In my thinking about the nature of the church, I am often inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by Hitler in 1945. He wrote a little book called Life Together that described his plan for church community in the agonies of World War II in Germany. John Godsey says that it involved “a kind of theological education that was startlingly new in Germany: a communal life in which Jesus Christ’s call to discipleship was taken seriously.” That is what we want to do at Bethlehem—take Jesus and his church seriously.
On December 14, 2008, the congregation of Bethlehem voted to make the Bethlehem Relational Commitments (PDF) part of our membership expectations by including them in the constitution and church covenant by reference. This means that these commitments will from now on be included by reference in the Church Covenant that all new members sign when they join the church.
What about present members? We understand that when a body of believers adds something to the covenant that defines its relationships (even if only to clarify what is there), it runs the risk of putting some members in the awkward position of not favoring the new covenant. Our goal is not to estrange anyone. Our goal is the opposite. We believe the relational commitments will help us relate to each other in more biblical, gracious, gospel-shaped, and Christ-honoring ways.
We are eager to provide plenty of time and help to all present covenant members as we seek a common understanding and affirmation of the Bethlehem Relational Commitments. Our desire is that all covenant members will eventually sign the revised Church Covenant.
Our understanding is that nothing more has been added to the expectations of church membership than what was already explicit or implicit in the documents governing the church.
The aims of the Relational Commitments are:
- to heighten awareness of our desire to relate lovingly in biblical ways,
- to clarify expectations about relationships so as to minimize disappointments and confusion,
- to provide a clear and expected track we will follow to resolve conflict among members,
- to clarify the focus and limits of the kind of counseling we provide,
- to clarify the importance and nature of confidentiality when dealing with people’s lives,
- to clarify the ways that we pursue the protection of the children entrusted to our care,
- to define and limit the spiritual authority of church leaders so that members are treated fairly and lovingly,
- to reduce our church’s exposure to legal liability.
The five sections of the Relational Commitments reveal what our concerns are:
- Commitment to Peacemaking and Reconciliation
- Commitment to Preserving Marriages
- Commitment to Protecting Our Children
- Commitment to Biblical Counseling and Confidentiality
- Commitment to Accountability and Church Discipline
You may recall that I preached last Summer on pursuing a kind of relational culture at Bethlehem marked by the beauty of Philippians 2:4—“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This, Paul tells us, is the mind of Christ (verse 5). That is our goal.
I am thanking God that in the six months since those sermons, the church has taken such significant steps to clarify what “life together” means in covenant commitment at Bethlehem. I pray that the Holy Spirit will come and make these dreams and guidelines a reality for us. Christ is highly honored when his people love each other in the ways fleshed out in the Bethlehem Relational Commitments.
Eager to grow with you in the mind of Christ,