21 November 2004

Breaking covenant

The question may arise: When is it appropriate to break a covenant? In particular, when is it permissible to revoke the ordination of an elder (or pastor)? Possible answers include:

  • Never.
  • Only in cases of unrepentant sin.
  • Whenever you change your mind.

I'll examine each possibility, and then draw a parallel with marriage.


This is the implied standard of the Old Testament. "Who can lay a hand on the Lord's anointed and be guiltless?" (1Sam 26:9-11, NIV).

In the OT, a blessing cannot be revoked, even if it was obtained through deceit (Gen 27:33,35). A commission is even passed on to future generations (Ex 29:9; Dt 10:8; 2Sam 7:12-16). The New Testament reflects this understanding in the exhortation not to be hasty in the laying on of hands (1Tim 5:22).

However, the Lord's anointed or the Anointed One refers only to the king of Israel (1Sam 12:3; Lam 4:20 ) or the Messiah (e.g. Jn 1:41; Ps 2:2; Dan 9:25-26; Mk 14:61; Ac 9:22). Both Messiah (Hebrew) and Christ (Greek) mean "Anointed One". Although every believer is anointed by the Holy Spirit (2Cor 1:21-22; 1Jn 2:20), no believer has a special place as God's anointed – not even an elder.

I respect those who apply OT standards to the NT church, but I believe they are in error. No one is above reproach, except the Anointed One himself.

Only in cases of unrepentant sin

This, I believe, is the New Testament position. While an accusation against an elder must not be taken lightly, it is possible to accuse an elder when two or three witnesses can testify to his sin. In such cases, he must be rebuked publicly (1Tim 5:19-20).

The principles for confronting sin in the body apply equally well to elders. First confront him privately. If he refuses to repent, bring along one or two other witnesses. If he still refuses, make the accusation public. Then, and only then, if he still refuses to turn away from sin, exclude him from fellowship (Mt 18:15-17).

One might find it interesting that in Old Testament times – supposedly more characterized by law – leaders were answerable to God alone, while in New Testament times – supposedly more characterized by grace – we are called to police our own. This is in keeping with the New Testament concept of a kingdom of priests (1Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6). No member of the body is greater than any other, even though some may be more visible than others (1Cor 12). No one is above reproach. We are, in fact, called to judge any unrepentant sinner within the church, and exclude them from fellowship (1Cor 5:9-13). That includes functioning elders.

Whenever you change your mind

Some people believe that since they called the pastor, they have the right to revoke that call whenever they see fit. The clear fallacy here is that they did not call the pastor; God did. There is absolutely no Biblical precedent for revoking a commission, once given. Indeed, while provision is made for cases of unrepentant sin, I am not aware of that provision ever being invoked.

Notably, the qualifications for elders (1Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9) apply to candidates for the position, before they are appointed. Those responsible for appointing elders are charged to consider the qualifications of the candidates carefully, and not to be hasty in the laying on of hands (1Tim 5:22). The reasons are obvious: Elders are responsible for the spiritual welfare of the church, and can only be removed in extreme cases of unrepentant sin.

Any subjective, man-made standard of competency certainly is not grounds for removal. Competency can and should be considered before appointing an elder. In particular, he must be able to teach, and must have demonstrated his ability to manage his family well (1Tim 3:2,4). But once an elder has been appointed, there is no Scriptural place for questioning his competency. Bottom line, we are all incompetent. But God specializes in ministering to and through the incompetent.

I said that I respect those who hold the Never position, even though I do not agree with them. In contrast, I hold no respect for those who put themselves in the position of judging elders, other than in cases of clear, unequivocal, unrepentant sin. For theirs is the greater sin, putting themselves in the position of judging those whom God has anointed – in effect, putting themselves above God (Rom 14:4; Jam 4:11-12).

Parallel with marriage

This question invites comparison with the parallel question in marriage: When is it permissible to seek a divorce? The same three answers are possible.


Many hold this position, based on the principle, "What God has joined together, let man not separate." (Mt 19:6)

Again, while I respect this point of view, I do not share it.

Only in cases of unrepentant sin

Jesus gives one case when divorce is permissible: marital unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9). Paul gives another: an unbelieving spouse who refuses to be reconciled (1Cor 7:15). Unless one of them is wrong, there must be a higher principle to which they are both alluding. I believe the principle is this: Marriage is sacrosanct, unless your spouse is involved in unrepentant sin.

I grant that this is a matter of interpretation, and others may disagree. I respect that, as long as their position is Biblically sound. But if someone comes to me for counsel regarding a troubled marriage, my starting point will be this: Do all you can to be reconciled with your spouse, but if your spouse persists in unrepentant sin, you are free to move on.

Whenever you change your mind

Alas, this is the position of our culture, as it was in Jesus' culture. Even people who claim to be Christians support "no-fault" divorce. I see no way to reconcile this position with a commitment to the authority of Scripture. I think our culture provides ample evidence as to which worldview is better for society.


These two examples suggest a general principle: A covenant is permanent, unless one party is involved in unrepentant sin, in which case the other party is free of their commitment.

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