The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 1)

Covenant1At the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas, during a nomination speech for one of the Vice President positions in the Convention, a gentleman making the speech said of the candidate, “the tongue in his mouth and the tongue of his shoe move in the same direction.” That is a brilliant way of saying that the man, “walks his talk” and that there is no disparity between what he says and what he does.

When we consider the New Testament picture of the church, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the tongue in our mouth must move in the same direction as the tongue of our shoe. We must be a people whose lives match our confession. There cannot be a gap between what we say we believe and how we actually live.

In point of fact, I believe one of the reasons Christ came to establish a church, a community of faith and conviction, was precisely so that we could help one another toward this end, toward the end of having the tongue in our mouth go the same direction as the tongue on our shoe. It is so very important that we do this, and the results are so very catastrophic when we do not do this, that God has given us the gift of His Spirit working in and through and among His people, together.

I would like to call us as a church to a careful, sustained, deliberate consideration of what it means to walk our talk. I would like to call us to a life of consistency. I need that in my own life and you need it in yours. We need it inourlife together.

The church is intended to fly on the two wings of belief and practice.

Time and again in scripture we see two dynamics at work in the life of the early church: belief and practice. Consider, for instance, Titus 3 as a representative text.

The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

There they are: belief and practice.

  • Belief: “those who have believed in God”
  • Practice: “may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”

Another way that many Christians speak of this dynamic is in terms of “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.”

  • Belief: Orthodoxy (right belief)
  • Practice: Orthopraxy (right practice)

How important are these two dynamics? Paul says to Titus, “these things are excellent and profitable for people.”

That is so. In fact, if you lose either one of these two you lose one of the two wings by which God intended the church to fly. If, for instance, you have belief but not practice you end up with an empty confession of faith that has no power. If, on the other hand, you have practice but not belief you end up with man-centered efforts at self-improvement and philanthropy. In the context of a local congregation, practice without actual belief undergirding it will inevitably morph into legalism and an emphasis on morality. But an emphasis on morality without a theological framework to understand why we should be good is ultimately destructive to our efforts. In other words, it backfires and cannibalizes itself. Practice without belief will end in despair, for it is the content of Christian belief that teaches us about grace, about forgiveness, about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, about the cross, and about all of the great truths that give us a framework for goodness.

Ask yourself: does the tongue in your mouth go the same direction as the tongue on your shoe? Does your walk match your talk? Can you see that you are a Christian in both belief and practice? If not, what are you missing, right belief or right practice?

Do you see the ultimate futility in losing one of these two vital aspects of the Christian life? Do you feel the frustration of it? Then call on the name of God to bring balance, to restore both wings to your life.

The church must be a place of mutual encouragement toward Christlikeness.

One of the ways that God brings balance to the imbalanced Christian is through the gift and ministry of the local church. Simply put, the church must be a place of mutual encouragement toward Christlikeness. One of the most important things we do together as a church is encourage one another, help one another, and call one another to faithfulness, to right practice alongside right belief.The author of Hebrews expressed this beautifully in Hebrews 10:

23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Note, first the two wings of the church:

  • Belief: “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (v.23)
  • Practice: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v.24)

Then note how we “stir up on another to love and good works”: by “not neglecting to meet together” and by “encouraging one another.”

While it is true that “not neglecting to meet together” has a wider application than what we today would call “church attendance,” by which we mean, “attendance at a worship service,” it certainly includes faithful attendance in corporate worship. Even so, it has the wider application of not neglecting Christian relationships, not neglecting life together.

What this means is that the church is to be a faithfully gathering community of mutual encouragement to right belief and right practice, to the gospel and to a gospel life. If we are not encouraging one another in our walks with Jesus, we are failing one another.

The British Baptist scholar Paul Fiddes has pointed out that many of the early Baptists, Anabaptists, Congregationalists, and Independent Christians used the term “walking together” to describe their understanding of what the church was to be.

It was characteristic of members of these groups to pledge to “walk together” under God…“Walking together” was in fact a favourite phrase to describe a life bound together by “covenant”, or agreement both between members of the congregation, and between them and God. An account is available, for instance, of the formation of a church pastored by Henry Jacob in London in 1616, often called a “semi-separatist” congregation:

Standing together, they joined hands, and solemnly covenanted with each other, in the presence of Almighty God: To walk together in all Gods ways and ordinances, according as he had already revealed, or should further make known to them.[1]

We stand together in our confession of faith that Jesus is Lord. Then we lock arms and walk together in our commitment to help one another follow Jesus. On this side of the ocean, we find the same commitment among the earlier Baptists. In 1846, the Meredith Baptist Association of New Hampshire sent out a circular letter that said, in part, this:

The religion of Jesus Christ is consistent in all its parts. There is no disagreement between the principles it inculcates and the practice it requires. Primitive saints first gave themselves to the Lord, and then unto one another by the will of God.[2]

That statement is critically important: “There is no disagreement between the principles it inculcates and the practice it requires.”

  • Belief: “the principles it inculcates” (i.e., orthodoxy, right practice)
  • Practice: “the practice it requires” (i.e., orthopraxy, right practice)

Can we say this of our church? Have we (a) planted our feet in the gospel and (b) locked arms and committed ourselves to forward movement as a church?

You cannot lock arms and move forward in a life of mutual encouragement if you find the failings and fallings of your brother or sister delicious fodder for gospel and self-righteousness in your own life. You cannot lock arms and move forward if you hate the person next to you. You cannot lock arms and move forward if you are too busy gossiping about those with whom you are supposed to lock arms! And you cannot lock arms and move forward if you are defensive and insular when a brother or sister comes to you in love and encourages you forward!

