Exponential Fellowship: Covenant Commitment by Larry Niemeyer

We men need to remember special days for the women in our lives. We need to do the right thing. Here are three stories:

  1. A woman woke up with a startle.  Her husband asked what was the matter, she told him, “I just had a dream that you gave me a pearl necklace. What do you think it means?” “You’ll know tonight,” he said. That evening, the husband brought a small package and gave it to his wife. Delighted, she opened it – only to find a book entitled “The meaning of dreams.”.
  2. A card is important. One story is of a man who picked out a card for his wife on their anniversary. He wrote “I love you” on it, and put it in an envelope. He didn’t seal the envelope, though. He gave it to her. She opened it. Read it and said, “That’s nice.” She laid it aside. Later he picked it up. Put it away. The following year, he gave her the same card again. .. and continued to do so every year of their marriage.
  3. Flowers can be appropriate. A couple were at a seminar for improving marital communication. The speaker said it was important for the men to know the favorite flower of their wives. The man leaned over and said to his wife, “Which flour do you like – wheat, maize, rice, potato?” He was in trouble.

Now, I need to shift from love in our marriages the loss of love that leads to divorce. I was surprised to learn that 2,000 delegates gathered in Nairobi for two days to discuss marriage and divorce. I was struck by two statistics: of those divorced in Kenya, 42% were divorced by the fifth year of their marriage, 72% by their tenth year. Stories are everywhere of couples whose relationships are terminated on a whim, even before the ink on their marriage certificates has dried. A nationwide survey in Kenya showed that about 74% of respondents said that today’s couples don’t take marriage seriously as in olden days. In the year 2000, 3.4 % of people between the ages of 20-24 (young couples) were already divorced or separated. Fourteen years later in 2014, the number had doubled to 6%.  In one Nairobi court there the number of divorce cases rose from 101 in 2001 to 369 in 2008.  If they have quadrupled again in 2015 they would be 1,500.

There are many reasons for divorce : infidelity, desertion, cruelty, poor communications, differences that cannot be reconciled, new legalities in marriage that scare men off, and again many just copy their separated and divorced friends and behave similarly. Other reasons came from the two-day forum in Nairobi: poor planning, loss of religion, the economic disparity between men and women with women becoming financially independent, money, and in-laws. Why this disintegration? I think it can be linked to something not listed by the experts – a loss of covenant understanding.

Our societies today are being hurt by a deficiency of covenant. One of the speakers at Nairobi’s forum on marriage laid partial blame at the loss of traditional African values. That does apply. Covenant was once strong in Kenya and Africa. It was related to different cultural systems: Politically – oathing (and we still have some of that today); economically – trade/market agreements; and religiously with rituals and symbols.

The Baganda of Uganda had a covenant ceremony for two people to become blood brothers.  A coffee bean was taken. One-half by each person. They then cut their belly buttons and smeared their own blood in the half they held.  Next they exchanged the beans and ate them. In old Africa people lived according to covenant. If broken there were negative results that involved witchcraft and magic. One African scholar said that the basis of old African beliefs was the covenant. It was the heart of all religion in Africa. It was a serious sin to break covenant.  Taboos prevented the breaking. Covenants were then binding.

A graduate student of mine explored the covenant concept as it related to the Luo of Kenya. Various words related to the concept of covenant: muma – oath;  kwer – the violation of taboos, that forbidden, cursed; kuongruok – curse; ruok – reciprocity; yieruock – understanding, mutual belief/agreement; singruock – a promise kept, a deed done, evidence provided; and winjruok – an understanding. He found that two people move from winjruock to yieruok to singruock (as first a promise made and then a promise kept). For example, marriage progresses from winjruok to singruok.

But covenant understanding has been weakened in Kenya and in Africa. We Christians can accept some of the blame .

Scriptures

As with all the messages in this series, I want to stay with the writings of the Apostle John. But I have to admit that the word ‘covenant’ does not appear in his writings. It doesn’t even appear in many of the other books of the New Testament. But here’s the thing: all those books are in the New Testament – the New Covenant. Still, how can I stick to John’s writings in 1 John and the Gospel? There are important covenant references. For example, promises – there are 23 in 1 John and those 23 promises are covenant-based. Let’s read 1 John 1:5-2:2.

