Message from Tim
Covenant: A Mutual Agreement; An Engagement Entered into Between God and a People
What is church? It is a visible community of saints where ‘two or three more saints join together by covenant with God and with themselves’.
The year was 1607 and in Gainsborough a small group of non-conformists were trying to figure out what it meant to be church in an entirely new situation, as they gathered illegally to conduct worship in a manner not authorised by the Book of Common Prayer. For them, church was not defined by following a particular form of worship, by the preaching of God’s word or by the administration of the sacraments.
Rather they saw themselves as being bound to each other and to Christ by a covenant: as those ‘whose hearts the Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for His truth… and as the Lord’s free people [they] joined themselves, by a covenant of the Lord, into a Church estate in the fellowship of the Gospel to walk in all his ways made known, or to be made known, according to their best endeavours whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.’
There was a recognition that as they entered uncharted territory together, their commitment would need to be deep – maybe even sacrificial – and they would need to reply on the Lord for his help. Their commitment was tested: when some of their number were imprisoned, and the congregation fled to Holland, where freedom of religion was allowed, and it was there that their pastor, John Smyth, baptised himself and his followers, making them the first English Baptists.
I put myself in their shoes and wonder how much strain was put on their covenant relationship by the decision to leave this country and go abroad where they could worship freely. Were they all of one heart and mind in the decision to go, or did some stay in England? Were there some who baulked at the prospect of going abroad, or would some have argued that they should stay in England, no matter what the threat of persecution might cost them? These believers showed a pioneering spirit in their professed openness to being led along ways ‘to be made known’, but I can imagine that discerning those ways was far from easy. But that is precisely why their commitment to each other and to the Lord needed to be solid.
For ourselves at Brighton Road, I don’t think that navigating the way ahead is going to be at all easy. When you read or look at the news, nothing seems to be stable; everything is shifting around unpredictably, and we are caught up in all of this. People still talk about life getting back to normal, in society as well as at church. But I suspect that, if and when we do find a new equilibrium, it may look and feel very different to what we once knew so well. In times of change – turmoil, even – what can we rely on?
That little congregation in Gainsborough put their trust in the Lord as they sought his help to face the trials that lay ahead, and they also covenanted to walk together, whether the paths along which the Lord led them were well-known or utterly unfamiliar. Winter is coming! When it does, the Lord will be with us. Will we be there with each other and for each other? Inasmuch as we are a church joined together by covenant with God and with each other, then, yes, we will.