Covenant relationships live in an ever-present tension.
There is the tendency toward a legalism intended to protect the essentials of the relationship and the pull of freedom to experience and discover new levels of the relationship’s meaning.
Giving in totally to either tendency can be detrimental, even destructive, to the relationship by reducing it to a set of rules that restricts its growth or by abandoning the core commitments of the relationship itself.
Covenant faith communities, such as the part of God’s family we call Christian, seem to struggle with this tension as well.
We recall Paul’s efforts to help the Galatian churches avoid the legalism of the Judaizers, who sought to preserve practices and ways of thinking that they brought with them to their Christian experience by restricting official access to their fellowship.
Conversely, in the same generation of the early church, Paul counseled his Corinthian friends to temper their exercise of freedom with a concern for the sensitivities of those covenant partners who were at different points of their journey (1 Corinthians 8).
The long history of orthodoxy and heresy – the guidelines for thought and practice in the living of the covenant faith, and the pushing of the growing edges of those guidelines – is instructive.
It illustrates for us that the profound and delicate meaning of a covenant faith lies neither in its official frameworks nor in their abandonment, but in the embrace of the creative tension between the foundational guidelines of previous experience and understanding and the ongoing disclosure of new and refined levels of meaning.
Covenant making (and living) is a delicate process, for both individual and community experience.
The framing of a covenant is intended to give expression to its meaning, but it can easily slip from being a descriptive guideline for living (as Paul’s admonition to “other concerns” in 1 Corinthians 8) to a definitional restriction (as was the position of the Judaizers in Galatia).
Two recent items prompted reflection on this feature of our covenant life.
One is a Community Life Covenant developed and embraced by Montreat College in North Carolina that sets forth particular beliefs on a number of issues that reflect considerable diversity of opinion among Christians and others.
Staff members and students are requested to sign on to this covenant to retain their association with the school.
According to reports, some who could not affirm the specifics of the covenant declined to sign and will have to find another place of service or study. Perhaps others will sign something they do not believe in order to keep a much-needed job to support themselves and their families.
Here is a covenant intended to preserve a certain purity of thought and practice but which has become detrimental to what others see as the kind of community spirit that encourages mutual respect and educational growth.
The other item is a covenant referred to in a recent sermon by Chris George, my pastor at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as he spoke of a commitment he and his ministry colleagues have made.
Responding to the range of often-disrespectful social media postings by friends, family members and church members, the ministry staff has covenanted not to post personal opinions that are divisive and to encourage the congregation to join this covenant commitment.
In a bitterly polarized society, this covenant offers an alternative of building up rather than tearing down and, as such, it is a testimony more consistent with the covenant faith the Gospel calls us to.
Covenants can be exclusionary and restrictive, or they can be embracing and empowering. I guess we all have a choice of which kind of “covenant life” we will live.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.