The Old Testament is full of covenants God made with his people: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic. If those aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The point is that God makes covenants – a type of binding promise – with his people.
Today we live under the new and lasting covenant Jesus established. It had been promised in prophecy centuries before.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32.)
Under this New Covenant, God enables you to know him intimately.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)
This is the promise Jesus brought to reality through his death and resurrection. I imagine his friends couldn’t help but recognize Jeremiah’s prophecy when, the night before his death, Jesus said to them at the Passover dinner:
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:20.)
This is the covenant God has with his people.
The Bible Does Not Tell Christians to Covenant with the Church
Your covenant relationship is with God, not the body of Christ. Some local churches teach otherwise and even require their members to sign covenants full of obligations governing the conduct of the member. Their ecclesiology (that is, their doctrine of the church) is wrong* and it can turn the church into an idol that takes God’s place in a Christian’s life.
The first time I heard of local churches having their members sign these unbiblical covenants was thirty years ago. One of my law school classmates told me she was leaving a church she’d been attending for years. The church elders had been telling her who to room with (several other young women from the church in the home of an older woman in the congregation) and whether she could join the military after graduation (they were not inclined to approve it). She couldn’t take the control any longer and left.
She said they considered her to have broken the covenant she’d signed with them and the leaders decided the only way to preserve the integrity of the covenant was to require church members to shun her. And the membership did, because the leadership told them to.
She lost a lot of friends.
That idea of a signed covenant with your church was new to me. I knew of church membership, of course, and consider it to be within decent ecclesiology for God’s people. But a signed membership covenant?**
The problem with a covenant between an individual person and the local congregation is that it is not only found nowhere in the Bible but it is contrary to Scripture.
After all, you are not in covenant with the body of Christ as an organization. You are part of the body of Christ organically, that is, the Body of Christ is a single organism. Here are a few ways the Bible describes Christ’s body:
- You are a branch along with other branches who depend on the One Vine, Jesus. (John 15.)
- You are a stone lined up with other stones depending on the Cornerstone, Jesus. (1 Peter 2.)
- You are a sheep in a flock of sheep under One Shepherd, Jesus. (John 10.)
Every single one of those ways of looking at our place in the body of Christ – the church – is dependent on our relationship with Jesus, not with one another. And it is because of our relationship with Jesus that we are in relationship with one another.
Your relationship with Jesus is under the new covenant that Jesus described to his disciples. It is the new relationship God promised he would create with his people. And this new covenant with God is the only one that counts.
That leads to two conclusions about covenants:
- Don’t sign a covenant relationship with your local church. There’s no such relationship supported by the Bible.
- Do join with others who are also in the New Covenant relationship with God:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” (Hebrews 10:24-25.)
God’s covenant with you leads to fellowship with others who are also in covenant with him. These are the relationships firmly supported by the Bible. And it’s all based on God’s covenant with you, not some unbiblical covenant with other Christians.
After all, God’s the one who keeps covenants and promises perfectly, so let’s leave the convenanting up to him.
*For more on ecclesiology gone wrong regarding church membership rules, see The Church That Tells You Where You Are Allowed To Go To Church.
**The existence of covenant membership in a local church has been resurfacing lately. For example, a blogger last month wrote of a large church where she is a “covenant member”. This church is led by a mega-pastor who writes books and headlines conferences. Describing herself as a “covenant member” of the church was superfluous to her post, which points out another danger of elevating membership to covenant membership: it creates the impression of an inner ring that those who have not signed the covenant don’t belong to. That is not the way the body of Christ is to behave.