When it comes to Membership Covenants, different parts of the Body of Christ take different approaches. Some are prescriptive and include a list of specific beliefs and behaviours that they expect from their members. Others are more principle-based and fashion their counsel around guiding, overarching principles.
As a denomination, the Free Methodist Church has followed both approaches. At one period in its history, its Membership Covenant was quite prescriptive. While it had many good features, some people applied these requirements legalistically, while other people creatively evaded some of the membership requirements. This did not produce the kind of wholesome disciple that the denomination had in mind.
In 1995 discussions began at the North American General Conference of the Free Methodist Church that ultimately resulted in a referendum decision that was made by Free Methodists all around the world to move the Covenant from a “legal base” (with a longer list of specific behaviours/attitudes) to a “principle base” (with a shorter list of guiding, overarching principles).
When this change was made, some Free Methodists feared that they now had an easier covenant that pointed believers in the direction of compromise with sinful living because a specific list of prohibitions was not provided. The opposite is true. The principle-based covenant is actually more demanding because it calls the believer to understand and apply a principle to all areas of life (internal as well as external) rather than just avoiding the sins on the list. For example, when the new covenant addresses lifestyle issues, it says, “As a people, we live wholesome and holy lives and show mercy to all, ministering to both their physical and spiritual needs. We commit ourselves to be free from habits and attitudes that defile the mind and harm the body, or promote the same…” Clearly, this principle maintains the denomination’s longstanding position of calling people to be committed to living healthily by avoiding addictive substances and behaviours, but it also calls for the examination of matters of the heart that give rise to ungodly attitudes.
When a Membership Covenant is principle-based, then the question is raised as to when one can be considered a member of the fellowship of God’s people. The prescriptive approach saw membership as the “graduation diploma” at the end of a discipleship process that prepared people to live within specific requirements. The principled approach sees membership as the “doorway” into the discipleship process—a process that will not end in this life. People who have received Christ can become members even though they still have much in their lives to work on. As they continually allow the Holy Spirit to make new applications of the covenant’s principles at deeper and deeper levels, they will become progressively healthier as Christians.
On the other hand, if they take a covenant (whatever its base) and then ignore it and do not go on to grow in grace, the opposite is surely tragic.
Here is the focus: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” and, with the Holy Spirit’s enabling, commit to live a life of joyful obedience, embracing spiritual disciplines that promote godliness and dealing decisively with everything that keeps us from becoming more like Him.