FM Covenant Community

To be in covenant relationship has meant different things to different people at different times. In the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament), it is a belief that God has chosen the Jewish people and they, in turn, choose Yahweh as their only god [YHWH was their name for God]. They felt a unique, sacred relationship as God’s chosen people. In some contemporary Christian communities, to be in covenant relationship means that one’s commitment is binding to the authority of the institution so if one enters a “covenant marriage” or “covenant membership”, individuals submit themselves to God through commitment to the authority of the community. In some communities, this provides loving structure and support in which individuals can realize their potential. In others, it is about hierarchy, power, and control, which is why some of us are wary about the idea of covenant commitments.

The concept of covenant community does not have long roots among Friends and, naturally, we define and express it differently than other communities did and do. Lloyd Lee Wilson introduced the term in the essay “The Meeting as Covenant Community in his influential book Essays on a Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.

In other communities of which we are a part, we choose to be in relationship with the members of the community, or choose to be a part of the community itself, in order to share in the community’s identity. In the covenant community, we choose to be in relationship with God, and God gives us to one another and to the community. Our primary bond is to God, which makes the community itself resilient and capable of great healing. The crises and interpersonal failures which could destroy a human community become, in the covenant community, opportunities for the love of God to heal and reconcile us to one another, and for the community to witness about God’s healing presence in the world.

Emily Provence describes it this way:

The best definition of covenant that I know is that we give ourselves to God and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people. And from there, we are expected to care for this group of people, and this group of people is expected to care for us, and as a whole we are expected to be obedient to the will of God. For some covenant communities, this means the will of God as written in a set of commandments, but in Quakerism, it means the will of God as constantly revealed. Continuing revelation. Figure it out as you go.

Another way that someone once explained covenant to me was that it’s like you’re married to all of the people in your meeting. And let me tell you, when I heard that, I was horrified by some of the people that I’m apparently married to. But this is how it works.

Covenant community means that we give ourselves to God and God forms a sacred community by giving us to one another. Covenant community is an invitation to bring our authentic selves into our Friends meeting and receive one another with acceptance and compassion, not judgment. It means that we should be intentional about working through challenges and problems and conflicts. It means that we each do our own inner work so we can be present and available for how Spirit wants to guide us as a community.

For some Friends, this idea feels right and true. Other Friends might be perplexed or bewildered by it. What does the concept of covenant community mean to you? How might it impact your relationship with XYZ Friendds Meeting? If you are a non-deist, can you translate the concept into language that is meaningful for you? Is it possible for us to feel that we have given ourselves to a “something more” that unites us and bonds us even when our understanding of the more is wildly different?

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