Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Life Together I: Introduction

The past couple of days I've been alternatively down with a cold and up with various medications (to quote Rick James, "Claritin is a heck of a drug"). This means that it's probably not a good idea to be working on my dissertation. While I know from experience that my writing does in fact improve when I'm under some sort of medicated influence (ask any of the students from my "Alexander the Great" class which lecture was their favorite), but not necessarily in an academically appropriate way.
But, in the interest of both staying in my "I need to write every day" mentality (which will help with the dissertation), and in trying to blog somewhat regularly, I've decided to try to blog through our church covenant.
Now, this isn't merely a medication-induced whim, I have been looking for something to blog through for a while (now that I'm pretty much done with the religious side of the First Amendment, and it'll be a while before Christmas Carols will be appropriate again), and I've been convicted at least once a month that I really don't know/care all that much about the church covenant that I regularly and publically recommit myself to. So taking those two things together, along with my bit of involuntary down-time, I thought that now might be a good time to start blogging through the church covenant.

So, here goes:

The Capitol Hill Baptist Church Covenant
At the outset, it needs to be pointed out that this is not, in the strictest sense of the term, a covenant. A covenant in the Biblical sense of term has a very rigid definition. There are generally six points to a covenant:
1) The announcement of the covenanting parties. So in Deuteronomy 1:1-3, we see the covenant parties listed as Moses, the Lord, and the people of Israel.

2) A summary of the history of the relationship between the covenanting parties. In Deuteronomy, 1:4-3:29 gives a survey of the first four books of the Bible, and the interactions between God and His people.

3) The Law laid down by the King (or the Lord, or whoever the strongest party in the covenant is) on the people. Deuteronomy 4:1-27:8 lists a summary of these laws.

4) A list of blessings that are received for obedience, and curses that are received for disobedience. Deuteronomy 27:9-31:29 lists (in quite graphic detail) these blessings and curses.

5) The agreement of the witnesses to the covenant. Deuteronomy 31:30-32:2 lists the witnesses as God, the people, Moses, and all of heaven and earth.

6) The death of the Lawgiver. This one might need a bit of explanation. The idea in the Ancient world was the the covenant went into effect when the king who imposed it died. That was because a king who was good enough to give a covenant to his people was likely a good king, and hence did not necessarily need to be bound by his own law. The problem was that there was no guarantee that the next king, whether his son or a usurper, would be equally good. So, the covenant would not go into permanent legal effect until the king who had imposed it had died, this in turn offered protection and safety to the covenanted people from potential abuse by a wicked monarch. Deuteronomy 32:3-34:12 records Moses' summary of the covenant, the eulogy he gives for himself, and the record of his death.

This structure can be seen throughout the whole Bible (which of course is a book in which the blessings are given to the covenant people after the death of the King, on whom the promised curses have fallen), albeit with some tweaking here and there (which is potential for future blog posts).

The Capitol Hill Baptist Church "covenant", therefore, is not strictly a covenant (though I will continue to refer to it as such, since that's the formal title of the document). It is at best a reflection of a covenant. And here perhaps is a good place to quote the church's own introduction:

CHBC has worshiped together under a covenant, or statement on how we agree to live as a church, since our earliest days in 1878. The church covenant is equal parts promise, summary of expectations, ethical statement, and biblical standard. We summarize how we promise to live together in the covenant. It forms the ethics, or the moral principles, of our worldview and holds out a biblical standard by which we live. Our acceptance of this multifaceted document follows the practice of believers throughout the centuries who have pledged to God and one another to live out the gospel in community.
We use our covenant in two key ways today. We require all new members to sign it before joining the church. We also reaffirm our commitment to the covenant at all members meetings and before taking communion, when we stand as a body and recommit ourselves to it. By featuring the covenant in our life together, we strive to protect ourselves from individual and corporate sin. Of equal importance, we spur one another on to live in light of a greater covenant, one initiated by love, sealed by sacrifice, and kept for eternity by our Savior, Jesus Christ.
So the covenant is not a covenant per se, but rather a document that serves a two-fold purpose:
1) It is a "statement on how we agree to live as a church." And this is where the "covenant" terminology is useful, because although it is not a strict covenant, it performs much the same practical function. Other terms currently in use by the world ("contract", "compact", etc) do not carry quite the same weight as a covenant. Jewish scholar Daniel Elazar suggests that using the language of "covenant" brings to your declaration a weight of moral authority and personal dedication that no other term really can bear. When we agree to live together, we are not agreeing to conform to a set of liturgical rules, we are agreeing that we will conform to a individual and corporate life. Where other church attempt to build unity around sacraments or institutions, unity around a church covenant implies a unity built upon the lives we live as whole Christians. The monthly reminder is a reminder that we have committed ourselves to a certain spiritual inclination (or "affection", to use the older Puritan term) that should filter throughout our entire lives. The basis of this inclination is found in the second use of the covenant:
2) The CHBC covenant is used to "spur one another on to live in light of a greater covenant." The inclination, affection, and lifestyle which we have covenanted to live together is not one built on ourselves, but rather is one built upon the great work of redemption accomplished and sealed in the covenant of grace by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our lives as Christians should not be driven by inner strength or emotion or even experience, but rather should be driven by faith in the Gospel. In the same way, our covenant as as church should not be understood as a covenant in the Biblical sense, ending in the death of the drafters of the document, but rather as a devotional and instructional reminder of the true Biblical Covenant, which culminated with the death of the King of kings in our place.

So, reading through this covenant should have the ultimate goal of turning us away from ourselves and onto the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our lives as individuals and as a church should reflect the forgiveness that He accomplished on the cross.

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