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Bishop Column: Covenant Community or Voluntary Association?

Posted: April 23 2021 at 11:39 AM
Author: Bishop John L. Hopkins


Through this column over several months, I want to discuss some crucial, bedrock issues that will determine the future of our church at every level. I will present key questions that each of us must understand to help us move forward together in ministry. Each question has more history than I can tell and more nuances than I can explore. I simply want to engage you in understanding the importance of these questions and let you make your own decisions as a follower of Jesus Christ. In the April Reporter, I asked Question 1: “Is the Church a Movement or an Institution?”


Question 2: “Is the Church a Covenant Community or A Voluntary Association?”

Hopkins John L

NIC Interim Bishop John L. Hopkins

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. Genesis 9:11 (God makes a covenant with Noah)

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.  He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  Mark 14:23-24 (Jesus is the New Covenant)

The scriptures talk about God’s covenant with us from Noah to Jesus. God wants a relationship with us despite our many faults and failures. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know God’s love is unconditional. God loves us and invites us to respond to that love with an eternal commitment. The church is the guardian of this Good News and the community in which we live out our promise to God.

In the Apostles’Creed, we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (UMH 882). When the church baptizes someone, they are incorporated into a universal covenant community called the Body of Christ—the Church with a capital “C.” We do not baptize ourselves; the church claims us as a child of God. We are not baptized United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian; we are baptized as Christian.

I remember when I was baptized, confirmed and joined the church at age 13. My mother grew up Methodist and my father Baptist. I was not baptized as an infant. I am not sure if that was because my father was Baptist or because we moved several times and had no regular church. I do know in the seventh grade I joined a Boy Scout troop that met in Wayne Street Methodist Church in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The scouts from that church invited me to come to the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) on Sunday evenings. Later, some members of MYF invited me to their Sunday School Class, which became the Confirmation Class. When I heard again how much God loved me in Jesus Christ, I promised to follow him and was baptized. 

“The Baptismal Covenant is God’s word to us, proclaiming our adoption by grace, and our word to God, promising our response of faith and love. Those within the covenant constitute the community we call the Church…” (UMH p.32)

The church is where God’s Word is given to you in Jesus Christ, and you respond with faith and love. You are “adopted by grace” into a Covenant Community. Or in words of baptism, you “die to self and are raised in Christ.” In essence, once you are baptized and confirmed in your faith, God has a claim on your life through the church.

A Covenant Community is different from a Voluntary Association. For one thing, you can walk in and out of a Voluntary Association, but a Covenant Community is like a marriage. You cannot just walk out. There is a claim on you. You have a responsibility to uphold that relationship because it is a relationship with God and the church.

Did you know that you cannot just walk out of a United Methodist Church? You must withdraw, have your membership transferred, or be removed by a vote of the Charge Conference after the church attempts to reach out to you. Clergy retain their membership in the Annual Conference after retirement and are held accountable to one another for life.

A covenant relationship is also different from a legal relationship. A legal relationship requires an outside party to resolve disagreements. In a covenant relationship, only the parties involved are responsible. No one is forced to be in a covenant relationship or to remain in a covenant without their consent. God’s love is not coercive; it is always invitational and persistent.

A covenant is initiated by another’s love for us. In response, we affirm our love to them and promise to fulfill the covenant with the help of God. We can never keep the covenant by ourselves alone. Our faults and failures hurt or disappoint the very one who loves us. Elaine and I have been married almost 57 years not because we don’t have any irreconcilable differences, but because she has loved me when I was not lovable. Jesus, as the incarnation of the new covenant, demonstrated that God’s love never gives up on us or anyone else.  

On this side of heaven, our churches will not be perfect any more than we are perfect. Our scripture (Genesis 1:27) tells us every person, despite their imperfections, is created in the image of God. Likewise, the Church was established by Jesus (Matthew 16:18) knowing it would not be perfect. Isn’t that just like God to use the imperfect to point to the perfect?

What do you think? Is the Church a Covenant Community or a Voluntary Association?

In one of my churches, I married a couple who came to see me many months later with issues straining their relationship. The wife arranged the meeting and coerced her husband into coming with her. About a half hour into our session after identifying their concerns, she turned to me and said, “When we were married, he said his vows to me and I said my vows to him. Can’t you get him to live up to his promises to me?”

There was no way I could intervene like a judge and call him to account. They had to find some way to renew the covenant that had loved them together. Eventually, they had an agreement as to how to move forward and as far as I know, their marriage survived.

As they left my office, my prayer for them was that they would wake up every morning and voluntarily commit to the covenant they had made. My prayer for you is that every day you will voluntarily recognize God’s love for you and live as a baptized child of God in a community of faith. 

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