Covenant and Government
Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister (Matthew 20: 25-26).
Once we grasp the idea of covenant, we can understand much better some of the things we read in the Bible about government. Jesus didn't have a lot to say about the governance of the church. You would have expected, given the importance that churches came to place on governance, that he would have said more. But what he did say is unequivocal and extremely important.
The definitive Scripture, the only time he ever really addresses the subject, arises from an encounter with the mother of two of his disciples. She came, asking a favor of Jesus. “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” Apparently her sons were right there, consenting to her request, because Jesus’ answer is directed to them:
“You don't know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (Matthew 20:22-23 NIV).
It is a startling idea that these positions in Christ’s kingdom were not his to give. One has to think for a while about the implications of this statement. Those places have been prepared for someone—apparently for neither of these young men. The other disciples were unhappy about what amounted to a power play, so Jesus’ felt it was time to get a couple of things straight. He gathered the men around him and explained:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (vv. 25-26).
Those words are Jesus’ only instructions regarding governance to the disciples. Apparently, he left the details to them, but he explicitly forbade two forms of governance, those that exercised (1) lordship over and (2) authority over. Thus, hierarchy and authoritarian governance are forbidden—explicitly.
Having ruled out what is sometimes called “rule from the top down,” what did Jesus allow? Rule from the bottom up? Well, hardly. That's not likely to be any better. What is left is government by covenant.
It is interesting how often teachers appeal to the marriage covenant to explain Christ and the Church. The comparison is valid; you run into it again and again in the pages of Scripture. Some have drawn analogies with the Jewish wedding ceremony, but there is doubt as to whether the Jewish wedding, as we know it, goes back more than a few centuries from today. There are similarities, of course, between the idea of marriage and the church, because both involve covenants.
Paul leans heavily on this analogy in his letter to the Ephesians. After several exhortations to the church, Paul comes to a key statement regarding their relationship with one another: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21 NIV). This idea of mutual submission is impossible in an authoritarian, top down, administration; and this is true of marriage or church. Mutual submission is not possible in the absence of a covenant. Without it, the only governance possible is master/servant. There has to be an agreement, a contract, a covenant, and then all can submit to the terms of the covenant. Paul goes on to illustrate mutual submission by an analogy between marriage and the church. Remember as you read this that Paul’s object is the relationship of the church to Christ. The analogy:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing (Ephesians 5:22-24).
If this were all there were to the covenant, it would have been a one sided deal with master and servant. But Paul was driving at some-thing altogether different. He continued:
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. . . So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh (Ephesians 5:25-31 KJV).
In the absence of love, submission is mere servitude. It is not even a governmental relationship, for one governs a free people. Masters dominate servants. That is not to be true of either marriage or church.
Understand that this is not being presented to us in governmental terms. It is being presented to us in the terms of a covenant. The reason I can say that is because when Paul first says “Wives submit yourselves to your husband” that is one paragraph. The next paragraph starts in verse 25 “Husbands love your wives.” This is an acceptance of mutual obligations by man and wife as they go into a marriage covenant. “Love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.”
That's a mighty high standard for a man. This should be the Christian marriage contract, and it's a pity that all of us men, when we got married, didn't have to sign our names at the bottom of a contract that said, “I will love my wife as Christ loved the church.”
This hearkens back to the statement Jesus made citing Genesis where it says a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife and they two shall become one flesh. And Paul asked, “How can a man hate his own body?” Because his wife is indeed his own body, a part of who he is and what he is.
Then, by comparison, Paul said this: “For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.” We who are in covenant with Christ and his church are members of Jesus’ body, his flesh, his bones. Once again the comparison is drawn between a husband and a wife, Adam and Eve, and a man and Christ. A husband and a wife are one flesh. The church is Christ's body—in the sense that Eve was Adam’s body, and we are members of his body and one with him. It is the oneness of covenant that is described here. “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and they two shall be one flesh.”
Then, Paul says something truly astonishing. “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” The whole purpose in developing this analogy is the relationship we have, as individuals and as the church, with Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most important lesson for us to take from this is that of the relationship described. Christ is the head of the church and we are all brethren. Our administration in the church should be based on covenant, and the authority structures that exist in the church should be described and limited by the obligations that covenant imposes.
Now as I studied this matter, I came to the firm conclusion that the model for church government in the New Testament is the model of the covenant. Church members should not be merely consumers, they should be full participants in the covenant.
Too many marriages try to run on implicit covenants, but words spoken in the air too often don't hold. In most states, verbal agreements in contracts are not enforceable. That's why the state issues a marriage license to protect foolish women from men who want a no-obligation relationship. They want to have all the benefits and none of the responsibilities so the state requires a marriage license. But you can't do that with a church, can you?
I wouldn't have thought so, but then I read Rick Warren's book, The Purpose Driven Church. Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, has a written covenant. Now you can freely attend that church and I suspect you can be baptized there, but you cannot join the church without first attending a membership class. The class only takes about four hours and has to do with what the church is, what the church stands for, what their mission is, what they are trying to do in the community, what they are trying to do in the world, what their doctrinal beliefs are, and what the new member’s personal relationship with the church ought to be.
At the end of the four hour class, in order to become a member of that church, you must sign a membership covenant. In the covenant, you make promises: to support the church leadership, to support the church financially, to partake of ministry in the church, to find your place in the ministry of the church by examining your own spiritual gifts and you promise to serve in whatever way you can. You make lots of promises in this covenant as you enter into a written, signed covenant with your church.
I expect it is shocking to a few people that this is a requirement for membership in a church. Now you should also know that every item that they have in their covenant lists all the Scriptures that support that particular item. All this may sound somewhat demanding, but I think the premise is that it's better to have a small, tight church that really hangs together and is really sincere about what they're doing. This church started in 1978 in the pastor's living room. Fifteen years later they were considering their very first church building, just as they passed 10,000 in membership. Up to that time, they had migrated through 79 different facilities and when they finally built a church, they were meeting in a tent—holding four services a day.
Small church? Not really. At the time the book was published, they were 12,000 strong and growing. By the way, in their history, they had also spun off dozens of other churches. They planted churches in other outlying communities throughout Southern California.
So would you conclude, then, that setting high standards for membership would harm a church? Would you consider that it's too much to ask people to attend a membership class? To sign a covenant with their church? To actually formalize their relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ? I wouldn't think so.
One of the things I think we have to learn, and this is crucial in understanding the governance of a church, is that we are not called to be consumers of God's Grace. We are not mere customers. We are called to be full partners in covenant and it's within that covenant and only within that covenant that we can even begin to talk about governance, how we administer our affairs, how we're going to work together, and who is going to submit to whom. We are called to be full partners in covenant with all the privileges, responsibilities, and obligations that that implies. Government does not come first. First comes covenant, then comes leadership. Covenant rules.
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