Church Membership Covenant or Contract: Should you sign one?
Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, said this 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 document referred to as a Membership Contract, a Church Membership Covenant, or simply a Church Covenant.
Make no mistake: whichever term is used for the ‘agreement’ or ‘affirmation’, 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
Church Covenant: More often than not, money is involved
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 heard 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.
Church Membership Covenant: Authoritarian Structure
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.
The Bible teaches that Christians should grow in discernment, which naturally includes the need to judge righteously.
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 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.
– Source: Burleson, Wade. Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek to Rule Over Others (p. 36). Istoria Ministries. Kindle edition.
What about Hebrews 13?
In Chapter 7 of Fraudulent Authority, Burleson notes that “The biggest proof-text for the idea of someone ruling, (being over others in authority) in the church and particularly with the elders doing so, is found in Hebrews 13: 7, 17, 24.”
Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.
– Source: Hebrews 13:7, King James Version (KJV)
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.
– Source: Hebrews 13:17, King James Version (KJV)
Salute all them that have the rule over you, and all the saints. They of Italy salute you.
– Source: Hebrews 13:24, King James Version (KJV)
Burleson addresses each of these verses providing a clear explanation as to why they cannot be used as proof-texts.
Mind you, these are only brief excerpts from Chapter 7, and the beginning of Chapter 8:
Hebrews 13: 7 is a verse that is reminding the Hebrew Christians of all those mentioned in chapters 11 and 12 and it follows verse 6 which refers to not fearing man, which these people did not do, and gave their lives because of being fearless. It may even include the Apostles themselves. But to make guides to mean “elders” or “pastors” is an addition to the text, and in the rules of proper biblical interpretation, pastors or elders is not an option since they are not mentioned either in the text or in the context.
There is no concept of lording authority over someone in the church.
There is simply NO TEXTUAL justification for an office of any kind in the New Testament local church with inherent authority vested in it. This is not to say there are not ministries that can be called pastoral or elder ministries or even deacon ministries in a local church. What can be said is that New Testament local church authority was totally different than any cultural concept of being over someone else.
The scriptural model for Church life is one of gifted people, anointed by the Spirit and recognized by the people, functioning as a gift to the whole body, teaching and equipping ALL in the body to do the work of ministry as described in Ephesians 4: 11-13:
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip His people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4: 11-13). This kind of church ministry far different than a few office holders doing the work of ministry and all the people doing what they are told by those in office. The biblical model of the church moves one from viewing the church as an organization or institution to seeing her as an organism or a body, properly called the Body of Christ.
Authority is to be experienced in the assembly because of the gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit becoming obvious through people as they serve the whole of the body.
– Source: Burleson, Wade. Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek to Rule Over Others (p. 37, 39, 41, 42). Istoria Ministries. Kindle edition. Emphasis by the author.
In the church as described in the New Testament, nobody holds spiritual authority over anyone else simply because they hold an ‘office’ (or position).
This may well upset those who have become accustomed to the notion that they have spiritual authority over others. Indeed, there are many who enjoy the very idea of spiritual authority. More often than not that very idea (potentially) leads to spiritual abuse.
It does not follow that everyone who currently operates under an incorrect view of spiritual authority is spiritually abusive.
But an unbiblical view of authority within the Body of Christ results in a church that does not fully function the way God intends.
The existence of a ‘Church Membership Covenant’ or ‘Church Membership Contract’ is at best an indication that the leaders of the church in question do not understand or accept what the Bible teaches regarding spiritual authority.
If you feel in any way pressured into signing such a document, you will want to seriously reconsider your involvement with such a church.
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.
Related topic(s): church covenant
First published (or major update) on Wednesday, February 8, 2017.
Last updated on May 15, 2022. Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.
You say, “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.”
Yet in Hebrews 13:17 I read, “17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Why is it wrong to have in a church document the words of scripture?
Stuart, that is one of the proof-texts people use in support of leaders having spiritual authority over others.
Regarding the word ‘Obey’ in that verse, Burleson writes the following:
“In the Greek it is peitho. This word means “to persuade, to win over.” When it is in the passive and middle voices, it means to be persuaded, to listen to (in Acts 5: 40 peitho is in the passive voice and is translated they agreed). The obedience suggested in the text (Hebrews 13: 17) is not a submission to any authority, but an agreement resulting from persuasion (see W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)
So, according to Vine’s Dictionary, it means to follow because of being persuaded. It does not mean obedience the way the western mind thinks of obedience. The obedience of Hebrews 13: 17 is due to an internal reasoning and agreement that results from persuasion, not an external conformity that is the result of authoritative control.
