Isn't a Covenant Too Legalistic?

By Jake Randolph

In 2016, Renewal Church is taking the first steps toward a formalized membership process. The hope is that as committed Christians strengthen their bond with one another under the authority of Christ, we will be more effective in ministry, better equipped to serve one another, and molded more and more into the church that God has called us to be. One piece of this membership commitment is a covenant that each individual must read, evaluate, and sign as an affirmation of their submission to the church as a body. Submission to one another is one of the essential elements of a Christian church, as Jesus and the apostles teach consistently (Mk. 9:35; Phil. 2:3-4; Eph. 5:21), and a covenant is the formalization and recognition by all members of that mutual submission under the agreed-upon guidelines. In the midst of this process, one of the responses to discussion about the covenant is essentially to ask, “But isn’t a covenant kind of legalistic?”

While I could attempt to answer this question by listing a biblical survey of covenants in Scripture, all their ins-and-outs and the particulars that governed the covenant- structure, I think it’s much more helpful to understand exactly why Renewal has enacted a membership covenant. This doesn’t create a rock-solid, irrefutable argument for membership covenants as such, but perhaps it will be helpful as you consider church membership. One thing to keep in mind as you continue reading is that a covenant is not a contract. A contract is all law whereas a covenant, esp. a covenant established by Jesus and imitated by his followers, is law strengthened by love. Pastor Jared spoke about this in his latest sermon you can find online. Here is why I think covenants are a good idea for today’s churches.

1. The Church is (already) a people of the Covenant.

The authors of the NT are consistent in their approach to the nature of the church: We are a body, knit together by our common Lord, Jesus Christ. Jesus redeems people under the banner of a new, better, divine covenant, which he himself upholds as the mediator between God and humanity. This new covenant rests on his death and resurrection. For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant”(Heb. 9:15).

A covenant in a local church is, at its best, an expression of the covenantal nature of our inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is grounded in the words of Scripture to the churches, and in the common confession of all churches everywhere that “Jesus is Lord.”

2. A covenant helps us remain deliberate in our relationships with one another.

We live in an age of consumerism, which inch-by-inch has taken root in our churches. What we think about church and how we act in church are often driven, to an unfortunate degree, by our cultural conditioning. The American church has seen far too many church-goers base their participation in this-or-that church on style, convenience, or personal preference. If it gets too messy or inconvenient, we can always sneak out the back door and move on to the next church down the road. Can we all just agree that if we’re honest with ourselves we know that following Jesus isn’t supposed to be convenient? While we’re at it, being in honest relationships isn’t convenient either! Covenant commitment jumps in the middle of the self-oriented mindset that we’re all prone to and mixes it all up, reminding us that Christians are part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than this moment and the fickleness of today, and yet as small as a cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name. When members covenant together, it’s not to give the church permission to keep attendance and hand down gold stars or demerits, but it’s because we recognize God’s design for community: Christians flourish when they are in relationships with one another, the Church comes to know and reflect God better through sharing a common life, and the world takes notice when a community of unique individuals loves one another sacrificially. A covenant holds us together, helps teach us to serve one another and keeps us honest in those moments when we would rather just back out. I need that, and I would be willing to bet that you do too!

3. A covenant provides the Church with structured and universally recognized accountability.

I’ll tell you a secret about church: It’s just a bunch of messed up folks depending on Jesus to make them whole. Here’s another freebie: Pastors and ministry leaders are just as messed up as the rest. I hope I’m not being gimmicky or giving you the trendy “low- church” vibe—I know I’m pointing out what may be obvious for some, but in practice we often forget that the church isn’t a club for the pious few. Scripture gives us countless examples and warnings that leaders are just people, subject to every human failure and sinful propensity. God, being wise, makes this clear to us from the get-go and so, tying in to my second point above, I think God uses covenant commitment to help us pastor one another! This isn’t to say that we get to boss one another around or that church members willingly subject themselves to every whim and personal conviction of another member (which is indeed legalism), but that the body together (pastors included) agrees to be mutually shaped by our different gifts, including discernment and teaching. When a church submits to be held accountable to, shaped and shepherded by God through Scripture and one another, a beautiful thing happens: God works through his church. Now, a covenant isn’t a magic formula to ensure your life’s movement toward Christ, but it can be an instrument that God uses, because

through the covenant we all agree that Jesus calls the shots, come hell or high water, and pastors, elders, and other authorities are brought under that same agreement, essentially saying, “we’re members of the church, accountable to our family just like any other member.”

4. A covenant is centered on the faithfulness of God.

In final answer to the question, “Isn’t a covenant too legalistic?” I can answer emphatically, “No!” Why, you ask? Because covenants are and have always been God’s idea. God is always a participant in the biblical covenants. In fact, God is the participant, who anchors covenants in his own faithfulness. Covenants work because we can trust God to be God. God is true to his covenant even though his people fail time and time again. Covenants presuppose God’s promise to be the God who saves— when God brought the Hebrews to Mt. Sinai in Exodus, he made a declaration which undergirded and upheld his covenant with them: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:1, emphasis added). God’s plan is always to save his people, to rescue them from oppression and destruction. When a church covenants together, we do so in the love of the Father, through the saving life and leadership of Christ, and in the power and unity that the Holy Spirit gives. God uses church covenants, he participates in church covenants, and he upholds church covenants because he is the faithful One.

When Katherine and I got married four years ago, we did so in the presence of God and Christian brothers and sisters. We made a covenant, we enacted the words of a promise, “to have and to hold, from this day forward,” and we prayed together. We did so without even knowing fully what those words meant—we didn’t know the gravity of committing to love one person for life, to care for them in illness, to devote ourselves to one another; and how could we? We were just starting at life together, fresh-faced and eager, with only the best intentions. Does our inability to know the future, our incapacity to anticipate the failures and successes of ourselves and one another, nullify the covenant we made? In no way! I say this only and only because we rely (imperfectly) on the God who keeps his promises to sustain us. Because he is a participant in our marriage covenant, I know he will uphold his word to be the God who saves— who creates fresh possibilities for forgiveness, grace and love. I know that the Spirit lives within us and Christ is ever in our midst. This gives me confidence to covenant with my wife, knowing full-well the capacity for sin that exists in both of us; I’m not confident in my ability to be a perfect (or even a competent) participant in a covenant, to always uphold my “end of the bargain”. But I am confident in God’s ability to save myself and Katherine, to move us toward himself and explode our conceptions of life and marriage through his love for us.

I have this same confidence when I reflect on the church as a covenant people. How can we know what lies in store for Renewal, or any other church we may submit ourselves to over the course of our lives? How can we be confident in the church leadership in a church culture rife with frequent “moral failure”? How can we be sure that our concerns will always be heard, that our opinions will be reflected in decisions, that our preferences will be taken into account? We can’t. Quite frankly, we cannot know anything about the tomorrow of our churches, but covenants don’t rest upon our ability to know. They rise and fall on our willingness to trust the promise; not the promises we make to each other, for they will undoubtedly fail from time to time, but the promise of God to be the God who saves. His promise has not failed yet, and it is into that promise that Renewal Church, and myself as a covenant member, rest. I want to lean hard into that promise. May God give you peace to do the same.