Brief look at Neo-Calvinist membership covenants as contracts, and how they are misused for church discipline. Eagle suggests that amidst a new Cold War, a new Berlin Wall exists. A new form of the Iron Curtain is rising out of CHBC that is descending on Christendom. This is some analysis on issues with Neo-Calvinist view of membership.
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Winston Churchill in Fulton, Missouri
“Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Ronald Reagan June 12, 1987
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Will this be the only way a person can defect from a 9 Marks church?
At the end of World War II Germany was divided into four zones each one controlled respectively by the United States, Soviet Union, France and United Kingdom. This was done in conjunction of the Potsdam Agreement. The city of Berlin which was deep in Soviet controlled territory was also carved into four sections. As the tensions grew between the East and the West the Soviet Union firmed its grasp on Eastern Europe, and in the course of time Berlin would become the point of contention. In the 1950’s as inner border issues were settled many GDR citizens in the occupied zone of East Germany aspired to leave. In 1950 187,000 moved to West Germany. In 1951 it was 165,000, 182,000 in 1952 and 331,000 in 1953. In 1953 alone 226,000 fled East Germany in the first 6 months. Up until 1952 the borders between East and West Germany were easy to cross. The inner German border was erected in 1952 but the border in the city of Berlin remained open. After the closure Berlin would become the main loop hole in which citizens of GDR fled. By 1961 3.5 million citizens of the German Democratic Republic fled to the west through Berlin. This accounted for 20% of East Germany’s population. There was a great concern of a brain drain to the West especially by young and talented individuals. The loss of those who left was disproportionately heavy among skilled professionals to include engineers, technicians, physicians, teachers, lawyers and skilled workers. Because of the fleeing individuals East German leader Walter Ulbricht claimed that West Germany owed East Germany $17 billion. The growing Berlin crisis was discussed at a summit in Vienna in June 1961 between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The summit did not go well, and it had Kennedy concerned. In the summit Khrushchev threatened to cut off access to West Berlin. The growing Berlin crisis led Kennedy to address the nation on July 25, 1961, where he stated that the United States may have to defend its right in West Berlin. In his speech Kennedy said the following, “So long as the Communists insist that they are preparing to end by themselves unilaterally our rights in West Berlin and our commitments to its people, we must be prepared to defend those rights and those commitments. We will at all times be ready to talk, if talk will help. But we must also be ready to resist with force, if force is used upon us. Either alone would fail. Together, they can serve the cause of freedom and peace.” If you are interested you can watch this historic speech here.
As the Berlin Crisis heated up Walter Ulbricht kept pressuring Khrushchev to build a wall. He believed East Germany’s position and livelihood was at stake. On June 15, 1961 Walter Ulbricht said the following, “No one has the intention or erecting a wall!” It was the first time East Germany even made reference to a wall. I can’t recall where I read it and I’ve done some quick research but have been unable to find it. Years ago in a book or an article I recall reading that in a meeting President Kennedy realized that Khrushchev was going to build a wall in the city of Berlin, and predicted that response. On August 12, 1961 the leaders of the GDR attended a garden party in Döllnsee, near East Berlin. There at the party Ulbricht signed the order to close the border and construct a wall which would divide the city.
