Only a few paragraphs into Genesis and the age-old tensions between the individual and society are already beginning to emerge. The story begins with one Individual formed in the image of God, with individual dignity and worth. Yet it is not good for man to be alone and the first community is formed. By the hand of God someone once singular was made plural, then joined right back together again by a covenant and a command to remain one and yet multiply. This beautiful, albeit enigmatic tension was born, then asked to birth more. And in one bite followed by another, individual choices were made that led not only to individual and immediate consequences, but societal and far-reaching ones. The very tension woven by its Maker, seemingly unraveling beyond repair. Yet it remained. Wrought with enmity, but commanded to carry on.

Society grew, and its birthing pains only increased. The tensions that began in marriage carried on through family then tribes then nations then humanity.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in “Individual and Collective Responsibility,” draws our attention to the Flood, brought about by the violence and anarchy that occurs when society is sacrificed on the altar of the individual, and the Tower of Babel disaster, brought about by the tyranny and oppression that occurs when individuals are sacrificed on the altar of society. He claims that “The Flood tells us what happens to civilisation when individuals rule and there is no collective. Babel tells us what happens when the collective rules and individuals are sacrificed to it.”

We seem destined to repeat this disastrous pendulum swing, ad infinitum, until God steps in. Out of the post-Babel wreckage of disunity and disarray, he calls upon an individual, Abram, to form a new community that revolved neither around the individual nor the collective, but what Sacks describes as “a new form of social order that would give equal honour to the individual and the collective, personal responsibility and the common good.”

And a covenant was “cut”—the Brit Bein Habetarim, or “ Covenant of Parts.” And Abram, like Adam, fell into a deep sleep as God walked through that which had been separated. Abram, like Adam, was told to multiply, yet this time God himself would take care of the math. Abram and Sarai stepped out of the darkness in faith, trading barren wombs and severed flesh for offspring like the stars, an everlasting land of promise, and the opportunity to share their blessings with all of humanity—the future restoration of the unity destroyed at Babel. God was throwing us a literal life-line: Give up your individual and collective toiling and striving that keeps breaking you, join my covenant, and I will accomplish great things through you, and for you. I will save you from yourselves.

This shows us how covenants can transform both the singular individual and the collective society. It can provide both with common values, purpose, identity, stability, and shared strength through shared sacrifice. They’re held together not by self-interest or force, but fidelity and faith.

As the Israelites passed from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea into a covenant of freedom through fidelity, so the believer passes from death through the waters of baptism into a covenant of life through faith. A covenant with the Trinity itself, culminating on the day of Pentecost when the curse of Babel was dissolved and rather than “one lip” united for evil there could now be one lip (one “pure lip” as prophesied by Zephaniah) united for good through the covenantal sign of the Spirit. Abraham’s far off promise of unity is now offered to the entire world.

A Covenantal God

Christianity must be understood covenantally because that’s how God has chosen to relate to humankind. Biblical scholar Thomas Schreiner defines a covenant as “a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other.” Over and again, we see covenants as a means of God demonstrating who he is, binding himself to his people and creation, providing a means of flourishing, limiting and hedging in destruction, and forging paths of reconciliation between humanity and himself. Herman Bavinck reminds us that “God is the God of the covenant;” it’s what joins us through the infinite distance to God, not as a master and a slave but in comunion and friendship—it’s “the essence of true religion.”

Covenants Distorted and Broken

But we like to take what is covenantal and make it hierarchical. We reduce it to its lowest common denominator; to a contract riddled with loopholes giving us an out. But a covenant is freely chosen, not forced; relational, not contractual. By its very nature, it counteracts hierarchy, power grabs, hoarding, oppression, discrimination, and abuse. It fights fear.

In Os Guinness’s upcoming book, The Magna Carta of Humanity, he describes a covenant as, “promise keeping and trust writ large and made lasting. It is the trust that underlies all healthy families and all good relationships now expanded to become the foundation of an entire society, and even a nation. A covenant is a commitment that makes life worth living and enables life to be lived well. It is a word of honor given at a point in time that binds together past, present, and future, making possible lasting love, enduring freedom, flourishing lives, and a healthy community.”

When our world, our communities, our news feeds, our families, and our thoughts fill with fear, like frightened animals we fight and fly. We forget we are more than animals. We forget we have souls that can be eternally covenanted with the One whose words spoke us into being and whose very breath made us more than dust. Because dirt plus the breath of God, is a life intrinsically and individually valuable because it was breathed upon and imprinted with his very image—the face we cannot see. Imprinted in unique ways with the potential to be. To become an individual reflection of him, breathlessly magnified and intensified when covenanted together. The God who values and makes valuable, created us so that our worth is as an individual but our purpose is through a community.