In the Bible, the relationship God seeks with people is called covenant. He doesn’t seek 200 kinds of relationships – just one – covenant. It is a special relationship that is important to exponential fellowship.  Covenant is an agreement between two parties that they will be committed to their relationship. It is a kind of guarantee.  It leads to success and strength. In the Bible, “I will be your God and you will be my people” is the heartbeat of every divine covenant.  This formula appears in the first book of the Bible for Abraham when he was frustrated about waiting for a son (Gen. 17:7,8).  It appears in the last book of the Bible (Rev.21:3). Between the beginning and the end, the constant encouragement is to that same covenant:  God has committed himself so that he can be forever our God and we can be his people.

Let’s consider the contrast between covenant relationship with God and the more popular relationship used in many Christian circles.

  1. Covenant is God-centered, is based on a strong unshakeable belief in God (1 John 1:1-4).In contrast the use of relationship is usually human-centered based on vague beliefs about God – knowing about him, but not knowing him.

In covenant fellowship, revelation is the basis of our belief; with relationships, our interpretations are the basis of our beliefs. Interpretations get us into all kinds of problems. At a gathering of Christians from different denominations, a group known as the United Brethren said “In heaven we are all going to be United Brethren.”  In response a Quaker belonging to the Society of Friends said quietly: “Well, if we are all going to be United Brethren, why not be ‘Friends’ right now?” Both groups emphasized relationships more than covenant.

In covenant fellowship, God makes and keeps his promises (1 John 1:7-9) whereas in relationships we don’t necessarily see ourselves as promise-makers or keeper. In fact, few of us can think of specific promises we have made to God. In covenant, God’s conditions prevail. Note the word “if” in 1 John 1:9). W hen just a relationship is  sought, our conditions often prevail.

  1. Covenant fellowship is broadly corporate; fellowship defined aby relationship is narrowly local, even personal. The whole world is God’s concern; the local situation is usually the concern of relationship. God embraces all generations, families and groups (1 John 2:2). In our talk of a ‘relationship with God,’ we embrace a few people and keep the relationship individualized and private. Yet, in spite of the broad scope of God’s covenant, the covenant itself is singular. He seeks the same covenant whether we are from Africa, America or Asia. A relationship basis with God, on the other hand is plural. Each one is different. Multiple relationships become the norm.

Our current situation demonstrates the multiplicity of relationships possible today. A friend explained that he belonged to about 40 groups on What’s App. It was difficult to stay connected with all of them. People in those groups shared all kinds of observations, opinions, and advice. They enhanced their messages with videos and pictures from here and there. We must be careful as Christians that a relationship with God just becomes another one of those 40 relationships. We need to reserve covenant for our connection with God.

 

  1. Covenant fellowship is defined by God and is final, absolute and complete, whereas relational fellowship is defined by people and is subjective, relative and incomplete. Looking at this difference, John Piper has said, “We have allowed relationship terminology to prevail to the exclusion of covenant. One preacher has observed this in America and said, ‘Too many Christians have become caught up in a western – even American – turn of phrase about a “personal relationship to God.’ Not to say that the Bible does not call us to such a relationship. It is just that we have individualized, personalized, and privatized it.” He went on to say, “ . . .in America a whole religion of self-psychology has risen which makes covenant faithfulness almost unintelligible. The concept of God has been so reduced and internalized that whatever is left of the sacred has its center in the self, which means that today commitment is primarily a commitment to self (‘Be true to yourself’). And the primary duty of this commitment is to feel personally happy and fulfilled, even if vows are forsaken, promises are not kept, and contracts are broken.”

 

  1. Covenant fellowship is based on Based on TRUTH – One of John’s themes. TRUTH occurs 50 times in the gospel. Here in today’s passage – 1John 1:6 and 8 and it occurs again in 1 John 2:4,8, 20, 21, 3:18,19; 4:6; and 5:6. Relational fellowship, on the other hand, is based on ‘truths.’ If we are not careful, much that we call fellowship may end up being a sharing of ‘truths’ which often come across as opinions. It is like God has let down a covenant rope from heaven for us to take hold of. But we have taken the end of that rope and unraveled it into strands. One group takes hold of a strand and builds their relationships around it. Each thinks he has the truth but he just has the truth of one strand of covenant. The real truth is the rope – the covenant itself.

