the topic here. Rather, I will share a few initial thoughts and expect feedback. When I recently heard someone talking about membership covenants, I had a visceral reaction. I felt something like a hot flush in my body. I took this to be a warning sign. But a warning of what? A warning that membership covenants are unhealthy, or a warning sign that I have un-dealt-with issues, or both—or something else?

Old Testament
God’s covenant with Israel was clear and reasonably detailed. He put an immense amount of effort into getting his people ready to receive his covenant — the exodus, Mount Sinai, and much more. We know God took his covenant seriously because he sent his prophets time and again. In the words of one commentator, they operated as “covenant enforcers." Reading the prophets reveals how much God cared about his covenant. Perhaps the book of Hosea is the most powerful expression of God’s grief:

“Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD, because they have broken my covenant, and transgressed my law.” (Hos 8:1 NRSV)

A positive argument for membership covenants may be made from the example of Israel’s return to the promised land under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. The spiritual desperation in Nehemiah’s prayer is heartrending (Neh 1:4–11). Clearly, God’s people were not in a good place. Ezra’s prayer contains a similar degree of spiritual anguish (Ezra 9:5–15). The people are convicted and take the initiative to send their foreign wives away (Ezra 10). However, are we sure that this was the right action to take? Was separation necessary, or would God have been content with a change of heart? I am not aware of another passage of Scripture approving such a drastic measure. Certainly Nehemiah shares Ezra’s conviction regarding the folly of marrying non-Israelites (Neh 13:23–27), but he makes no comment about separating from those wives.

The Israelites were instructed not to marry foreigners (Deut 7:3–4), and there are plentiful examples of the problems caused by marrying foreigners — Solomon (1 Kings 11:1–3) and Ahab (1 Kings 16:31) being two of the more notable examples. But to separate? What about the exceptions? Ruth is a foreigner, yet marries Boaz. She appears in the genealogy of Jesus. Is this an example of what might have been a better outcome at the time of Ezra? If the men who had married foreign women repented, would they not have had opportunity to convert their foreign wives, not to mention their children?

I’m not questioning the wisdom, or lack of it, in marrying people of a different faith. I am musing about whether the example of Ezra is that of making up a rule that sounds scriptural and spiritual in order to solve a problem that carries great emotional weight.

Should we be cautious about seeing Old Testament examples as instructive for our time? God himself acknowledged that this first covenant was inadequate,

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34 NRSV)

New Testament
Did Jesus have a membership covenant? He called people to follow him, which required giving up everything. That’s a radical ‘covenant’, if we could put it that way. He certainly called for obedience to God (Matt 7:21) and his own teaching:

“If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15)

However, Jesus’ emphasis was on following faithfully, adopting his heart and treating others the way he did. How does this pertain to the church, if at all? It could be argued that the post-Pentecost Christ community is in a different situation. Jesus did not have a church as we experience it. That’s a fair point, but leads to something that came to me in prayer this morning.

Consider this... How many problems did the early church have? How much confusion was there in Galatia, Corinth and other places? Was there a lack of clarity regarding doctrines, practices and the expectations of God? I have often said that even with all of our problems in the 21st century, I’m not sure we measure up to the first century church. Their confusion was considerable, and their lack of clarity concerning.

How did God guide the early church through its internal challenges? How did Jesus and the Spirit work? What method did Paul use to help churches and their members when they were confused? Here’s one thing I’ve noticed in all the epistles of Paul – there is no mention of a membership covenant.

Paul used a combination of personal visits, sending other trusted emissaries, writing letters and passionate prayer to address the confusion. Those were his tools. If they were good enough for the apostle Paul and the churches of the first century, should not the equivalent tools be adequate for us today? A membership covenant may be neutral in itself. But is it in danger of being employed as a shortcut to please the noisiest and most insecure members of the congregation, some of whom may in fact be the leaders of that congregation?

Leading congregations is hard work. I know that from personal experience. On occasion confusion over healthy biblical teaching or what it means to live like Jesus needs attention. Uncertainty may arise internally within the congregation, within a denomination, or because of pressures from outside. At those times leadership have a responsibility to find the best way of creating enough clarity for the congregation such that God and his will are not obscured. Those so tasked may not find this easy, and look to solutions such as membership covenants. That is, of course, their right. My question is not so much about creating healthy clarity, more over whether covenants and the like are the best methodology.

The challenge of how to resolve confusion leads to the question of clarity. How much clarity is needed? The example of the early church in Acts 15 (regarding resolving the place of the Old Covenant in the New) may help us.  So, why was I uncomfortable when the topic of membership covenants came up in conversation? Are they neutral? Helpful? Problematic? If your congregation has one, why was it adopted, how was it set up, what was the congregational reaction, and have you seen any benefit or otherwise since it was put in place? —Malcolm


For more on the topic, please see Q&A 1000.