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Where Should We Then Live? Covenant Community (Part I)

Covenant consciousness. Its importance is incalculable. The Bible, after all, is a covenantal revelation of the covenant God to his covenanted people.

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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Covenant consciousness. Its importance is incalculable. The Bible, after all, is a covenantal revelation of the covenant God to his covenanted people.

In the older administration, the covenant was largely confined to the Jewish people (Eph. 2:11-12), who were given circumcision as a sign and seal of covenant admission. To be uncircumcised was to be cut off from the people of God (Gen. 17:14). Thus, from the beginning, the sign and seal was to be administered in terms of a people; Israelite males (future covenant heads of households) were by circumcision formally incorporated into that people who were the people of God. Yes, circumcision spoke of what ought to be true of each Israelite (viz., that they placed no hope in the flesh, but rather in their God), yet the rite itself insured no such thing. As Paul by the Spirit so perfectly expressed it: "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God."

Did that mean that there was no advantage in being a member, externally, of the covenant community? Paul certainly thought there was! "What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way." The Jews were Paul's "kinsmen according to the flesh" they were the "Israelites to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen." Their chief advantage was found in the fact "that unto them were committed the oracles of God." Thus, above and prior to the (subjective) conversion of any Israelite stood the objective ground of their covenant status. The faith or unbelief of individual Israelites did not negate the covenant. As Paul said, "What if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid!"

In the new administration of the covenant, baptism (a bloodless sign) replaces circumcision as the rite of admission, admission to a new people, as it were, composed of Jews and Gentiles sharing in the promises of God on an equal footing. The church, with the crucified, resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ as her head, is now seen to be "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God." To us is now committed the complete "oracles of God."

All who are properly baptized are part of this people. Baptism, however, like circumcision, cannot be regarded as a guarantee that there is or will be in each candidate the subjective reality of which it objectively speaks. Rather, lawful baptism, like lawful covenant circumcision, is a rite of formal reception into the community covenanted with God. It is a legitimate pastoral concern to see, subjectively and experientially, in all who are baptized the realities of which baptism speaks. But this concern must not cloud or (worse) negate the objective reality that those lawfully baptized in the Triune Name properly constitute a people.

American Christians in 1998 seem virtually unable to think in terms of covenant peoplehood. Why? Because we make the subject (the individual) our starting point, rather than the object (the covenant). We then filter all Scripture data, seek to answer all problems, and live out our lives, in individualistic terms. In this column I want to highlight one manifestation of this hyper-individuation: where we choose to live. It seems most Christians today do not even entertain the thought of living in a Christian community. And no wonder, when our thinking about Christianity is restricted to individual regeneration or, at most, individual churches.

Demographers tell us that the average American will move many times during the course of his life. Decisions regarding where to live typically involve employment, proximity to other family members, factors regarding housing costs, transportation, education, cultural venues, and, among the more committed, proximity to a sound church. Rarely, if ever, do Christians put Christian neighbors at or near the top of their list. But we should.

That is how observant Jews make this important life decision. They will, they may, move only to a Jewish community. There are many reasons for this, but two are inescapable: the minyan requirement, and the Sabbath day's walk. Christians are familiar with the latter from Acts 1:12 where the Mount of Olives is said to be "a Sabbath day's journey," i.e., 2,000 cubits or about a mile, from Jerusalem. To walk a greater distance is considered "work" and therefore forbidden.

Minyan (Hebrew for "number") refers to the minimum number of male Jews above the age of thirteen required for congregational worship. They have a saying: "Nine tsaddikim (righteous men, often Torah scholars) do not make a minyan, but one common man joining them, completes the minyan." It is not uncommon today to find, outside small shuls (synagogues), a man seeking to flag another Jew, urging him to come inside that they might commence with the liturgy. Some find support for this minimum number for a congregation in Abraham's "bottom line" (Gen. 18:32); others in the ten spies who, in Numbers 14:27, are called an edah (congregation), a word commonly used in Exodus to refer to Israel (see, e.g., 12:3, 6, 19, 47).

The reality is that in order for a Jew to live as a Jew, he must live in an area where there are at least nine other post-bar mitzvah Jewish males. And since Jews have worship services twice daily, having only the minimum number available is undesirable. The numerous other advantages of covenant community are very real (for example, convenient access to Jewish day-schools, availability of foods and goods which conform to rabbinical standards, etc.), yet ingenuity might find ways to have some of these met (mail order, homeschooling). But there is no way around their requirement for ten men for congregational worship and no handy way around the limitation imposed by the "Sabbath day's journey." Serious Jews must live in communities of Jews who are within walking distance of each other.

One happy result of these traditions is—and this is the point I wish to impress upon you—in the Jewish mind, the community comes first. Thus, when considering where they might live, Jews have at the top of their list an item which rarely, if ever, appears on the list of Christians considering the same. Some might think this a distinct advantage for the Christian. I regard it as an unmitigated disadvantage as well as a severe missiological handicap (more anon).

Pastors who suggest that Christians ought to live in close proximity to one another are sometimes eyed suspiciously or even as "cultish." But the idea is hardly novel. In Acts 2 we learn that "every day" believers met together in the Temple courts, broke bread in one another's homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts: a tough thing to do if scattered in far-flung pockets. Rev. John Butler has called my attention to Lane's notes on Hebrews 3:13 (q.v.) where he acknowledges that Christians were likely meeting daily. And Calvin's daily preaching in Geneva relied for efficacy upon a people living in sufficiently close proximity to avail themselves of the opportunity to hear him.

