Sam Jones, Methodist evangelist from Cartersville, Georgia, came to Owensboro in 1893 and 1895. His conversational yet confrontational style of preaching did its work on Baptist pastor Fred Hale. Hale had come to the pastorate of Owensboro’s First Baptist Church in February of 1893. Under the influence of Jones’s vision and rhetoric, Hale led his church in such a way as to precipitate a division. In August of 1896, Hale led the majority of members as they walked out of the sanctuary while those who remained behind stood and sang, “God Be With You ‘Till We Meet Again” The new congregation was called Third Baptist Church.
In his first sermon in May of 1893, Sam Jones said: “Anybody can be a Methodist in Owensboro on a mighty low plane. Now you Presbyterians, Baptists, and Christians sit there and grin. I mean all of you. You are no better than the Methodists about that. You can be a good church member in Owensboro and not amount to much.”
Jones’s message fell on receptive ears among Christian people of Daviess County and the surrounding areas. They recognized his words as a call for the restoration of the tradition of disciplined Christian living and a covenanted church life. The particular practice then in question was alcohol; but the more fundamental issue was the matter of church discipline. Does a Christian church expect its members to adhere to certain moral and ethical standards as a condition of church membership and, more fundamentally, as a condition of Christian discipleship? The preaching of an evangelist like Sam Jones is as much needed today as it was one hundred years ago.
The baptist movement, fro its origin in the sixteenth century, has put a high priority on Christian discipleship as a way of life. It was the reformation of life rather than the reformation of doctrine that set the baptists apart from the sixteenth century Protestant reformers of the church. Thus, the church covenant (the guide to Christian living) was as prominent as the confession of faith (the guide to Christian thinking).
It may well be that the church covenant as a guide to Christian living has played a role among baptists that is unique in the Christian movement. It indeed constitutes one of the more valuable contributions of baptists to a complete understanding of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in our world.
The chief expression of the disciplined Christian life was the gathered church. The gathered church was composed of those who actually attended the meetings of the church and who sought to live according to the church covenant.
In opposition to the gathered church was the territorial church, which was the hallmark of Christendom, including both Catholic and Protestant churches. Territorial churches included all people who lived within a certain geographical boundary, regardless of their involvement in the spiritual life of the congregation. In 1648, after years of religious conflict, the civil and ecclesiastical leaders of Europe concluded the Peace of Westphalia in which thy affirmed the principle of curius regio, eius religio, a Latin phrase which means “as the prince, so the religion.” The symbol of this inclusiveness was infant baptism, in which initiation of a person into Christian community was not connected with their profession of faith or express intent to live in obedience to Christ.
In stark contrast to infant baptism and the territorial church, the mark of the gathered church was believer’s baptism. Only adults who freely and publicly professed their faith and committed themselves tow walk in the way of Christ were initiated into the church. These baptized converts agreed to live in accordance with the covenant of the church.
Third Baptist Church is a covenanted congregation. In 1896, its founding members adopted the The “New Hampshire Church Covenant.” This covenant had been written in 1833, but was later revised by J. Newton Brown and published in The Baptist Church manual in 1853. The founders of Third adopted the original 1833 version of this covenant. they also adopted “Special Rules, Made Because of the Exigencies of the Times in Owensboro.” These extra rules forbade any contact with alcoholic beverages, dancing, and card playing. All three had been vigorously denounced by Sam Jones. Rule four excluded church members who failed to attend or contribute during the course of a calendar year.
In 1904, the covenant of Third Baptist Church was revised to conform to the 1853 New Hampshire Church Covenant. This 1853 version included the ban on alcohol, and Third Church added a phrase to prohibit dancing and cards. This revised covenant was re-approved in 1976. The covenant currently printed in the church constitution has deleted the references to dancing and cards.
Every church needs to write or adopt a church covenant. There is something noble about a church that takes a stand o specific matters of Christian morality. It is true that today there is little sympathy for a group of people proscribing how an individual should live. But the church covenant is a document to which people freely subscribe. Coercion in matters of conduct is as foreign to the baptist vision as coercion in matters of doctrine.
As regards the covenant tradition of Third Church, I say without apology that I appreciate the ban on alcohol; but i would support an extension to include all recreational drugs, including tobacco. Our culture is awash in a sea of drugs, and baptist churches, like baptist homes, need to provide an island of self-control for people who want to escape the danger and disease associated with drugs. We need places, parties, and personal networks free of the social use of drugs.
I could live with the prohibition on dancing, as it protects me from what could be rather embarrassing dance floor displays. But I like my cards. At least once a day, I lay out my face cards for a game of solitaire. And I remember one of the first social events I attended in Owensboro was an after-church card game at the home of Alvey and Helen Smith. They were using, however, Baptist cards, otherwise known as Rook!
While the covenant is intended to be a positive, pro-active document designed to clarify expectations and encourage righteous living, it has too often been used in a negative way. Very early in the history of church covenants, there developed the ban, that action on the part of local congregations to discipline individuals whose behavior did not conform to the covenant guidelines. Article seventeen of the Short Confession of Faith in Twenty Articles by John Smyth reads: “That brethren who persevere in sins known to themselves, after the third admonition, are to be excluded from the fellowship of the saints by excommunication.”
In 1527, the Swiss Brethren issued the Schleitheim Confession. It consists of seven articles dealing with: baptism, excommunication, communion, separation, pastors, swords, and oaths:
“We agree as follows on the ban: The Ban shall be employed, with all those who have given themselves to the Lord, to walk in His commandments, and with all those who have been baptized into the one body of Christ and who are called brethren and sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and six, being inadvertently overtaken. The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned according to the command of Christ. (Matthew 18). But this shall be done according to the regulation of the Spirit (Matthew 5) before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup )Article two).”