At midnight on August 13, 1961 the border with West Berlin was closed and guarded by police and East German army. Streets were torn up, and barbed wire installed along 156 kilometers around three western sectors, and 47 kilometers that divided West and East Berlin. On August 17, 1961 the first concrete section of the Berlin Wall started to be built. In the course of time East Germany would add chain fences, additional walls, and minefields in a no man’s land where East German military had shoot to kill orders. The closing of the East-West border divided many families who could no longer travel, visit or emigrate. People were also cut off from their jobs. The Berlin Wall became a hated symbol and an object of opposition and demonstrations. The governing mayor of Berlin, Willy Brandt, and future Chancellor of West Germany became a figure standing up to the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Crisis escalated to the point of a face off between Soviet and American tanks in October 1961. You can read more about that here. The tanks were eventually withdrawn and President Kennedy visited the wall on June 26, 1963 and declared in a speech “Ich bin ein Berliner” meaning “I am a Berliner.” Some historians consider this to be the most famous speech John F Kennedy gave in his Presidency. If you want to watch parts of that speech you can do so here. Later on during the 750th anniversary commerating Berlin, Ronald Reagan visited the Berlin Wall where he challenged the leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to open the gate and tear down the wall. This is how Reagan phrased it, “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
There were nine border crossings between East and West Berlin, which allowed foreigners to visit. West Berliners were supposed to be able to visit but getting documentation and necessary permits remained difficult. Of all the entrances into East Berlin the most famous one was known as Checkpoint Charlie which was restricted to Allied personnel and foreigners. Other ways that West Berlin was connected to West Germany was by four autobahns. (Quick side note…the construction of the autobahns is a success story of the Third Reich as they were mostly built during that era, and they inspired the American interstate freeway system.) In 1971 the Four Powers Agreement on Berlin allowed West Berliners to apply for visas to enter East Berlin and East Germany, but the East German authorities could still refuse entry permits. East Berliners and East Germans could not at first travel to West Berlin or West Germany. A few exceptions were raised including elderly pensioners were permitted to travel to the west in 1965. You could visit relatives for important family matters, and people could travel to the west for work related reasons. It is important to note that each visit needed to be applied individually and approved, and these permits were seldom approved. During the time the Berlin Wall stood around 5,000 people successfully defected to West Berlin. The number of people who have been killed while trying to defect is in doubt and varies between 98 and well above 200. As stated earlier the East German government had given orders to shoot to kill to anyone trying to defect. “Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which is a tactic the traitors have often used.” On 15 August 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin. The picture of him jumping for his freedom is what is leading this post. The first casualty at the Berlin Wall was Ida Siekmann who jumped out of her third floor apartment on August 22, 1961. The first person shot and killed on the spot was Gunter Litfin who attempted to swim his way to freedom on August 24, 1961. The final person killed before the Berlin Wall fell was Winfried Freudenberg whose natural gas filled balloon crashed on March 8, 1989. If a person was shot and wounded in no man’s land westerners could not do much of anything out of fear of triggering East German border guards. The world witnessed this in horror on August 17, 1962 when Peter Fechter was shot and bled to death in front of the media.
The Berlin Wall stood until the borders were accidentally opened on November 9, 1989. To this day I still remember the news and I saved the Los Angeles Times and later got the Washington Post of that historic day. I just started high school when this all transpired and I was amazed as to what was happening in the Eastern Block.
A New Cold War…
In a speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 Winston Chruchill stated in the presence of Harry Truman “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” It is from this reference that the term the Iron Curtain was created. I have to tell you something that I told Dee Parsons on the telephone recently. I’ve studied history in college and grad school, there were times I was buried in reading and researching European and communist history. Never, in a million years did I imagine that history would allow me to analyze and look at totalitarian theological regimes like 9 Marks or Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches. I never imagined in reading and researching about Nikita Khrushchev or Joseph Stalin that I would find corollaries in the leadership of CJ Mahaney or Jonathan Leeman. If you would have told me in college or grad school that these lessons could be applied to Neo-Calvinism I would have told you were nuts. After some of what I have read, seen, and encountered, I think some of this is spot on. I would venture to suggest there is a new Theological Cold War, or an Iron Curtain that is descending out of Capital Hill Baptist Church and 9 Marks that is adversely splitting and dividing families out in many denominations and churches. If I were to paraphrase that famous line by Winston Churchill it would be stated like this, “From Capital Hill Baptist in Washington, D.C. to Sovereign Grace in Louisville, an iron curtain has descended across Christendom.” The sad part is this Cold War is so unnecessary and unneeded. Christ came to give us freedom and some in Christianity are leading people back into slavery through membership covenants. Before I get into the next segment looking at membership covenants and some of what is taught, let’s review what the Bible says about being free in Christ, and the problems with the law.