The Greek root of “Devil” is derived from “dia-balein”: to throw apart, to scatter. Satan hates unity because he knows those beautiful reflections of God joined together in one voice and one accord would destroy him. He could never gaze upon the face of a unified Church, filled with the Spirit of God, and survive. It will end him.

Unity is the breath of the Church. We suffocate without it. Its necessity mirrors not just the glory, but the necessity of the Trinity. God is Unum, Bonum, Verum, Pulchrum—Unity, Goodness, Truth, and Beauty—and so must his Church be.

Covenants Absent, Forgotten, and Unseen

Reinhold Niebuhr argues that humans tend to lack the rationality and moral imagination to extend empathy beyond a certain point. So when we see fear, anger, death, destruction, and unmet needs further from us than our screens or our circles, we resort to tribalism and we throw platitudes. Well, “Jesus is the answer” we say. Maybe if others behaved better or worked harder or made better choices, we say. Vote differently, we say. Yet, here we are, nursing and feeding our babies, caring for our parents, fighting for our marriages, working our vocations, advocating for our child’s IEP or education, tending our gardens, or listening to a friend bare her soul. Why? Because whether we realize it or not, we are covenanted to those things and that leads us to action. We care about what we are bound to. Niebuhr suggests some form of “social coercion” to bridge the chasm between our circles and others, rather, I believe covenanting—freely offered—is the only way to effectively and lastingly graft the two.

We forget what Walter Brueggemann describes as our first tastes of “covenanting,” as infants experiencing the omnipotence of an other (in this case, mother) slowly developing a sense of self and learning the act of “othering” which requires the ability to both assert and surrender. We don’t see how our marriages, our deep friendships, our children, even our gardens, all providentially give us glimpses of what a covenantal relationship ought to look like. That far off promise whispered to Abram on that clear night, as brilliant as the stars, yet as touchable as his wife and his baby boy and the dirt beneath his feet.

We must look to our existing covenants to remember what covenant-keeping means and looks like. How the life of our marriage is dependent on the life of its entities. Unable to live if one dies. Unable to flourish against the atrophy of the other. How our children cannot grow to discover who they were created to be if we don’t feed them, and learn their struggles and gifts, and put them to bed, and keep them from dying.

Covenants Misunderstood

Covenants build bonds that run deeper than politics, denominations, race, or even kinship. They are the blueprints handed to us by our Creator and modeled by the Trinity. In fact, if our lines and points neatly match up with the outlines of any group or person who did not make us, we’re likely being unfaithful to the most important Covenant of all, and party to a dying contract that will never bring life and flourishing to our story or this world.

Here’s the thing that should strip us of excuses—we don’t even have to agree with what someone believes or does to covenant with them. It’s not unequally yoking, it’s not being of the world, it’s reflecting the God who was willing to covenant with us. It’s why Jesus loved his enemies, broke bread with sinners, and forgave those who killed him. It’s why we’ve been given so much and are told to give it away freely. It’s why every Christian should be able to say to each and every person before us: I see you, I care for you, I love you, I will hold what I’ve been given with an open hand so you don’t have to be so fearful, because I have the best reason of all to never fear.

We worry it may bolster a political party not our own, Christians we don’t think are theologically sound, a cause we don’t want to advance. It seems messy and uncomfortable. It felt threatening to the world Jesus was born into as well. It didn’t mesh with how they pictured God’s kingdom being built. “Follow me,” he assured them. In doing so, we are led along the way that often looks like weakness and feels like a death of sorts, but it’s the strongest, most life-producing thing we could do. It’s not sitting still and it’s not conquering. It’s both surrendering and asserting. Covenanting with those around us allows them to taste and see the source of holiness, peace, justice, mercy, and love.

The Call of the Church

Where covenants are absent, fear is present; but where covenants are made and kept, faith and trust can grow.

We are tribal creatures. Tribalism kills, but it also protects. What if we were part of a tribe that anyone could find a home in? Be fed in, seen, protected, valued, and loved in? A tribe bound together by a covenant with the very One who created us each and sees us as who we could be both individually and collectively? We can be and it’s called the Church. And if our churches don’t look like that and we don’t look like that, we are not living by the Spirit and covenanting in the image of God. We must lament and repent.

Why We Lament

We lament because not one of us has kept our covenants perfectly—not our covenant that grafts us onto Life, our covenant that binds us to the Church, our covenant to serve and preserve the land, and especially not our covenants that connect us to others providing the conduits for that Life to spread and draw them to its source.

We lament because we have not cared for the whole body of the Church. We have forgotten that if one part suffers, every part suffers .

