By Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins
Acting Executive Director
I miss reciting the Church Covenant that my home congregation performed every First Sunday evening. From the age of five until I began seminary at age 21, I was one of the hundreds of members of my church who made promises to God and to each other that we would live, by God’s grace, together distinctively as Christians. In our church, reciting the Church Covenant came immediately following the baptismal service and just before we shared in the Lord’s Supper together. The services on First Sunday nights were conducted by candlelight. Therefore, the covenant was actually recited from memory rather than read, as old and young alike made vows with each other. The Covenant began with these words:
Having been led , as we believe by the spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter and to covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
The covenant continued on to spell out how we as a church would live as a family, walk together despite differences, honor our bodies as a temple of the Spirit, promote the gospel, and stick together through thick and thin. There was a section of the covenant that spoke of refraining from alcohol as a beverage where my parents went mute and half of the church mumbled through the phrase, but otherwise, the covenant was recited loudly and robustly.
Growing up when and where I did, I made a number of assumptions about that covenant. I assumed that it had gone as far back as Christianity itself. I assumed that it was to be taken as seriously as wedding vows were in the 1950s. I assumed that my spiritual survival and that of the church depended on the vows we made with each other. I also assumed that every church recited that covenant by candlelight on the First Sunday evening of the month.
My assumptions were challenged when I began theological studies and discovered that many of my classmates had never even heard of a church covenant, let alone recited it by heart every month of their Christian lives. It wasn’t until then that I learned that the particular covenant I recited was written and published by John Newton Brown in 1853, and that from their earliest gatherings in the 16th and 17th centuries congregational, and especially Baptist, churches have written and adopted various church covenants. It had never occurred to me until then that the covenants made were local church covenants and did not necessarily extend beyond the boundaries of any local church.
To learn of this was actually disturbing and shocking to me. To be committed to each other within a local church is commendable, but what about our commitment to each other as Christians, or at least Baptists across local church boundaries? Why is our Baptist fellowship so fractured? There seems to be hundreds of us — Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, United Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Duck River Baptists, Two Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists, Independent Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, and the list goes on and on — and all too often we turn on each other rather than toward each other.
Thirty-five years after I began seminary, President Jimmy Carter, himself a Baptist, raised the question and proposed a path forward. What about a “New” Baptist Covenant? What would it mean to the United States of America, if not the world itself, if Baptists could come together in fellowship and cooperation committed to reconciling actions that lead to the transformation of our nation? The movement began in Atlanta in 2007 when leaders of 20 different Baptist denominations, representing 30 million Baptists, assembled to covenant together across racial, ethnic, theological and geographical boundaries.
We Baptists committed ourselves to the simple proposition that the world will know we are Christians simply by our love for each other. We declared that our primary affirmation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” trumps all secondary doctrinal, racial, political, social and economic formulations and boundaries. We understood that Jesus calls us to be bridge builders not wall manufacturers.
Further, we Baptists declared our love for all who are in harm’s way as defined by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
We vowed to see one another and the world around us as brothers, sisters and siblings. Our humanity as well as our faith binds us together, and we vowed to fight for a world where all of God’s children will flourish.
Our commitment to each other has become concretized in the formation of Covenants of Action and strengthened through our JUSTReading groups and an abundance of calls to action, resources, tools, inspiration, and support for transforming communities through reconciling love. Today, we invite you to join our movement. It is time for a “New” Baptist Covenant. The world needs us like never before.