What’s the Evangelical Covenant Church? “Missional Pietists”

Evangelical Covenant Church logoSo what’s this small but fast-growing denomination called the Evangelical Covenant Church? When I asked Facebook friends from the Covenant to suggest a sentence or two, I received several suggestions.

I won’t repeat them all, but two common themes emerged. Most everyone appealed to figures or slogans from European history, and they described the Covenant as a group of people, not an organization:

…Swedish rebels who believed in the “priesthood of [all] believer[s]” and the necessity of new life in Christ.

The folks who ask “Where is it written?” and “How goes your walk with the Lord?”

The ones who look to P.P. Waldenström‘s unique theological contributions, such as: No change occurred in heart of God as a result of the fall!

They’re good answers (I’ll turn to historical context in more depth in the next post in this series), but I suspect that my senior pastor, who’s apparently been thinking about this during his sabbatical, was right to say that we still lack “an ‘elevator description’ that somehow is more helpful and engaging than ‘an offshoot of the Swedish Lutheran Church.'” (Which, by the way, is exactly how I tried to answer the question when I got it from the good folks at the Lutheran church we visited in southwestern Virginia this past March. Sometimes I need to turn off the historian switch…)

I’m no good at writing such succinct descriptions, but what I can do is throw out three answers that are currently in use by the denomination, and try to unpack them, explaining for outsiders what they mean and perhaps suggesting to insiders why they’re good starting points for Mark’s “elevator” answer.

Answer #1: The Evangelical Covenant Church is a group of missional Pietists.

This is where our current president, Gary Walter, started his report last Friday morning at the Covenant’s annual meeting in Chicago, repeating a descriptor he’s been using for at least three years now.

“We’re missional Pietists” is a useful answer if only because no other denomination’s president would ever say this. The problem, of course, is that it invites the obvious follow-up, “Uh-huh, and what’s a Pietist?” Take it away, President Walter (from a 2010 column in The Covenant Companion, our monthly magazine):

Pietism is the spiritual renewal movement out of which the ECC was birthed. In contrast to mere intellectual agreement with an externalized creed that could have no impact on a person’s heart, it recaptured the importance of a living, deeply personal, ever-growing relationship with God. Pietists are committed to both the new and ever-deepening life in Christ. This approach is intrinsic, and indispensible [sic], to our ongoing identity.

Then here’s my own attempt, from the introduction to our forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education:

Pietists at all times and in all places seek a more authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration. Suspicious of “dead orthodoxy,” Pietists subordinate doctrine to Scripture—with an irenic, or peaceable, spirit prevailing in matters where the Bible leaves open a range of interpretations (or where they encounter those of other or no religious faith). Clergy and laity alike form a common priesthood actively engaged in worship, education, evangelism and social action, in the firm hope that God intends “better times” for the church and the world.

Gary WalterI shared that definition with some people I’m working with this summer at Bethel, and one passed it along to his son, who’s about to plant a Covenant church here in town. That pastor’s enthusiastic response reminded me of the next paragraph in Walter’s 2010 column:

Often I hear people newer to the ECC say, “I’ve been Covenant all along—I just didn’t know it.” [It’s true. I overheard this exact sentence twice this weekend.] I think what they are really saying is, “I’ve been a Pietist all along—I just didn’t know it.”

Walter continues —

Oh, you noticed that I skipped the adjective, did you? Okay, let’s take on “missional” — but just briefly:

But we are more than simply Pietists. We are missional Pietists. That deeply personal faith calls us to be deeply engaged with the world God loves.

Now, I think this might be a bit redundant. As Walter lays out what he means by “missional,” it seems he’s just describing what Pietists have been doing ever since the early 18th century, when A.H. Francke founded his educational, medical, and philanthropic institutions in Halle and that city and the Moravian center of Herrnhut started sending missionaries to places as varied as India and Labrador. That’s why my definition incorporates the theme of active engagement and hope for “better times” — and not just for the church.

But given that a fair number of Pietists throughout history have taken the “deeply personal” impulse so seriously as to retreat from the world (and that, consequently, “pietist” more than rhymes with “quietist” for many non-Pietists today), it’s probably worth being redundant.

Cover of the Covenant Quarterly(Incidentally, I used Walter’s “missional Pietists” comment as the jumping-off point for an article on Pietist models of cultural engagement in the August 2012 issue of The Covenant Quarterly, and those ideas found their way into multiple chapters of our Pietism and higher ed book, including my conclusion.)