Galatians 5:1 reminds us that we are free in Christ, and not under the yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:13 through 15 warns us not to live in the flesh, since many humans are drawn to legalism can those who advocate or advance membership covenants be said to live in the flesh? Galatians 4:3-7 teaches us that God sent his son to redeem those under the law and that we are redeemed and no longer a slave. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says that where the sprit of the Lord is there is freedom. I ask where is the freedom in a membership covenant? 1 John 4:18 says that love drives out fear and about how fear has more to do with punishment. Here’s a question to pose…should you be in fear of your church? Is that healthy or good? Romans 8 deals with a couple of aspects, especially how the spirit sets a person free. Those who live in accordance with the spirit lives with what the spirit desires, and the mind governed by the spirit brings peace and life. John 8:36 says that when the son sets you free you will be free indeed. Keep this in mind especially when we dive into some of the examples given in the next section.
Neo Calvinist Membership Covenants
I’ve written a couple of posts about 9 Marks here and here. That said, I want to be clear as I write this, but church covenants are synonymous with membership, and they are also legal documents. There is no dancing around this one in my book. I firmly believe that they exist for the “benefit” of the “church” and result more about control in the end. The biggest concern I have with membership covenants is theological. I view them as a first step to a lawsuit and that a church is laying out a claim against a person just by having the said person sign such a covenant. Do you honestly believe that these membership covenants haven’t been vetted by a lawyer or legal team before being implemented? I would be fascinated to know which legal office or lawyer reviewed Capital Hill’s Baptist or The Gospel Coalition’s membership covenant. For organizations who claim to be Biblical they are already shredding the Bible but taking the first step in a lawsuit against members and potential members. And that happens by having a lawyer sign off on them from the beginning. I also find church covenants to be binding, resolute and not flexible for a life in which nothing is guaranteed. Let’s face it and be honest…life is hard, even for the most devoted person following the Lord life is hard, and it will reflect itself in life. Why be in bondage to a membership covenant? In another post I would like to explore these membership covenants and discuss how they are returning the Neo-Calvinist part of the SBC back to its authoritarian roots of slavery. But lets look at some examples of how covenants are utilized and ask if this is more in line with the freedom of Christ, or Erich Honecker’s East Germany.
Membership covenants are used to control many people for differing reasons, and questionable discipline I think is the biggest problem 9 Marks has on its hands right now. But consider in this article by Jonathan Leeman on “Why church discipline goes awry” Leeman says the following, “Anecdotally, most (or all?) of the unfortunate cases of church discipline I have heard about in recent years have occurred in non-congregational churches, where the elders are free to impose their will on the congregation. I’m sure congregational churches have failed in this area as well. But the mere fact that a group of elders or pastors in a congregational church must sit in a small elders’ meeting before the big congregational meeting, scratch their heads, and ask themselves, “How are we going to explain this to the church?” tends by itself to moderate their decision-making. It slows them down. A group of well-meaning but tired elders might get highjacked by a bad strain of thinking in their meeting at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night. But Sunday’s congregational meeting will serve as a useful reality check.” Now what is wrong with this picture that Jonathan Leeman paints…what is the church structure for Capital Hill Baptist is it not congregational? So why then is there this church discipline situation here? What about John Folmer’s United Christian Church Dubai which is a franchised version of CHBC in the United Arab Emirates. What does Todd Wilhelm’s story reveal about questionable church discipline in a congregational led church? What about Matt Chandler’s The Village Church? How did a mess happen with Karen Hinkley in a congregational led church? Could it be that congregation led is in name only? The pastor has the final say and the greatest influence and the congregation is only a rubber stamp in the very end? Can we see how a membership covenant can be manipulated? Or in the end do many Neo-Calvinists not fully understand their own sinful depravity if they still believe in the claims of a membership covenant?
Then there is Matt Schmucker’s explanation for a church covenant in this article here. This one requires greedy amounts of Kool Aid in order to process and subscribe to it, but these are the reasons for a church covenant:
- A church covenant is a promise – a promise made to God, to a local church, and to one’s self.