We lament because we have cared about property more than people and we’ve reduced people to property. We are unwilling to look others in the face or through our screens and see the unique fingerprints of God upon them.

We lament because we have not yet gone to the ends of the earth, bringing the source of life and flourishing to every corner. Carrying his breath to the dying. Bringing the temple to them.

We lament because we have broken our covenant to bless humanity through us, to be a city on a hill, the salt of the world, a light in the darkness. We have not lived out the very words God whispered to Abram on that starry night.

We lament because we respond to the weeping and gnashing of those broken by our broken or non-existent covenants, with “Go and be well fed.” “Choose peace” we say. “Choose life” we say. We offer words that cost us nothing; doing nothing to feed them, pursue peace, or help them imagine how to live and not feel so powerless. Nothing that would lead them to the well of peace, provision, and strength.

We lament because we make excuses to not do what’s right. We say justice and mercy are replacing the gospel, forgetting they’re intrinsically intertwined. That if justice and mercy aren’t pouring out, it’s not truly the gospel. If justice and mercy are built upon anything less, they will fail. One cannot live, while the other dies.

We lament because we’ve reduced the gospel to a few bullet points on how to get to heaven when we die, forgetting that it’s actually about a new way to live here—the offer of a covenant that grafts us to Life and severs us from Death.

How the Church Can Change the World

God’s kingdom was inaugurated with a covenant and it’s the act of covenanting that will build it and bring it. Here and now. There’s no other way. Jesus didn’t embrace death so he could dole out life, like individual stimulus handouts, enabling us to survive alone and build our own tiny little “saved” kingdoms. He chose to surrender to Death, going where it had no choice but to look upon his face—knowing it could never survive. Knowing we could never survive, much less flourish, if Death lived.

With not an “I do” but rather a barren soul that accepts his “I have done”—one breath, one body, one flesh—and our contract with Death is shattered. A new creation and a new covenant arise from the dust, and once again the breath of the Spirit gives us life. Life that Death no longer has claim to. This covenant finally resolves the tension between the individual and community. We are forever bound to something greater and bigger than ourselves that will finally allow us to become who we were created to be.

It seems these days more than ever, that the world is falling apart. And it is. But every cry and every failure of the world is a calling and a requirement for the Church to show them a better way. We are being given an opportunity to individually and corporately lament, repent, and seek the Spirit of the living God to do a work in us and through us, walking in the footsteps of Jesus. The Church, of whom every believer is bound to and part of, is called upon to change the world. Not because we can, but because we are covenanted with and filled by the only one who is able. Because the God who made creation good, can and will redeem it, restore it, and make it good again, and he longs to begin his work through us.

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Posted by Bonnie McKernan

Bonnie McKernan writes from outside Washington D.C. where she traded in national security, political geography, and commuting, for four kids, theology, and writing. Currently resurrecting a 120-year-old farmhouse from tear-down to ‘Dulce Domum’ and occasionally discussing truth and beauty at www.bmckernan.com and elsewhere.

  • Jim Hagan

    Brilliant article! Great to see you published by MereO. My only critique is I disagree that God’s covenants are non-hierarchical. It’s true ancient covenants could be egalitarian–between two equal parties– but many were not. Conquering kings could demand covenants from the top down and God did so with Abram. God called Him into covenant. And the Abrahamic covenant is also a covenant God has with Himself. Abraham is asleep and God, pointing to the cross, swears He will cut Himself in two if it’s not kept. The theme of kingdom/Lordship is the most consistent in Scripture and as we covenant with the King of Kings, Jesus, we are the lesser party. There is nothing wrong with hierarchy. Though there is plenty wrong with what you seem to associate it with–tribalism, oppression etc. God has fashioned hierarchy into the grain of the universe. We have bosses at work, we have parents to obey, we have God ordained elected officials and pastors over us. For sure, these authorities may behave wickedly but that doesn’t negate authority itself.

    • Bonnie J. McKernan

      So good to hear from you, Jim! I’m really glad you picked that out and am surprised you’re the first one (b/c I agree there’s much unsaid behind those words). I think this is likely more of a definitional difference than a disagreement.

      Would you say that hierarchical status entering into a covenant remains completely unchanged *within*? And likewise, that the resulting structure within ought to be defined as hierarchy?

      I see it as structure vs. hierarchy. I believe order and STRUCTURE are absolutely essential (and woven throughout the cosmos), but I think we sense the need for structure and wrongly fill it with hierarchy (e.g. Israel asking for a king) rather than using the system God models and puts forth which I believe to be covenantal (e.g. partnership in Eden/God with us and amongst us/Jesus giving up his right to hierarchy in birth and death).

      I say this as a complementarian (depending on how it’s defined) and as an Anglican.

