Acting like covenant people

May 10th, 2016

There's been a lot of talk about covenants in United Methodist circles as we approach the 2016 General Conference. Unfortunately, most of it has been in reference to the Book of Discipline (BOD). Questions and arguments abound concerning the terms of the covenant laid out in the BOD, what “enforcing” the covenant can or should mean, and what it means to be “bound” by the BOD.

Now, all covenants have terms, of course, though usually not as extensively laid out as the text of the BOD. But what I have found missing from this recent interest in covenant language is any consistent reference to United Methodists ourselves as a covenant people. This is a tragic omission from our church's discussions, for no less a reason than this: more than anything else, covenants are about people. Because a covenant is a kind of relationship among two or more people.

Covenants are deceptively similar to another kind of relationship: the contractual relationship. But the differences couldn't be more important. In contractual relationships, people commit to a set of terms with conditional agreements: “I do...if” and “I will...if.” Along with the terms themselves, mutual distrust and the possibility of harm to all parties are what sustain a contract.

Covenants are characterized by people committing to each other with solemn and unconditional promises of “I do” and “I will.” The terms of the covenant are a sign of the relationship: important, even essential, but not the relationship itself. In the United Methodist Church, this relationship is engaged for all people by our church membership vows and for clergy by our ordination vows.

When a contractual relationship hits a stormy patch, or fails, the parties involved are off the hook. If one party does not live up to the terms of the contract, the other party has no further obligation. But in a covenant, that is not true. The failure, or perceived failure, by one party to maintain the sign (terms) of the covenant does not end the covenant relationship. The other parties have committed to the covenant unconditionally. They must continue living faithfully in covenant relationship, with all parties, or else they, too, become covenant breakers.

In Scripture, God enters into explicit covenant relationships with Noah, with Abraham, with David and with all of Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus seems to exemplify, and even speak implicitly of, yet another covenant, one that extends to the whole world through baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is also littered with stories of covenant breaking, yet over and over God remains steadfast in God's covenants.

As those who have been grafted onto God's people in Jesus Christ, our commitment to the covenants we have made must be, well, divine: like God's own covenant faithfulness to us. Otherwise, the testimony of who we say we are with our lives gives lie to the testimony of who we say we are with our lips.

Yet for all the recent United Methodist talk about covenants, we have exhibited two troubling behaviors toward our fundamental covenant relationship with each other. The first is covenantal indifference: refusing adherence to the sign (terms) of the covenant. The second is hard-heartedness: denying the existence of a covenant relationship. Both are painful to and destructive of covenant relationships.

It's very easy, of course, to assign these two behaviors to one or the other of groups currently at odds over United Methodist teachings and practices concerning human sexuality. And, indeed, I think it is fair to say that the recent actions of certain Boards of Ordained Ministry have demonstrated a stunning level of covenantal indifference, while the comments by a bishop that those who want to change the United Methodist Church are free to leave whenever they want betrayed a disturbing hard-heartedness.

All sides, however, are more than capable of displaying both covenantal indifference and hard-heartedness. But more than an oversimplification, assigning these two behaviors to different camps lets the whole Church off too easy. As a denomination, we have relied so heavily on things like method (the Wesleyan Quadrilateral) and demeanor (Methodists are nice, we think, whatever else we may be) that we have neglected the harder task of nurturing our covenant relationship.

So we find ourselves at a point where our covenant relationship is on the verge of being completely shattered. And I think it is too late to issue a call to return to covenant faithfulness. We're like a marriage on the rocks, with one spouse saying, “You can file for divorce anytime,” and the other living like the marriage is already over. Only a miracle can rescue this covenant.

But I don't think it's too late for something equally important: a call to confession. We need, as a Church, as partisan groups within the UMC, and as individuals, to confess our roles in undermining our covenant relationship. Our corporate and individual affinities for covenantal indifference and hard-heartedness has caused lasting damage. There is real pain within our denomination, and the pain is not just the frustration of watching a distant part of the church say or do things damaging to our covenant. The pain is often quite personal, even individual. Only corporate and individual confession can begin to address the pain caused by our covenantal failures.

What do we need to confess? That we are all wrong about our positions? No, I don't think that represents truthful confession at all. Rather, we all need to confess that in our zeal for being and doing right we have allowed our covenants to become mere contracts. We have sloughed off our unconditional, solemn promises of “I do” and “I will,” and we have exchanged them for the far-less-demanding language of “I do...if” and “I will...if.” And by treating our covenant like a contract we have allowed the hellish possibility that this whole relationship might one day come to a crashing halt. For this we need to confess our covenant failures to God and to each other, no matter what happens at General Conference.

We United Methodists tend to be an optimistic, if not a triumphalistic, bunch, but our optimism can blind us to the very real pain we have caused each other. If there is to be any hope for us, we need to set aside our optimism, at least for a time, and exchange it for a more sober assessment of our fracturing covenant relationship. If you are in attendance at General Conference, press for genuine corporate confession. And whether you are there or not, consider confessing your sin one-on-one to those whom you may have hurt. Maybe, if enough of us begin to confess, a path of repentance will reveal itself.

In our Eucharistic liturgy, Christ himself invites us to confess our sins before approaching his table. “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be a covenant people...” That's not quite how it goes in the hymnal, but it's not a bad start.

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