Covenant, Community and the Weakness of God

by Len Hjalmarson

     To be or not to be a community is not an option for the church.

  By nature the church is a community and experiences communion. The question before the people of God is:

  what kind of community will we be?

   The New Testament invites us to formulate a theology and practice of communion based on the nature of the Body of Christ.

   John Driver, Community and Commitment

    I admit it; it's an odd title. It joins covenant and community to an offensive phrase: "Weakness" of God. Am I an adherent to some heretical process theology?

   The title also joins two concepts which are largely foreign to my experience of church, and probably also to yours. What do covenant and community have in common? Does your experience of church embrace both of these elements? Is covenant even a concept that we should connect with body life? It certainly isn't obvious in our experience.

    In our culture if a marriage doesn't seem to be working any more, we leave. If one "church" doesn't meet our needs, we shop for another.

    If our boss is giving us a hard time, we find another job. If one store has better prices, we shop there today and go back to the favorite tomorrow.

    When our house no longer suits us, or we can afford a larger one, we move. If the store in the next city offers us better pay, we pack up our bags and leave our.. community?

    We discard old relationships like we discard old clothes. What do we really leave, when we pack our bags and move to another location? Do we leave a house and a job? Do we leave a set of relationships? Do we abandon a process? Do we leave our "church?" No doubt your answer will be determined in part by your experience, and in part idealistically.. by your theology.

    But if it's so easy to always leave.. I wonder if we were ever really connected? And if we weren't, were we the church at all?

    The purpose-driven church places high value on relationships (in theory). But the small groups are temporal; the relationships are strained—because even the relationships are purpose-driven. Friends and family function as tools to help the Christian become self-actualized pieces of plastic.

David Hopkins, Rebooting the Purpose Driven Church, in Next-wave Online August, 2001

    The problem, as most will agree, is with both our experience and our theology. We don't have great experiences of community, and we lack a biblical theology of it. We're talking about ecclesiology here.. a theology of the body of Christ. What does it mean to be a body? What does it mean to be connected? Is Paul naive when he uses marriage as an analogy for body life?

    How much have we lost to individualism as a cultural force? How much richer would our experience as a church be if we were more committed and more connected? How would such a commitment impact our decision making? What would be the cost, and what be the benefit? (Jesus encourages us to count the cost).

    The purpose-driven church places high value on relationships (in theory). But the small groups are temporal; the relationships are strained—because even the relationships are purpose-driven. Friends and family function as tools to help the Christian become self-actualized pieces of plastic.   David Hopkins, Rebooting the Purpose Driven Church

    Last night I had a dream. I was back at my old Bible College, twenty years distant. I was standing in the lobby talking to a middle aged pastor. He told me that his church had just dumped him, and he didn't know what he would do next.

    I awoke thinking about covenant, individualism, community, and marketing the gospel. The connection to the first three might seem obvious, the last item not so obvious.

    I believe that if our churches become real communities, some people are going to lose their jobs. If we no longer need a motivational, organizational, administrative expert to keep the programs rolling, they will lose their jobs. If we become a real priesthood, and a real community, a place of openness and vulnerability, a place of connection and healing, the professional model isn't going to fit anymore.

    While Paul calls for us to honor those who labor among us, the kind of honor we have accorded to the clerical role has reinforced a privileged professional class which has largely lost touch with the foundation of community. This in turn has reinforced abstraction, idealism and elitism, leading to the abuse of power. Mark Strom writes,

"Paul … deliberately stepped down in the world. We must not romanticize this choice. He felt the shame of it amongst his peers and potential patrons... Moreover, it played a critical role in the interplay of his life and thought. Tentmaking was critical, even central, to his life and message…

"Evangelicalism will not shake its abstraction, idealism and elitism until theologians and clergy are prepared to step down in their worlds… Evangelicalism has its own ranks, careers, financial security, marks of prestige, and rewards. Within that world, professional ministry is rank and status." (Reframing Our Conversation with Paul, IVP)

    But if the top down structure doesn't really work in community, and if the guy at the top loses his job.. where does he go? If we are really becoming a transformed community of love, isn't he welcome among us? Isn't he the same as we all are.. walking with a limp? Trying to discover what it is to live the gospel? Trying to learn to walk in love? Sure, he might have been where he was because of a need for power. He might even have been left brain dominant and the least open of all the saints.. but if he was there, he was there because we needed him to be there. If we are outgrowing the old hierarchical church, we have to invite all the saints into the new one.


    An individualistic understanding of the Gospel carries the danger of making salvation into another commodity that can be consumed for personal fulfilment and self-interest.  Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People

    Why do you hang in there with your spouse when you don't feel like it? It's because you are building toward something that will take a lifetime. You recognize the value of process. The finest wine has to age a bit longer.

