Strengths We’ve Lost: Church Covenants
Do you remember your church’s covenant? Chances are you’ve seen it, either in the hymnals or maybe in a poster somewhere near the front of the church. You may even belong to a church that recites it during the Lord’s Supper or when new members join. If you’ve done that enough times, it’s likely you’ve even memorized all or parts of it.
But does the covenant live in the life of the church? Does it give dynamic direction to the fellowship of the saints?
If we’re honest, many of us would have to confess that our church’s covenant appears to be little more than a dusty document that sometimes gets used in the rituals of the church. I was reminded of this reading Kandis Davis’ reflections on church membership. When she described being able to recite the covenant without really reflecting on its meaning, she summed up my early experience as well. And not just ours. I think it’s the experience of many in local churches. Moreover, many who know their covenants quite well have likely never heard an exposition of it.
That was Pastor William C. Turner’s assessment when he began a sermon series on the church covenant at Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, N.C.
“The project began with my efforts in a class offered to new members. Seeing no acceptable instructional materials for them (or, that is, knowing of none), I began teaching directly from the Covenant. I knew the Covenant well but had never heard exposition on it. In the Baptist church in the community where I was reared, Providence Park in Richmond, Virginia, the reading of the Covenant was a regular part of worship on Communion Sunday. For a youngster like myself, committing it to memory was no difficult task. Rather, it was fun. I was a never a formal member of this congregation. Nevertheless my family and the church mutually claimed each other.”
But Turner found that many in Mount Level did not have the same experience with the church covenant. So he set out to recover it by teaching it.
“So he set out to recover it by teaching it.”
“What I decided to do for catechesis was to take a clause or two from the Covenant (never as much as a paragraph) and find corresponding scriptural references. From there I proceeded to instruct. In my immediate view were issues pertaining to the faith that every believer should know and understand. People need to know the basics of soteriology, or what it means to be saved. In particular, Baptists need to be keen on the relationship between baptism and salvation: the two are neither separable nor identical.”
Turner recounts his wondering about whether the congregation would maintain interest in the covenant over a long period of time. He feared that people would get tired and stop coming along the way. But, he writes, “To my amazement, the interest not only remained high; it increased. While knowing what the next topic would be, the congregants continued to come, and services continued to be of times great celebration.” He found, “Quite often the comment was made that this was teaching to which the entire church should be exposed. Some people could not recall being catechized in this manner upon their baptism or being received into the local assembly. Others observed that sessions of this sort would make a good refresher for everyone.” So, Turner preached a series of sermons on the covenant and later turned those sermons into a book, Discipleship for African American Christians: A Journey through the Church Covenant.
I highly commend the book and the strategy of teaching through your church’s covenant. If you don’t currently have one, consider adopting one. If you’re a new pastor in a local church, one of the best ways to get to know the church and to show respect for the church is to spend some time in studying and teaching the church’s organizing documents. Many churches have unearthed treasures in their archives, minutes and founding documents.
Church covenants have several advantages:
1. Covenants succinctly summarize the Bible’s teaching about Christian living. Every genuine Christian wants to know what Jesus requires of them as His disciples. While not including everything, covenants are a good beginning point for teaching some basics of Christian discipleship. If statements of faith summarize what we believe, covenants summarize what we do (how we live).
2. Covenants clearly call for commitment. Churches are always looking for ways to foster commitment and involvement. Every church wants its members to fully participate in the life of the church. Covenants provide one way of clarifying the commitments we ask of members. They define our commitment to God, to the church family, and to personal holiness. And when covenants are actively used in Communion services, new member classes or before extending the right hand of fellowship, they help members to regularly renew their commitment when taught well. Moreover, these are not cold commitments when covenants are taught properly. Well-written covenants have the ability to warm the heart and stir love for the church. Who can thoughtfully read, “We will walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian Church, exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require,” and not be moved?
3. Covenants provide a partial basis for unity. In defining how a church agrees to live together, the covenant helps unify the community around a common set of values and standards. The joint commitment enrolls the body of Christ in the same community-building project and the same mission-oriented goals. Along with the statement of faith, the covenant helps galvanize the church and prevent the church from drifting into vague and ill-defined preferences and notions of the Christian life.
4. Covenants help establish a baseline for ethical conduct and for church discipline. All communities have norms for behavior. The church is no exception. And all communities have ways of responding when its members break those norms. Again, the church is no exception. While the Bible is itself the authoritative norm for Christian faith and practice, church covenants, insofar as they summarize the Bible accurately, help establish and maintain the ethical norms of the church. And when members are in violation of the covenant they committed to uphold and submit to, then the church has an effective way of defining the person’s error and, if necessary, proceeding toward loving correction and discipline.