Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Covenant and the Local Church

A covenant is a contract, an agreement, between two or more parties to fulfill certain obligations towards one another. Christians ought to be familiar with the concept. We know that God's covenant to make Abraham a blessing to all nations, to multiply his offspring, to bring the Messiah through him, and His oath to fulfill this covenant Himself, is reason we have a church at all. There are more promises fulfilled in this covenant than that, but this list is a good start.

Another covenant that Christians ought to be familiar with is the covenant made between a man and a woman in holy matrimony. In this covenant, a man and woman take oaths in the presence of God and gathered witnesses to be faithful to one another until death. In the marriage covenant, the man and woman pledge to be partners through thick and thin as long as life endures.

And finally, I want to draw attention to the covenant between brothers and sisters in Christ made when someone joins a local church. Believe it or not, when you joined a local church, you entered into a covenant agreement with that body much like the one you made when you wed. The obligations are not as intense, but they do exist, and we ought to honor those commitments to the best of our ability. Here is a sample of the typical Baptist Covenant:

Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, angels and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.

We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love, to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.

We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to educate our children in the Christian faith; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment, to avoid all tattling, backbiting and excessive anger; to seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another's faith.

We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Savior to secure it without delay.

We moreover engage that when we remove from this place, we will, if possible, unite with a church where we can carry out the articles of this confession and the spirit of this covenant.

I hope that you actually read that covenant, because if you are a Southern Baptist, odds are that your church has formally adopted something very close to that as your church covenant. Perhaps you had no idea that your church had such a covenant when you joined. That's pretty typical, many Christians have no clue about God's covenant with Abraham and we even have trouble with the marriage covenant by all reports. But our collective ignorance is no excuse for not fulfilling our duty.

I submit that the reason folks ditch the local church the majority of the time is because they simply refuse to live according to their covenant. Joining a church is not taken seriously because covenant obligation is not taken seriously. Most people believe that when they leave one church for another it is because the church has failed them when in reality it is they who have failed the local church.

I suppose that the most common excuse given for a divorce between a man and a woman is "irreconcilable differences." It's a flimsy, and sinful reason to dissolve a marriage union, and it is equally flimsy with regards to leaving a local church in most cases. If the difference is that the church has lost the gospel, that might fly. But like a marital divorce, I'd be willing to say that this is not the typical reason folks leave.

The reason people leave is because they want a place where they can worship freely without the hindrance of others. Meaning: they want to ditch the traditional feel for a more contemporary one. Or, they are sick of dealing with the particular sinners in their current congregation, and they believe that the next congregation will have less sinful people in it. This reasoning is not only faulty, it reflects the "me" mentality of church membership.

Here is what I believe it boils down to when a person chooses a church to join. They rate a successful church by whether or not they are moved during the singing part of worship, if they might lift their hands in praise to no scandal, and if they have an overall encouraging and perhaps even convicting response to the message preached. And while I am not belittling this as legitimate expression of worship, I am urging you to consider that there is more, far more, to personal worship than singing and listening to preaching.

I submit to you that worship that is pleasing to God is not always pleasing to us. At least, not at the time. Consider Abraham in his offering of Isaac. He tied his son to an altar and was about to kill him. His faithfulness in this act pleased God greatly. Was Abraham's act worship or not? Do you suppose he had the same feeling that you want on a typical Sunday morning singing a Chris Tomlin song?

Worship, then, is also doing the things which God calls us to do, and He wants us to do them with a willing heart. So, when the preaching isn't keen, and when sinners are rubbing you wrong, remember that you covenanted before God to work for the betterment of this church. You promised to help others walk in godliness. Remember that the point of "church" is not for you to have a good Sunday morning experience. The church is there for you to do the hard work of walking and helping others walk in sanctification. And the work of sanctification means that some folks in your congregation are not walking by faith and it is your duty to help them, encourage them, and to stick with them until they do so.

Sunday night, I was struck by the words of Ruth to Naomi in the first chapter of that book. Against all hope of prosperity, Ruth swore these words to her mother-in-law:

Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The LORD do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.

As I read those words I thought, "Where is this attitude of loyalty in the local church. Where is the determination to live and die with a people?" Until you die to self, beloved, you will never find joy in your church, and consequently, you will never become a good church member.


Even So... said...


dokimos said...

Thanks, Brad. I think it might even be helpful for all members to memorize and publicly recite the covenant in unision from time to time, such as we used to do with Bible verses (and I think should continue to do!).

Lisa writes... said...

Dragging Chris Tomlin in, now that's getting in my business! :-)

A sobering reminder of the hard road of obedience: "worship that is pleasing to God is not always pleasing to us." Amen. May we seek His will and His pleasure and not our selfish wants and preferences and may we know the difference...

Sista Cala said...

Powerful post, a most humbling reminder of the level of committment God desires for us to have with Him, His Bride, and our local church.