Throughout the Bible we read about covenants. God makes a covenant with Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, with Israel through Moses. Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, one that will be written on the heart rather than stone (Jeremiah 31). Jesus describes a covenant that was made in his blood – the Eucharist (Luke 22:20). We use the word covenant in wedding ceremonies. It is also the word that was chosen to describe the relationship of the local, the regional, and the general manifestations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
In the Preamble to The Design, the document that defines the nature of our tradition, we make this confession:
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth, and in the covenant of love which binds us to God and one another.
Ronald Osborn writes of this concept that defines so many aspects of human life in this way:
In religion, in marriage, and in the life of a nation, a covenant is a sacred bond sealed with an oath or vow of allegiance. In the community of Christians that pledge is called a sacrament. A Christian swears faithfulness to God. God promises faithfulness to the church. This two–way pledge is seen most clearly in the Christian covenant-sacraments of baptism and communion. [The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (Chalice Press, 1979), 59].
As Disciples we talk of this covenant relationship, but what do we mean by it? What does it require of us – this sacred pledge made to and with God?
Disciples’ leaders in the 1960s chose this term very purposely as the church began to restructure itself, because to that point we had seen ourselves as an autonomous fellowship of churches and mission agencies. Unfortunately, the legacy of that prerestructure view still pervades our churches. At our regional clergy retreat, for instance, one of my colleagues spoke of our congregational autonomy. Even though the word wasn’t used, I heard it in the conversations at the last two regional board meetings, as representatives (mostly pastors) asked the question: Why should our church give to the denomination or support the region? What’s in it for us? [Giving to the Disciples Mission Fund, which in large part sustains the ministry of the region has been going down, and a minority of the churches in the region contribute to DMF]
This is where the word covenant comes in. We have committed ourselves to God and to each other to live in covenant relationship. General, regional, local congregations are all, by definition church. Each manifestation is equal to the other. That is part of the equation. The other part of the equation is this – we need each other. Our covenant relationship, however, extends well beyond even our denomination. As Osborn points out:
Bound to God and to all God’s people in sacred covenant, we can never think of the Christian community as limited to our own particular denomination. By our baptism we are united with the one body; at the table of the Lord we reaffirm our oneness with all who own the Lordship of Christ. [p. 66]
We recently revised our congregation's constitution, and one of the changes we made (at my request) was to change our language of relationship to the other manifestations of church from affiliation to that of covenant. In a legal sense, there may not be much of a difference, but theologically it makes a very different statement. Affiliation – at least to me – speaks of a convenient relationship that lasts as long as the other party serves my needs. Taken theologically, a covenant is not something easily broken. It is a two-way commitment to the welfare of the other. Thus, as members of a local congregation, we stand in covenant relationship with God who then binds us together with one another, both inside the congregation and outside (John 17:20-26). As a Disciple, I understand that I live within a covenant relationship that involves congregation, region, General Church, and the broader ecumenical community. For, are we not all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
So the question stands: Should we consider ourselves to be autonomous, whether as individual Christians or as churches? Or, should we stand together, working together, understanding that we need each other? The answer, as I understand it, is this: We stand in a covenant relationship with one another that is a gift of the God who has covenanted with us, so that together the world might be blessed through us.
This essay is based upon my column originally published in the May issue of our congregational newsletter.