Though many talk about 'covenant' these days, few seem to understand it. Once the speciality of Christians of the Reformed persuasion, it is now embraced in both terminology and practice by believers of many streams.

That's not a bad thing. Covenant, after all, is a major biblical theme, central to the record of God's dealings with his people. But we really ought not to go on about covenant if we don't understand what it's all about. When, for instance, a Christian leaves his local church or network of churches, is it right to accuse him of 'breaking covenant'? It's a serious charge and in my experience rarely justified.

Let's start with the basics. At its simplest, a covenant is an arrangement or agreement. Scripture majors on the covenants that God made with his people down the ages. He made covenants with key characters like Noah[1] and Abraham[2]. Later, after the exodus, he entered into a law-based covenant with the Israelites, sometimes called 'the old covenant'[3]. Then, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, he inaugurated the greatest one of all: the 'new covenant', ratified by Christ's own blood.[4]

Every covenant has clear-cut terms. Built into it are benefits for holding to it and sanctions for breaking it. And because we can't bargain with God, he sets the terms unilaterally. All people can do is accept or refuse them.

To become a Christian is to accept the terms of the 'new covenant'. The arrangement is that God offers eternal life as a gift. The terms declare that it can't be earned or bought by human contribution. God offers it purely on the basis of what Jesus did by dying for sin on the cross, and we receive it by faith. When we come to God on that basis he accepts us—bound by the terms of his own covenant to do so.

We could call the covenants between God and humans beings 'vertical' covenants. But there are also 'horizontal' covenants, established between one human being and another. The Bible records plenty of these, too. Like the ones between Abraham and Abimelech[5], Solomon and Hiram[6], and, most famously, David and Jonathan[7]. Here, the parties thrashed out the terms between themselves. Once they reached agreement, they bound themselves to the covenant in a solemn ceremony, marked usually by the shedding of animal-blood and the sharing of a meal.

Today, the most common 'horizontal' covenant is marriage[8]. The details of the ceremony vary from one society to another but the essentials are generally the same: vows of commitment in the presence of witnesses and a celebratory meal. And God intends marriage, like all covenants, to be lifelong.

But, marriage apart, is it valid for Christians to make covenants with each other, so that they can say, 'I'm in covenant with so-and-so'?

Some say no, there's only one covenant that matters now—the 'new covenant'—and we're all parties to it. While it's a vertical covenant, its terms include clear statements about the obligations of one Christian to another[9]. If we stick to those as we should, horizontal covenants between Christians become unnecessary. Others point out that, under the old law-covenant binding on all Israelites, David and Jonathan also made a horizontal or lateral covenant.[10]  Here, they suggest, is a precedent for today. Within the new covenant believers may enter into similar horizontal covenants, committing themselves to work together for the outworking of God's purpose.

We must note, however, that the New Testament says nothing about such covenants, and this should make us cautious. Most Christians will never enter any horizontal covenant. Those who do will enter it with the same kind of seriousness that marks the marriage covenant. It will be solemn and probably ceremonial, with vows of commitment. And it will be lifelong. Apart from my marriage, I myself have never embraced such a covenant.

Suppose someone asks me, 'Are you married?' and I reply, 'Mmm, good question. To be honest, I'm not really sure. Sometimes I feel I'm married, other times I feel I'm not. But on balance I'd say that, yes, I probably am.' How ridiculous! I'm either married or I'm not. The fact is, I can never forget that day when my bride and I exchanged solemn vows before God and a crowd of onlookers. We made promises of lifelong fidelity and exchanged rings to remind us of them. People clapped and cheered and we all sat down to a slap-up meal. Yes, I'm married all right!

Other horizontal covenants must, by definition, be marked by the same kind of certainty. If someone asks me, 'Are you in covenant with so-and-so?' I'll be ready with a clear and instant answer. If I find myself beating about the bush, with many a 'maybe', 'perhaps' or 'all considered', then I'm not. If, by contrast, I am in covenant with so-and-so I'll be able to say exactly when it took place, what its terms were and how it was ratified. Nobody drifts into covenant unwittingly.

In the light of all this, what about the accusation of 'covenant-breaking' thrown at someone who leaves a local church or network of churches?

Most important, the accuser needs to be clear which covenant he's referring to. Is it the vertical one—the new covenant in Christ—that has been broken, or a horizontal one? In my experience he usually means the latter. But who can break a covenant they've never made? And 99.9% of Christians have never made one. Loyalty to a church leader, local or translocal, is commendable but it isn't covenant. Membership of a local church is commendable—indeed, it's the New Testament norm—but that doesn't constitute a horizontal covenant either.

So can one be a 'covenant-breaker' in terms of the new covenant, the vertical one? Yes, on two levels. First, there's the person who apostatises, that is, turns his back completely on the Lord he once served and embraces the world again with open arms. He's a covenant-breaker. He has 'treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him'[11] and has unilaterally pulled out of his covenant with God. For such a person there's no hope, no salvation.[12]

Second, one can be a 'covenant-breaker' in a less drastic sense by failing to live out the terms of the new covenant with one's fellow-believers. For instance, the person who criticises his brother behind his back is a covenant-breaker, especially if he partakes of the covenant meal, the Lord's supper, with that brother. He's asking for trouble, because the covenant includes penalties for such behaviour—weakness, sickness and premature death.[13]

If one of my church elders takes me to task for some manifest fault and I find myself unwilling to repent and put things right, I can leave that church and join another one down the road. That's covenant-breaking, too. Our leaders are charged with steering our lives into ever-increasing conformity to Christ, and that will require occasional confrontation.[14]  To run away from it is to dodge our covenant obligations.

If, on the other hand, a church leader becomes autocratic, legalistic or heavy-handed, I'm under no obligation to remain in his church and may leave with a clear conscience. If the teaching becomes unbalanced, the worship trivial or the main emphasis falls on tithes and offerings, I may depart without breaking covenant. But even in these cases I would do well to search my own heart for impure motives before making a move.

And I must search my heart with double intensity before throwing the accusation of covenant-breaking at someone else.

Copyright © David Matthew 1999

1. Genesis 9:9-15

2. Genesis 15:1-21; 17:1-21

8. Malachi 2:14

9. For example: 1 John 3:11, 16; 4:20-21

10. We could say it was 'a covenant to keep the covenant'—Scripture records that Jonathan 'loved [David] as himself', a fulfilment of the law's requirement to 'love your neighbour as yourself'  (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:36-40).

5. Genesis 21:22-34

Breaking Covenant

When our ways part...

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. Exodus 19:1-6; 24:1-9; 2 Corinthians 3:14

4. Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 9:15; 12:24

6. 1 Kings 5:1-12

7. 1 Samuel 18:1-4

8. Malachi 2:14

11. Hebrews 10:29

12. Hebrews 10:26-31

12. 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

14. Hebrews 13:17; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:12

Breaking Covenant

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