Matt, in his comment on my last post, asked why I thought churches should have covenants at all. That’s a good question.
Men like John Piper and Mark Dever and others have already made careful, thorough arguments for the use of church covenants. I don’t think that I can improve on what they’ve written, and I don’t intend to try. I’ll link to those at some point in this series so you can read them for yourself.
Having said that, though, I want to try to answer Matt’s question using a somewhat different approach than I’ve seen elsewhere. I want to offer a rationale, composed of three different strands of thought–biblical, practical, and historical–for making and using church covenants. To keep this to a reasonable length, I’ll only consider the biblical strand today. My goal is to establish that generally speaking, it’s good and right to make covenants.
A biblical rationale for making covenants
I want to make a simple statement that I think is biblical, in the sense that it’s an assumption that underlies all of Scripture and one that is rooted in the very character of God. Here’s the statement: The natural and normal impulse of love is to enter into covenant. I don’t think I had ever thought about that in those exact terms until a couple of years ago while studying the life of David. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
God makes covenants
First, I want to point out that it’s clear in Scripture that God makes covenants. We could probably say at the outset, then, that in some sense, making covenants is a godly characteristic. Furthermore, it seems that the covenants God makes are primarily expressions of His love. He makes covenants with Adam and Noah and Moses and Abraham and David and ultimately with the church, through the blood of His own Son, all because of His great love for His people. So when I say that the natural and normal impulse of love is to enter into covenant, I believe that’s true first and foremost of God Himself.
God’s people have always acknowledged the fact that covenant love is an essential attribute of God. At the dedication of the temple Solomon stood and prayed, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23).
Solomon prayed that way because God had revealed Himself repeatedly throughout Israel’s history as a God of covenant love: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).
Men make covenants
It’s also clear in Scripture that it’s natural and normal for men to make covenants. And they do so for a variety of reasons, and in a variety of circumstances. For a couple of examples, see Abraham’s covenant with Abimelech (Gen 21:22-32), and David’s covenant with the elders of Israel (2 Sam 5:1-3).
One of the high points of the Old Testament occurs in Nehemiah 9 when the people of Israel, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, confess their sins and together make a solemn covenant. It’s a very dramatic and moving moment in the history of Israel.
The passage in Nehemiah is interesting for another reason, too. There seems to be a connection in Nehemiah 9 between the covenant keeping nature of God, and the covenant making inclinations of Israel’s leaders. I take that from Nehemiah 9:32, 38– “because of all this” (v. 38); because (among other things) God “keeps covenant and steadfast love” (v. 32), therefore “we make a firm covenant in writing” (v. 38 again).
I want to take a minute to explore that connection.
I’d like to suggest that men make covenants precisely because they are created in the image of a covenant making God. Every human quality that’s not a result of sin is a reflection, however dim, of God’s image in man (Genesis 1:26-27). Human characteristics and tendencies do not just appear out of nowhere. We are creative because we’re made in the image of a creative God. We are relational because we’re made in the image of a relational God. And we make covenants because we’re created in the image of a covenant making God.
David and Jonathan
I want to look briefly at one more biblical covenant. The story of this particular covenant is told, for the most part, in 1 Samuel 18-20. My original premise, that the natural and normal impulse of love is to enter into covenant, is beautifully illustrated in the story of Jonathan and David.
As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt (1 Samuel 18:1-4).
The covenant between David and Jonathan is both the logical result and the natural expression of their love for one another. When I studied these chapters a couple of years ago, I came across a penetrating question by Bob Deffinbaugh: “Why would two men, who love each other as brothers, not be willing to make commitments that they vow to keep forever?” That’s a good question, and it begs another. Why would the members of a local church, who love each other as brothers, not be willing to make commitments that they vow to keep forever?
1 Samuel 18:1 says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Both of those phrases have strikingly similar counterparts in the New Testament. In Colossians 2:2 Paul prays that the believers hearts would be “knit together in love” (the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David); and in Rom 13:9 Paul repeats the familiar command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Jonathan loved him as his own soul).
Perhaps in some way the covenant between Jonathan and David stands as a model for the local church. Like those two godly men, we in the church need to have our souls knit together, loving our brothers and sisters as ourselves, gladly committing our lives to God and each other by covenant.
I haven’t quite answered the question of why we should make church covenants, but I hope I’ve laid the necessary groundwork for answering it. Does the Bible command us to make church covenants? No. But is it biblical to make church covenants? I’ve argued that it is.
John Piper, in a sermon from his series on church covenants, made this observation:
The Bible does not say explicitly, “Thou shalt have a written church covenant,” any more than it says, “Thou shalt have marriage licenses,” or, “Thou shalt have wedding rings.”
…One way to look at it is that a church without a covenant is like a marriage without vows. Marriage vows are not spelled out in the Bible just like church covenants aren’t. Both follow necessarily from the nature of the relationships.
I think that’s much the same as saying that in marriages as well as in churches, the natural and normal impulse of love is to enter into covenant.
My goal in this post was to demonstrate that it’s good and right and biblical to make covenants. To support that goal I tried to show that love leads naturally to committing ourselves to those we love; and that the inclination to make covenant commitments exists in our hearts precisely because we are created in the image of a covenant making God.
I believe that once those general principles are recognized and accepted, it becomes apparent that the impulse to make church covenants is profoundly biblical.