A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Presbyterian Distinctives, Part V: Covenant People
February 20, 2014
Presbyterians have a distinctive vocabulary related to doctrine and polity. Several theological terms such as “predestination,” “providence,” and “election” are especially associated with Presbyterians, along with more obscure terms such as “infralapsarianism.” Today we focus on a theological term that is not exclusive to us, but is much more prominent among us than in most other church traditions: Covenant.
Sometimes we confuse the theological meaning of “covenant” with its non-theological meanings of “contract” or “agreement.” Such misunderstandings lead some folk to assume that our relationships in the church are voluntary affiliations with like-minded folk. Nothing could be further from the Presbyterian understanding of covenant.
Covenants in Scripture are claims God makes upon particular people, rather than bilateral agreements subject to cancellation by either party. The primary covenantal sign borne by children of Abraham, circumcision, is administered without the possibility of personal consent or refusal (to which Paul connects Christian baptism in Colossians 2:11-12). That we understand our relationships with God and with each other to be given to us by divine covenant means we have neither the right nor the capacity to undo them. We may welcome them or resist them, honor them or spurn them, but we can no more cancel them than we originated them.
Precisely because we are joined together by God in covenant, we are free to speak our minds with each other. In fact, Presbyterians insist on everyone having both seat and voice at the table, believing that our covenant makes that not only possible, but necessary. We believe everyone has the right and duty to speak their conviction and their conscience. Debate and disagreement are simply facts of our life together, just as they were in the churches founded by the apostles. The problem is not whether we differ, but how we do so. Alas, we do not always demonstrate the law of love in expressing our differences, but let’s be clear on this: loving one another well does not preclude debate. It necessitates it. The “one mind” to which Paul calls us is not unanimity, but the mind of Christ in deferring to one another amid our differences. (Philippians 2:1-11)
We bear no illusion that airing our differences will make them simply disappear. What we do expect is that we will be charitable in our disagreements, and will neither make agreement a condition or disagreement a barrier for fellowship. When we utter ultimatums or draw lines in the sand, threatening departure if our position does not prevail, we are being anything but covenant people.
Breaking fellowship when we disagree is the easy way. It creates an immediate sense of relief, but at a crippling long-term price. It denies us the invaluable benefit we receive (and so desperately need) from having to deal with folk who bring differing perspectives to important questions. When I break covenantal bonds with folk with whom I differ, not only do I lose the profit of perspectives that help me see my blind spots – I rob them of what God has given me to benefit them. To the extent I separate myself from folk whose perspective differs from mine, I show myself unteachable.
We own our covenantal bonds by making promises of our own to embrace God’s claim on us, through our baptismal vows and (for some) ordination vows. Such vows are nothing other than our Amen! to the claim God has already made on us. They are not really “ours” to make at all, as though we can extend or retract them at will; rather, they belong to God, whose calling is the only basis of our place in the community called “church.” Our covenantal promises are nothing more or less than answers to God’s prior claims upon us, toward which we are only ever in a position to receive, rather than to offer or withhold.
Covenant life is as difficult as it is rewarding. To nourish our bonds in the Lord with those who see things differently is hard work. It’s so much easier simply to retreat to the company of like-minded folk who confirm what we already believe. God invites us to a far harder yet infinitely better way. It is the way of love. It is the way of extending to one another the same generous grace God has extended to each of us in Jesus Christ. It is the way of demonstrating to the world the truth of the Good News of reconciliation we proclaim.
Yours in God’s calling,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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