by Layton Friesen, Conference Pastor
As I travel across our conference I often wonder: what is it that holds these churches together? What ties bind us across the 4,555 kms of our conference’s breadth? The word I keep coming back to is covenant. What fastens us is similar to a marriage covenant between congregations with the challenges and fun of any marriage.
In fact, I would say that a congregation’s ability to stand up for the truth of marriage in our culture is greatly strengthened if it lives out its own covenant with other EMC churches. It’s hard to convince the world that a marriage covenant is a human tasting of God’s long-suffering faithfulness when the congregation itself can’t bear the nuisance of being in binding covenant with other churches that it does not find agreeable, attractive, or handy.
Which brings me to the difference between a covenant and a contract. In a contract I give you money or services in exchange for the services I know I will get from you. If a wife said to her husband, “What has this marriage done for me lately, anyways?” you would know that marriage is in a very bad place.
That husband would be a fool who would say, “Sure, no problem. I can easily draw up a list of 10 things I have done for you lately and then you will see that our marriage is great.” That marriage has become a contract, and will soon dissolve completely if a deeper mystery is not found.
Likewise for a congregation to ask, “What has belonging to the EMC done for us lately?” is also a very sad question. It would be a foolish conference that tried to draw up a list of all the benefits of belonging to a conference as though that was addressing the real problem.
Covenants involve work and mutual service but they are not based on works. If this connection we have as churches is something created by God (and if not, then let’s be rid of it), then it is a covenant of grace and not of works. We are bound together because God found us lost and alone and bound us together for His greater purpose and our training in divine union. We have not negotiated a contract to scratch each other’s itch.
But like a marriage, once we are taken up into the mystery of our divine fastening, we find all kinds of ways to serve each other, work together, grieve with each other and to celebrate and relax together. Sometimes the covenant needs to be renewed and freshened in our wills and wallets. But none of that is done to prove that this marriage is worth it. None of that is done as a membership fee.
Some of our congregations have annual covenanting services where they renew the bond between them. It’s a way to resist the drifting autonomy and alienation that constantly plagues modern life. Perhaps we, the Evangelical Mennonite Covenant, need a similar reminder that “you are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Note: This column reflects some of Layton’s report at the EMC national ministerial meeting on July 6, 2018, in London, Ont.