Church Discipline: Covenants and Contracts.

Church Discipline: Covenants and Contracts. November 29, 2016

Last time we met up, I was talking about this semi-new idea coming out of fundagelical Christianity: church discipline. From its origins as a goofy little homebrew idea on the fringes of extremism to one embraced enthusiastically by the leaders of the biggest denominations in the nation, the idea of “church discipline” has been taking over the right-wing branches of Christianity like wildfire over the last ten years or so. And it’s one of the most potent signs we could have that Christianity’s claims are false.

Church discipline is usually initially presented to members by way of an agreement called a ‘covenant.’ I want to show you these agreements today, and walk you through why they’re such bad news for church members.

(Ashley Van Haeften, CC.)
(Ashley Van Haeften, CC.)

An Overview of Covenants.

Chances are really good that if you were involved in that end of Christianity at all in the last decade, you’ve brushed up against church discipline and very probably covenants themselves. In making a covenant, a church’s congregation signs over formal control of their lives to their pastor and ministry team (which can include small group leaders and other laypeople), who then consider themselves authorized to oversee the congregants’ private lives and to punish them when necessary. Many churches now require members to agree to these covenants as a condition of becoming full members of the church–and some even require members to re-up their agreement to their covenants every year.

We’ll talk more later about why churches claim they need these agreements, but in a nutshell, covenants are viewed as required because they are thought to prevent abuse lawsuits against churches by aggrieved members.

The very term “covenant” resonates especially strongly with fundagelicals, who tend to have a major affection for archaic language and also imagine themselves as the keepers of the flame of what they imagine is the original, primitive, most pure form of Christianity.

A covenant is like a contract–except nowhere near as fair. The main difference is their one-sided nature; even if one side breaks their end of a covenant, the other side isn’t released from their own obligations. Covenants don’t expire and cannot be broken–usually and in theory at least.

There is another major difference, of course:

Generally speaking, church covenants seem about as legally binding as the contract between a dominant and submissive in a kink relationship, though sometimes they do include components that could cause legal headaches for members.

The most obvious and common use of the concept comes from fundagelical teachings about marriage. Some years ago–probably even before my day as a Christian in the 1980s and 1990s–the idea got popularized that marriage itself was a covenant rather than a contract, which got Christians used to seeing their own lives as directly involving covenants somehow. Toxic Christians in particular really loved the idea of unilateral power exercised without care for consent or boundaries. Church covenants, therefore, slipped seamlessly into their worldview in a way that very little else could have.

Last time, we were talking about a large Dallas megachurch called The Village Church (TVC) that goes in for the usual blend of misogyny, authoritarianism, and a 24/7 emphasis on evangelism that Reformed/Calvinist churches like.** TVC makes a very big fuss about being as Biblical as possible. Their covenant contract is filled top to bottom with Bible verses that they think demonstrate the absolute necessity of church discipline. They speak of the practice in nothing but the most loving and adoring ways, echoing the sentiments I’ve frequently seen out of their fellow Christians.

There are some serious issues with their covenant, however, and I’ll walk you through some of them.

In One Corner: Subjective Requirements.

There’s no real way to tell exactly what anything in this agreement looks like in lived reality. That’s an absolutely endemic problem in Christianity as a whole, but it’s particularly disastrous in cases like this covenant and how it can ruin individual Christians’ lives.

The elders “covenant” (yes, it’s both a verb and a noun in Christianese) to do all kinds of things, but there’s no objective way to tell if any of those things are being done or not. Exactly what does it mean for them “to equip the members of the church for the work of ministry”? How do we know if that’s been done or not? The rest of their requirement list is similarly vague, without a single objective point on it. Covenants are usually nebulous in this manner; I only found one containing a single objective requirement for ministers (to pray daily for each church member), and not only is that one requirement an action that would be impossible to confirm got done, but it’s one that doesn’t actually do anything substantive for the members on the other side of that agreement.

