The studio have always claimed that the ship is the star of the show, especially when they're renegotiating contracts.-Patrick Stewart link
Once again, the premise of my post is this. I do not like the word "covenant" because it ill does not define the underlying purpose of this device. The word evokes a promise between a loving God and His people. In fact, these documents are, at the core, legal, societal based contracts and I believe that I proved that point in my last post.Therefore, in order to truly discuss this matter, we should call them contracts which is what they are called in our society.
The problem with these contracts is that they are devised by sinful people which can, and have, lead to sinful results. Since these contracts are developed by the leadership of the church, and leaders are as sinful as those in the congregation, one can assume that such contracts will be biased in favor of the leadership. They will be developed to protect the leadership and the legally recognized church entity from lawsuits.
Such ill-defined contracts do lead to abuse by arrogant pastors and leadership. One only need to look at the firings of Paul Petry and Bent Meyer by Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill to understand that these abuses are rampant.
I dislike the following assertion which I hear on a regular basis. "My church practices church discipline." It is amusing to challenge that statement. Ask them what they mean. Push them on what sins need to be punished and how they would propose to punish such sins. The vast majority of people will not be able to give a coherent reply. They merrily sign the proffered contracts, never fully realizing that they are taking on a legal obligation.
What happens if your church decides to formulate and implement a church contract?
Atty Sande gives some advice at the blog, Life Together in a post (Atty) Ken Sande on Covenant Membership. Interestingly, he advises such a church to teach to Deuteronomy and the Law in the Old Testament.
Retrofitting requires a process that may take one to three years of educating the church to think more biblically about membership. I recommend preaching from Deuteronomy where there is a restatement of the Law.
He recommends that the following statement be proffered to the congregation. Please note, once again, the concern seems to be centered in the potential for lawsuits.
"Times have changed from years ago when you could have a loose relationship with the church. Our society and our laws have changed. It's time for us to renew and tighten up the covenant."
Note how the membership is advised of the new procedures, contract, etc. It does not say there is an opportunity to change it. There is only an opportunity for dialog. In other words, this thing is going to happen. I have seen this process happen in a number of churches. The vote is a mere formality.
Our people were very responsive to that because we took the time to educate them. We held a congregational meeting where revised bylaws and policies were presented, along with new procedures for accountability and conflict resolution. We met in small groups to talk personally, and over several months there was a lot of dialog. That culminated in a church meeting where the new policies and bylaws were accepted. At that time we handed out a new membership covenant to be signed.
Can you be obligated to a church if you do not sign a contract?
The answer might surprise you. Many churches are trying to make you subject to church discipline for merely attending a church! You will see the following sort of thing showing up in all sort of covenants these days. However, I bet that it would be very difficult to enforce this caveat in court.
The last thing we did, to make sure we had informed consent, was send out a letter to everyone who did not sign the covenant. It said, even though we have not received a written covenant from you, we will interpret your continued attendance at our church, beyond a specified date, as your affirmation and consent to these policies. We didn't have a single family leave the church.
So, what can be done in order to make church contracts equitable for all those involved?
Remember, you are signing a document that is in effect even if your church undergoes a change in leadership. So, the nice pastor and kind leadership, that is now in place, could change. Or your pastor goes off to a conference, falls in love with Mark Driscoll's Jesus with tattoos, and suddenly decides it is time to "tighten things up."
Atty Sande has developed a model "relational commitments" which he believe should be presented to all prospective members. I will discuss that in detail next week. It is fraught with concerns but I will give him props for prospectively outlining his church belief system. Today, I want to look at an attempt to answer this question by Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks. In A Church Discipline Primer at the 9 Marks website. I will give him props for trying to address this issue but, once again, find the disciplinary parameters "fuzzy."
His first description is informal discipline between two individuals. He tries to put limits on such confrontation but he is unsuccessful. Note how he says "any sin" is subject for rebuke. The limit is fuzzy "Don't rebuke every single sin."
When should a church practice discipline? The short answer is, when someone sins. But the answer might differ depending on whether we’re talking about informal or formal church discipline, to use Jay Adams distinction between private confrontations and public church-wide confrontations.
Any sin, whether of a serious or non-serious nature, might elicit a private rebuke between two brothers or sisters in the faith. That’s not to say we should rebuke every single sin that a fellow church member commits. It’s simply to say that every sin, no matter how small, falls into the realm of what two Christians may lovingly raise with one another in a private setting, prudence depending.
There is a group of churches with which 9 Marks is friendly and supportive. SGM Survivors has done a good job documenting what said churches call "the observation." This is a euphemism for one person telling another person that they are sinning.Here are a few of the alleged "personal" sins that were confronted.
- An unbuttoned top button on a blouse.
- A kitchen counter that had "clutter" on it
- Sinfully craving answers to questions
- Not being a joy to the pastors
Leeman then attempts to flesh out what sort of sin would be eligible for the big Kahuna: church wide discipline
The sin should be outward.
A sin must have an outward manifestation. It must be something that can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Churches should not quickly throw the red flag of ejection every time they suspect greed or pride in someone’s heart.
The sin must be serious.
… pursuing every tiny sin a church’s life will probably induce paranoia and propel the congregation toward legalism. Third, there clearly needs to be a place for love to “cover a multitude of sins” in a congregation’s life
The person must be unrepentant.
…formal church discipline is the appropriate course of action when sin is unrepentant. The person involved in serious sin has been privately confronted with God’s commands in Scripture, but he or she refuses to let go of the sin
Leeman also discusses when to move slowly on church discipline and when to speed it up.
What needs to be done?
He gives one example of serious sin which involves an unrepentant member admitting to, and involved in, sexual sin. But he does not go far enough. Take the following example. Perhaps Leeman is acquainted with such a circumstance.
A committed Christian in a 9 Marks church disagrees with the support 9 Marks gives to a pastor outside of 9 Marks. The person explains his concern, the church refuses to consider his concerns, so he resigns from the church as a conscientious objector. The church refuses to let him resign until he "joins another church" which is not written in their contract. Said member is now held hostage.
Once again, the lines drawn by this attempt at clarification continue to lead to fuzzy parameters which can be, and will be, exploited by arrogant leaders.
Towards a Concrete Definition of Rules
I propose that churches define, in detail, the types of behaviors that can lead to church discipline. In other words, if they want a legal contract, then define the behavior that warrants church discipline, church dismissal, and all church shunning, etc. Yes, there will be exceptions. Yes, this will be difficult and cumbersome. However, clearly defined parameters will help a prospective member to decide if they truly want to join such a church.
For example, several readers know people who have been thrown out of churches for divisiveness. What constitutes divisiveness? Is the "divisiveness" sin ever used by leaders who are threatened by incisive questions on the part of members?
However, I must admit to my cynicism. I do not believe that many churches and leaders will accept such a plan. There is too much to be power to be preserved by keeping the rules fuzzy. Until things change, I will be loathe to sign such a contract.
Lydia's Corner: 2 Chronicles 24:1-25:28 Romans 12:1-21 Psalm 22:19-31 Proverbs 20:8-10