- A church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live. While our statement of faith is a good summary of what we believe, our church covenant is a summary of how we agree to live – more importantly, it is a summary of how God would have us live. It does not include every explicit command regarding obedience, but it does give a general summary of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.
- A church covenant is a sign of commitment – a commitment to God, to His church, and to personal holiness.
- A church covenant is an ethical statement. Historian Charles W. DeWeese writes, “A church covenant is a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith” (Baptist Church Covenants, p. viii). One theologian calls church covenants the “ethical counterpart to confessions of faith.” A church covenant can be an important part of applying a Christian worldview to every aspect of our lives. Inherent in the purpose of a church covenant is the understanding that church membership involves being held accountable to live in a manner consistent with a common understanding of Scripture.
- A church covenant is a biblical standard. A church covenant is helpful in a church that is practicing Biblical church discipline. As members of a church, we exhort one another to live holy lives, and we challenge brothers and sisters persisting in sin.
Now the overarching theme that troubles me deeply as I read this is the following question…what is wrong with the New Covenant that Christ created through his death and resurrection? Why the Old Testament practice and emphasis? Why need a new promise in the form of a church covenant isn’t Jesus’s covenant enough? Matt how many times does Jesus have to die at the cross for people? 15? 35? 487? Why do people need a covenant to state how they live? Why can’t they live a life to the best of their ability that reflects a life of faith? What shows deeper and greater faith…a Christian living in response to a church covenant or a person living to honor Jesus without a church covenant? Why embrace the bondage so easily Matt Schmucker? A covenant may be a sign of commitment when joining the US military, signing a legal agreement or agreeing to terms of employment; but why is that necessary for a person’s faith? Why is 9 Marks emulating more of how the world operates and less of Christian faith? The world operates by legal contracts why must the church? Isn’t the church supposed to be different than the world? Next Matt claims that church covenants are claim to be ethical and to practice accountability. Well I must ask…how well did that work for CJ Mahaney? How accountable has he been in the end? What about Mark Driscoll…they had quite a church covenant for Mars Hill Seattle how well did that work? Or are here two standards Matt Schmucker?
Then there is this article from Jonathan Leeman that defines what is church membership. What is church membership? “It’s a declaration of citizenship in Christ’s kingdom. It’s a passport. It’s an announcement made in the pressroom of Christ’s kingdom. It’s the declaration that a professing individual is an official, licensed, card-carrying, bona fide Jesus representative.” So the only Christian is the one who signs their soul away in a church covenant like this one? There are a number of questions I have for Jonathan Leeman …was the Apostle Paul a follower of the Lord if he didn’t sign a membership covenant? What about the Christian who has been executed in Syria by ISIL? Does he count, or is he not a Christian Jonathan? What about the Christian in one of the internment camps in North Korea…do they count? Are they supposed to leave that interment camp, go over to a 9 Marks church sign away their soul, and then they are a Christian? I mean they are suffering for their faith and will probably starve to death in a labor camp…are they not a Christian?
I could go on and on, but I think I made my point. The three examples I posted above are enough and I could write much more. The problem is that these are decisions 9 Marks is advocating are more about control, and more about barriers than anything else. These decisions have erected a Wall, and created needless division amongst families, friends, and relatives. The historical parallels I see between membership covenants and the Berlin Wall is the following, both are examples of a totalitarian system that sought to control, and keep people from emigrating and moving freely. In East Germany if you wanted to travel you needed to seek permission which was often denied. In Neo-Calvinism you have situations in which people can’t leave without their pastor’s permission. How many times are we hearing similar stories come out from Neo-Calvinism? I wonder what and when the next story will be? What is being advocated by Jonathan Leeman and 9 Marks is more reminiscent of the dark days of the Cold War. If in erecting walls is Jonathan Leeman going to be the Neo-Calvinist equivalent to Walter Ulbricht, where is Checkpoint Charlie going to be? In the future you may just find me outside CHBC reading Ronald Reagan’s famous speech from 1987, except I will be saying, “Mr Leeman…Tear Down this Wall!”