As I delve into a deep study of the nature of the church, I have been reflecting on the joy of being part of a church – sharing a common faith in Christ, committing to one another in the midst of all life’s seasons, serving not our own needs but the needs of others (and enjoying it!).
At the heart of our Presbyterian heritage and, not coincidentally, at the heart of our new Presbyterian denomination, is a theology of the covenant. That is, God has entered into a covenantal relationship with his people – he promises to be their God if they will be his people. Covenants are far deeper, and more important than mere contracts. And, more importantly, they are not defined by consumer needs. A covenant is a commitment to be who we ought to be regardless of what another does (Tim Keller). It is relational and it is personal. Let us look closely at the way our church understands covenant membership in the Presbyterian tradition.
[My writing will be in bold and our polity in italics]
In our own polity, the people of God covenanting together is the very nature and purpose of the church that is committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
The Church is visible whenever two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name. The congregation is composed of members of the body of Christ who have covenanted together to engage in the mission of God in their particular context, with Jesus Christ as Head. Each congregation should strive to be a tangible, if provisional, demonstration of the Kingdom of God. Congregations exist in a variety of forms yet have these ends in common: sharing the Good News of reconciliation to God in and through Jesus Christ, gathering people for divine worship and nurturing relationships for spiritual accountability and mutual ministry, all the while preparing disciples to be the sent people of God in the world.
The way in which individuals really mature and grow in faith, is not on their own, but rather, together with other believers. That is why membership in a congregation is really best expressed not in consumer terms with various fringe benefits, as it were, but rather in biblical terms with real blessings in the life of a congregation.
While believers experience their membership in Christ’s body in spontaneous and unstructured gatherings, they fulfill the Lord’s purposes best when they covenant to fulfill the biblical vision of membership in particular congregations. These covenantal relationships provide the real-life context for the Holy Spirit’s ongoing transformation of believers into spiritual maturity, with the belief that these strong relationships nurture understanding, encouragement, correction, and discipleship-in- mission.
There are, of course, personal benefits to participating in a covenant relationships in the life of a congregation:
Becoming a covenant partner is important not only to the congregation but even more importantly for the covenant partner, as they are positioned to receive encouragement, support, and correction that the Lord promises to those who share spiritual fellowship. In committing to the cause of a life lived in and through Jesus Christ, members grow in Christian community together to become more Christ-like. In Christian community, we realize the fullness of life together and life in Christ, and discover our unique place in a common mission and narrative of God’s work.
Yet, this requires our own participation, our own obligations in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
Each covenant partner shall strive to be faithful to Christ by participating in the congregation’s worship, fellowship, and service on an ongoing basis. Faithfulness in Christ involves each covenant partner’s dedication of time and talents for the congregation’s mission and ministry, in accordance to the gifts that God has bestowed upon him or her.
To be a covenant partner of a local congregation is to participate in the church’s 1) very nature and purpose. This congregational reality is the 2) “real-life context” for God working in and through his people. Individual believers grow and mature, 3) becoming more like Christ in this reality. The health of the church is best seen not in its various perfections (which are quite impossible), but by individuals actually living out the covenant responsibilities and 4) participating in the life of a congregation.
Its not an impersonal contract. It’s not a social-service club. It’s not a consumer rights manifesto. It’s a covenant reality between a God who paid a debt we could not pay and a people who, having received this grace and truth by faith, actually endeavor to live as God’s people. It’s personal. It’s full of grace. It’s full of truth. It changes lives.
As an imperfect pastor, I have witnessed for 12 years now the joys of an imperfect congregation covenanting together through wonderful joys and painful valleys, through glorious steps forward and difficult steps backward. I don’t know how people really do it without the church family – a church family, furthermore, that actually believes in something they would give their lives to. God did not intend for us to be unclear about what is true, nor for us to be alone. How can we face any difficultly in life without believing in something greater than our unpredictable feelings and without having someone to join us in the trenches?
To those of who have been members of EPC for some time now, these sections of our polity are offered as a reminder of what membership really means and how important it is to us.
To those of you who have been thinking about membership, I hope this provides clarity to what we really believe about our church family. We hope that you will prayerfully consider becoming a covenant partner of EPC. You are important to us and important to helping us grow in faith.
The church is the body of Christ, a people redeemed by a covenanting God, who, for some inexplicable reason, chose to enter into a covenant with us. Through the church we are blessed to be a blessing. Let’s continue this journey together as we begin year one-hundred-one.