In the church today, we use the term “covenant” sometimes (in some circles more than others) to describe our relationship between individuals, and between individual congregants and the congregation of which they are members.
Covenant is an agreement, at a heart level, to walk together. Biblical covenants are divided into a small handful of standard models: a marriage covenant, various covenants between God & His people, covenants between a king and his people, and specific covenants for a specific task. Biblically, covenant exists primarily between God and man, or between man and man.
In fact, the only place where an individual makes a covenant with a group is for rulership (anointing a king), and that does not have a NT parallel.
So when I join myself with a congregation, I can make a covenant with them according to one of these models; I can submit myself to their pastor to rule me as a king (probably inappropriate in the days of “the New Covenant”), or I can forge a covenant with individuals in the congregation (including the pastor), but there doesn’t seem to be any Biblical model for a covenant between me and a congregation, between an individual and an organization or a group. On the other hand, apart from the “church of the city,” the individual congregation is not a Biblical concept, so it makes sense that there is not a Biblical model for a covenant with a less-than-Biblical concept of a congregation.
In some ways, we treat our churches like we treat our favorite sports teams: we want ours to be “better” than the others, and we are offended to one degree or another when someone leaves our workplace, our favorite team, our church, to join with another “team” across town (or in the case of pro sports, across the country). We whine about free agency in pro sports because it encourages players to leave “my team” to join another team that more aligns with their goals (usually financial goals). When someone leaves my church to join another one, we talk behind their back. I know one church: when one family left his church to join with another, the pastor of the church they were leaving called up the pastor of the church they went to and demanded to know why he allowed that to happen!
We apparently feel we own them. Honestly, while I feel some sense of ownership towards the Seattle Seahawks, I don’t really own them. When they traded Percy Hawkins away a few months ago, some of us took that personally and indignantly. And that attitude is encouraged by sports pages and by the NFL, but the reality is that I’m not even a part owner: the owner continues to be billionaire Paul Allen, and he doesn’t answer to me! The real issue – if I’m a Seahawks fan – is that I miss his receptions, and that will be true whether I’m a Seahawks’ fan or the head coach.
My friend, and covenant partner,
Todd recently explained to several of us in our church that he has been feeling God’s call to Mike’s church on the other end of town. I will really miss him: he’s come to mean a lot to me, and I have loved watching God work in Todd’s life. But I don’t have any more right to hold on to Todd than I do to Percy Hawkins: I’m not the owner or master of either, and that’s true whether I’m just another “member” or the “head coach.” God is Todd’s owner, and if He’s really calling Todd to cross pollinate with Mike’s church, then I am responsible to be excited for both of them!
We’ve developed this mentality that “my church” has some level of ownership of me: that if I leave this congregation for that congregation, somehow I’m being disloyal, to which, I say, “Balderdash!”
Sure, it’s possible that someone leaving my church is flaking on God and on me, that he’s just decided to forget his friends and become self-centered and find something that makes him feel happier. People change churches for those reasons and others all the time in this town, but those don’t count: these “shuffling sheep” probably weren’t ever “a part of” in their past church, and they won’t be significant contributors in the new one; don’t worry about them.
One day, God may bring
Todd back to “my” church. But ultimately, God is the one who said “I will build My Church and the gates of hell will not stand against it.” Todd’s trade may have been orchestrated for Todd’s good, or for Mike’s, or for the good of others in that congregation; He probably does not orchestrate Todd’s life for my convenience.
There are two issues here: covenant and control. If I’m in a covenant relationship with
Todd, then it doesn’t matter if he’s attending this church, or the one across town: we have a commitment to each other that transcends issues like “this makes me feel better.” But if I try to control Todd’s choices – whether I’m his pastor or just another member of the congregation – then I’ve moved out of covenant relationship into a controlling relationship, and that would be a serious problem.