Covenant and the UMC (Guest post by Joel L. Watts)

Image Courtesy NCC Advocate

Good News and others across the interwebs are clamoring for a schism, with some even suggesting “peaceful” plans for the other side to leave. Good News calls the current UMC position “untenable”: “We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline.” The same Good News press release also said that “many of our bishops are unwilling to enforce The Book of Discipline and the covenant we have agreed to live by.” “When people choose to break the covenant that holds us together, there has to be some accountability,” said Rob Renfroe, a United Methodist pastor in a recent Christian Century article.

I want to draw attention to their language at this point, however. The belief of the independent Good News is that the covenant of the UMC cannot hold. While I would like to focus on where such groups get their authority to speak to the covenant of The United Methodist Church, I will not. Instead, I want to address the language of a contractual covenant. As pointed out on Hacking Christianity, Thomas Oden’s article pre-dating the 2012 General Conference is making the rounds. In this letter, Oden refers to John Wesley’s sermon, On Schism. But, I want to take a different route. I want to focus on the role of covenant in the Book of Discipline. Below are general statements from the BoD regarding the covenant.

  • In the Episcopal Greetings to the 2012 BoD, the Bishops remind us that this book before us is a “book of covenant.”
  • Paragraph 102, Section 1 states, “United Methodists….Living in a covenant of grace under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we…” (emphasis mine) Likewise, in the Basic Christian Affirmations, we are again placed in covenant with God.
  • Paragraph 125 states, “United Methodists throughout the world are bound together in a connectional covenant…” and are “In covenant with God and with each other.” As part of this paragraph, read A Companion Litany to Our Covenant for the Worldwide United Methodist Church which begins with “In covenant with God and with each other we affirm our unity in Christ.
  • Paragraph 214, in speaking about who can give oaths, states, “in full covenant relationship with God and the Church.”
  • Baptism is referred as a covenant.
  • Paragraph 217, when speaking about the local church, states, “They covenant together with God and with members of the local church to keep vows which are part of the order of confirmation and reception into the Church.”
  • Ordination is referred to as a covenant.

Let me sum this up. The United Methodist Church is based on the idea of a covenant. We are placed in this covenant through baptism, through ordination, through membership in the local church and included in our vein of the covenant is the Book of Discipline. It is about covenant. Let us concede that the Book of Discipline is a covenant, but if it is a covenant, then it is a covenant under God and with each other. Let us concede that God is very much a part of this covenant we make with one another called Methodism. So, now let us turn to Thomas Oden, once more, but this time in the third volume of his Systematic Theology.

The Unbreakable Relation of Member and Body

“One cannot dissolve one’s family by mutual agreement. One will always remain a member of that family. So it is with the baptized in the family of God. What one becomes by baptism one never ceases to be, even when that baptism is to some degree forgotten or ignored.”

“The church is founded upon a covenant, but covenant is misunderstood if viewed as to bilateral transactions or agreements based on mutual benefit. Rather the covenant is that which God has initiated with humanity and fulfilled in Christ. The covenant, having not been initiated by humanity, cannot be unilaterally broken by humanity, for even when the covenant people forget the covenant, God remembers it and remains faithful to it.” (1)

Oden is rather clear on this, and in much of this section — the covenant is not ours, but Gods. Further, schism is a bad thing. In fact, he says the sin of schism may be laid equally at the fit of those who leave and those who stay. My concern is with the nature of the covenant. If as Good News and other parachurch groups suggest, the covenant is about transactions and is simply between you and I, then it can be broken. If it is as this, then we should not call it a covenant. It is more like a secular handshake. However, if we are in covenant under God and one with another — if our baptisms mean anything, if our oaths of memberships mean anything, if our covenanting prayers meaning anything – then it cannot be broken so easily.

The “orthodox Wesleyan” Christianity we should promote is one of Covenant to God — which means, schism is nearly impossible. Our covenant is not based on the interpretation of Scripture in regards to homosexuality. Our covenant is based in God and upon basic Christian affirmations with a Wesleyan emphasis. Likewise, in our covenant all members are expected to follow certain rules and standards — and Bishops and councils are given the ability to decide the measurement of action or inaction as well as the appropriate punishment if necessary. While some who support inclusion are breaking the standards within the covenant, those who seek to destroy the covenant based in God and with each other, or as we call it — The United Methodist Church, who are in fact making the covenant “untenable.”

As Wesley and Oden, not to mention the Church Fathers, have pointed out, schism is a rather large public sin. I would propose it is because it publicly humiliates all that the Church represents. How so? The Church continues in covenant with God. It represents the reconciling of God through Christ of the world. It likewise represents the unity of all nations, even those historically opposed to one another. The Covenant of the Church is such that it binds us together with Christ as our head even in those things on which we differ. It gives no cause for schisms or separations. Even in Acts we see Jews working to prevent the fracture of the covenant. Gamaliel (Acts 5) suggested a time of peace to allow God to work. Here, even when he disagreed with the Apostles over the nature of just about everything, they were still bound in covenant to God through Abraham. This is but one example of working to keep the covenant whole. The United Methodist Church is a covenanting church, first with God and then with each other. Let us work with that in mind.

Joel L. Watts holds a Master of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God’s Theater: Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).
1. Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit: Systematic Theology, Vol.III. (San Francisco, CA: Harper 1992), 289.



  1. If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

    The above is conditional on two parties fulfilling an obligation and there are tons of examples of breach of covenants in the OT as well as in the NT and Gods reaction to both.

    There would be no need to use the term “New Covenant” if the “Old Covenant” was in effect.
    Something changed. Something is different. The Old Covenant is not the same as the New Covenant.
    The Old Covenant is replaced.

    John Wesley was known to have use and enforce something called PENITENT BANDS or “backsliders bands”. These bands were used to separate those with repetitive sin from those that were in good standing fellowship. The covenant relationship with the good standing groups was put in a kind of limbo until true repentance and acts of the band wearer where changed.

    This was not excommunication but it was close.

    1. Excommunication is a practice of intra-church discipline (and Hauerwas would say, hospitality). That is a poor example in this context. The language of suppercessionism is troublesome for many reasons, and there is a reason it has been rejected by much post-holocaust Pauline theology. I would commend Romans 9-11 to you as an example of how the Old Covenant is not simply “replaced.” The new covenant is actually living out of the promise of an unconditional covenant (it looks conditional on the front end, often times, but then we see God again and again calling Israel back to himself).

  2. Joel, your essay is insightful but slightly shortsighted. The “Methodists” were in covenant with the Church of England and yet the Methodist movement broke away. Did they destroy the Covenant when they broke away? How about the Lutherans who broke away from Rome; did they destroy the covenant? By your reasoning neither of these groups are legitimate.

    1. Dennis, I’ve looked for the word illegitimate in my essay, but I could not find it. I am wondering if I used it to reference any break away group.

      As to the history you referenced… it simply is not correct.

  3. It is odd to me that those who refuse to live in covenant and thus promote schism are so stridently accuse those who wish to keep covenant of not wanting to be in covenant and of seeking schism! It is time for honest soul-searching. Send us a revival, Lord.

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