Healthy churches have explicit pre-commitments in what they believe (confession), how they live together (covenant), and how they are governed (constitution). Of course there is more that constitutes a healthy church, but I would argue it is critical from the outset that a church make clear these commitments based on the Word of God.
I’m grateful to belong to a covenant community seeking to honor the commitments we have made to one another. As a community formed by the gospel, we seek to live together as repenters and believers. This important to remember when it comes to living out our covenant commitments because no one of us grounds our identity based on our sanctification or our ability to keep those commitments perfectly. Even the commitments themselves speak to this. For instances, God commands that we forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. That assumes that we live in such proximate intimacy that we are going to sin against one another and be offended/hurt by one another (the Bible expects this). The proper response (which the Bible expects also) is to lovingly engage the one who has hurt/offended us and seek gospel reconciliation by making peace through repentance and forgiveness. Others include bearing one another’s burdens (context is addressing a sinning brother) and loving in ways that records of wrongdoings are not upheld and hoping all things at all times is applied.
This is important to remember because we are in danger of misunderstanding grace-based church covenant and making it into a condition-binding contract. In a church contract, when the conditions are not met by other members in our church community, you feel that you are justified in leaving that congregation in pursuit of a more perfect community. The irony to such a response is that such a response is a sinful reaction that dishonors the gospel. The person may feel justified in leaving because their feelings were hurt or was sinned against, but such justification has nothing to do with living in light of our justification by faith in Christ.
How many people have left their church family because they got upset with someone and could not do Scripture tells us to do? How many people have left because their feelings were hurt, the preacher stepped on their toes, another member failed to show sympathy and concern in a moment of crisis, and so on? How many churches were started not as a new work but as a sin-laden schism because blessed peacemaking seemed beyond the reach of those harboring resentment, fear of man, and self-pity?
A church covenant spells out the intentions and aspirations of believers who confess “Jesus is Lord” and seek to live together with fellow Christians in mutual submission to Christ and to one another. What binds us together is not flawless performances in keeping the church covenant, but gospel-centered lives of repentance and faith that enrich the community living in reconciled relationships freely offering grace and forgiveness toward one another. The question we must be asking ourselves is, “If God treated my relationship with him based on how I treat my relationship with others, what would it look like?” Of course, God does not follow our lead. He is not like us. We are to become like him. We are to treat others as God in Christ has treated us. In the covenant of grace, we have God as Father and His Son as Savior in a relationship guaranteed not by our keeping all the commandments but in Jesus’ law-fulfilling life, sin-substituting death, and death-defeating resurrection.
If you treat other believers contractually instead of covenantally, you will sever all the God-ordained relationships given to address the remaining sin in your life and the lives of others you are called to speak the truth in love. Instead of adorning the gospel with renewed repentance and fresh faith, you will close your life to those moments God will use to bring transformation, evidencing a closed heart unaware of its own need for grace.
On the other hand, if you treat other believers covenantally, you will be willing to get messy and enter in with confidence that God has good purposes in disappointments and difficult situations. You anticipate how the Spirit is going to work through broken vessels in the Potter’s hands to bring about healing and hope through the power of the gospel. Instead of looking for a way out, you remind yourself that God has called you to dig in. There are no problems so great, no situation so severe, no heartache so heavy, no disappointment so deep that the the love, mercy, and grace of Christ cannot solve, heal, reconcile, and redeem.
May our covenant-keeping God stir our hearts to genuinely love one another in ways that the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus.