Living in covenant

Living in covenant
Michael Kinnamon
Michael Kinnamon

"We structure our community around the biblical idea of covenant, emphasizing not obedience to human authority but accountability to one another because of our shared obedience to Christ."

This mark is basic to our identity as Disciples and, in my judgment, essential to our renewal as a community of faith.

Disciples have always been a freedom movement. You can hear Thomas Campbell’s passion in these lines from the 1809 Declaration and Address: "Resume that precious, that dear bought, liberty wherewith Christ has made his people free; a liberty from subjection to any authority but his own, in matters of religion." With this charter, we have said an emphatic "No!" to church hierarchy that would impose decisions on congregations, and "No!" to an elevation of clergy that would constrict the priesthood of all believers.

But this is only half the picture. Just as the apostle Paul admonished the new Christians in Galatia to exercise their freedom in Christ by becoming servants to one another (Gal 5:1, 13), so the Disciples founders envisioned a freedom that would give rise to "disciplined holiness." They recognized that individual liberty, if unchecked by common submission to Christ, undercuts the community’s ability to live and witness together — thus threatening two other pillars of our movement: the unity of Christians and their mission to represent Christ in the world.

Disciples responded to this tension between freedom and community pragmatically — developing various structures for making decisions and doing mission together. But it was not until the Restructure of the 1960s that we attempted to address the issue theologically. The challenge was to find a middle ground, a foundation for being church that promotes accountability without coercion, that calls church members to obedience to the gospel while still leaving room for dialogue, diversity, and dissent. The answer, according to the architects of Restructure, is the idea of covenant.

A covenant is not simply an agreement among humans, because God is always understood to be a participant. That's why every serious church covenant emphasizes the authority of Christ.

A covenant is not legalistic, not a list of things to do or not do. Rather, it involves a commitment to walk together, seeking to conform ourselves as community to the mind of Christ. If the church is a purely voluntary association, then when we disagree we can just go somewhere else. If, however, the church is a covenantal society, constituted by God’s initiative, then we stay together, especially when it’s tough to do so.

In the structure approved in 1968, every expression of church — congregational, regional, and general — is given a particular responsibility to discern and respond to God’s call, but to do so interdependently. The General Assembly, for example, cannot dictate to congregations; but neither should congregations ignore the corporate decision making of the church in assembly.

That, at least, is the theory; but we have failed to live it. A number of things contribute to that failure, including a culture that reinforces individualism and a consumerist approach to church, not interdependence and mutual accountability. Beyond that, the structure set up in the 1960s is inadequate to the theology. General units and regions now accuse one another of breaking covenant by making decisions about the distribution of mission funds, or about programs with church-wide implications, unilaterally. (When you do it, it is breaking covenant; when we do it, it is exercising appropriate freedom to oversee our own affairs!) And even if we were to amend our structures, we still don’t do an adequate job of teaching that baptism is entry into covenantal relationship or that membership in a congregation involves covenantal responsibility.

To live in covenant is a wonderful way of being church — if only we would try it.

This is the sixth in a series of columns exploring a new Disciples identity statement developed by the 21st Century Vision Team, an advisory group to General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins. For the full statement, go to www.disciples.org.