“We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave! ” Quote from the lyrics of Hotel California link
I have been writing about membership *covenants,* which I call contracts, since 2010. Back then, I wrote a post on how to get out of a membership covenant even if you are under discipline. Here is a link to that permanent posting.
Through the years, I have received several emails from pastors claiming that their covenant isn’t a contract. I told them that they would see the light if something happened in their church and they discovered that their covenants were really a contract when they consulted their lawyers. I’m not sure if these pastors were ignorant or merely trying to pull the wool over their congregations’ eyes. I’m sure some of them were ignorant, BTW.
I have had the experience to hear how numerous churches present this document before having their church members sign it. They talk about how it is a promise to care and pray for one another-a kind of “Let’s tiptoe through the tulips together” sort of a document. Unfortunately, this bed of tulips is filled with snakes, ready to bite.
Many people do not realize I have another free side job related to this blog. I am the “Dear Abby” on how to get out of a church when the church appears to want to apply retroactive church discipline. Retroactive church discipline is a term I believe I invented to describe what some poor souls experience. Everything is going well. Then the member gets the heebie-jeebies about the church and leaves. Except, the church declares the individual to be suddenly, and without notice, “under church discipline.” They are then told that they must do something, depending on the church, to secure their release from the church discipline dungeon.
The very first person I met, who was struggling with this problem, now writes for TWW. You can read Todd’s story. which happened when he was still living in Dubai, called My, My Dubai. It is a timely reminder since it was a 9Marks church that did this and it is 9Marks that now admits that such covenants are legal contracts. Todd sent me a great picture of Dubai which I keep as a remembrance of that debacle.
What happens when you are asked to sign a covenant/covenant?
- If the pastors don’t tell you there are legal ramifications when you sign it, then they are either deceptive or ignorant.
- It doesn’t matter if they are ignorant.
- If you sign it, you are legally bound by it so long as you continue to be a member of the church and you do not legally resign your membership.
- You can legally resign your membership at any time, no matter what they say. You live in the USA and you can leave any voluntary organization at any time unless you legally owe them money.
- You don’t have to sign a covenant to be legally bound by it. If you give verbal consent to the contract or if you repeat the vows in the contract in a meeting you are stuck. If your pastor asks people in the congregation to stand in affirmation of the contract, and you stand, you are probably stuck as well, especially if they filmed everyone standing. Some churches even hide it in the rules of membership. For example. If you join, you agree to the document
- There are lots of other caveats. That’s why I suggest consulting a lawyer if you must sign the gosh darn thing.
If the church has the covenant and you like it, what should you do?
Don’t join. Many churches are thrilled if you give money or show up at the “Let’s clean the parking lot” Day. Sure, you can’t vote but when was the last time your vote really made a difference. It is my opinion that most churches never put anything to the vote unless they are sure of the outcome.
9Marks is the Hotel California of the evangelical set
In the many years that I have been advising on how to flee a coercive church, as far as I can remember, except a few, the church is a member of the 9Marks network or the pastor has 9Marks materials in his office. BTW, if you ever go into a pastor’s office, always look and see what books he has on display. They most likely represent his theological bent. One such office I visited, had books by John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Mark Dever. I knew it was time to prepare my exit strategy.
A reader sent us this post at 9 Marks on July 2, 2021: Why American Courts Care about Church Membership—And Why You Should, Too.
I love the word * respect* before the word members. It rarely works that way.
American law provides reasons for churches to give careful attention to both their membership policies and the theological basis for those policies. Doing so respects the individuals who come to the church, and it can also protect the church from legal liability.
Pay very close to this next part. I have highlighted the word *internal.*
American courts have recognized that the First Amendment’s religion clauses prohibit courts from interfering with churches’ internal affairs
So long as you are a member inside the church, you are possibly subject to even the most arbitrary discipline.
Note this next line. The church has a right to define its own set of rules. They can define what should be disciplined. This means that so long as you are a member of the church, the pastors can dream up all sorts of things when it comes to discipline and there is little that you can do about it.
On many occasions, when churches have been sued for church discipline, courts have said that they cannot review the decisions of a church in carrying out its principles of discipline and self-governance.
Courts look for defined membership in legal cases.
What have I been saying for years?
If a church can point to a membership commitment or covenant that explains the biblical basis of church discipline, then there’s little chance that anyone (courts included) could be confused about the religious basis of church discipline. If the member in fact agreed to the covenant, so much the better.
It’s about protecting the church, not protecting you.
For years I have been saying that these confounded membership covenants were not created to make sure that Martha and Joe pray for the church. That sounds really spiritual and nice but that isn’t what this is about. The 9Marks author sums it up nicely.
American courts recognize that churches have a religious responsibility to govern themselves in accordance with their convictions. Church membership is thus not just a way of following biblical principles of accountability and commitment. It’s a wise way to protect the church from liability.
It’s the member’s responsibility to know these things.
I contend that it is the responsibility of the church to inform the prospective member that they are signing a legal document which will protect the church, especially if the church decides to discipline you. According to this, it appears that 9Marks has no intention of revealing the legalities inherent in signing a *covenant.* I find that troubling and so should prospective members ho should know they are signing legal documents, not a simple vow by Ethel and Fred to pray for the church.
Members and prospective members should be aware of what they’re committing to when they join a church.
Read how he writes this paragraph. If you don’t think that these covenants have legal implications, then this should convince you.
Many Americans are unaware that there’s even a difference between being a regular attendee and a member. “I’m committed to the church! I make it a priority, and I’m there consistently,” one might say. “Doesn’t that make me a member?” No, because (among other things) being a regular attendee doesn’t sufficiently clarify the nature of the relationship between the attendee and the church. There are biblical reasons to argue this, of course, but I simply want to emphasize that this also influences how many American judges have approached the issue.
The value of church membership for the average Joe appears to be tied to *allows oneself to be lovingly disciplined.*
Those who never took the step of affirming their commitment cannot expect the same commitment from the church. This includes the commitment to lovingly discipline them if they persist if the occasion requires it. Again, historically, American courts have recognized this. Perhaps they can serve as a reminder to contemporary Christians who wonder about the value of church membership.
Do biblical best practices involve signing a legally based church contract?
As one who has read the Bible for many years, I have yet to see a membership covenant being discussed in any chapter, even in the Epistles. Can anyone out there help me here? It appears the author, in keeping with Dever’s best practices, is delighted to see that the law recognizes membership[ contracts. After all, they end up protecting the church.
Apparently a church covenant is considered For Christians, the biblical case for church membership should always be first and foremost. But it’s good to know that complying with biblical best practices also has practical legal benefits.
Take away points
- Membership covenants are merely legal contracts that allow the church to discipline you as the church sees fit.
- If the church does not tell you that you are signing a legal contract, you need to ask and wonder why.
- You can quit a church anytime you wish, no matter what the covenant states. Being a member of a church is a voluntary association which means you join because you wanted to join and you leave because you wanted to leave.
- Be sure to put in writing (and send by certified mail ) that you have rescinded your membership as of a particular date. Do not speak to them after this point. If they ask you to come to a meeting, don’t do it. If they keep bothering you, you may need to threaten legal action.
- Don’t sign a membership contract, no matter what they call it. Many great churches do not require such devices.
- A good church will let you attend even if you are not a member. Many churches will let you take part in many activities without membership. They also love donations from non-members.