Church Membership Contracts or Covenants: Should you sign them?
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, had this to say about oaths:
But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; or by the earth, because it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Neither should you swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.
– Source: Matthew 5:34-37, Holman Christian Standard Bible
Nowadays many churches require that prospective members sign a ‘membership contract’ or ‘church membership covenant.’
Make no mistake: whichever term is used for the agreement, these signed documents are contracts.
Some of these legal documents appear quite innocent. Others make you sign away certain rights and/or force you into making specific promises. Oaths, in other words.
These promises are usually related to
- the church’s authority structure
specifically, your commitment to obeying the leaders
in particular the flow of money from you to the church
To start with money: The Bible in the New Testament does not tell us precisely how much to give. Yet more often than not church covenants do stipulate a certain percentage.
We recently heart about a church where prospective members had to sign a contract in which they promise to tithe 10% of their income to that church. When asked about this requirement, one of the pastors said, “Look, we’re not going to change that. It is part of our articles of incorporation.”
We’ll address the subject of tithing in an upcoming article.
More dangerous than the financial aspect is the fact that most church membership covenants are designed to protect an authoritarian structure.
For instance, many such contacts contain specific instructions on whether and how you may question, criticize, or otherwise share your concerns regarding various issues.
But pastors and other leaders in authoritarian churches are very much opposed to Christians who think and act independently of the church’s leadership. They prefer that you ‘come under their spiritual covering’ (read: authority).
A certain amount of structure in a church is necessary for it to function well. But the policies and stipulations in most church covenants can quickly turn abusive in churches where criticism or even questioning is seen as an offence.
‘We will not allow you to resign your membership’
Failure to follow the bylaws stipulated in signed membership contract can also have serious consequences.
In a high profile case, several years ago a woman in Texas annulled her marriage after discovering that her husband engaged in sexual abuse.
Her church subsequently ruled that she had violated its covenant by failing to obtain church leaders’ permission to file for an annulment.
The church explained that by “signing the Membership Covenant, a member agrees … to receive our care ….”
When she then wished to withdraw her membership, the church would not allow her to do so. It explained that since the woman had refused to come under their care, the leaders had placed her under church discipline — and members under discipline cannot withdraw from membership.
We have been perplexed by your decision to file for an annulment of your marriage without first abiding by your covenant obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders. As I [Pastor Matt Younger] mentioned in my first letter, this decision violates your covenant with us—and places you under discipline. Per section 10.5 of The Village Church bylaws, you are prohibited from voluntarily resigning membership while subject to the formal disciplinary process. We cannot, therefore, accept your resignation.
After much negative publicity, church leaders later apologized to the women, stating that “after further review of her situation, that she did have biblical grounds for divorce or annulment, that she should have been released from Covenant Membership as she requested and that she should not have been put under church discipline.”
Some view the apology as an effort at damage control, rather than a genuine sign of repentance over having engaged in spiritual abuse.
After suffering through many years of emotional and psychological abuse, a woman in Massachusetts divorced her husband.
She told her pastors that shortly after she and her then-husband had completed several months of biblical counseling, the man had reverted to his abusive behavior.
The church leaders disagreed with her reasons for divorcing her husband, and tried to pressure her into reconciling with him.
The woman then sent a letter to the church, resigning her membership.
The church refused, stating, “The covenant that you entered into when you became a member does not permit you to resign during circumstances such as these.”
A local newspaper reported
Despite her break with the church — and even after her lawyer sent two cease-and-desist letters asking church officials to stop contacting her — she received a letter from the church’s elders that said, in part, “if you will not re-engage in conversation or repent of your own sinful response then we are called to continue to pursue you.”
In their letter, the church leaders outlined their intended course of action, which included sharing details of her ‘sinful response’ with others “[if] we have not heard from you by December 23rd ….”
The church finally accepted her letter of resignation two weeks after the paper had sought the leaders’ comments on this situation.
Meanwhile, such spiritual abuse continues not just in that church, but in many churches like it.
Pastor gives Five Reasons to Say No to a Church Covenant
In chapter 10 of his book, Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek To Rule Over Others [ Kindle edition], Wade Burleson gives five reasons why Christians should say no to a church covenant.
- A church covenant makes the Holy Spirit irrelevant in my life
We are called in Scripture to be led “by the Spirit.” Though there is counsel in the wisdom of many, when I sign a church covenant I abdicate my right to hear from the Spirit myself.
- A church covenant replaces my one true Mediator with inferior mediators
I have only One High Priest who stands between me and God – Jesus, the Son of God – and anyone who comes between me and Jesus as I walk by His counsel and His wisdom is a detriment to my growth.
