Church – Chapter 10: The Biblical Church Covenant

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

To demonstrate the covenantal character of the Church, let us turn to a section of Scripture that follows the five-fold structure, Revelation.[1] In the “letters” segment (Rev. 2-3), we see that even this sub-section is drafted in a covenant format. Each letter is outlined according to the five-point model. The first Church, Ephesus, is an example.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One Who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (Rev. 2:1-7).

True Transcendence (Rev. 2:1)

The covenant always begins by distinguishing God from man. The preamble to this letter tells us that the words come from God, “The One Who holds the seven stars.” In the previous chapter, we are told Who this is.

And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things that are, and the things which shall take place after these things. As for the mystery of the seven stars in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:17-20).

Christ is the One who sends the letters to the churches. His opening statement in the first one is careful to make this point, and He thereby distinguishes Himself from the Church. Both His “authorship” and distinction make two critical statements.

First, Christ is Head of the Church. The Church is created by God, and so it is a “Divine” institution, not some kind of ecclesiastical “social contract.”[2] The Lord builds the Church; it is His body; it is not of man, nor does it belong to him. To attack the Church is to attack God. He is the truly transcendent Lord of the Church.

Second, even though the Church is a “Divine” institution, it should be distinguished from God. The Word of God and the preaching of the Church are supposed to be the same, but the distinction should be kept at all times. When the words of the Church are “equivalent to” Scripture, the ecclesiastical institution is viewed as infallible. Calvin at Geneva negotiated around the dilemma by teaching that the Word of God is supposed to be the center of society.[3] Granted, the Church spreads the “Good News,” making it in some sense the center of society. But still, the critical distinction between God and man should be maintained, unless the Church becomes an “absolutized” organization, creating the worst form of “ecclesiastical tyranny.”

The first covenantal issue, transcendence, gives the Church true power, but not too much power. God is transcendent, leaving mankind in the role of glorious humanity, and never allowing it to cross the Creator/creature line that He has created.

Hierarchy (Rev. 2:2-4)

Christ commends the Ephesian Church because they “put to test those who call themselves apostles… and found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2). There is the presence of authority; there is the presence of a mediated system of judgment. How? The Church metes out judgment through a process of “testing.” Probably, this involved a judicial setting similar to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). When the Church assembles to settle a dispute about whether or not it is necessary to be circumcised, the apostles and elders must settle it.

And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:6-10).

Shortly thereafter the dispute ended. Notice, however, that Peter uses a question to draw his point home. Perhaps this is how the Ephesian Church arrived at its decision about the false teachers. At any rate, the same relationship between judgment and history is made that has previously been seen in the other covenants. Ephesus proves its loyalty in history by mediating judgment.

Ethics (Rev. 2:5a)

Jesus tells the Ephesians to “do the deeds you did at first” (Rev. 2:5a). What are these “deeds”? John says in one of his epistles, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4). These commandments are the ethical stipulations of the covenant. The Church covenant is Biblically required to include a commitment to the Law of God.

The application of Biblical law prevents the “tyranny of the minority.” In every church there seem to be people who are easily offended. To paraphrase the pastor who gave parting words to the Pilgrims shortly before they left England, “Watch out for people who are easily offended because they will be the first to give offense.”[4] Nevertheless, tyranny of the minority surfaces when certain members of the congregation do not like the fact that others do not see things the way they do. Then these “offended” ones usually try to manipulate people with verses of the Bible wrenched out of context. Usually, these verses are drawn from passages that talk about “denying oneself” certain things because others are “stumbling” (I Cor. 8:13; Rom. 14-15).

Perhaps the favorite verse used by the tyrannical minority is “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble” (I Cor. 8:13). I know of a church where people left because “coffee cake” was being used that did not meet the health food requirements of the tyrannical minority. (These people eventually stopped going to any church.) Does this verse apply to coffee cake or similar foods? No. The word “stumble” means to sin. The point is that if a Christian is doing something to cause his weaker brother to sin, then he should give it up. What we find, on the contrary, is that Christians are asked to refrain from doing something allowed by the Bible. The passage is not talking about something another person does not approve of or like.

