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Covenant or Alliance

A few thoughts on relationships between Christians, especially Christian leaders, with the New Testament as the resource.


A pastor, speaking from painful experience, stated emphatically that to fulfil the purposes of God together, we would have to walk in covenant relationships. He contrasted this with alliances which had been inadequate in forwarding the work of God in his city. This was greeted as wisdom by the delegates and there was a sudden desire to express this level of relationship in the breaking of bread. My attention was gripped and it made me very interested in what the Bible said about covenant, so here are a few thoughts on relationships between Christians, especially Christian leaders, with the New Testament as the resource.

We could say that we are in covenant with Christians that we have never met on other continents …

Covenant

What is meant by covenant in the New Testament sense? Do Christians "cut covenant" today? The New Testament does not use the term in an active sense between individuals. The apostolic writings describe and define a single unique covenant where God the Father has undertaken all the obligations and made the benefits available to all. The Greek word diatheke imparts that sense—a coming together of two parties where the obligation rests with one of them. This covenant is so profound that even the marriage covenant is rooted in its meaning.

The book of Hebrews has a lot to say about this covenant. It is described as, "better" (see vs. 7:8), "a second" (see vs. 8:7), and "new" (see vs. 8:8,13). It is so effective it is said to have "perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (see vs. 10:14). Others have called this "the finished work of Christ" because it is so complete in its effect.

This new covenant, different from the first, was originally prophesied, in clarity, through Jeremiah (see vs. 31:31-34). In it God promised to offer a changed heart to the believer, and a personal relationship with Himself. Sin would be forgiven; God would do it all! In Hebrews 8:10-13 and 10:15-18 this is put in the context of the believer now having confidence to enter the presence of God by the blood of Jesus. The finished work of Christ is what He finished on the cross as our representative before God, the substitute for us as sinners and the atoning sacrifice for sin. In raising Christ from the dead God put His seal on the acceptance and efficacy of Christ's sacrifice.

By faith in Christ and by turning from our sin (outwardly expressed in baptism), we enter into the benefits of that covenant with God. Our status has so radically changed that we are now "in Christ" and "Christ is in us;" we have been "added to the Lord." We become part of the "body of Christ," where He is head and we are the members. He is also the Vine and we are the branches. There is no life for us outside of Christ. For us to live "is Christ;" "Christ is our life," etc. I believe that this has sublime implications for our relationships.

Because we are all "in Christ," we are also in a special relationship with all other Christians on the face of the earth. This relationship is so special, it transcends mere alliances of convenience and has implications for the most serious of relationships. We could say that we are in covenant with Christians that we have never met on other continents, so that if we hear of their needs we should consider responding to them (see this week's Mission Weblog). Note how Macedonia and Achaia took up an offering for the poor saints in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:27-30; Galatians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 8; Romans 15:25-28), even though they had never met them. We are called to pray for the persecuted church in distant lands, as it is actually Jesus who is being persecuted (Acts 9:4). In the last month many of us in Canada have done just that and had large offerings for the churches and nations affected through the tsunami in S.Asia.

Breaking of bread

People who are close to each other may define a special agreement but they do not need to break bread together to establish that agreement as a covenant. They already have something very comprehensive together by being "in Christ." An agreement could be ratified in a number of ways in prayer, with the right hand of fellowship (see Galatians 2:9), or over a meal. The breaking of bread could be a frequent observance between Christians to establish that they are in Christ together and to keep the cross central to all they do.

Alliances

The New Testament does not use the word alliance to describe relationships between Christians. Concepts of love, fellowship, family, the Body, the army, the building, are used to denote expressions of corporate relationship. Perhaps the most helpful term is "joints" as in Ephesians 4:15-16:

"Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love."

Joints

I believe that there are two aspects to the unity that automatically come by being "in Christ"—relational unity and functional unity.

First relational unity.

All of us as Christians have a Spirit-led inclination to exhibit the life and character of Christ to all people that we meet in the world. We should demonstrate this to our family, friends, neighbours, employers and employees. The life of Christ should be especially manifest in a local congregation of believers, which Michael Griffiths referred to as "the colony of heaven." Jesus said that our love for one another would be so obvious people would know who we were following (see John 13:34-35).

A poor alliance is where one or more partners are actually using other people to promote their own ministry.

More than 20 years ago, Colin Urquhart taught that we demonstrate the reality of our words of love to God by how we relate to each other. Our relationships are also the opportunity to develop the fruit of the spirit in maturity. Jesus said, "If you love me keep my commandments … this is my commandment that you love one another." Can we love someone and express it through a covenant? Can we love them a little less and settle for an alliance? Neither. I think that what we need are better Christians!

Our calling to be "in Christ" is with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (see Ephesians 4:1-3). Ephesians 4:15-16 then describes how the Body of Christ grows in maturity and love through jointed relationships. This leads on to a consideration of our functional unity.

Although we may love a lot of people we probably only have a relatively small number of significant relationships that really affect our life and ministry. We are deeply challenged in these relationships because they are God's appointments in our lives to be functional together. They are not superficial relationships and are designed to be strong enough to influence many others.

John Dawson said, a few years back, "God organises and administrates His kingdom through gifts of friendship." That simple statement goes to the heart of the issue. Generally anything profound or worthwhile that happens in the wider Church comes through tried and tested relationships.

Is it possible that in a proposed covenant relationship, what we are really trying to do is define our expectations in our "jointed" relationships? It is an agreement that helps our memory, helps us determine to establish a new habit pattern and helps us to be proactive in building the relationship. Although entered into by equals, it is also a commitment to discern leadership anointing for different tasks in the group.

Agreements, expressing "jointed" relationships may need to be expressed for things that God is calling us to do that we cannot do alone, as individual pastors or congregations, or even ministries. The key should be that the individual recognises that he or she is being called higher into a corporate dimension where there needs to be a commitment to the vision and purpose for the sake of the whole. The wider purpose can only work if all seek the common good and have a sense of submission to recognised leadership and accountability to all.

The weakness in an alliance shows where people come together but carry a personal agenda for their own benefit. The call of God is replaced by the call, "What's in it for me?" In this sort of alliance, relationships are weak or exposed as shallow through inevitable difficulties. God will actually send problems to test and refine our relationships and to prove our "jointing." It seems better not to get involved in a joint project unless one has heard clearly from God and there are trusted relationships.

This is not to say that people cannot come together for short term specific projects. Here the safety is in definition where the expectation is clear. It could be though, that, having worked successfully on a short term specific project, relationship and trust is established at a higher level and that may lead to other things. I believe that essentially a good alliance has the marks of covenant on it from the start. A poor alliance is where one or more partners are actually using other people to promote their own ministry. This gives uncomfortable pain in the joints of the Body of Christ.

Summary

The New Covenant is astounding in it's comprehensiveness for all Christians, everywhere! It is unnecessary to look anywhere else for a covenant. Christ calls us higher, very high indeed.

Alliances are best understood to express functional unity. Where definition is felt necessary to emphasise aspects of the relationship then an agreement could be drawn up.

Is the problem that we do not know who we are in Christ? Are we so used to being used, or using others that we have slipped into a sub-standard expectation of the rest of the Body of Christ? Perhaps there is a need both to teach and model what it means to be the family of God.

David Carson is a Vancouver pastor and director of the prayer ministry, Intercessors For Canada.

 

 
 
 
 

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