On Baptist "Church Covenants"
The following is written by Baptist Pastor, John Piper, a leading voice among Southern Baptists, especially those who identify with its historic Calvinism. I agree with Piper (desiringgod.com). These are some excerpts from his dealing with this issue of "Church Covenants" requiring the agreement about abstinance from alcoholic beverages.
More to come, the Lord willing.
"This coming Thursday evening, at the second half of our annual business meeting, we will be voting on the proposed amendment to the Church Covenant. I want to try to clarify this morning what is at stake in this decision and to apply the Word of God to our present situation.
From 1871 to 1946 Bethlehem had no church Constitution or Covenant. From 1945 to 1965 Bethlehem lived under a Covenant identical to the one we have today except that for those 20 years there was no clause about abstaining from alcoholic beverages. In 1965, the church amended the Covenant to add the sentence, "We engage …… to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage." The Constitutional effect of this amendment in 1965 was to make total abstinence from the use and sale of alcoholic beverages a prerequisite for church membership.
The amendment before the church this Thursday is to replace the sentence about total abstinence from alcohol with a such broader commitment that would require a good deal of heart searching and Biblical self-examination. It would read as follows:
"We engage …… 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."
I wish I could help everyone see that the reason I support this amendment so strongly is not to encourage, but to avoid a great evil. Alcohol abuse is a great evil in our land. And no one can reasonably construe the proposed amendment to countenance such abuse. Not only that, I regard total abstinence generally as a wise and preferable way to live in our land today. It's the way I live, and the way I will teach my sons to live. The proposed amendment is not designed to encourage anyone to drink alcoholic beverages. It is designed to drive us to Biblical, spiritual self-examination in view of the stupendous fact that we are God's dwelling and are called to love one another and to build up faith wherever we can. The requirement of total abstinence, on the other hand, is heeded by millions of unbelievers and unspiritual church attenders. It is a regulation that requires no inner love to God or love to the church. The proposed amendment, however, drives us to God because it makes us ask, why abstain. It makes us face the deep issue of whether we are following a tradition or whether we love with all our heart the holiness of God and the spiritual welfare of our fellowmen.
But the main reason the proposed amendment will help us avoid evil and the chief reason I support the amendment is that it helps guard us from an unbiblical legalism and exclusivism.
The second meaning of legalism is this:
the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for full participation in the local family of God, the church.
This in where unbiblical exclusivism arises. There is no getting around the fact that the church does not include everyone. We do exclude people from membership because we believe worship should imply commitment to the Lordship of Christ the Head of the church. But exclusion of people from the church should never be taken lightly. It is a very serious matter. Schools and clubs and societies can set up any human regulations they wish in order to keep certain people out and preserve by rule a particular atmosphere. But the church is not man's institution. It belongs to Christ. He is the Head of the Body, and he alone should set the entrance requirements. That is very important!
As the Church Covenant presently stands we are compelled in principle to say (and I am concerned precisely with the principle):
"Brother (or sister), even though you trust Jesus Christ as your Savior and aim with all your heart to live under his Lordship and have been duly baptized according to his ordinance and give hearty assent to our affirmation of faith, nevertheless, you can't be a full participant in the family of God here because your use of wine doesn't square with ours."
I am persuaded in my mind and in my heart that such a regulation falls into the category of legalism and falls under the judgment of the apostolic word in Scripture. I'll try to show why in a moment.
I know beyond the shadow of a doubt: God hates legalism as much an he hates alcoholism. If any of you still wonders why I go on supporting this amendment, after hearing all the tragic stories about lives ruined through alcohol, the reason is that when I go home at night and close my eyes and let eternity rise in my mind I see ten million more people in hell because of legalism than because of alcoholism.
Listen as I uncover one of his plots. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn't look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don't feel welcome in church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church. Therefore, what we need in this church is not front end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that
"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new creation (a new heart)" (Gal. 6:15; 5:6).
The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations we will be defeated even in our apparent success. The only defense is to "be rooted and built up in Christ and established in faith" (Col. 2:6); "Strengthened with all power according to his glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy" (Col. 1:11); "holding fast to the Head from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together …… grows with a growth that is from God" (Col. 2:19). From God! From God! And not from ourselves.
In verses 16-23 Paul draws out some implications. I'll try to sum up what he says in five observations.
First, "Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink." The consumption of food and drink is in itself no basis for judging a person's standing with God or standing in God's family. To be sure Paul had to deal with the abuse of food and drink; the problem of eating meat offered to idols and the problem of drunkenness (1 Cor. 8, 11:21; Rom. 14). But his approach to these abuses was never to forbid food or drink. It was always to forbid what destroyed God's temple and injured faith. He taught the principle of love, but did not determine its application with regulations in matters of food and drink. This is also the aim of the proposed amendment to the Church Covenant.
The only hope for spiritual growth and health in the body of Christ (Bethlehem Baptist Church) is personal cleaving to Christ the Head, not exclusivist regulations.
Fourth, verses 20 and 21, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are used) according to human precepts and doctrines?"
The implication of these verses is that a church which erects regulations about food and drink as a means of judging or disqualifying, does not yet know what it means to die with Christ and be freed from the powers of the world.
The entrance requirement of total abstinence at our church may secure for us a membership with one common attitude towards alcohol, but it is no help in making us a pure people who do not live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:13). On the contrary, by imposing a restriction which the N.T. never imposes this entrance requirement in principle involves us in a legalism that has its roots in unbelief. It is a sign of the faded power and joy and heart righteousness that once was Bethlehem, and, God helping us, will be again.
I think the best way I can summarize what I have tried to say is to read a letter from my Father dated November 10, 1981. With this I close.
"…… Your previous letter had raised the question of alcoholic beverages in relation to church membership. This is a real toughy. Most of the churches in which I minister have it directly in their constitutions and by-laws that no member will buy, sell or use such beverages.
I think my attitude and thought is this: The church should take a strong stand against such an evil and such an enormous destructive force, but should not include this or any such evil in its by-laws. My reason for this is first, that you cannot legislate righteousness or make people more holy by having laws, one any more than another. For example, what about living as man and wife without benefit of marriage and what about homosexual practices, or for that matter what about smoking or gambling.
Understand me, as I am sure you do, I am definitely for living a separated life. And, I think as ministers we are responsible to expose all such evils and let the church know what is wicked and wrong in this world. But I faced and saw the weakness of legislated righteousness years ago. I cut my eye teeth on preaching against THE BIG FIVE -- dancing, drinking, smoking, gambling, and theater going. I heard messages against these things by the dozen. I heard very little about gossip, covetousness, a hateful spirit, etc. I observed that people who adopted this separated life often become pharisaic and proud of their separation, and I heard very few sermons against such pride. For example, one preacher I knew observed that while some women thought separation meant wearing long hair, they often had tongues as long as their hair!
So, while the problem is surely not a simple one, I think if I had a church and wrote my own constitution, I would word it positively, perhaps saying, 'It is expected that all members will abstain from habits and life styles that fail to honor Christ and will seek to perfect holiness in the fear of God doing everything in word and deed to His honor and glory.' Something like that, anyhow. And then leave it to the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the word to effect the right results……"
Emphasis all mine -- SG