Freedom in Covenant: A Reflection on Disciples of Christ Identity
Tomorrow evening the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will open. During the days to come we will worship and hear preaching, share educational events, gather for fellowship, and do some business, including electing a new General Minister and President. One of the topics of conversation, whether official or not, will concern our identity and our future. We are small denomination getting smaller. We have some strong founding principles, but do we understand them and embrace them. In preparation for this gathering I am reposting a presentation I made to the Regional Board meeting of the Michigan Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on October 22, 2016. The presentation is rooted in my book Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015), which I will have available for purchase (and signing if you would like).
Disciples have always valued the principle of freedom. We hold tight to our non-creedal identity and grant each other room to interpret and apply Scripture as we believe the Spirit leads. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can be a Disciple and believe anything you want to believe. That’s a statement I’ve heard over the years, but we call ourselves Disciples of Christ for a reason. If we’re disciples of Christ, then Jesus must have a prominent place in our life together.
If we don’t have creeds and we grant each other a certain amount of freedom of interpretation, what does it mean to be a Disciple? I thought I might share a quote from Edgar Dewitt Jones, Central Woodward’s founding pastor:
Progressively interpreted, the Disciples of Christ embody a noble plea and an arresting program. They cherish the dream of a reunited church, and make Christ central in teaching and in life. They emphasize unity but not uniformity. It is a roomy fellowship, holding to a universal creed: “I believe in Christ as the Son of God and my personal Savior.” [Quoted in Freedom in Covenant, pp. 2-3]
I would want to add that Disciples are a “Table-Centered Church.” After all, our Disciples mission statement reads: “We are Disciples, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
What I want to share this morning is rooted in my book Freedom in Covenant:Reflections on the Distinctive Values and Practices of the Christian Church(Disciples of Christ). I titled my book Freedomin Covenant for a reason. I wanted to honor our Disciples commitment to providing that “roomy fellowship” that Dr. Jones spoke of many years ago, but I also wanted to honor the process of restructure in the 1960s that turned to covenant language to describe the relationship between congregations, regions, and the General Church.
This commitment to freedom of conscience reflects the belief that no one can impose a particular vision of God on anyone else. Faith is not coercive. Not only that, but while we honor the gifts and calling of some to serve as pastors and teachers, ours is not a hierarchical community in which the clergy have the final word.
This is a wonderful legacy that our founders have left to us. It’s why I’m a Disciple. This freedom that we celebrate allows me to bring my rather diverse heritage to the Table. I can nurture my “inner Anglican,” celebrate my Charismatic and evangelical legacies, as well as embrace that progressive strain that has emerged over time. I am and we are more than the sum of our parts.
While this heritage of freedom comes to us in part due to the scriptural witness, it is also a legacy of the moment of our birth on the American frontier in the wake of the American Revolution and the founding of the nation. Like the nation’s founders, we are heirs of people like John Locke, who spoke of a simple faith and tolerance as the true church’s chief characteristic. According to Locke, a church “is a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worshiping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” [A letter Concerning Toleration, Prometheus Books, p. 22]
This vision of the church that Locke speaks of stands at the foundation of American religious life. We are free to organize ourselves as we please to accomplish what we believe God would have us be and do. There is much to celebrate in this vision, but it can lead to excessive individualism both on the part of believers and congregations.
When the Disciples went through restructure in the 1960s, we tried to shed a form of congregational autonomy that obstructed the possibility of mutuality accountability and true unity among our churches. To protect this principle of freedom, while creating a system of accountability, the leaders of the restructure process turned to the biblical concept of covenant. With restructure we moved from being a loose association of churches to being church with three manifestations or expressions: congregations, regions, and General Church.
Covenant language is the legacy of the biblical story, with God making covenants with humanity through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Each Sunday we celebrate the new covenant that Jesus established with his disciples as we share in the Lord’s Table. Covenant language is also a legacy of our Reformed heritage, for our founders were all Presbyterians, who emphasized covenant language.
There are three expressions of church among Disciples. None of these expressions stand above the other. There is still no hierarchy among us. Yet, we are united through our covenant commitment to one another. We exist in a symbiotic relationship. We have our own identities and callings, and yet we draw life from this relationship. In a moment, I’m going to have us share together in a responsive reading of the Preamble to the Design, a statement that celebrates our covenant relationship. Before we share in this faith statement I wanted share a paragraph from the Design that lays out the way in which this covenant relationship works:
Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.
The question before us then is this. If Disciples are not a hierarchical community, how will we express this covenant in daily life? What is required of us? How do we attend to this calling to embrace one another in these three expressions, of which we are all part?
We express the call to covenant as church members by sharing in worship, gathering at the Table, providing leadership and support to the congregation. We also do it by contributing financially to the life of the church. When it comes to the congregation’s relationship to the Region, the same principles apply. We gather as church for worship and study Regional Assemblies, we provide leadership for the ministries of the Region, and contribute financially to this expression of the church. We can do the latter through our giving to the Disciples Mission Fund as well as the various special offerings. Regarding the Region, it’s important to emphasize the Christmas offering, which goes directly to the Region. I leave these questions to your contemplation.