Five Signs that a "Membership Covenant" = "Cult"

Five Signs that a "Membership Covenant" = "Cult" May 27, 2015
No exit permitted. Photo: © Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos
No exit permitted. Photo: © Gautier Willaume | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The blasting open of the news that members of the immensely popular and rapidly growing The Village Church cannot freely leave the church without approval from the all male, all self-selected elders has stunned a lot of people.

I’ve written some about it here. A thorough time-line can be found here. Blogger Amy Smith is especially to be commended here for bringing all this to light with the accompanying documentation.

So now the question is being raised in the minds of many: Is it reasonable to call The Village Church a cult because of it’s high member expectations?

The Village Church’s doctrinal statement and membership covenant is available online. It’s a long document so I’ve copied below some of the particularly relevant portions that relate to the responsibilities of the member:

I covenant…

      • I will seek to preserve the gift of marriage and agree to walk through the steps of marriage reconciliation at The Village Church before pursuing divorce from my spouse (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; for the role of the church in the process of divorce, see Paul’s concern for the resolution of legal matters within the assembly of the church in 1 Corinthians 6).

        elp to put my sin to death (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5; James 5:16; 1 John 1:6-10).

            • to submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and diligently strive for unity and peace within the church (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).
            • to do the following should I leave the church for righteous reasons:
              • to notify the appropriate staff member on the campus I attend.
              • to seek another church with which I can carry out my biblical responsibilities as a believer.

The Watermark Church, similar in doctrine and beliefs and also rapidly growing, makes this explicit statement in its document containing the doctrines and membership obligations:

SECTION 4: CARE AND CORRECTION OF PARTICIPATORY MEMBERS It is the responsibility of the Board of Elders, as described in Acts 20:28, to “be on guard for themselves and all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”

Shepherding includes both the care and correction of the sheep. As a consequence, the Board of Elders may separate a member of the flock from Membership for:

• departure from his previously expressed agreement with “Our Beliefs”;

• conduct that mars the testimony of the church or evidences a continued unrepentant departure from biblical morality;

• manifesting disinterest and/or inactivity in the life of the church; or

• other reasons as set forth in the Scriptures.

The separation process shall follow that laid out in Scripture. By applying for and accepting Membership in this church, all Members submit themselves to the care and correction of the Board of Elders, and may not resign from Membership in an attempt to avoid such care and correction [Bold face mine].

So is it a cult?

Yes and no. Yes in that it clearly says that that the Elders in the church get to have full authority over the members. No in that the membership covenant is clearly seen ahead of time. This is not the case with other groups, particularly the Mormons, where I understand full membership expectations are not disclosed until much later in the recruitment process.

However, emotionally, churches with these kinds of membership covenants function more like a cult. Personal and social lives revolve around the church and the people within it. People must have permission to leave. Leaving without permission is often accompanied by various types of shunning activities on the part of those still inside the walls, which would include one’s closest friends and very much the friends of one’s children.

Five Hallmarks of a Subtle Cult

Here are my suggestions for recognizing whether or not a religious organization functions like a cult, albeit with significant subtlety.

1. Who selects the governing body? Is it self-selection, i.e., they decide among themselves who will serve in that role, or does the wider group of members get to decide who will serve in authoritative leadership over them? If the former, beware. This is the most dangerous sign.

2. What are the gender/age/ethnic make-up restrictions on the ruling body? If it is restricted to one demographic group (the most common is males-only) beware. This means the viewpoints of those not a part of the power elite will be routinely disregarded and dismissed as deceived or not objective. The viewpoints of the ruling body will be seen and publicly pronounced as biblical and offing objective truth.

3. How much power does the ruling body have over intimate husband-wife decisions? The Village Church membership covenant explicitly states that any couple contemplating divorce must subject themselves to counseling by the (all-male) elder board’s supervision and that they must recognize them as final authority. The result is that a group of men, often young, untested, and not trained as therapists, get to peer into intimate matters between husband and wife and make binding decisions upon their future. If so, beware, particularly any language that gives them “final authority.”

