April 21, 2017
Among the words of Scripture that carry enormous weight is covenant. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless all the families of the earth through his offspring. God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai, creating a special people. And God made a covenant with the whole human family through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But I’m not sure we understand the meaning of covenant anymore. In our society we make contracts, not covenants – and there is a difference. A contract can be renegotiated. A contract often will only be maintained as long as both parties are convinced that there is some net benefit from staying in it. Contracts come and go.
A covenant is different. A covenant is about making a promise – a promise to be there, with and for another, even if circumstances change. A covenant often calls for sacrifice, in order to keep that promise. A covenant endures. God continued to honor the promises he made with Israel, despite how often Israel failed to live up to its side of the covenant. And in Jesus, God remains faithful to his covenant promises to us, no matter how often we fail. That is who God is: a promise-keeping God. And we, too, are defined by the promises we make and keep – or don’t. “We are our promises,” Lewis Smedes wrote; “and we lose hold of ourselves when we take no pains to keep them.”
The United Methodist Church today is in crisis, and in danger of schism, precisely because a significant minority has decided to break the covenant that binds us together, and no longer keep the promises they made in membership and ordination.
When I was ordained in the United Methodist Church, I believed I was entering into a covenant with God, with my fellow clergy, and with the church. The promises I made I regarded to be as sacred as those I made when I married my wife, or when my children were baptized. Included among those promises was that I would abide by the teachings and rules of our Book of Discipline.
For more than 200 years, our polity has allowed for profound disagreement and dispute within the context of our system of holy conferencing, imperfect as it is. We have wrestled, wrangled and argued, but at the end of the day, all sides have been bound to abide by the results of that holy conferencing process, as embodied in our Book of Discipline. And there has always been a path for an honorable way to withdraw from the connection for those who felt they could no longer, in good conscience, remain within. From 1784 until just a few years ago, this was universally understood and accepted – this was what we promised.
But now, a significant number of clergy and laity have decided that those promises no longer need to be kept. They are defying our doctrine and discipline, and declaring their intention not to comply with the results of our process of holy conferencing – even while continuing to receive the benefits of remaining within the connection. They have called their actions “civil disobedience,” and say that what they are doing is no different than what the civil rights protesters of the 1960s did in defying segregation laws.
But this doesn’t wash. The church isn’t the government. No one is compelled to join our church as a member, live under our teachings, or be ordained as our clergy. And we have no police force to enforce our discipline. All that holds us together are the covenantal promises we have made to each other. When those promises are broken, trust breaks down, and our community cannot long endure.
We in the Wesley Covenant Association believe that promises must be kept, if we are to continue to endure as a covenant community. Any solution proposed by the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward must include a reaffirmation of the holy nature of the promises we make to one another as members and as clergy. Whatever may come in the years ahead, we intend to be part of a Wesleyan movement based on covenant and accountability. Only in that context can we truly reflect the character and faithfulness of our promise-keeping God.