      Kevin and I entered into the covenant of marriage on equal footings and a hierarchy didn’t emerge, but a freely offered/accepted covenantal structure.

      I come from a non-denominational background and find their rogue and “independent” lack of structure actually more hierarchical than the ones they rebelled against in times past. I was struck at the institution ceremony of our rector to how similar it is to marriage vows. He was entering into a covenant with his congregation (and I’m assuming a similar one transpired b/t the bishop and him at ordination?). As a participant in that covenant (as in my own marriage), I welcome the structure it provides as a means of allowing us all to flourish. Our rector is not much older than myself, there’s no intrinsic hierarchy there, but he made a covenant to lead, and hence, I to be led.

      And even if an argument for hierarchy was effectively made (which I’m definitely open to), it truly seems to result either from sin or rising against sin (e.g. Gen 3:16, yimsal)? Kevin and I honestly love being married. He serves me so well, he leads so graciously, and I have endless respect for him. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single time he’s ever “pulled rank” and I hope a situation never arises that he’d have to;-)

      Same with our rector. If I ever say something or publicly write something that he thought was off-base, he needs to bring that to my attention and I need to listen and respect his counsel. Not because of some forced hierarchical structure, but because I willingly entered into a covenantal relationship to be led and shepherded.

      Since the birth of civilizations, hierarchies (positional power) have led to conflict, abuse, and division and I believe God introduced us to something paradigm-shifting and world-transforming rather than world-accepting. The idea of a non-hierarchical structure of willing service was unheard of then, and I think it’s almost just as unheard of now.

      My resistance to hierarchy as it’s often suggested is not about liberation, but a desire for true embodiment of God-given structures.

      Sorry, just wrote you another essay. But it’s an important distinction so definitely push back as needed whether here or offline, as I’m still thinking this all through…
      Bonnie

      **Only partially-related, but I appreciated this analysis yesterday: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/submission-authority-and-every-christians-core-identity/

    • Bonnie J. McKernan

      So good to hear from you, Jim! I’m really glad you picked that out and am surprised you’re the first one (b/c I agree there’s much unsaid behind those words). I think this is likely more of a definitional difference than a disagreement.

      Would you say that hierarchical status entering into a covenant remains completely unchanged *within*? And likewise, that the resulting structure within ought to be defined as hierarchy?

      I see it as structure vs. hierarchy. I believe order and STRUCTURE are absolutely essential (and woven throughout the cosmos), but I wonder if we sense the need for structure and wrongly fill it with hierarchy? (e.g. Israel asking for a king) rather than using the system God models and puts forth which I believe to be covenantal (e.g. partnership in Eden/God with us and amongst us/Jesus giving up his right to hierarchy in birth and death).

      I say this as a complementarian (depending on how it’s defined) and as an Anglican.

      Kevin and I entered into the covenant of marriage on equal footings and a hierarchy didn’t emerge, but a freely offered/accepted covenantal structure.

      I come from a non-denominational background and find their rogue and “independent” lack of structure actually more hierarchical than the ones they rebelled against in times past. I was struck at the institution ceremony of our rector to how similar it is to marriage vows. He was entering into a covenant with his congregation (and I’m assuming a similar one transpired b/t the bishop and him at ordination?). As a participant in that covenant (as in my own marriage), I welcome the structure it provides as a means of allowing us all to flourish. Our rector is not much older than myself, there’s no intrinsic hierarchy there, but he made a covenant to lead, and hence, I to be led.

      And even if an argument for hierarchy was effectively made (which I’m definitely open to), it truly seems to result either from sin or rising against sin (e.g. Gen 3:16, yimsal)? Kevin and I honestly love being married. He serves me so well, he leads so graciously, and I have endless respect for him. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single time he’s ever “pulled rank” and I hope a situation never arises that he’d have to;-)

      Same with our rector. If I ever say something or publicly write something that he thought was off-base, he needs to bring that to my attention and I need to listen and respect his counsel. Not because of some forced hierarchical structure, but because I willingly entered into a covenantal relationship to be led and shepherded.

      Since the birth of civilizations, hierarchies (positional power) have led to conflict, abuse, and division and I believe God introduced us to something paradigm-shifting and world-transforming rather than world-accepting. The idea of a non-hierarchical structure of willing service was unheard of then, and I think it’s almost just as unheard of now.

      My resistance to hierarchy as it’s often suggested is not about liberation, but a desire for true embodiment of God-given structures.

      Sorry, just wrote you another essay. But it’s an important distinction so definitely push back as needed whether here or offline, as I’m still thinking this all through…
      Bonnie

      **Only partially-related, but I appreciated this analysis yesterday: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/submission-authority-and-every-christians-core-identity/

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