That Christians have the freedom to do "x" is not a compelling argument for them to choose to do "x." As Paul taught, asserting that "all things are permissible" should not lead one to conclude that "all things are expedient, profitable or beneficial" (1 Cor. 6:12). Though Christians are free to live wherever they choose, there are good reasons for them to choose to live in covenant community, better reasons than those employed by our Jewish friends.

Those reasons I hope to set forth in next month's column; let us first try to jump one or two nearer hurdles. For what is being suggested may have grounds and implications beyond our received, comfortable ken. We are simply unaccustomed to thinking in terms of covenant community. Even people who do live in a de facto Christian neighborhood don't usually regard it as such. They are more likely to think of it in ethnic or nationalistic terms, or even denominational. Somehow, the fact that the neighbors go to a different church becomes akin to saying, "They serve a different Master." And when house or apartment hunting, Christians rarely put, "Is it a Christian neighborhood?" near the top of their requirement list. Thankfully, as noted above, some Christians at least consider, "Is it reasonably close to a sound church?" Far be it from me to discount this consideration! But I fear that framing the question like that may leave unchallenged the very mindset which is in need of a covenantal adjustment. For we too easily think of the Christian religion and the church as conterminous, i.e., as having a strictly common boundary. But this is not correct.

The Christian Faith is larger by far than any church, even than the church. The role of the church is vital, critical, even central. But it is not all there is. By equating Christianity with the institutional church, we start with a faulty premise and, not surprisingly, end with defective practice. Christ's claims may begin at the church, but they do not end there. All of life is to be lived self-consciously under his Lordship. He, not the church, is the sole mediator between God and man. God's covenant lays claims upon all in all walks of life and is to govern us in all manner of living. Churches exist to aid us in pursuing that goal, not to absorb us as if the church alone may pursue it.

The New Testament epistles contain a great deal of instruction about Christian living, but very little of it is directed to elders of the institutional church for enforcement. The Corinthian Christians, for example, each and all, were instructed not to eat with "professors" who openly dishonored God's law. The Thessalonian believers were admonished not to associate with professors who disregarded Paul's apostolic instructions (5:14), and they were all commanded to keep away from every brother who is willfully idle (5:6). These, along with many other instructions and warnings, lead us to conclude that the primary sphere of Christian government beyond the individual and his family is the Christian community, not the Christian church. In a vibrant covenant community, a community well-taught at the local assemblies, the social costs of sin serve as the front-line infantry, with the artillery of formal church discipline reserved only for flagrant, unrepentant violators.

The church is a servant of God's covenant. When we see the covenant and the church as strictly contiguous or, worse, reduce the covenant and put it in subjection to the church, we ask the church to assume a role and to bear a burden it was not designed for. And too often, when assuming this burden, we find the church imposing itself where it does not belong, sometimes usurping the role of covenant fathers, or the covenant community, and in extreme historical instances, the state, as well.

God's dealings are with a people. As God's people, we are active servants in many spheres. We are active in our families; God has instructions for all family members. We are active in churches; God has instructions for church members, for those serving as officers as well as those serving in diverse other capacities. We are active in our communities; God has instruction for us in our service at work and at play. We are active in civic circles; God has instructions for our behavior in the political sphere.

The church is the place where the community assembles for formal corporate worship. It is also the place where the community is to receive comprehensive instruction in the whole word of God—confessionally rooted, authentic instruction. These functions are the Jakin and Boaz (1 Kin. 7:21) of the church. Her third pillar, her glory, is found in the deeds of love and mercy (done in truth) which flow forth from her. But even these pillars, though found in her uniquely, are not found in her alone. Every family is to be a worshiping family; and there are many means by which instruction may come; and to restrict love and mercy to the church is to ask to live in a cold world beside!

The point of all this is simple. When the church is viewed as comprehending in itself the totality of the covenant, it will become a robber baron. It will (inevitably) shift its orientation from that of servant to that of Lord. It will seek to govern every aspect of anything calling itself Christian, will seek to micro-manage the affairs of its communicants, will impose its power to discipline in ways the Apostles never dreamed of, and will short-circuit the ability of its members to press Christ's claims beyond its own borders. Confusing the church with the covenant means, worst case, the loss of both in any given generation.

But when we see that God gives his word to a people—and that the members of this people are all prophets, priests and kings—when these people of God live together in community so that their lives intersect at ten thousand points during the week, when we see that God's covenant Word—not the church—is to govern every member at every one of those ten thousand points, then the true glory of the church is ready to shine forth. For in serving the community as a center for worship, instruction and mercy, she makes herself absolutely indispensable, just as God intended. Then she, just like a wise and good mother, finds that her children would rather cut off their arms than live without her. For she, like a wise and good mother, has worked herself into the hearts of her children through the power of self-denial and love, through nurture and faithful instruction, through the incalculable power that accrues to one who has exercised no other muscle than that which was required to be always there to serve. A wise woman builds her house, preparing her children for maturity. The church which prepares her members for independence, i.e., for service outside her precincts, will find members tripping over themselves to serve inside and out.

Just as such mothers can normally exist only where there are strong fathers, so also such churches can exist only where there are strong Christian communities.

An Associated Press story last year told of a planned "gay" neighborhood in Chicago. It was receiving institutional and municipal recognition as such, along with millions of dollars to showcase it. I live where I was born: in New York City. We've long had "gay" neighborhoods. We have just about every kind of neighborhood, too: Italian, Polish, Caribbean, Russian, Pakistani, Arabic, Yuppy, Orthodox Jewish, you name it. Guess what we don't have? Right.

But we're working on it.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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