Covenant Church Membership

In recent years there has been a trend, especially in Reformed Baptist circles, to speak of ‘covenant membership’ in a church congregation. In these discussions has been a clear disciplinarian streak, with an obligation (whose strictness varies from place to place) to remain in a congregation once bound to it by covenant, an obligation that can be released only by the equivalent of a presbytery or kirk session. Joining a congregation has a voluntary element, of course, but the attachment lately promoted approaches in strictness the obligations taken on in marriage.

The problem of clerical tyranny

This move raises the concern, for me and for others, that ministers are binding their flocks’ consciences with laws of no divine institution, not only as matters of prudence but as matters of ius divinum, of divine law. A believer’s spiritual ‘marriage’ is just that: a spiritual marriage, to Christ and his holy catholic and apostolic Church. This engrafting is a thing not visible to the human eye, but known only to the Holy Spirit. As John Hales wrote,

For the Church is not a thing that can be pointed out […] it is the glory of it not to be seen and the note of it to be invisible; and when we call any visible company of professors a church, it is but a word of courtesy: out of charity we hope men to be that which they do profess […] the Lord only knoweth who are his.

While I disagree with John Hales on the Synod of Dort, this quotation is sterling: the various visible churches are, so to speak, sacraments of the true catholic Church, and not themselves the Church. To bind parishioners by oath to one part of the visible Church and forbid them to attach themselves to another part, except this done be schism, is itself schismatical tyranny. Even England’s infamous Act of Uniformity 1662, which deprived all ministers who would not follow all the doctrines, rites and ceremonies prescribed by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, was more charitable: together with the rest of the so-called Clarendon Code, it neither excommunicated nor disabled laymen who attended nonconformist chapels but practised occasional conformity by taking communion one a year in the official Church of England, laymen who therefore were not recusants living in schism. For I trust that most changes of membership in the visible assemblies of the Church are not actually schisms, so church officers should not prevent them with binding oaths that put inordinate power into their own hands.

The problem reacted against

The trend, I think, is overcompensating for lack of unity among congregations of different ‘tribes’. If transferring congregational membership were still done with letters of good standing, there would be real and not just notional fellowship in the matrix of congregations, presbyteries and deaneries, and no one would reasonably feel the need to enforce church membership against the snake-belly low doctrine of the Church that often prevails. As it is, the proliferation of baby boomer churches, hipster churches, Korean churches, &c. creates the sense that these are, whatever we say, different churches, not just various congregations of one Church, and that it’s acceptable to be segregated into one little obscure corner of Christendom without dealing with the whole.

In the early Jerusalem church in Acts 6 we already see, it seems, both Hebraic and Hellenistic congregations, but they work through problems together, and their elders meet in common counsel. Later, after the apostles, we see bishops chosen from the number of presbyters as representative heads. Whether or not we have bishops in exactly the same way, of course, is of little moment, but I think Capitol Hill et al. are rightly concerned about the ‘drift in, drift out’ pattern of church involvement. In some places we do see proud and prelatical bishops (but not under that name) either speaking with forked tongues about ‘sharing a vision’ and ‘close fellowship’ or seriously convinced that only their tyranny will keep their churches together, but for every one of those we have many who think the visible Church amounts to no more than a pep rally and a refuelling station, and that we have nearly unlimited choice how we may be edified. Commitment to the visible Church must mean more than meeting with orthodox congregations severally and separately.

Otherwise, we have people divorcing at will without even a pretence of claiming adultery as a cause, moving to a new church in the area and then asking to be married, all without any awareness on the part of the ministers as to what issues might have to be discussed. Or else Judaizers and other troublemakers move from congregation to congregation peddling their heresies and stirring up dissension in congregation after congregation, casting all under heaven into confusion. These false brethren should certainly be allowed to depart, taking their unclean mouths with them, but it is a scandalous trouble for them to move hither and thither and then become fiendish elders and deacons in our churches. There is a valid reason, then, for separatist distrust of the wide and dangerous world, which we have to address not only in discouraging aberrant responses but also in constructing a positive response to the causes.

A positive response

First, there must be robust preaching against a consumeristic approach to the word and sacraments of Christ’s institution. We do not take and exhaust this ministry, but rather we are taken up into Christ himself when we receive its ministrations by faith. There are far too many Christians who sinfully choose to listen rather to what tickles their ears than to what summons them to obey the Lord, and these immature Christians must be encouraged to produce good fruits in keeping with repentance, lest they be cut off and burned in everlasting fire for faith that has proved untrue; but the words that the Lord has spoken to us, they are spirit, and they are life. What is carnal is not merely what is physical: it is every thing that seduces our hearts away from the life of the Spirit. Ministers must preach against all carnal things, exhorting Christians to see with the eyes of faith and not with the judgement of the Jews who judged by appearances. When they see in this way, they will form deep relationships in their parishes, and they will give their substance and their service in their parishes, and they will be part of the lives of their parishes.

Second, there must be a principled stand against the accretion of spiritual requirements that go beyond the law. These Pharisaical burdens have alienated many who know better than to practically live in church, or to endure a pastor’s harsh displeasure for not attending one event or another. As the requirements for belonging multiply, they will obscure the true keys of the kingdom, which John Calvin explains: ‘As, therefore, in the present day, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed to the custody of pastors, that they may admit believers into eternal life, and exclude unbelievers from all expectation of it, so the priests and scribes anciently under the Law held the same office.’ When extrabiblical requirements have become a measure of who is and who is not a good servant of Christ, we shall have regressed to the bondage of the papacy.

Third, there must be local unity in the Church. The visible assemblies of the Church must be able to work with one another and profess one Lord, one faith, one baptism for the remission of sins, seeking to have what communion they can have, even when they find it impaired by substantial disagreements. The goal is to reach the point at which attending church at one place or another is little different from attending either the English or the Chinese service at a Chinese American church.

Having all these things, we will, I think, stop imagining a need for binding church members to one congregation just to stop the plague of endless and frivolous church-hopping. We will instead have local churches bound closely enough in discipline – because the ministers keep in touch – that there will be little possibility of flitting from congregation to congregation in open sin, and closely enough in doctrine that there will be little chance of avoiding the clear, and sometimes hard, preaching of the gospel.

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