Biblical law should rescue a true covenantal church from a myriad of these kinds of problems. God’s ethical standard provides objective requirements that prevent the manipulative techniques of those “saints” who have strong convictions about certain foods or drinks that are not explicitly condemned in Scripture.

Sanctions (Rev. 2:5b)

Christ warns that if the Ephesians will not repent, then He will remove their lampstand (Rev. 2:5b). When sin is not dealt with in a church, God directly applies the sanctions of the covenant. That is, if the church fails to discipline its own members, implementing the sanctions, then God will do it for them. It may take many years for the discipline of God to work its way out. But He will render lex talionis (“eye for eye”). The process of Church discipline is explained by Christ.

And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:15-18).

Notice there are three steps. First, each Christian has a responsibility to “reprove” a brother if he sins. Church discipline is always restorative, never punitive. The brother is to be restored if at all possible.

Second, if the brother will not listen, then witnesses are to be taken that “every fact may be confirmed” (v. 16). These witnesses are not necessarily witnesses to the initial sin. Rather, they witness that the second phase of discipline has been carried out.

Third, the sin is told to the whole church. How would this be done? The process presumes that the officers have been involved at this point. The tendency on the part of people is to run to the leaders when they see or hear of someone committing a sin. Officers should resist the temptation to take matters into their own hands too soon. Nevertheless, when the third stage is arrived at, the accused may deny that he has committed any such sin – adultery, for example. In this case, a trial will have to be held.

Finally, in the event that the accused is found guilty and still does not repent, he is to be put out of the church and declared excommunicate. Notice that I say “declared.” The Church’s power is judicial, “declarative,” not having the actual power to condemn a person’s soul to hell. Even so, if the Church binds on earth “what has already been bound in heaven,” meaning it acts in accordance with Scripture, then God will uphold the discipline of His people.

Jesus, however, says to the Ephesians that if they do not repent and discipline themselves, then He will deal with them Himself, removing their church, “lampstand.” The covenant is real. God honors it whether His people do or not. If they neglect discipline and the use of Biblical sanctions, then He will do what they have failed to do: sanction.

Continuity (Rev. 2:7)

Continuity is in Christ’s statement, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant… the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). Covenantal continuity is in “listening.” “Hearing” seems so simple, yet both in Proverbs, and the discipline account we just examined, “listening” is the key to persevering in the Kingdom of God (Prov. 4:1, Matthew 18:15, 16, 17).

Observe that in all three steps of the discipline process, each stage advances if the accused does not “listen.” Eventually, it means that the brother is excommunicated. All Church discipline, therefore, is based on the sin of contumacy. Jay Adams makes the same point when he says,

Excommunication never takes place for committing the sin that occasioned the process in the beginning. Excommunication always occurs when one rejects the authority of the church of Christ; he is excommunicated for contumacy. One is excommunicated then, not for adultery, but for failure to repent and be reconciled. The sin that occasioned discipline may have been relatively “small” in its effects, but to that sin is added the enormously significant sin of the rejection of Christ Himself as He demands repentance through His representatives.[5]

Jesus tells His disciples essentially that the “sin” shifts from the particular to the sin of “unrepentance,” or contumacy. In this regard, Jesus echoed what Moses told the children of Israel, meeting contumacy with harsh discipline.

If any case is too difficult for you to decide… so you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them, and they will declare to you the verdict in the case…. And the man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously (Deut. 17:8-13).

In the civil realm, such as this situation, the death penalty was applied. In the sphere of the Church, officers are not allowed to use this penalty, only excommunication. Yet, in both cases, the individual who does not “listen,” and is contumate or contemptuous, receives the severest form of discipline.