- A church covenant makes the institutional church equivalent to the Kingdom of God
[An] … institutional church plays an important role in the Kingdom of God, but the local church is not the kingdom of God. Anyone who knows history understands that institutional churches who demand spiritual authority over individual believers have wrongly placed their institution on par with God’s Kingdom.
Burleson here refers to examples of churches whose leaders falsely believe that they hold the keys of life and death and of heaven and hell.
- A church covenant by its nature is designed to protect an authoritarian structure.
When a Christian signs a church covenant that demands submission to elders/ pastors, he or she is enabling that institutional church to maintain an authoritarian structure. Rather than the weak and wounded sheep being the focus of attention within the church, most modern covenants are written with phrases that seem intent on bringing church members into “submission to church authorities.” Quickly scan any church covenant. If “submission to church elders” is anywhere found, then know the covenant is designed to keep control of members and maintain the authority of the leaders.
- A church covenant requires something more than a simple “Yes” or “No.”
Jesus said that anything you have to do that goes beyond your simple words of “Yes” and “No” is from the “evil one” (Matthew 5: 37). When I join a church, I will forever refuse to sign any document, whether it be a “tithing card,” or “a membership covenant,” or any other document that requires a vow from me regarding my future performance or activity. In fact, if I ever attend a church that requires such a thing, I will refuse to join on the basis of a principle.
– Source: Wade Burleson, Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek To Rule Over Others, Chapter 10.
Escape spiritual abuse
Note that these reasons were penned by a longtime pastor. Wade Burleson has been the pastor of Emmanuel Enid, in Oklahoma, since 1992.
His book is a breath of fresh air to all who have been subjected to the spiritual abuse fostered by fraudulent authority.
In his foreword Burleson writes,
Finally, I would like to acknowledge those of you who have suffered under horrible spiritual abuse and didn’t know how to get out from under it. I could write story after story of people who’ve written to me about their trauma of abuse by authoritarian pastors who act as if they are God’s vicar on earth. Some pastors seek to control – and sometimes punish – those who oppose God and God’s “ordained authority” on earth, or otherwise known as “the pastor.”
You know your story.
I tell just a couple of stories in this book. My greater purpose is to help you understand how to come out from under abusive spiritual authority, recognizing it as the opposite of biblical Christianity. For all you who love the Bible and God, but question the pastor and the rules of the church, I hope you read and understand Fraudulent Authority so that you can escape spiritual church abuse with clear biblical thinking and a heart filled with grace and understanding of what Christ’s Church should look like.
And in chapter 10 — the one on church covenants — Burleson reiterates:
The premise of this book is that the major problem in modern evangelical Christianity is the authoritarianism of evangelical leaders. I have sought to explain how pastors/ elders “twist the Scriptures” and demand “obedience and submission” to this alleged authority. Jesus tells us that that true ‘spiritual leaders’ are only servants, never masters.
Evangelical leaders seem not to be listening to Jesus.
Here’s a listing of chapters in Fraudulent Authority:
- Foreword – There’s Only One Authority in the Church
- Chapter 1: The Church Is Losing Its Transformational Power
- Chapter 2: The Infatuation with Church Authority
- Chapter 3: The Institutional Church Isn’t Jesus, nor Vice Versa
- Chapter 4: The Problem with “Church Authority”
- Chapter 5: All Authority Is Christ’s Alone
- Chapter 6: No “Office” of Authority for Pastor or Deacon
- Chapter 7: Nobody “Rules Over” Anyone Else in the Body of Christ (Hebrews 13)
- Chapter 8: Real Authority in the Church
- Chapter 9: It Takes a Village Covenant to Raise a Bitter Root
- Chapter 10: Five Reasons to Say No to a Church Covenant
- Chapter 11: Authority in the New Testament
- Chapter 12: Who Is the Boss at Your Church?
- Chapter 13: Ordination, the Mother of Authority
- Chapter 14: Service to Others, Not Authority over Others
- Chapter 15: An Illustration of Female Ministry through Anointing
- Chapter 16: Gifted Women Wrongly Excluded from Service
- Chapter 17: Moving Away from Male Spiritual Authority
- Chapter 18: The Bizarre Practices of Those Who Believe in Male Authority
- Chapter 19: Only “that” Woman Should Be Quiet (Timothy 2: 11-15)
- Chapter 20: The Misinterpretation of I Timothy 2: 9-15 that Leads to Male Authority
- Chapter 21: All the Ekklesia Have Voices (Corinthians 14: 34-35)
- Chapter 22: Do You Think of a Building with a Steeple or a Body of People?
- Chapter 23: A Word about “Authority” in Marriage
- Chapter 24: The Divorce Rate and Men Who Have “Authority” in Marriage
- Chapter 25: A Warning to Those Who Rule Over Others for Material Gain
- Afterword: A Healthy Church
We highly recommend this book to all Christians.