“Religious sexual harassment and abuse has become an epidemic. Sadly, it’s not something new. It’s existed since the fall of Adam and Eve. Religion is not exempt. A sacred place meant to be safe and holy has become the breeding ground for violence and evil.” ― Sacred Wandering: Growing Your Faith In The Dark
Recently, I have been fielding some calls regarding church covenants gone wrong. I feel so sorry for these folks who are hurt and frustrated by narcissistic leaders who play games with their perceived authority. So, it’s time to review the problems with these documents. The attached older post will review how to get out of these voluntary contracts that are secretly legal documents designed to protect the church. These are not designed to protect you, the innocent and badly advised church member.
I will end with a post that I wrote six years ago. I have found no reason to change my opinion that one should not sign a covenant.
Do not join your church for two years.
After discovering my Lutheran church, my husband and I attended church services for two years. We participated in some adult classes and church activities. Here is what I discovered.
- We got to see the pastors functioning in all aspects of church life. We were impressed with their quiet humility and obvious concern for the congregants. They left us alone except to learn our names and ask how we were doing. They seemed pleased to see us there weekly. Never once did they ask us to join the church.
- We loved the two years of just enjoying our church without responsibilities. It gave us time to understand the church better. We continued with some local ministries. I continued to write this blog. I think I started to feel relaxed in church for the first time.
- We discovered that a membership covenant did not exist in our church.
- When we joined, we found nothing had changed except we got involved in activities within the church. We help with our church services and are interested in youth activities.
In my opinion, there is no reason to join a church immediately. Spend time getting to know it. Take a breather and enjoy God in the process. All churches will accept your donations, and many will allow you to participate in many activities within the church.
Why would you allow a pastor or church leader whom you haven’t observed for years to be able to discipline you or your family members?
A pastor fooled me for several years. I didn’t know him well, but my few interactions with him left me cold. He played the “I’m just a good ol Southern boy, as shucks” quite well. However, one day, that changed when we had to question how the church handled the abuse of many teen boys. The legal claws came out, and we got out of there.
Folks, you do not know your church leaders well if you attend a church of 2,000 members or more. That pastor puts on a show for you each week but rarely exhibits the natural person behind the mask. People tell me they “knew their pastor since they watched him for ten years.” They don’t know him well. They know what he wants them to see. Why should that person who doesn’t know you well be allowed to discipline you?
Take a look at what happened to Eileen Gray. She didn’t know John MacArthur, and look what happened. EXCLUSIVE: John MacArthur Shamed, Excommunicated Mother for Refusing to Take Back Child Abuser.
Never forget that All the pastors and All the elders and assorted hangers-on can also have “authority” over all of the members. Do you trust all of them to discipline you? How well do you know them? Another scenario to consider is that you could be 50 years old, and your pastor, with all of the authority, is 28. How does that work?
Why should you let someone control your life via the membership covenant?
What does it mean to submit to those in authority over you?
How much authority does a megachurch leader have over you? Does this mean that people who don’t know you, usually in a megachurch, should have a right to tell you you can’t leave without his permission?
Let’s take this back a notch. What does it mean to submit to a church leader? I think it means helping them out in the various ministries in the church. Much of that work is not glorious. For example, our pastor asked my husband and me if we could help with altar care. This means getting to church early and staying after to clean up. So, we have been doing this and have found it an excellent way to speak with others who help out in the services. The pastor asked me to help with a weekly youth activity for nine months. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do it, but I decided I would because he asked. I have been doing this for six years and have found much joy in getting to know the students, their parents, and church leaders. Isn’t this what is meant by submission?
Many in the church do disaster relief, minister with a food truck, and clean a road that the church adopted. None of this is “fun,” but it is responding by submitting to the ministry of the church leaders. In doing so, many have found intimacy with others who choose to submit to the program the pastors and leaders designed. I almost forgot to say that the members have also helped design and implement these programs. The leaders listen to the people as well.
I think that is the type of submission the Bible is talking about. It is not pastors saying that you can’t leave without their permission. If you disagree with me, tell me why.
Sheer baloney and laziness: Without a church contract, the pastor wouldn’t know who they have “authority” over or “responsibility” for.
If the church leaders and pastors don’t know who is coming to the church, then the church is out of control. My pastors understand who is coming to the church long before they join the church. I have watched as the church has cared for new people who hadn’t yet joined.
The real problem is that many churches are too big, and the hope is to make it bigger and bigger and “change the world.” The problem is that they rarely change anything. A membership contract will not solve that problem. It is just a means for control when the leaders feel like exerting their “authority.” Many times, that control is erratic and unevenly applied. Read the John MacArthur story.
Question: I really want to know the answer to this
Tell me why my church is wrong by not having a membership covenant/contract. Tell me why your church is doing it better than my church.
“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 their covenant isn’t a contract. I told them they would see the light if something happened in their church, and they discovered that their covenants were a contract when they consulted their lawyers. I’m unsure 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 of hearing 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, 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 invented to describe some poor souls’ experience. Everything is going well. Then, the member gets the heebie-jeebies about the church and leaves. However, the church declares the individual to be suddenly, and without notice, “under church discipline.” Depending on the church, they are then told that they must do something to secure their release from the 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, 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 church member and do not legally resign your membership.
- You can legally resign your membership anytime, 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 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.
What should you do if the church has the covenant and you like it?
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.