Brother, your use of Matthew 5:34-37 is a proof text used to support your view. A balanced look at the Bible’s overall message makes it clear that Jesus wants us to be part of the church and commit to being under the spiritual oversight of leaders. Look at passages like 1 Peter 5:2 and Acts 20:28 for support that spiritual leaders have a commission to oversee the Christian walk of the sheep God has given them.
That is not what this article is about. I suggest you re-read it, check what issue the author (a pastor) is addressing, and look at the Scriptures he uses in support of his argument.
These are extreme views based on fear,rather than a walk of faith,and trusting that God knows what He is doing with church leadership.I havn’t come across churches that are described here in the 40 years that i have walked with the Lord,and where leadership has erred,the prophets soon corrected things.
Brian: In 45 years of apologetics and counter-cult ministry my focus has been on helping people who have been subjected to spiritual abuse. My wife and I minister to people who have been members of abusive churches.
We know — both from personal experience and from our ongoing ministry — that spiritual abuse is widespread.
You say the views expressed in this article are ‘extreme’ and ‘based on fear.’ That is odd. Wade Burleson is a longtime pastor. If you take the time to read his book you’d understand that he is well-informed on this topic. He certainly is not motivated by fear.
You say “where leadership has erred, the prophets soon corrected things.” Really? Which prophets? Surely you’re not referring to these wandering stars?
This kind of church does exist; I know, because I attended one. I was the church musician, and the pastor believed that he was next in authority to Jesus Christ. The church was his, according to him, and he forced compliance with everything he ordered. He dictated who I could talk to, he kept secret files and secretly-recorded tapes of personal counseling sessions with the deacons and anyone else that talked to him. He called me the devil because I confronted him in the presence of the deacons. He felt that the Bible gave him authority over everyone and everything in the church, and he acted upon that belief. So yes, it does happen all too often, so just because you’ve not come across it means that either you have been very lucky or you wear blinders. Only you can figure out which.
Thank you so much for this article! I am so tired of pastors who wish to keep their congregation spiritually immature for the sole purpose of control. I have been in two abusive churches….and one amazing God led church. The pastor of the God led church served over 3,000 a week, with no membership or tithe. Simple box at the front to fill as the Lord led and 3,000 people persuaded to come every week by a pastor who truly wanted growth. Lights stayed on, God’s word was preached, numbers were added, and the pastor was human. He knew fully God had equipped him and would equip more if he didn’t stand in the way. So hard to find a pastor so secure in the Lord, that he doesn’t need a contract with a flock of sheep!!!
I am part of a praise team at our church and recently we had to do background checks, which I am fine with that. Also, it included a three page covenant to show what things we could not be involved in, which I also understand that we need to be following God and not doing immoral things. I agree that we need to be held accountable for things, but signing a covenant in feel is not right. Most on our team have had issues in their past and just in the last few year a found a relationship with God. They do not understand what a covenant really is or how it could effect their lives. I am meeting with the pastor on this because he teaches a grace based message and this contradicts the teaching and mission statement for our church. Is there anything else that I could bring up in our discussion?
I think you’re taking the right approach. We have heard from a number of people whose pastors have rethought their insistence on a signed covenant (or something similar) after being shown this article, or reading Wade Burleson’s book.
Mind you, many pastors who want people to sign a covenant may not actually seek ‘fraudulent authority’. Rather, they may be motivated by legal concerns. Still, a covenant like this has no place in a church.
What about membership that requires members to tithe?
That is a contract you should not sign. It is unbiblical. Like the article states, more of than not a church covenant (or membership contract) is about money — particularly about you paying money to the church. Don’t sign it.
Spiritual abuse tears apart the body, Even calling it out (as seen above). As in all things, balance is important. I view membership, formal membership as belittling the miracle of what GOD has done already in placing believers into HIS church when HE saved us (Acts 2:47). I’m already a member. I hear pastors I greatly respect miss this point. They assume membership is formal, its already occurred if I’m saved. I can take communion but I have to sign a contract or agreement in order to serve? Foolish pride of man, of which I am too often guilty of myself.