Church covenants and church discipline
Dear BPCWA worshipper, During the recent English Basic Bible Knowledge classes, I finished covering the 10 commandments. Among what was covered was the 9th commandment, which is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” (Ex 20:16). This includes being true to the covenants that we voluntarily enter into. Yet, many Christians view covenants simply as mere agreements to be entered into and to be freed of when it doesn’t quite sit with them on some matters. I want to understand this further today, particularly regarding the view of covenants in the church.
Importance of covenants. Our God is a LORD of covenants. Even our salvation is a covenant – the covenant of grace. We are so strong in our belief of God’s faithfulness to His covenants that, though being in the Reformed faith, we believe that God has not forsaken Israel in the covenant that He made with them. The reason for Israel’s current and coming troubles is because of disobedience to the covenant, which brings chastisements and punishments. Hence, we believe that there will come a time that the current apostate Israel will be restored to be the light and holy nation that He intended them to be. When Israel returns to their LORD, they will believe and obey. They will be blessed and be the blessing that God intended them to be. But what if God viewed covenants the same way as man does – to be entered into and left with little compunction? What security is there in our salvation? Even the 10 commandments are a covenant between our LORD and His people.
Examples of covenants in the church. Probably the first covenant that one signs up to is when they take up membership in the church. That is why all new members must take their membership vows before the congregation. Some of these include upholding the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Bible Presbyterian church, keeping the purity, peace, and unity of the church and not disobeying her regulations and Constitutions, or creating disharmony amongst the members. As members, they have voluntarily put themselves under the church and God’s appointed authorities in the church. Because of that, a perhaps more onerous sounding membership vow is to promise to obey the leaders as well as be subject to their discipline to help them return to the right path. Such discipline includes admonition and rebuke at its initial stages before it progresses to an official church discipline where more serious measures are taken to cause the erring child to return to the path. Discipline is not the first step but is taken only after a serious misdemeanour or repeated offence occurs. Another example of a covenant that is used in the church is the Teacher Commitment Form, where all teachers declare that they will support the church practices, including the principles and practice of Biblical separation, and that they promise to strive conscientiously to live exemplary Christian lives. This is important for teachers because without the living, even teaching the right doctrines becomes hollow words to those that sit under their teaching. Moreover, students look up to their teachers and will easily follow their examples.
Invoking the covenant. Often, it is when the rubber hits the road that the true character is tested. Sometimes, time will tell if the confession of a person is a sure commitment in practice. I remember a past member who diligently attended Bible studies, prayer meetings, BBK, and even took FEBC classes. Through these, there seemed to be good sound knowledge and apparent conviction to the doctrines taught. But there came a time when the person was unhappy with a particular teaching and began to argue against the teachings, speaking against the church to other members, and even disrupting church Bible study sessions. There were numerous warnings and eventually it reached a stage where the member was warned that if they continued to contact other members to sow discord and unhappiness, church discipline would be the next step of action. Unwilling to submit to discipline, the member promptly submitted a resignation but continued to try to contact other worshippers to stir unhappiness and discontent. Such a person thinks that by resigning, then the church cannot do anything. Is that all there is to why a person enters a covenant in church? Whether we are still members or not, we have Christian responsibilities to respect a church.
Covenants follow the Bible. A faithful church will only put into the covenant what is biblical. We do not exercise ourselves beyond what the Bible permits. The Christian who feels that resigning from the church “frees” them to do as they wish has a very low view of covenants and an even lower view of God. Ultimately, the Bible binds the Christian. Even if the church cannot exercise her authority over a non-member, the Bible does. Yes, the church can no longer exercise church discipline over the individual, nor can/ do we often know what background conversations may continue thereafter. The church then can only leave it unto the LORD who ultimately oversees and enforces all covenants. Does this mean then that the church should not have covenants or that Christians shouldn’t enter into covenants? Certainly not. There are lawful covenants. Lawful church covenants are good, for they serve as an additional ringfence to prevent us from stepping out of God’s laws. God intends them for good. But let us remember that Christians should be honourable people to do all things in the fear and sight of God, whether or not man’s covenants bind them. Let us remember why we obey and do what is right, even without a covenant.
De 6:24 And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive …
Yours in our Lord’s service,