 

  1. Covenant fellowship takes place within heavenly time; it is eternal in nature. It is long-term and continuous. Fellowship described by relationship alone takes place in earthly times; it is experiential in nature. It is often short-term and it can come and go, be up and down. In covenant, commitment is forever and comes with accountability and responsibility. When relationship prevails, commitment is usually temporal and can be vague and ambiguous. Commitment based on covenant influences all relationships positively. Commitment based on relationships influences covenants negatively. When we define our relationships based on our ‘truths’ with earthly time in mind and faced with short term prospects, then forever commitment becomes lost. “Contentment” and “happiness” replace “commitment” and “sacrifice.”

 

  1. Covenant fellowship with God leads to strength and God creates the results. Fellowship based on relationship alone leads to weakness because people are the ones creating the results. Ours is not a fellowship resulting from human desire for togetherness. It is brought into being by God’s will for his people.

The ultimate aim of covenant is God in us (LIFE-in-life), God living through us (1 John 4:13-16). The usual aim of relationship-type fellowship is God, God for us, God helping us. Internal transformation is the expectation of covenant; external religiosity is often the expectation of the latter.

In covenant fellowship, the results are kingdom activity in an environment of faith; in relational fellowship alone, the results are spiritual activity in religious environments. In the former we have covenant faith rising from God’s LOVE; in the latter we have a religious ‘faith’ rising from our ‘loves.” In the former, we end up with a shared fellowship (1 John 1:3, 6,7) that results in unity (John 17:20-23). In the latter, we end up with shared relationships that often result in small uniformity. D. Stuart Briscoe said, “There is a great tendency among those who wish to be together to manipulate the togetherness.  So people are encouraged to think alike, then dress alike, then look alike, then sound alike,  The result is called unity, but in actual fact is more often a dull uniformity.”

Covenant fellowship results in strong application to all of life – families, marriages, parenthood, community, and church. This contrasts with fellowship that has relationships but not covenant. Families, marriages, parenthood, community and church can remain weak. God’s covenant provides the foundation and structure for life.  Marriage is best understood as a covenant, a three-way commitment between the man, the woman and the Lord.  Parents and children can best relate to one another in their awareness of God’s covenant with the family.  Responsibilities at work derive meaning only from understanding the bond that God first made with the world at creation. It is better for us to implement God’s unchanging plans for covenant fellowship than to implement our own changing plans for relationship.

Why is this important? A lack of covenant with God erodes relationships with people. Let’s go back to the question: Why the disintegration of marriage, family, society? The lack of covenant is an important explanation. The church fails when it leaves out covenant fellowship. An African theologian has said,  “Church in Africa took the wrong step when they retreated from covenant to relationships. If the effort had been directed at showing clearly that people are entering into covenant–relationship with the living God and Jesus Christ, we would be much stronger today” (Idowu 1956b: 425, 433-434 in Shenk 1973:305).

Few Christians take their covenant with God very seriously. Their churches don’t. We do things together, but we are not together. One man looked at all the varieties of churches and said, “Only covenant will provide bonds strong enough to bind so many different kinds of Christians together. Covenant secures our unity while recognizing our diversity” (Os Guinness and John Seel 1992:19).

 Conclusion

Let’s go back to 1 John 1:5-2:2. (especially verses.5-7).  There is an interesting contrast between light and darkness. We can apply this to the difference between covenant fellowship and what we have called usual relationships.

  1. Fellowship in God’s light of covenant is better than relationships that we create in the dark. Apply that to marriage.
  2. Fellowship in the light of covenant is more realistic than relationships in the dark. Apply that to marriage.

Light is invisible unless it shines upon some object.  We think we see a ray of light shining into the room.  But that is not so.  We see only the particles in the air upon which the light shines and which thus reveal the presence of light.  God is light (I John 1:5), but he is invisible and unknowable unless He shines upon objects that will reveal him – we are those objects. When we fellowship with the light and in the light we become the light to others.

 

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