Conviction and Covenant
“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”
It is, some say, the essential Protestant moment: Martin Luther declaring to the political and ecclesial hierarchy gathered at the 1521 Diet of Worms his immovable conviction that he must align himself with the truths he had uncovered in the Word of God.
For those like me whose earliest understandings of Luther were shaped by the black-and-white clarity of the 1953 film shown at least annually at our Adventist elementary school, it was a moment equally of fear and pride. The set of Luther’s jaw, the inner ferocity that caused his hands to shake and his pupils to dilate as he uttered his best-known words, gave us unforgettable images of what conviction looks like. Conviction, we came to realize, is the hardwired connection between a person and a conscience, the inviolable territory on which no prelate and no potentate may tread.
The remnant quilt composed of different hues and fabrics will no longer warm, protect, and unify if every piece refuses the covenants of love and mutual support that stitch us all together.
Paradoxically, though, we saw those images and learned about personal conviction in a communal setting—in a classroom filled with 35 students (yes, this was the sixties!), each of whom was enrolled because our parents formed a covenant with other parents and a congregation to raise their children “in the fear of the Lord.” In fact, dozens of covenants—some large, some small—undergirded our experience in that fifth-grade classroom: a common curriculum; the qualifications of our teacher; an agreed-upon tuition rate; a shared commitment to Adventist values.
In any community that cherishes the right of individual conscience, covenants are also vital to maintain a life together. The apostle Paul’s famed metaphor of the body (1 Cor. 12:14-26) reminds us that uncomprehending autonomy results in dysfunction and disintegration. Covenants—built on truth, made visible by love—are the crucial connective tissue of the body of Christ.
Just now, the body of this church is powerfully experiencing the opposing pulls of both conviction and covenant. Even as we justly celebrate the God-given right of each believer to read and understand the Scriptures as enlightened by the Spirit, we recognize that without a corresponding covenant to live, worship, and witness together, our future could be atomized into 20 million parts, devoid of coherence and derelict in mission. The remnant quilt composed of different hues and fabrics will no longer warm, protect, and unify if every piece refuses the covenants of love and mutual support that stitch us all together. Insisting on “my truth”—and thus depriving myself of the guidance, wisdom, and correction of my fellow Adventists—will inevitably sunder what God has joined together, rending the seamless robe of Christ, an action even His crucifiers did not attempt.
If I have a fear for the future of this remnant movement just now—and I confess I do—it is that we could be catapulted by the vehemence and pride of some loud voices into a dystopian wasteland of shards and fragments, mostly to satisfy their insistence on winning their “truth.” Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their church—to speak carefully of those with whom we disagree; to refuse gossipy and malignant caricatures; to “be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10). Caring about God’s remnant church means not casually rending its unity because we believe we have the votes or media access to do so. We must instead ask ourselves the questions of covenant and construction: “What builds us up? What edifies? What promotes the peace of the people of God? What uses every gift and resource to enlarge the Savior’s kingdom?”
The only remnant worth belonging to is the one that will not tear itself apart by Christless spite and crossless acrimony. The apostle’s plea, anchored in the covenant of grace, speaks powerfully to our moment:
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3, NRSV).*
* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.