The Problem with COVENANT

One of the theological words that gets thrown around a lot among Disciples these days is “covenant”.  Disciples are in covenant with one another as individual Christians, congregations, and even regions and the general church.  It is a nice theological word.  It has biblical resonances.  For instance, think of the covenant of God with the nation of Israel.  There are Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.  The New Testament is often thought of as a new covenant.  Barton Stone and the Campbells were Presbyterians and so were operating out of a good Reformed perspective that was quite comfortable with the notion of covenant.  It is a good theological word, though we tend to forget that it is a legal word—even in the bible. (McKenzie; Quell & Behm) Disciples are a homegrown American Christian tradition.  As such we have drunk more deeply than we often admit from the individualism and the democratic impulse in American culture.  In American culture, particularly that stream that is still fed by elements of Reformed thought, covenant is a political and legal term.  It has roots in social contract thought and liberal democracy and Americans probably cannot utter the word “covenant” without carrying at least some of that baggage.  The parties to a covenant, or an agreement or contract, negotiate the terms of the contracts/covenants that establish the relationships with the other parties of the agreement.  It is so in contracts and constitutions, and for Disciples it is so even in our Design.  As the Design’s Preamble states that we rejoice “in God’s covenant of love, which binds us to God and one another.”  Reflecting on 2005’s revisions to the Design, Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President, observed that “our covenantal ecclesiology was made more explicit.”  (Watkins 2007, 7).  Since Restructure, many Disciple theologians and leaders have contended for an understanding of ourselves in terms of covenant. (Dunnavant; Sprinkle; Cummins, 2007, ch 4; Cummins,  2009, xiii, 220-221)

These negotiations arise out of the separateness of the parties to the contract.  Among institutions and interest groups in our communion of the Disciples of Christ this contract nature of covenant has played out over our past half century of history.  It was a critical element to denominational Restructure in 1968 and continues to be affirmed theologically by Disciples even to the present.  While covenant’s advocates find it tempering Disciples commitments to freedom and liberty with a notion of responsibility (Watkins 2008) elicited by a binding agreement, this same language of responsibility also generates a commitment to rights, perhaps litigiously in American society.  It has played out in our general church’s efforts at mission alignment and tables, pastoral and otherwise. One reading of the recent tepid effort at missional realignment in the general church's MACC process is that many of those in senior leadership had been exercising power from the institutional center for so long that they were fighting the same old turf battles while the creaky ship Restructure continues to take on water in Titanic-like style.  Surely we better serve God's mission by giving form to our shared call to service and leadership in contemporary formats that nurture and train leaders rather than by automatically preserving our historical bureaucracies?

As the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we have an element of covenant in our relationships with one another rooted in the Design and even further back—as Alexander Campbell wrestled with Reformed covenant theology in terms that are not as ecclesiological as his later heirs.  (Richardson)  However, this commitment to covenant is not without its costs.  Operating out of that commitment we have spiritually “lawyered up” to address conflicts out of the legal paradigm of rights that covenant brings with it. As an attorney, I (Jess) am committed to law as a means for structuring our life in society in order that we may live together in community, but as a lawyer I also shudder when I think of any community attempting to fundamentally shape its being out of the rhetoric of contracts and law.  While covenant need not and probably could not be erased from our relations with one another as Disciples, perhaps we would be well served to rein it in a little bit.  We could start by reminding ourselves that the biblical and Christian traditions have other visions for expressing our relationships with one another.  We are the body of Christ; the vine and the branches, we receive gifts for the common good—these images and many more envision a more organic relationship in God’s church.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, the unrestrained use of more organic images can be abusive as well when not tempered by more universal notions of the body of Christ that break down and transcend barriers.  The “blood and soil” political use of such images in 1930s Germany demonstrate the idolatrous dangers that can arise.  The point is not to do away with covenant but to chasten and balance its use.

What implications does this chastening of our appropriation of “covenant” to define our identity as Disciples have for our life together as Disciples—as individuals, congregations, institutions expressed locally, regionally and generally?  How else might we think about ways of being church so that we reflect connectedness apart from negotiated agreements?  The point is not so much agreeing with another to be bound in cooperation as it is to give common expression to how the Spirit leads us into mission together.  For instance, rather than a church camp program, perhaps we might want to think about missionally providing opportunities for the Spirit to shape young people (and a few older ones too) in a manner that fosters community and discipleship beyond the local congregation.  That does not mean that there will not be camp facilities and camp programs, but it may mean they take new forms.  The mission drives the institutional form instead of the form driving the mission.  We will never escape institutions and it is pathetically delusional to imagine that we will.  The point is not that we sustain old bureaucracies with declining DMF funds, but rather that we provide flesh and blood and financial resources to ways of living out God's mission for us in new ways which bind us together in that mission.

We can be bound together in God’s mission rather than merely be parties to negotiated agreements.  As a teacher of ours once said, “the purpose of a body is to express the life of the one whose body it is,” so we should as one body of Christ express the life of Jesus in our corporate body ---that sisters and brothers is mission.

Jess Hale is an attorney in public service working in Nashville, TN.  He attends Eastwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Nashville.

Rebecca Hale most recently served as the Transitional Regional Minister for the Christian Church in Florida (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as the Vice President of Church Ministries for the National Benevolent Association of the CC(DOC).

Works Cited

Cummins 2007.  D. Duane Cummins, Kenneth L. Teegarden:  The Man, The Church, The Time (TCU Press, 2007).

Cummins, 2009.  D. Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (Chalice, 2009).

Dunnavant.  Anthony Dunnavant, “Christ and Covenant: Historical Concepts Underlying the Restructured Church,” in A. Dunnavant, R. Hughes & P. Blowers, eds.,Founding Vocation & Future Vision:  The Self-Understanding of the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ (Chalice, 1999), 21-40.

Richardson.  William J. Richardson, “Covenant (Federal) Theology,” in D. Foster, P. Blowers, A. Dunnavant & N. Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans, 2004), 248-249.

McKenzie.  Steven McKenzie, Covenant (Chalice, 2000).

Quell & Behm, “diatheke,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testatment, II:106-134 (Eerdmans, 1964).

Watkins 2007.  Sharon Watkins, “A Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World:  Recasting the Historic Disciples Plea,” Call to Unity, Issue No. 8 (October 2007), 1-9.

Watkins 2008.  Sharon E. Watkins & Harold Keith Watkins, “The Church as Sacrament of Human Wholeness,” in Peter, Heltzel, ed., Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology (Chalice, 2008), 134-142.

©Jess O. Hale, Jr. & Rebecca Hale, 2012.