Back to Walter’s column… He suspects that “What resonates” — what makes people find themselves in the Covenant, and as Pietists — “is our devotional approach to an orthodox faith more than the orthodoxy alone.”

If you go to the Covenant Church’s website and click on “Who We Are” (and that’s cheating! — only do it if you promise to come back and read the rest of this post and its two follow-ups), you’ll see four similarly constructed answers. Two of them underscore what Walter is trying to say in connecting Covenant identity to (missional) Pietism:

The Evangelical Covenant Church is:

• Evangelical, but not exclusive

• Biblical, but not doctrinaire

If you understand “evangelical” as historians like W.R. Ward and David Bebbington do — describing a transnational movement that originated in the awakenings of the late 17th and 18th centuries and continued into the revivals of the 19th and beyond, then I’m not sure how you could call the Covenant (est. 1885) anything but evangelical. To this day we affirm “the necessity of the new birth,” “the centrality of the word of God,” and “a commitment to the whole mission of the church,” all of which can fit within Bebbington’s categories of conversionism, biblicism, and activism. (I’ll wimp out and avoid crucicentrism, since getting into Covenant views on atonement would give everyone — me included — a headache.)

Paul S. Rees: Portrait of a Preacher
Paul Rees, Covenant pastor and vice-president and NAE president (1952-54)

But if “evangelical” means to you the postfundamentalist “neo-evangelicalism” of the second half of the 20th century, then things get tricky. Plenty of post-WWII Covenanters came to Christ through a Billy Graham Crusade or a Young Life group, went to Wheaton or joined InterVarsity, sponsored a child through World Vision, etc. But while the Covenant has contributed one president to the National Association of Evangelicals, the denomination itself never joined that organization. For no small number of Covenanters, the new birth did not require a datable conversion experience, the word of God could be central without the Bible being inerrant, and “the whole mission of the church” was not equivalent to the agenda of any political party.

And here in the 21st century, evangelicals who make confessional fidelity and doctrinal purity the requirements for participation in the movement may well say farewell to “missional Pietists” who emphasize a “devotional approach to an orthodox faith more than the orthodoxy alone.”

But while we join other descendants of the Reformation in treating the Bible as our highest authority, Covenanters insist that Scripture then reigns over doctrine as well. (“Where is it written?” has long been the standard Covenant challenge in any theological debate.) Like Philipp Jakob Spener, we believe that any hope for renewal begins with the pious wish for “more extensive use of the Word of God among us,” not for the hardening of orthodoxies that have a habit of ending up as what our late Baptist cousin Virgil Olson called “rotting formalism, a thinned out evangelism or a misfired scholasticism, or anything else that has the form of piety and lacks the power thereof.” As Pietists, we are “Biblical, but not doctrinaire.”

And like Spener, we suspect that “religious controversies” rarely produce living faith, that controversialists tend to “regard true confession of faith merely as a means of strengthening their own ecclesiastical party and not as an entrance upon a life of zealous future service of God.” As Pietists, we are “evangelical, but not exclusive.”

Indeed, it could be argued that the defining feature of the Covenant Church is that it resists theological definition: that its people have pointedly refrained from taking sides in the disputes that have torn Protestant denominations apart. (Communion, baptism, eschatology… Time will tell if we also maintain unity in spite of conflicting views on human sexuality.) If you “confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to follow him as Lord” and if you “accept the Holy Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as the word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct,” then you’ll have met the two membership requirements for Covenant congregations and can begin to work out with those in your fellowship what our handful of core theological affirmations mean in your context.

And if you find that you disagree with those with whom you worship, pray, and serve, then find peace in the sixth, perhaps most pietistic affirmation: “the reality of freedom in Christ.” Which means,

as one of our forebears put it, that freedom is a gift and the last of all gifts to mature. In the meantime there will be questions and conflicts. Full maturity and full understanding await the day when “the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, when he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). In the meantime we offer freedom to one another, since for Covenant people freedom is not something we claim for ourselves, but offer to the other. In this we are simply sharing the gift of freedom God has given us in Jesus Christ.

In part two, I’ll look to our historical context. Get ready for jokes about Swedish-ness!

Read the next post in this series>>

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