    Perhaps you even subscribe to the novel idea that the rough times will give you as much as the good times. Maybe you are a masochist.. or maybe you take the view of the diamond Maker.. a little more pressure on this lump of coal and something beautiful will be born.

What if the highest destination
of any human life
Was not a place that you could reach if
you had to climb
Wasn't up above like heaven
So no need to fly at all
What if to reach the highest place
you had to fall

"Fall," by Peter Mayer, from the CD "Million Year Mind"

    The mystery is that it's in our weakness that we discover grace. And it's in our weakness that community is born. When we need others, we allow them in. Community is never formed from our strengths. As Jim Wallis put it,

    "The ability of people to move to a new place tomorrow depends on the love and acceptance they feel today . . The only thing greater than our awareness of each other's sins is the awareness of God's love for us and God's desire to see us healed and made whole. The principal lesson of community is. . that God breaks in at the weak places." Agenda for Biblical People, p.126

    Luther said that God designed two instruments for our sanctification: marriage and the church. If the great lesson of marriage is that two people are dragged kicking and screaming beyond selfhood, then perhaps that lesson is also meant for the church. But if the going gets tough and the tough get going.. if we make like a church and split... how are we going to realize the benefits God intended?

Marketing the Church

   Perhaps the worst feature of marketing the church (note: not even marketing Jesus, which might be a lesser sin) is that believers learn by example. We learn to deny our own condition.. we learn to wear masks which prevent our really knowing one another, and therefore we can't be healed.

    Much of the effort of the professional clergy has gone into marketing the church. You can't blame them.. their job depends on their success. And often their church boards tell them exactly that.

    What bothers me is that in order to market something we have to gloss over its faults (denial and dishonesty) and emphasize its best features (hype).

    The NT is strikingly different. All the glaring weaknesses of individuals and even the community are clear.. and so grace shines the more brightly.

    I am really tired of the hype. But perhaps the worst feature of marketing the church (note: not even marketing Jesus, which might be a lesser sin) is that believers learn by example. We learn to deny our own condition.. we wear masks which prevent our really knowing one another, and therefore we can't be healed. (Like the old song, Lean on Me, "no one can meet those of your needs you won't let show").

    There are other good songs being written.. like "Grace" by U2..

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it's the name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything..

    But when we wear masks, community is impossible. Where community is not possible, there is no church. Church is, as Richard Rohr put it, "the gathered weakness of man which becomes the gathered power of God."

    We arrive at a conundrum. We are impaled on the horns of a dilemma. In marriage we have a discipline that draws us (we hope) beyond the shallows into the unknown depths of otherness. Our covenant with one another forces us to hang in there when it's no longer comfortable; but in our faith communities we have no such constraints.

    Yet we desperately need them. We desperately need others to hold our feet to the fire so that we can grow on together, beyond our comfort zones. How do we move beyond the individidualistic and self-centred gospel to a true gospel of grace and transformation, and bearing one anothers burdens and sin, and so "fulfil the law of Christ?"

   "We confuse it with full reality, but the private self is clearly an illusion. My life is not about ME. That's why the bible is a social history. We're part of a much larger mystery. ... individualism makes church almost impossible."   Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs

    Perhaps a stated covenant isn't a bad thing after all? Perhaps a covenant can move us beyond the path of least resistance, beyond individualism to true community? I think if we go to that place we will discover the gospel in new depths. In the book of Acts they were all together in one place and they experienced "great grace," the only place in the NT where such a phrase is used (4:33). * * *

    One of the themes in my writing over the past year has been weakness. I need the message of the Gospel because I'm so messed up myself. Paul wrote that, "He was crucified because of weakness; he lives because of the power of God."

    In charismatic circles the big push is power and healing. I like this part. The theology of glory is comfortable for me, and it's part of the good news.. part of the inbreaking of the new world into the one that is dying.

    My problem arises when the theology of glory overtakes the message of the cross.

    Healing is the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in power. Lack of healing is a testimony to the mystery of Christ in weakness. Both are present in the true gospel. Both healing and lack of healing are the mystery of grace. "When I am weak then I am strong." Men like to systematize such things and find themselves pushing one side of the pendulum. God's wisdom is greater than man's wisdom, and we have to learn to live in the mystery.

    Or maybe we have to unlearn our certainties and systems and really discover faith.. faith not in a system of beliefs, but personal faith in Christ.. the kind that "can look on tempests and is not shaken," that can "go but not know" like Abraham. This kind of faith, covenant faith, is the kind that seems so rare in the modern church. I hope we can rediscover it in the church that is being born from the ashes of the old.

See also Forty Years in a Narrow Space

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005