Also worth noting is that the requirement list for ministers could turn out to mean behavior that most people would consider abusive or callous, yet still be considered loving according to fundagelicals’ warped redefinition of the word, and that their sole self-imposed restriction is whether or not their imaginary friend said it was okay or not for them to do whatever it is they’ve decided to do.

In the Other Corner: Objective Requirements.

But the requirements for members are way more objective–though still vague and undefined.

In super-Jesus-y language, members swear to, among many other things:

  • Do as they are told by anybody above them in the hierarchy;
  • Attend church “regularly,” tithe, and “participate in community;”
  • Follow the church’s various rules for behavior, including “complete chastity” (more on that next time–it’s a doozy);
  • Seek church counseling before getting a divorce;
  • Confess all sins “to God and to fellow believers;”
  • Follow a specific procedure should they decide to leave “for righteous reasons;”
  • And (sandwiched in there as if it’s not the most important part of the entire goddamned list) allow the church’s leaders to administer discipline in whatever way they like.

But it won’t take long for interested readers to notice some very serious and glaring problems with this list. For one, people are actually free to leave a church whenever they want and for any reason they please. Hell, church leaders are not even entitled to an explanation of why the now-ex-member left!

But TVC routinely assumes powers it does not actually possess and this sure isn’t the only place where it seriously oversteps its boundaries. Reading it is like reading a cult checklist, to the point where the real surprise is that TVC found so many thousands of people who didn’t walk right out the doors when presented with it. You see similar overreach in other covenants, like this one from another church; note that it demands abstention both from the use of liquor and the sale of it, but many Christians work in low-paying retail jobs in foodservice establishments and stores that sell alcohol–so are they supposed to quit those jobs at the church’s demand? In the same way, other churches demand Sunday attendance, but these same low-paid workers often cannot make that happen because of their job schedules–causing no end of drama with their church leaders. The pastors of these churches routinely try to take control of their followers’ lives like that, and until things get weird and abusive, the congregants have no idea how bad it can get–but at that point it can feel all but impossible to escape that domination.

Even aside from that particular overreach, vagueness plagues TVC’s list of requirements for members. Exactly how much tithing is required? How often exactly are members committing to attend? (My mother thought once a week was more than enough when I was a teen Pentecostal still living at home; I myself considered three times a week the bare minimum.) How much time spent in prayer is enough? What if a Christian interprets the Bible one way and is sure they’re right, but TVC interprets it another way? Whose interpretation must be the authority?

In short, I get major “flair” vibes from the entire list.

Readers of this contract should also be troubled by the strange wording around acceptable reasons to leave TVC. What exactly are the “righteous reasons” that the church leaders will accept as valid? What if the member thinks the reason is valid but the leader consulted does not? What if the person isn’t planning to leave for another church but is deconverting or disengaging? (That means to pull away from doing Christian stuff without necessarily fully deconverting.) What if the person is still Christian but chooses to go to a church that church leaders don’t like? And these are questions we can only ask if the covenant in question even contains such a provision–many don’t. This one from Mars Hill doesn’t even discuss leavetaking, and if anything, their covenant is only more authoritarian-sounding than TVC’s.

Note, also, that there are absolutely no hard limits here for leaders. The leaders themselves appear to decide if they’re in compliance or not. This observation leads us to the next one:

Nothing Compels the Powerful to Comply.

Secular organizations and governments know that absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s why we have checks and balances–because when power is concentrated too far and there’s no definitive way to curb a leader’s overreach, constant scandals involving abuse are inevitable. Strings of scandals in an organization are not a freak happenstance or an unfortunate bit of bad luck. It is an outgrowth of the failed system as it is designed, and a sign that the system is dysfunctional.

I’ve yet to see a covenant that outlined any recourse whatsoever for any congregant who feels that a minister has overstepped his bounds or committed some harm against them. Nor do I often see any covenants that outline what the exact penalties will be for congregants who run afoul of these vague, subjective demands–any more than they name the exact requirements for members.

