I am going to call this series of blog posts "Verses" because I am going to compare two concepts with one another in each post. I have long been a sports fan and a very amature athlete. Every great competition has a "verses" smashed in between the two competing elements, such as Red Sox vs. Yankees. So I would like to examine a few things that I feel could use some conversation. Feel free to use the comment section below to add to the conversation.
A few weeks ago I helped lead our annual region board retreat. Part of this years retreat included reviewing our region of churches mission, how our region structure fits that mission, and how our context effects the application of our mission. When it came time for me to share, I was tasked with explaining our structure. I know what you're thinking, "super cool topic" and "I wish I hadn't missed that meeting." Well I am sorry you missed it too. Perhaps someday I can bore you with the same 15 minute lecture. However something fascinating did happen as a result of this lecture. As part of my conversation I mentioned how our churches are held together by a "covenant" relationship rather than a "contract." I had several people come up and tell me they had never thought about our structure as covenant before.
And this brings me to my first "Verses" topic, covenant vs. contract.
As part of my talk I shared how God entered into covenants in the Old Testament with individuals and the entirety of Israel. A covenant is very different from a contract and the difference matters. We live in a world really built on contracts, yet God is calling us to live in covenant. We are most familiar with contract mentality. In a contract two people enter into an agreement that has binding rules that dictate the terms of the contract. If one party of the contract violates any portion of the contract rules the other party is free to remove themselves from the agreement and in some cases enforce some sort of penalty upon the first party for breaking the contract. This is how many of us view our relationships with one another and with God. That is why we are so easily angered and hold grudges against former friends, spouses, and family members. We view relationships like contracts and we get mad when, in our opinion, someone else doesn't hold up their end of the bargain.
The fact we view relationships as contracts is also why many of us fear God in an unhealthy way. We fear that if we don't hold up our end of the bargain, (being sinless like God) then God is going to smash us into nothingness. But is this actually how God works, how relationships should work, how churches should function?
I think not.
God models covenant in scripture. A covenant is a special type of agreement. The difference between a covenant and a contract is important. When two or more people enter into a covenant, they are agreeing to hold up their end of the bargain, despite what any of the other parties do. If I am in a covenant relationship, then I will remain faithful to that relationship, regardless of how well the other person is able or willing to keep their end of the relationship. This is how God works. For instance he promises to Israel to be their God and they will be his people if they keep his laws and follow him. Inevitably Israel fails, yet God remains faithful.
This is how our churches relate to one another in our region. Sixty churches have decided to partner together for mission and ministry. Our official mission statement reads, "American Baptist churches in Nebraska are joined together as a region in covenant partnership to: Encourage, challenge, and empower one another to be transforming Christian communities in the world." As any Baptist will tell you autonomy of the local congregation is significant. However, many forget about their covenant to be in relationship with other churches. Here is the covenant part, as a local church, pastor, and individual I choose to remain faithful to that covenant even when some churches, pastors, and individuals choose not to be faithful.
God models covenant in scripture. He is ever faithful despite Abrahams risking his promise, Moses complaints, Israels stiff necked ways, the death of the prophets, Peter's denials, the Zebedees boys pride, and my various faults. God remains faithful. We are to model covenant in all of our dealings as well. I am to forgive my friends when they hurt me, I am to remain present in my congregation when I don't like a decision the group made, I am to give my best at work even when the policies don't make sense, I am to support my childrens teachers even if I don't agree with all of the schools decisions, etc.
We are called as Christians into covenant relationships not contracts.