Social Covenanting and the Life of God’s People
So I noted last week that we were going to move on to the next step in our walk through some historical distinctives of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The doctrine of social covenanting is quite foreign to our time and place. It’s likely that you may have never heard of the term before. The whole concept is strange to our way of thinking primarily because Americans are bound by a common individualism. We are desiring to be captains of our own destiny. We have loose bonds of family, church, and state, but are ready at the drop of a hat to our own self be true. So for our prayer and worship help today we’ll mainly be talking about the social part of covenanting.
If you are traveling around the United States and are looking for a good Presbyterian church there is a good likelihood that you’ll find one called Covenant. It’s not a guarantee for sure, but I’d bet that most of them will allow you and your family to hear the gospel preached and see Christ worshipped. The concept behind the word is of course biblical. If I open up my New King James Bible and search it first appears in Genesis 6:18 with God speaking to Noah. He says, “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Not to get too far into the weeds, but in order to help us understand what is going on here the Latin word for covenant is foedus. From that we get a term those of us in the United States understand well, Federalism. The whole concept of our form of government is based off the idea of representation. We don’t live in a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. The concept behind covenant shouldn’t be that hard for us to understand. It’s an agreement between two parties that involves stipulations and promises, and in our case involves more than just (as Genesis 6 shows) the two people involved. The covenant is made with Noah, and his family through him. See Acts 2:39 for more. What it means more deeply for what we are doing here this morning goes towards that Latin vocab. There cannot be a sense in which we have covenants in the Presbyterian world with individuals as individuals. It is a family oath that binds all within that bond to the same identity. It may seem redundant then to say social covenanting, but there is a reason for it which we’ll touch on now.
John Anderson (not the singer) was an Associate Synod minister who served in the Western Pennsylvania wilds in the early 19th century. He was a contemporary and a pen pal with our own William Dickson. At the end of his book Alexander and Rufus, which touched on who could (and should) come to the communion table there is an appendix that is important for teaching more on the social. As Anderson discusses the nature of the work of the civil magistrate and how that is different from the work of the church he says this, “So people may be acknowledged in the church as constituting a family, a commonwealth or nation; and therefore they may devote themselves considered in that capacity to the Lord, and engage to walk in all his commandments and ordinances.”. In that quotation we are reminded that when we think of ourselves as Christians we need to remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. The blessed doctrine of adoption proves that much. The apostle James in a passage we will consider this coming Wednesday night during prayer meeting reminds us that self-seeking always leads to wars and fights within the body of believers. Anderson says elsewhere, ”When people are formed into societies, they always come under obligations, which are either expressed or implied, to be useful to one another.”
One of the ways we see this lived out even today is in the promise made by the congregation when a person, whether an infant or an adult, we do not distinguish, is baptized. We do not have godparents or some such in the ARP, though in a sense we do, it’s just that it’s not one person or a couple covenanting to make sure the child is brought up in the faith. The entire gathered body is making that promise. It’s a social covenant. Now, as we will discover in the coming weeks as we look into the covenanting side of the equation there is something more going on here than just vows that are taken within a local body, but it is certainly not less.
John Anderson goes on to say this about how we go about confirming those oaths. He says, “This renovation consists chiefly in the three following things; in acknowledging the obligation of our Covenants, in confessing the breach of them, and in a particular application of them to the present circumstances.” A “renovation” means a renewing of a covenant bond. While in the quote he is primarily talking about the place of the Scottish covenants (more on that later as well) there is something we need to take stock of when it comes to the social side of it. Every time we say that promise at a baptism we need to take a minute and think about how we have kept that covenant for those men and women we confirmed our promise to in the past. It should be a time of great reflection, and as he notes, confession of sin for how we have failed (or not) to bring those same promises to bear in the lives of others. A church stands or falls together. When we make our vows of membership we are engaging in a social promise. We are giving up our identity in a sense and receiving a new one that should reflect the needs of the congregation. In that way the church is unlike any other group we could belong to, primarily because our identity is bound up in the bridegroom of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ, our Federal head.
We’ll stop there for this week, but next Tuesday we’ll expand some more on this whole idea of social and why it matters for the life we lead from day-to-day.
Here’s something to consider.
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church