What covenants tell us more than anything, really, is that the leaders of the churches using them love power and will do absolutely anything to get it.

A Playground for Authoritarian Leaders.

TVC’s leadership lays the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the aggrieved party to “lovingly and humbly express concerns to the leadership of the church.” There is no objective means at all to tell whether or not the church’s leaders are doing what they’re supposed to do or not, or who is in the right or wrong. It releases members from the covenant if “the church elders are unwilling to change and pursue covenant faithfulness,” but doesn’t say how someone would know if that were the case or not.

And in an authoritarian environment, members are very unlikely to feel safe expressing that kind of complaint to their leaders. Not only are authoritarian followers unlikely to ever feel safe complaining, but authoritarian leaders don’t tend to react well when they receive pushback (or at least imagine they have received any!).

I strongly suspect that this is the same membership covenant that TVC was using before the Jordan Root scandal. While it includes language that seems to release members from the covenant in such extreme cases, as well as conceding that “certain circumstances may provide sufficient and righteous grounds to transfer membership elsewhere,” their official apology specifically mentions that they haven’t changed the “deep theological convictions” forming the underpinnings of their covenant–and eagle-eyed observers noted in comments to that statement that TVC’s leaders absolutely did not mention that there’d be any changes whatsoever to their covenant agreement or any doctrines related to it.

So if this is the same covenant they were operating with when their abuse of Karen Hinkley  came to light, then it failed their church members catastrophically (and repeatedly) before then–and will do so again, and again, and again in the future. The vague and nebulous wording of their covenant did not do a single thing to prevent that abuse. Karen Hinkley tried to give her leaders the exact feedback that their covenant demanded and left for reasons the covenant specifically allowed, and those leaders reacted exactly the way that one would expect authoritarian leaders to react when challenged in any way.

Don’t think for a moment that what happened to her was a fluke or an aberration. It’s exactly what we ought to expect to see out of a system like this one.

Run, Don’t Walk!

Religion isn’t the only place where you might find agreements like the ones I’ve described here. If you ever encounter one, run the other way. They are nothing more than an attempt by an authoritarian leader to establish or shore up his or her control over others.

These covenants present a Pollyanna vision of fundagelicalism that fits their members’ starry-eyed imaginings about what church life is like: happy flocks led by dedicated, godly leaders who direct their members and sometimes–oh, sometimes only!–must administer a little godly correction sometimes. The members are quick to confess their various sins and generally happy to accept their leaders’ guidance, since it is of course always offered in a godly spirit of mutual cooperation and respect and it’s always valid, and as the two groups work together, they create a harmonious, godly environment full of committed Christians who are destined to do great things for “God’s” kingdom.

It’s hard to think of a fantasy that is more removed from reality.

And it’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the simple fact that Christianity is NOT sparked, administered, or inspired by a real live god of love but rather is filled with simple human beings, some good and some bad.

I suppose we shouldn’t be at all surprised, either, that their fantasy about church discipline holds up about as well as their other non-supernatural claims do. We’ll evaluate those claims next time–see you then!


* Misogyny as the bonus plan: Complementarianism, the idea that men and women were created differently and thus can’t possibly expect to have the same roles or rights. This pious sexism is sold to fundagelicals as a philosophy far superior to egalitarianism, which is considered in turn a confusing, muddled system that just makes women all unhappy and breaks up marriages and probably has demons behind it all.

** Edit: A previous link mistakenly listed Village Church, a different TVC based out of San Diego, and its upcoming vote to stay with or leave its parent denomination over equal marriage. They’re not off the hook, but they don’t appear to be affiliated with the TVC that hassled Karen Hinkley. My thanks for the correction!

Related: The Wartburg Watch has a great page about church contracts–and about how to defuse them–here. Here’s their reprint of TVC’s formal letter of apology, too–complete with their repeated admission that TVC’s ministry team trampled Karen Hinkley before even finding out the facts of the case

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