Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $


    A World of Worthless Words

    Most people would rather not commit to a local church, or hold their commitment loosely. It might be time to reconsider the church covenant.

    By John B. Carpenter

    November 13, 2023
    • L. Alexander

      Agree with Ana (below). Further, many instances of abuse have surfaced re church covenants, and they are considered legal documents. A better idea is to follow Matthew 5:37.

    • Nicola

      Did you need to mentioned the elder was ‘Wanda’s (soon to be ex) brother in law? And….’ Who left after a decade?’ It seems to me that maybe a lack of love and some judgment here might be the very problem. Nice to know you remembered all this even though it took him a DECADE to leave.

    • Kristine Montamat

      Jeepers. Might it be that rigid, know-it-all judgmentalism fails to provide the love and kindness and compassion that people like Wanda might be most in need of? If a church fails to nurture and at least try to comfort a person in their suffering --rather than lecturing them about staying in a marriage no matter what--is it any wonder they drift away, either physically in this case, or spiritually?

    • Ty

      "When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again." -Sir Thomas More, "A Man For All Seasons"

    • Ana

      I don't really understand where there is a biblical principle for church covenants. This article only proves that the scriptures don't say covenants are bad, and that promises have value. But the main argument seems to be if promises are good and God is okay with them then we should make covenants with churches. This doesn't follow logically nor per se biblically as nowhere in the bible does anyone make a covenant to a church to my knowledge. And it is a pretty funny if then statement. I doubt that Paul with all his traveling ever made such a commitment which at least means Christians have a case by case basis for covenants. Please correct me if I misunderstood the message of this article.

    Wanda gushed, “I love this church. I’ll never leave unless God tells me directly.” Two months later, she was gone, not because God told her to leave but because if she went to church #2 she’d be able to meet her family every Sunday for lunch. When that didn’t work out, after a few months, she moved on to church #3 because the pastor was a friend. She didn’t stay there long either. Last I saw of her was on Facebook gushing about her new “church family.” In the meantime, she had divorced her husband.

    Wanda’s words about her love of our local church might have been heartfelt, but they weren’t, I discovered, trustworthy. They represented little more than the fleeting feelings of that given moment, no matter how effusive they were, even if she invoked the name of God or signed her name to a covenant. Wanda is not alone. She lives in a world of worthless words. We’ve helped make her world that way.

    One way modern Christians bear responsibility for Wanda’s mindset can be seen in the decline of the church covenant. In Baptist churches, among others, members were once expected to ascribe to a covenant, frequently signing their name to it. That practice gradually faded in the twentieth century. We’ve now come to a point where a former president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma publicly decries covenanting. In his book Fraudulent Authority, Wade Burleson attacks the idea of a church covenant, claiming, “A church covenant makes the Holy Spirit irrelevant in my life,” as if commitments grieve the Spirit.  He says, “a church covenant requires something more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” – and so violates the Lord Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:37.


    Photograph by Ben White.

    Burleson expresses what many modern people feel about church covenants – “scary is the tie that binds” – even if some would avoid expressing their reluctance to covenant in such blatantly individualistic terms. More representative of how modern Christians conceive of commitments as lightly-worn – ties that cannot bear any binding – is Jonathan Leeman, a champion of church membership. In his The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, Leeman simultaneously praises and castrates covenants, then bids the gelding-covenants be fruitful. Though he recommends church covenants, he also claims that said covenants can be broken even for “foolish reasons.” Indeed, except for those who leave to avoid disciplinary measures, the church has “no choice” but to accept whatever reason any member gives for walking away.

    Leeman’s idea of a covenant – a tie that binds only and exactly as long as participants wish to be bound by it – appeals to the assumptions of a secular world that prizes choice above every other value. Those assumptions are evident in a world of no-fault divorce – where marriage vows are treated as easily discardable – and cohabitation, where such vows are dismissed as meaningless to begin with. But neither that secular worldview nor Leeman’s lightly-worn loyalties bears much resemblance to covenants as scripture describes them.

    Christian churches should ground themselves not on choice, but on a love that keeps promises.

    Christian covenants bind – in our churches and in our marriages – not because they reflect the changeable emotions of human beings, but because they imitate, however imperfectly, God’s own eternal faithfulness (Deut. 7:8–9). We keep our promises to each other because he keeps his promises to us. “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge,” Numbers 30:2 teaches: “he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Psalm 76:11 enjoins us, “Make your vows to the Lord your God and perform them.”

    God’s people are to keep their commitments even when the situation has grown difficult. The one who lives in God’s presence “keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Ps. 15:4). When Joshua made a covenant with the Gibeonites, he believed he had to keep it even though it was entered into under false pretenses (Josh. 9:19). From God’s promises to Noah in Genesis 9:9 and Abraham in Genesis 12:2, the story of the Old Testament is of the power and weight of covenant – and the dire consequences that follow if we forget that words are weighty.

    And the responsibilities of the old covenant are made deeper and more demanding in the new. For the disciple of Jesus, one’s word is one’s bond. We do not have to swear by heaven or the gold of the temple or the gift on the altar for others to take our commitment seriously. All commitments are to be kept (Matt. 23:16–22). Christian churches should ground themselves not on choice, but on Christian love. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:6). It’s a love that keeps promises.

    Jesus’ command to “let your yes be yes” does not prohibit making vows, as Burleson argues. On the contrary, it’s an affirmation that vows must be kept, that there are no loopholes for promise-breaking, even if you don’t swear an oath but just say yes (Matt. 5:33–37). One’s word – “I’ll never leave unless God tells me to” – is to be kept even if the gushy feelings that inspired it have evaporated. We make commitments when we feel like it, to keep them when we don’t feel like it. A disciple of Jesus speaks weighty words.

    So, when we reject covenants, or reduce them to an essentially nominal attachment – when we decide words aren’t weighty – we undermine the faith and the virtue those covenants enjoin. Wanda’s breaking of the covenant, her drifting from church to church, her eventual divorce, weren’t evidence of unusual personal frivolity but symptoms of a far deeper problem. In the church and outside of it, we live in a world of worthless words.

    This is not to say that we ought to use church covenants to bind Wanda, and Christians like her, to churches they wish to move away from, even if we could. But like C. S. Lewis’s “men without chests,” we should be shocked that, after asking for a covenant, we have worthless words in our midst. After Wanda wandered away, I proposed to my fellow elder that we put before the congregation an amendment to our church constitution that if members want to break the covenant and leave, they consult with the elders first. Life has too many variables to adamantly claim that there is never a reason for a church member to transfer membership to another sister church. But the covenant must be meaningful and the reasons for breaking it should not be “foolish.” My fellow elder was reluctant and consulted with Leeman’s organization, which echoed his advice above. So, my fellow elder vetoed the proposal. He was also Wanda’s brother-in-law (soon to be ex-brother-in-law.) About a decade later, he left too, for unspecified reasons.

    It may not be possible, in the world we live in, to stop people like Wanda from leaving our churches. One-time staple idioms like “my word is my bond” are fading from cultural memory. Wanda’s failure to keep her word is just one example of a trend too widespread and deep-rooted for any amendment to stop. But we still owe it to Wanda, even if she leaves, to name that failure for what it is: to insist, against the wisdom of the world, that words are weighty, that some ties should bind, and that when we make promises they should be kept.

    Contributed By JohnCarpenter John B. Carpenter

    John B. Carpenter, PhD, is pastor of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church, in Danville, Virginia.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now