|Signing a contract. Image source.|
I want to talk about the reasoning behind "church covenants" and why they end up having such abusive results. I've never been in a church that used this type of "church covenant" or "church discipline," so I don't have any practical experience, but it IS 100% consistent with the Christianity I was taught. If leaders in the churches I've attended were asked "why doesn't our church do this 'church covenant' thing?" they would probably say it's "too extreme," but they wouldn't be able to give an actual reason consistent with all the other things they teach. Because, in reality, "church discipline" is bad and abusive because people have the right to make their own choices about their own lives, if they want advice from the church then that's fine, but otherwise it's none of the church's damn business. And that is VERY MUCH OPPOSITE to what I was taught in church.
(And I just laugh when people who used to tell me I should be "crazy for Jesus" say that "too extreme" is a reason that something is bad. Yeah. And even in other contexts, there is absolutely no reason that something that's "extreme" is intrinsically bad. But that's a rant for another time.)
Captain Cassidy's article is about "church covenants." Here is how she describes them:
In making a covenant, a church’s congregation signs over formal control of their lives to their pastor and ministry team (which can include small group leaders and other laypeople), who then consider themselves authorized to oversee the congregants’ private lives and to punish them when necessary. Many churches now require members to agree to these covenants as a condition of becoming full members of the church–and some even require members to re-up their agreement to their covenants every year.She then shows a lot of examples of the vagueness of the "covenent" and how it allows church leaders to basically do whatever they want with essentially no limitations. I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
A covenant is like a contract–except nowhere near as fair. The main difference is their one-sided nature; even if one side breaks their end of a covenant, the other side isn’t released from their own obligations. Covenants don’t expire and cannot be broken–usually and in theory at least.
Also relevant: "covenant marriages." I first heard about this in Sunday school class at the church I was going to in college. Somebody mentioned the concept, and said it means you're not allowed to divorce unless you go to counseling for a certain amount of time first, and some other requirements like that. He ended by saying, "I think all Christian marriages should be covenant marriages," and I nodded along because it was totally consistent with everything the church taught about marriage and divorce- how divorce is the Worst Thing Ever and people who decide to get a divorce don't really value marriage and they are making a bad decision and must be stopped (with maybe a few exceptions, if their spouse did something REALLY bad- but even then, if you can forgive and reconcile, that's still better).
But no, the concept of "covenant marriage" is pretty scary. Libby Anne gives some more details in her post here. The entire point is that you are getting into an agreement and purposely making it really hard for yourself to get out, if you ever decide you don't want to be married to this person. That's a good thing in evangelical-land; that's a selling point. In the real world, though, people aren't just getting divorces willy-nilly for no good reason because they "don't respect marriage." It's a very serious, life-changing decision; it's a situation that you hope you never find yourself in, but sometimes divorce really is the best option. And yes, I agree that people should try counseling before choosing to divorce, but if either party needs to be literally forced into counseling by a "covenant" they signed years earlier- if they're not willing to go just because they care about their marriage- then I think you're way past the point where you can still save the marriage. And if one partner is abusing the other, the "covenant" is a tool they can use to make it even harder for the abused person to get out.
In other words, I really don't think you can make a marriage good and healthy by forcing people to stay married when they don't want to. (I remember many years ago, reading Focus on the Family's bullshit propaganda about "the homosexual agenda," and every now and then they mentioned how "no-fault divorce" is ruining everything, and I really did not get it. Back in the day, you had to prove something like adultery or abuse in order to be allowed to divorce? Like how would that even work? I think I'm too young for that particular culture war to make any sense to me.)
(Side note: I'm getting married next year, and I strongly believe that means I have to think about what exactly my vows mean and under what circumstances I would choose to get a divorce. I'll write a post on that at some point.)
Both "covenant marriage" and "church covenants" have the same basic idea: In the future, I may do something really bad, and if I do, I want to be stopped and/or punished. Don't let me do it- I am saying right now that that's not the kind of person I want to be, even if Future Me wants to.
That's the whole point. It's all about people consenting to being required, in the future, to keep doing something they freely choose to do now- regardless of whether their future self would still freely choose it. If their future self doesn't want to do it, then they should be forced to do it.
But of course. Of course it's about potentially forcing people to do things they don't want to do. If they would choose to do it anyway without being forced, then there's no need for a "covenant."
This is 100% consistent with evangelical teaching on people's "sin nature." We're just so completely sinful, we can't trust ourselves to make good decisions, we need rules to keep us in line, we'll come up with all kinds of shady excuses for why we don't have to obey God's clear commands- so we can't even trust our own minds. We all have the potential to do horrifically evil things- if you feel like "no, I'm pretty confident I would never do that", well, pride comes before a fall. Just a little bit of temptation and you might end up doing something shocking and "out of character"- except, we know it's not truly "out of character" because you've always been a disgusting sinner on the inside.
In this view, things like divorce or breaking church rules are clearly bad decisions we might make while under the influence of temptation. If we ever go against what the church says, it's because we're too sinful to think clearly, and what we really need is punishment so we'll snap out of it and go back to being good Christians who follow the rules. There's no room for "Before, I could never have imagined that I would do XYZ, but now, because I have more life experience, I'm choosing to do this and I'm confident it's a good decision for me." Nope. The church already knows all the right answers and rules. If you get more life experience that helps you realize that your previous views were too simplistic and need to be changed- well, that's temptation. That's "being led astray by your emotions" instead of holding to God's "absolute truth." You have to be very very clear about all the rules and your total commitment to them before you ever get into a situation which might give you practical experience with those rules. Because of course you can't be trusted to make a good decision on your own, in the face of "temptation." You're way too sinful for that.
(This is pretty much the WHOLE ENTIRE PREMISE of purity culture- especially all those "where is the line" discussions. If we just emphasize MORE AND MORE AND MORE how sinful sex is, when kids are too young to even know what sex is or why anyone would do it, that's how you stop them from having sex. Note: This doesn't stop people from having sex, but it does make them feel a lot of shame.)
The whole entire point is that people can't be trusted to make their own decisions- they're not safe unless they have some kind of authority over them to punish them if they stray from the correct rules. And people internalize this- I know I did. I was so afraid of my "sinful nature"; I was totally sure that there existed certain sets of circumstances in which I would do unspeakably awful things (for example, have sex), where my behavior would shock everyone, including me. I believed I needed layers and layers of walls and protections, so that I couldn't get anywhere near "temptation", because who knows what could happen?
Scared of myself, scared of my own mind, my own heart, my own body. Of course I was- how could I not be, when I believed "sinful nature" was the correct label for what kind of person I was? Even though I've never been in a church environment that used "covenants," it makes perfect sense to me. It fits EXACTLY with all the teaching on "sin" I received as an evangelical for all those years.
Things like "covenant marriage" and "church covenants" are based on the idea that right now we know all the correct rules, and any changes we make to our beliefs are BAD. Don't be surprised when you see examples of churches using their "covenants" to trample people's rights and force them to obey rules. That's exactly what they're for.