Why Do We Have a Church Membership Covenant?
I think a lot of people imagine that church membership is a lot like being a member of a gym. You basically just show up, tell them you want to be a member, and sign the paperwork.
Of course, at the gym, you have to pay a small membership fee, but other than that, you’re not really making any significant commitment. I love how McDonald’s is right out front of a gym near where I live. I used to go to that gym just to play racquetball, and then I would frequently be so hungry afterwards that I would stop by McDonald’s and get something off the dollar menu. I was bad.
And you know what? The gym manager never came after me. In fact, I probably could have stood on the sidewalk outside the gym eating my cheeseburger and chain smoking cigarettes for good measure, and they wouldn’t have said anything to me. Being a member of the gym doesn’t obligate me to any sort of healthy lifestyle.
I also don’t any obligation to the other gym members. I’m not responsible for helping them be healthy. They take care of themselves. If I wanted to, I could walk in to the facility, do my workout, and not be obligated to say a word to anyone else, and it would be fine. Membership doesn’t entail any commitment to others at the gym.
And a lot of people think church is a lot like that. I can just put my name on the roll, maybe pay some kind of membership due by giving a token amount of money every once in a while, and I’m good to go—no further obligation beyond that.
And that view of membership meshes so well with the personal autonomy that our society commonly values. We have an allergy to commitments. We don’t want anything that might inconvenience us or keep us from doing whatever we want to do at any given time. Obviously, we have to have a job to pay our bills, but beyond that, it’s all about my needs, my schedule, my life. In reality, it’s a form of selfishness.
However, if we look at the pages of the New Testament, we see that being part of a church is about a lot more than casually putting our name on a membership roll and politely giving a token amount of money every once in a while.
In John 13:34-35, Jesus says to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So basic idea of this verse is pretty simple: Jesus calls us to love each other just like he’s loved us. When Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,” he’s talking about covenant love—about the way he’s publically committed himself under the terms of the New Covenant to love us, to graciously pursue us even when we’re headed in the opposite direction, and to provide everything we need for salvation.
Jesus’ love entails commitment to very specific covenant promises.
But the verse doesn’t end there, does it? No. Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” We’re called to have that same covenant love for each other, committing ourselves to each other just like God has committed himself to us.
And the way we do that is by having a church membership covenant. A church membership covenant spells out our commitments to each other. Just like God loves us by spelling out specific commitments in the New Covenant, we want to love each other by spelling out specific commitments in our church membership covenant.
And please understand something: this is something you should desire. You should desire this kind of covenant relationship to other Christians. From what I’ve observed, the most satisfying relationships are those that are enjoyed in the context of mutual commitment.
For example, think about marriage. Of course, not every marriage is enjoyable; some are quite miserable at times. And even good marriages can be difficult during various seasons. But think about marriage when its everything God intended for it to be.
I was a hospice chaplain for 3 years and remember ministering to this one married couple, Jerry and Susan. Susan was the one on our hospice service, so I visited their house every two weeks. And she had dementia that had progressed to a significant extent so that she wasn’t really able to do much of anything beyond just sitting in a room. But I distinctly remember how Jerry cared for her.
You know, marriage vows talk about being committed to each other “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” and that’s exactly what Jerry did. Susan couldn’t even speak his name or reciprocate in any obvious way, but Jerry would talk to her, he would sing to her with his guitar, he would stroke her hair, he would feed her, and he would help her with personal hygiene. And he loved it, and with whatever mental capacity she had left, I think Susan loved it too.
God gave us the gift of marriage because he knows that the most satisfying relationships are those that are enjoyed in the context of mutual commitment—relationships where we don’t have to be afraid that the other person will leave us behind as soon as they see a better option.
And that’s also why God gave us the church—so we could enjoy relationships with other Christians nurtured by covenant commitment. Of course, it’s not a commitment “until death do us part.” You’re not in sin if you change churches. But there’s still a very real commitment to each other as we follow Jesus’ instructions in John 13 to love each other just like he’s loved us, even making specific covenant commitments that echo his covenant commitments to us.
And that commitment gives us the sense of belonging it seems like we’re hard-wired to crave, and it also give us the security of knowing others are looking out for us and are committed to help us during times of need. And because of that, I believe that being in a covenant relationship with a healthy local church probably be one of the greatest blessings we can enjoy in life.