Dr. Roger W. Maslin
The focus of this article is on the church covenant. However, it might help us to first distinguish between creeds, catechisms, confessions, and covenants. It has been argued that Baptists have no creeds to which they subscribe except the Word of God. B. H. Carroll, a renowned Baptist leader makes an interesting observation on this subject; "There never was a man in the world without a creed. What is a creed? A creed is what you believe. What is a confession? It is a declaration of what you believe. That declaration may be oral or it may be committed to writing, but the creed is there either expressed or implied."
The catechism is not in general use among Baptists but its value should not be discounted. C. H. Spurgeon advocated and defended the use of catechism: “I am persuaded that the use of a good Catechism in all our families will be a great safeguard against the increasing errors of the times, and therefore I have compiled this little manual from the Westminster Assembly's and Baptist Catechisms, for the use of my own church and congregation. Those who use it in their families or classes must labour to explain the sense; but the words should be carefully learned by heart, for they will be understood better as years pass.” Tom Nettles also encourages its use:
“Many contemporaries have a deep―seated suspicion of catechisms. In our own Baptist denomination, many would consider the words ‘Baptist catechism’ as mutually exclusive. A popular misconception is that catechisms are used in times and places where inadequate views of conversion predominate or the fires of evangelism have long since turned to white ash. If the Bible is preached, they continue, no catechism is necessary; catechisms tend to produce mere intellectual assent where true heart religion is absent. This concern reflects a healthy interest for the experiential side of true Christianity. Concern for conversion and fervor, however, should never diminish one's commitment to the individual truths of Christianity nor the necessity of teaching them in a full and coherent manner.”―An Encouragement to Use Catechisms, Tom Nettles
Confessions of Faith have been a part of the Christian community for centuries. Most notably among Baptists have been the London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1677/89; the Philadelphia Confession of 1742; the New Hampshire Confession of 1833; and The Baptist Faith and Message (SBC) of 1925 - 2000. The Confessions focus on accurate belief while the Church Covenant focuses on practical living. Confessions declare what we believe the Bible teaches, while the Church Covenant declares what we believe to be the obligations of church membership. The confession of faith is a declaration that we believe something and is supported by Scripture references. The church covenant is an agreement among ourselves that we will do something. Believer’s banding together to form a church have generally adopted both of these kind of statements or agreements. There would be no purpose in banding together if they did not agree on certain core beliefs, and if they did not intend to do anything for their own spiritual growth and to advance the cause of Christ.
I do not know the history of the Church Covenant I am presenting here, but it has been in wide use during my years of ministry. I think it a very appropriate document to express what the church members intend to do; the goals they are setting for themselves, and a good summary of Christian obligations. I do not see it as a legalistic document, but the emphasis should be on “strive” and “engage.” In the light of the Scriptures we dutifully pledge ourselves to carry them out to the best of our ability. The pledge is conditioned “by the aid of the Holy Spirit.” If we try to fulfill these obligations and duties in our own strength, we are sure to fail. Even if we fail to reach these goals in our own mind, we should not advocate lowering the standards set forth.
I think some congregations have done this in revising the covenant to fit the reality of their own situation. I have in mind particularly the pledge “to abstain from the sale of, and the use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage.” Even though it is a pledge that is negative in nature, it sets forth a goal that protects the witness of the church. It is just as reliable a standard as the other pledges that are stated in the covenant. They do not seem to be concerned about the bigger problems, “tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger.” I was interested to note an adaptation that was honorable, and practical in today’s world by the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis: “to seek God's help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which bring unwarranted harm to the body or jeopardize our own or another's faith.” Their statement would include the use of tobacco, gluttony, and porn as well as intoxicating beverages. The concern for jeopardizing another’s faith is the highest form of ethic. It reminds us of Paul’s statement in I Cor.8:12,13: “But when ye sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
I think that is sufficient introduction to the purpose and significance of the Covenant. So I will let it speak for itself. Here it is:
Having been led, as we believe by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church, in knowledge. holiness. and comfort: to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
We also engage to maintain family and secret devotions; to religiously educate our children; to seek tbe salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage; to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Saviour.
We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and Christian courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation and mindful of the rules of our Saviour to secure it without delay.
We moreover engage that when we remove from this place we will, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God's Word.