The mutual encouragement that the Bible calls for depends upon the presence of the Holy Spirit and the humility of the believer. It depends upon the sincere love of the congregation and a genuine desire to help one another move forward.

Would you say that you are actively involved in giving loving, appropriate, encouragement to your brothers and sisters? Would you say that you are actively seeking encouragement toward Christlikeness from others?

Clearly expressed expectations for Christian living are effective tools for encouragement toward Christlikeness.

One of the ways that the people of God have encouraged one another is through the adoption of effective tools for encouragement toward Christlikeness. Oftentimes this has taken the form of community covenants, corporate agreements about the life that God has called His people. These agreements extend back into the Old Testament and into our own day. Sometimes they are written. Sometimes they are expressed in non-written ways. Regardless of how (and I stress that the how is not as important as the is!) the people of God need to commit themselves to lives of mutual encouragement toward both right belief and right practice.

Nehemiah 9 provides us with a beautiful Old Testament example. This is an example of a written commitment toward Godliness. Here, the people of God repent of their sins and come together in a renewed and explicit commitment to follow the Lord God.

1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.

38 “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.

They recommitted themselves to right belief (i.e., “read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God”) and right practice (“we make a firm covenant in writing”). The history of the early church provides us with similar examples of covenant making within the congregation. Listen closely to what Pliny the younger, a Roman governor in the early second century, wrote to the Emperor Trajan after he had investigated the beliefs and practices of the Christians and interrogated some members of the early church.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.[3]

This “oath” to which they bound themselves may or may not have been written. Again, the form does not matter. What matters is there was a clear expectation of what their lives were to be like as church. We find the same with the early Christian Justin Martyr, writing to the Emperor and leaders of Rome in the middle of the second century, as he too described the beliefs and practices of the Christian community.

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.[4]

Did you see the two wings of the church there?

  • Belief: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true…”
  • Practice: “…and undertake to be able to live accordingly…”

And as we move on in Christian history, closer to our own time, we find the Christians who called themselves “Baptists” making similar covenant commitments. Again, sometimes these were written and sometimes they were not. In his book, Baptist Church Covenants, historian Charles Deweese writes:

A church covenant is a series of written pledges based on the Bible which church members voluntarily make to God and to one another regarding their basic moral and spiritual commitments and the practice of their faith…

Church covenants entered the Baptist experience as early Baptists sought ways to help make church members responsible to the Lord, to one another, and to their Christian commitments…

Valuable precedents from the Baptist past and the imperative need for consistency between statements of faith and practical living compel Baptists today to take seriously the covenantal commitments inherent in their doctrine of the church…

Faithful attention to the contents of a carefully formulated, biblically based covenant can deepen the quality of a church’s fellowship, sharpen a church’s awareness of vital moral and spiritual commitments, clarify biblical standards for Christian growth, and create and maintain a disciplined church membership…[5]

We have a written church covenant. We fully recognize that our covenant is not on the same level as the Bible, but we also argue that its contents are demonstrably biblical. Signing our covenant is not mandatory, though we have given and will give opportunities for those who would like to do so to do so as a symbolic statement of agreement. Following the practice of some earlier Baptists we oftentimes recite our church covenant at the Lord’s Supper. We are, in other words, a covenanted church, though the written form of our covenant is never imposed or forced or mandatory.

Our written covenant is not imposed…but the biblically grounded heart of it—an agreement to encourage one another toward Christlikeness—is at the very heart of what the church is. Let me be plain: I care less about the specific written form of a document than about the point of that document: that we come together in a life of mutual encouragement and love and help one another carry the cross of the Lord Jesus!

That, we must do!

That, we must encourage one another toward!

We dare not become a place of belief without practice or practice without belief! Let us bind ourselves together in a renewed commitment to help one another walk with Jesus. Brothers! Sisters! Let us love one another, as Christ loves us…which is to say, let us lay down our lives for one another!

 

[1]Paul Fiddes, “Introduction: the Fourth Strand?” The Fourth Strand of the Reformation: The Covenant Ecclesiology of Anabaptists, English Separatists, and Early General Baptists. Centre for Baptist History and Heritage Studies. Vol.17 (Oxford: Regents Park, 2018), p.2

[2]Quoted in Charles Deweese, Baptist Church Covenants. The Baptist Standard Bearer. The Baptist History Collection.

[3]http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html

[4]http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html

[5]Deweese.

2 thoughts on “The Covenanted Committed Church (Part 1)

  1. As always, Bro Wyman you’ve taken the heart of scripture and aimed it at the heart of my inner man where the Holy Spirit does His work of convicting and urging me to reach out by faith and dare to believe that if I’ll do my part, God WILL do His. It takes me back to the early days of my salvation, before I allowed the disallusionment of observing the tongue of more mature Christians flapping one way and the tongue of their shoe flapping another, that served to foster that same spirit of unbelief and hypocrisy in me. I think the heart and action of God’s people in verse one discovered the catalyst to righting our souls. What if today, God’s people, those who hunger to become more Christ-like, filled with His presence, took fasting seriously, wore sackcloth removing all adornments and fancy clothing so we’re all on a visually level playing field – nobodies, and then literally covered our heads with dirt, could this not be the humbling experience, as we stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ, that brings about true revival? We’ve become so hypocritical in our walk that we aren’t even aware our talk is not our walk. Thank you, Bro Wyman, for unapologetically breaking the bread of life and giving us what we need to right our ship and set the tongue of our mouth and shoe flapping in the same direction.
    I live along the coast of Texas or I would be there, linking arms, committing with you to live out what we believe, laying our lives down for Christ and for one another. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. ” Acts 2:42-44
    I believe you’re right, God is doing something at CBC that only He can do. You are my home away from home.

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