Sometimes the small unarticulated things are the most foundational; permanence in relationships is one of these. When I was about 4 my father sort of “disappeared” from my life, he was still around, but given his dad died when he was that age the break in our connection was not surprising. Over the years of church life various senior men have ceased to relate to me, reinforcing a self-image that I am a “difficult person”. Since these sorts of relational breakdowns are very painful I long ago made an inner vow never to abandon anyone. Overall Church culture is not like this; we have generally sidestepped the God-given craving for total and permanent covenantal relationships and substituted in their place connections that are openly conditional and limited. What we call contractual relations have become a normal part of Church life. This is a great tragedy for contracts can never image the unlimited love of the Father who gave his Son for us as a sacrifice on the cross.
Contract versus Covenant
Long ago a highly practical proposition was put forward to our first parents; if you eat of the tree of knowledge then you will become like God knowing good and evil (Gen 3:5). When Adam and Eve accepted this Satanic way of dealing with things humanity fell into pragmatism. The reality of contract had been born with its characteristic if…then sequence. I will love you if…, I will pay you if…., I will stay married to you if… God’s heart has never been limited by the conditions of a contract. As the Creator of our “life and breath and everything” he needs nothing we can give him and can never be repaid by anything we could ever do (Acts 17:25; Rom 11:35).
The command, if you eat of the tree of knowledge then you will surely die (Gen 2:17) was a description of what happens when we cut ourselves off from the glory of God (Rom 3:23). To forsake the presence of “the living God” plunged the world into an impermanence culminating in death (Ps 42:2). Our sin has spoiled everything. No matter how confident our culture appears on the surface anxiety-and-control are everywhere because impermanence is found at the foundation of nature itself (Rom 8:20-21). Contracts are simply our attempt to manage risks and make life predictable. Such devices are appropriate in the world, but have no proper place in the Church of God.
If contract is limited and conditional, covenant is unlimited and unconditional. Anyone who has ever uttered the traditional marriage vows, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer”, understands the extreme nature of covenant. The permanence of God’s commitment to us is made known through “the blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb 13:20). The death-and-resurrection of Jesus on our behalf is a revelation of “the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:11). It is a demonstration that the Father is our Father forever; the permanence of Fatherhood is an essential part of its glory. The failure to live this out creates relational poverty in the Church. The anxiety-and-control that impermanence breeds has only one remedy; the unfailing presence of fathers and mothers in God (1 Cor 4:15).
At a cross-city gathering recently I commented to a friend that the one distinguishing feature of the presenter was that he had stood by other leaders in his city for a generation. This was at the heart of their cross-generational unity. Tragically few believers can point to an authority figure that has stood by them unchangingly over many years. This is why we are lacking the manifestation of the glory of God for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-26). It is through the unfailing presence in our lives of more mature men and women of God that we come to know that even in the darkness’s of life we are in the Father’s presence (Mark 15:33-34; Rom 6:4).This is not the usual experience of Australian Christians today.
What Have You Done?
““What Have You Done?”” said the LORD to our first parents whose mercenary ambitions ruined all relationships (Gen 3:13). Sadly we have kept their tradition going. Instead of communicating the reality of Church as family we have become conformed to the world’s pragmatic way of doing things. Instead of seeing people as gifts to the Church (Eph 4:8, 11) we see their gifts as means to an end e.g. the prophet will “give you a word”, the evangelist bring a “harvest of souls” and so on. The outward results of a ministry become the focus and little attention is paid to the relationship that minister has with the Father of Jesus. It should then come as no surprise when “highly functioning” church leaders fall from grace. Babylon like the Western Church has turned God’s gifts of people into products to be bought and sold (Rev 13:18). Contractual relationships have their place in the world of Caesar and mammon, but what do such things have to do with Christ (Matt 6:24; 22:21)!
A Church without contracts is realistic, but only in the light of the ultimate realities of the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord. Paul was to his churches a father (1 Cor 4:15), and his younger fellow-workers were his “children” (1 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4). The apostolic life style taught that spiritual fathering/mothering could never be bought (1 Cor 9:1-23). In the church-as-family these men lived contract free lives, something still possible today. When Christian singer Keith Green stopped selling his records he trusted that God would move people to make the right level of contribution as gift for gift. Surely this move into the sphere of grace alone brought his prophetic edge to a new level of maturity. I am occasionally asked about my “fee”; whilst I am usually happy to receive gifts it is certainly not biblical to do ministry for the sake of payment.
It is time to let go of contractual connections in the Church and reawaken our God-given covenantal craving for those unconditional long term bonds that alone can reveal the glory of our forever Father (John 10:29). I am encouraged by seeing the Lord at work turning the tide of the times. In the midst of a busy professionalised world the Spirit is raising up a body of mature men and women whose greatest distinctive is not their influence or outer success but a refusal to ever abandon relationships. In our anxiety ridden times these mothers and fathers in God mirror Jesus’ final earthly promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18 cf. Heb 13:5). This is the message of unconditional covenant love needed in the Church for the world today; and it is coming to the fore in our time. May the Lord guide our prayers in these matters, all for the glory of God the Father (Phil 4:20).
 Something I would not deny, but breaking relationship is never healing.