Thomas Ogletree on Covenant
“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”
With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community. Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.
One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress. In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about. It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder. Ogletree notes,
“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”
Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect. This moral code, says Oglegtree,
“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”
Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion. And yet, it is a part of our DNA. Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:
Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.
As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything. The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC. Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:
“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)
[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]