Jesus gives a second requirement for continuity in the Biblical Church covenant. He says, “To him who overcomes” (Rev. 2:7). “Overcome” is a word indicating dominion. The covenant is never static: It is always either growing or dying. I have found that the biggest trouble-makers in the Church are those who never do anything constructive. They are not taking dominion. Consequently, they end up out-of-sorts with the whole congregation, and either leave or find themselves being disciplined. One either dominates for Christ, or he is dominated.

The Two Tables

There is no neutrality, no safety zone between dominion and being dominated. The Apostle Paul summarizes continuity in terms of two tables. He says,

You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons (I Cor. 10:21).

There are only two tables in the world. Man either eats Christ’s meal or he eats Satan’s. Christ’s meal is a covenant of life. Satan’s is a covenant of death. Christ’s meal is focused in the Lord’s Supper. This table, as we have said time and again, is not magical. Grace is not infused by the elements themselves. The act itself of eating communion with God’s people is covenant renewal.

But what of the other table, the table of demons? Where is it? Paul leads us to believe that man inescapably eats with the devil if he does not eat with Christ. Everything he does becomes a rite of covenant renewal with the devil: politics, science, education, athletics, and so forth. Every activity of the unbeliever, or perhaps the professed believer who never communes, takes on a satanic sacramental character. Yes, the devil’s table becomes a life apart from Christ.

Self-conscious pagans speak of their work in a sacramental way. Politics, art, economics, or whatever are viewed as somehow infusing the world with life. They become “sacraments.” If Christ’s table is not the answer, something else is perceived as the source of life. Often, a meal is connected with it. Consider a simple example: modern athletics. Remember, athletics in the ancient world, particularly the Olympic Games, became a way of determining who was a god. Today, there is almost always a superstitious ritual before the game. Athletes, who don’t go to church on Sunday, have their last special meal before the big game. This is not satanic in and of itself. But it merely points to the fact that man has to find a substitute communion. If the last meal with the athletes is a substitute for Christ’s table, it is demonic. If anything is a substitute sacrament, it is demonic.

There are only two tables in the world. One leads to life and the other to death. There is no neutrality. No man can keep a chair at both tables. Judas was a man who tried to have a chair at both tables. He was disinherited and cast out. The modern Church needs to learn from Judas. Its covenant binds it to Christ. Yet, it is possible to lose the “lampstand.” It can only be lost by trying to eat at two tables at the same time! When this happens, the legitimate become the illegitimate.


The Biblical Church covenant has all five of the parts of the Deuteronomic covenant. Only by applying them can real dominion be taken inside the Church. It almost sounds preposterous to speak of taking dominion in the Church. Most churches, however, are struggling with their own internal battles. “Judgment begins at the house of God” (I Pet. 4:17). Whatever happens in civilization-at-large is only a reflection of what is going on in the Church. Dominion begins at home. Dominion begins in the Church. Until it does, it will never happen in the State!

[1] See Appendix 5.

[2] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, (1869] 1974), 1:423.

[3] R. J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, (1970] 1978), pp. 263-290. In this brilliant essay, Rushdoony properly notes that Calvin believed the Word of God, and not any human institution in a “governmental” sense should be the center of society. Rushdoony, however, misses the mark by failing to distinguish between the “governmental” and “sacramental” roles. The Church is given the keys of the kingdom of God (Matt. 16:19), manifested in the Preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. When Rushdoony says, “No social distinction between the redeemed and the reprobate is possible” (p. 281), he inadvertently undermines the unique place of the Church. It is “sacramentally” the center of society. The Tree of Life appears both in the form of the Word of God (written) and the Sacraments (visible), given only to the Church. Only this institution can use them to apply discipline: not the State, and certainly not the family!

[4] Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America: Magnalia Christi Americana (London: Banner of Truth Trust, [1702] 1979), Vol. I, p. 50.

[5] Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), p. 54.