Often the real unspoken reason that a church requires a written commitment is that it reduces the church's exposure to legal liability. Shouldn't such a request be a red flag to a new member at the beginning of their relationship with a new church? As a layperson, would the knowledge that a group of attorneys crafted the church membership document (as is almost always the case) that you were about to sign give you some pause? A manipulator will often abuse such commitments to his advantage; this of course was very true of the Shepherding/Discipleship movement of the 70s.
In an ideal situation when church leadership is morally well qualified and legitimate, a written covenant might function well. But in this fallen world, no local church is ideal. (Paul had to publicly confront and rebuke the apostle Peter for his treatment of Gentiles [Gal 2:11-14].) What if church leaders are lacking in true moral character?
Make no mistake: whichever term is used for the ‘agreement’ or ‘affirmation’, these signed documents are contracts. Some of these legal documents appear quite innocent. Others make you sign away certain rights and/or force you into making specific promises. These promises are usually related to (1) the church’s authority structure (specifically, your commitment to obeying the leaders), and (2) finances (in particular the flow of money from you to the church.)
In chapter 10 of his book, Fraudulent Authority: Pastors Who Seek To Rule Over Others [ Kindle edition], Wade Burleson gives five reasons why Christians should say no to a church covenant.
- A church covenant makes the Holy Spirit irrelevant in my life
- A church covenant replaces my one true Mediator with inferior mediators
- A church covenant makes the institutional church equivalent to the Kingdom of God
- A church covenant by its nature is designed to protect an authoritarian structure.
- A church covenant requires something more than a simple “Yes” or “No.
Ultimately, the requirement to sign a formal written covenant prior to joining a local church should raise red flags.