4. What does the leaving process look like? Are there restrictions upon the types of churches a member might join upon moving away?  Again from the Watermark Church document:

1.Voluntary termination of Membership is available to any Member in good standing upon written request of that Member. Where appropriate, upon request, Members may be granted a letter of transfer to the evangelical church of their choice. The Board of Elders may reinstate voluntarily terminated Members upon satisfactory fulfillment of the new Member process and approval.

Note the “may be granted a letter of transfer to the evangelical church of their choice” language. That means those who signed this covenant must have the church leadership approve any new church they may choose. That is too much power. Beware!

5. How is the congregation told to treat those who are leaving? If there is any expectation that those who leave or who are “caught in sin” must be shunned or member interaction with them must be limited in any way, beware. Again, this puts entirely too much power in the hands of a limited few who cannot possibly know all things.

Now, having said this, I also think that setting high expectations for membership in a church has much value. These expectations make clear that becoming a member of a church does indeed have obligations both to God and to the local body. Personally, I think the baptismal vows found in many liturgical churches are exactly what we need:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? 

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

These, combined with promises to support the church with prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness, seem more than adequate and profoundly biblical.

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  • While attending a Ministerial Association here in Paris TX at “Calvary Chapel”, I picked up a “Ministry Application Questionnaire”. One of the statements that is in that document says: How long have you fellowshipped at Calvary Paris? (with a blank to fill in), Do you consider Calvary Paris your home church? (there is no official membership vows or membership roster), and then, Are you submitted to the leadership of Calvary Paris? (This means: do you willing submit yourself to the ministry staff (only male pastors) as the infallible representatives of God and to those selected by the ministers of the church to serve as leaders in the church (all male)? Though there is no specific membership, I find these questions to be almost cult-like. When this church opened, several people from Calvary United Methodist in Paris started going there mainly for the music (contemporary/praise band).

  • It seems that perhaps one of the deepest and enduring challenges of the Church is how to establish and maintain right relationship between members and elders.

    Elders teach the faith, and as such are crucial to the life of any ministry.

    But when submission morphs into coercion and the blatant protection of the power and privilege of the leadership, well, a ministry has gone toxic.

    On one hand, I understand how many can draw such comfort from certainty that is spelled out in this covenant. But when church polity puts the spiritual health of any member in the hands of a few leaders who answer to no one, at what cost does this comfort come?

    At some point, each ministry has to prepare the faithful to step out into mystery, to that vast space where a person whispers things to Christ and agrees to trust that grace will pervade the darkness.

    These pieces of the covenant seem to absolutely prohibit that incarnational moment when elders say “here is my hand, now reach also for God.”

    In this instance, all I get it “the appearance of complete deference to the leadership is more important than ministering to the broken, and our common brokenness.”

  • This sounds much like the shepherding movement that left so many vulnerable people wounded and traumatized in the 70s- and 80s. Looking for certainty, quite often looking for family replacements from troubling childhoods, a few become the projects of churches like this. A project is dehumanized, and the darkness in the hearts of leadership is projected on them. Pleasing the parent figure these men offer because analogous to pleasing God. Those that resisted actually got excommunicated in absolutely cruel ways.

    I was in that movement and damaged by it. The first action the men took when they sanctimoniously pronounced their authority over women was to demolish any empowered women’s ministry in the church. Males dominated worship, began to impose dress codes on women and I suspect there was much domestic violence covered up in these heavily gender stereotyped churches. I knew of much myself, and of course it was never dealt with appropriately. I remember hearing these words by self appointed Apostles of the movement “What we are doing here is serious business, thus says the Lord” Serious business of self promotion and all the pompous arrogance mankind can generate is in hindsight laughable.

    This is a repeat of the same old song –erase women and watch the mayhem of congregants run over by the gospel according to male ego bus. I think that the church may be one of the unsafest places for thinking sensitive people particularly women.

    • Yes it does sound like exactly the same thing. Heartbreaking.

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  • homeboy johnson

    I never stay at a church for more than two years. It takes me that long to realize that they all hate me.

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