Two often the word discipline has been used as a synonym for punishment or dismissal or excommunication. Typical is the book Church Discipline by J. D. Maddox published in 1911. It is a populist appeal to the ideal of an ordered and disciplined congregation. The opening lines read:
“Three failures on the part of many of our churches really menace them. First in importance, is the failure to guard carefully the door of entrance, so that many gain entrance to membership in our churches who give no evidence of regeneration. Second in importance, is the failure to properly indoctrinate the churches….Third, and of very great and grave importance, is the failure to exercise wise and wholesome corrective discipline over their members,; so that we tolerate in our members that which we ought not to tolerate, and retain as members men and women who would be better ‘put from among ‘ us.”
The spirit and substance of this heavy emphasis on the negative side of church discipline is summed up in his quote from a booklet entitled “The Barren Fig Tree,” by J. B. Moody in which one who lives “in unholy wedlock, or rents his property for evil purposes, or …uses bad language, etc., and defies the church” is to be banned. Moody urges: “Get your pick an dig him out root and branch.”
The records of Third Baptist Church of Owensboro, Kentucky, illustrate further how the covenant was frequently used in a negative way, that is, to exclude someone from membership for behavior which violated the covenant. The minutes of the meeting of the Board of Deacons read:
“April 28, 1898: “Moses Thorpe having reported in case of Brother —- who had been guilty of drunkenness and that he had promised to lead a better life. Brother Thorpe was instructed to cite him to appear before the church at the next church business meeting at which time charges would be preferred against him.” [Records show the member cited was excluded from the church membership in August 1898.]
“July 5, 1898: “Brother Moses Thorpe reported that —–denied the charge of swearing. Report was received and committee of Moses Thorpe discharged.”
“September 2, 1897: “It being reported that ——had been guilty of playing cards and dancing, Deacon . G. W. Mullen was appointed to see him.”
“September 30, 1897: “James H. Parrish continued as a committee to see ——-, there have been additional rumors as to bad character.”
Such official church action has given covenants (and churches!) a bad name. Their use primarily in a negative fashion illustrates what Philip Yancy has called “ungrace.” Many churches preach grace and practice ungrace. The ban distorts both the essence of the gospel and the ideal of discipleship.
This ungraceful use of covenants has led to their gradual disuse in modern church life. This is regrettable. it is time for a renaissance of covenanted churches. In a time of moral confusion both in the church and in society, a church covenant can function as a powerful and effective means of cultivating mature and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.
There is a positive way to use the church covenant. To begin with, we recognize that covenants are biblical. God made a covenant with Noah (Genesis 9), with Abraham (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17, and 22), with the Hebrew people through Moses (Exodus 20-30), and with David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7).
Jeremiah foresaw a day when God would make a new covenant with Israel in which God would write the Word on the heart of every one and put the Spirit on every one (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Jesus transformed the Jewish Passover supper into Christian Communion, with these words, “This cup … is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
The book from which we read the word of God is a covenant book. It includes the Old Covenant, a history of God’s dealings with Israel; and it includes the New Covenant, a description of the life and teaching of Jesus. Our word testament is but a translation of the word covenant. The Bible is a covenant book.
Baptist people are covenant people. We believe that church life is to be regulated by some form of common agreement as to what behavior is consistent with Christian beliefs. After preaching on the subject “Free in the Church” and advocating the baptist vision of radical freedom, one person in our congregation challenged me with this statement: “It will lead to anarchy.”
It is true that freedom without some means to establish accountability, responsibility, or faithfulness leads to moral and doctrinal chaos. But baptists have a way of mutual accountability–it is the church covenant. The covenant, which baptist people often read during worship services, commits each of us to mutual care, moral discernment, spiritual disciplines, and congregational order. The church covenant is a practical means to avoid anarchy and establish moral order.
A new challenge to baptist life today comes from a new category of church membership. Whereas the “gathered church” principle powerfully challenged the “territorial churches” of Medieval and Reformation Europe, the challenge today comes from the “enrolled church.” Third Church, through one hundreds years of history, has become an “enrolled church.” There are more than 1900 enrolled as members of this church. Less than half are functioning members of the congregation and more than 700 are nonresident!. This creates the inactive church member. In active church members and nonresident church members constitute (with some exceptions) according to baptist understanding of the church, a contradiction in terms.
One way to promote covenant responsibility and maintain our historic commitment to disciplined living is through an annual covenant signing. The church covenant could be displayed in the church building (and distributed to members by other means) throughout the year. Each year each member would be requested to sign the covenant, perhaps in conjunction with the annual stewardship campaign. This signing would then constitute a re-commitment of the person to a life of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the church. At the end of the year all members who had signed the covenant during the year (and only those people) would be continued as members of the church. Special arrangements could be made for home bound persons and certain nonresident persons (such as college students and military personnel, etc). This process is consistent with the baptist principle of uncoerced religion; it freely allows people to maintain a covenant relationship with the church as they feel called by Christ.
Scholars of religion who survey the contemporary scene tell us of declining loyalty to church life. It has become a consumer’s market with Christian people shopping around for the most attractive church program, the most exciting worship style, and the most compatible biblical interpretation. Against this trend of freedom without faithfulness, baptist churches have the opportunity to practice a Christian discipleship that guards the freedom of both the person and the congregation. Yet it holds both the person and the congregation in a covenanted relationship that cultivates the gifts and graces of Jesus Christ.