/ Gentle Reformation

National Covenanting: A Realistic Solution for the Economy?

I’ve been thinking about the current economic crisis, and whether the Covenanter doctrine of National Covenanting is for such a time as this. I thought I would post some of those thoughts here to invite discussion from anyone interested—mostly as an exercise in thinking through the practical application of that biblical doctrine we call, “National Covenanting.”

Different branches of the church often have certain doctrines that are special to them. In his providence, God gives one heritage of his people historical experiences that lead them to sharpen their development of one doctrine, while another branch of the church (through its historical experiences) are compelled to wrestle with other doctrines. There is benefit to the church as a whole, when we learn from the contributions various branches of the church have to make in our common effort to grow in the richness of the biblical faith.

In the Reformed Presbyterian Church (the body in which I serve), the experiences of the Scottish Second Reformation forced our spiritual forefathers to give particular attention to the biblical doctrine of “National Covenanting.” A couple helpful examples of the practice can be found in 2 Chr. 15 and Neh. 9–10. In these and other biblical examples, God’s people gathered from across the land during times of spiritual and social crisis. They then entered into a carefully articulated confession of sins, with a joint resolution to cry out to God for his mercy, and a society wide commitment to reform the land with specified national changes based on God’s law. Biblically, such national covenanting was a powerful means for reformation. It was also a practice which the Scottish Covenanters (the heritage of the Reformed Presbyterian Church) observed in the 16th and 17th centuries with great blessings.

But what would it look like if we practiced National Covenanting, today? Under what kinds of conditions would it be appropriate to draw up such a document? It is one thing to point back in history to those who exercised this often overlooked biblical practice; it is another to think about what it would look like to practice the same, still.

National Covenanting is something I believe in biblically, but when and how to implement such a discipline (realistically) seems complicated. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to National Covenanting today is the fact that there is no unified, National Church. The church in our society is so divided; there is no single, church court where such a united confession of sin and reform could be prayerfully worked out. That is a huge obstacle.

Nevertheless, assuming for a moment that the church in America were healthy enough to unify around such a biblical discipline, under what kind of circumstances would a National Covenant be appropriate? I wonder if the current economic crisis would be the kind of setting in which such a practice might be duly observed.

As I follow the news, there is a lot of blame for the economic crisis being thrown around. Democrats blame Republicans (“We had a surplus under Clinton; things fell apart under George W. Bush’s spending spree”). Republicans blame Democrats (“Too many government programs and too much taxing of ‘job creators’”). And so on. But surely this is the kind of crisis which has been brought on, not by a political party, but by a culture-wide delusion.

As a society, we wanted to believe that cash flow (rather than cash in the bank) was the mark of wealth. We wanted to believe that we could start living, right out of college, at the standard of living our career income would eventually catch up with (rather than waiting to earn that standard of living over time). We, as a nation, liked the idea that the American Dream (nice house, two cars, etc.) was something we could start enjoying now and pay for as we go (rather than saving up for it). In short, there is a whole host of fantasies about how money works which we, as a culture, embraced. This was not a shift in economic thinking hoisted upon us by Republicans or by Democrats; it was a dream about how we wanted the economy to work that was embraced by both political parties, promoted from Hollywood, adopted by universities, adapted to by banks and mortgage companies and businesses, and by which we as a society started to live. In short, it was the kind of shift in belief which the Old Testament law calls “an unintentional congregational sin” (Lev. 4:13)—a sin adopted in fantasaical ignorance for which the whole society bears guilt.

We, as a society (including, the Christian community within this society), bought into a whole series of false ideas about economics and life. But the truth is the truth, and no matter how united we are as a society in how we want things to work, eventually the way things really work catches up. And alas, payday has come.

Thankfully, there are many energetic politicians endeavoring to find ways to fix some of the errors incorporated into our banking and mortgage systems. I’m not smart enough on economics to evaluate how well political and institutional leaders are doing (or which ones are right where there are heated disagreements). But, is this not the kind of setting in which the church (if we were united enough to do so) should also be identifying the congregational sins we have accepted in order to make a united, national covenant of repentance and reform? The problems in American society (for simplicity, I’m only addressing our economic troubles at the moment) will not be fixed simply with institutional changes. Popular attitudes toward money and luxury also has to change. I hear politicians admit that, time and time again. But politicians are powerless to bring that kind of reform. Confronting hearts is the role of the church. Adapting systems is all the state can do.

If the church was more united, and if the church and state had a proper relationship (touching on another, cherished Covenanter doctrine), perhaps this would be the kind of setting in which the State would continue its systemic reforms, while the Church would draw up a national covenant of social and religious reform. Such a National Covenant would not be drawn up as a pious document to frame and hang on the wall, but as a real working text that gives preachers guidance for preaching against these sins across the land, giving people a charge to join their hearts in a common confession of true faith and repentance, that we might seek God’s mercy.

I try to be optimistic, but personally I am pretty pessimistic about our government being able to reverse this present economic slope. In part, because the current economic decline is just the symptom of a much broader social decline. But also, because changing economic systems is important, but somehow we have to change peoples’ hearts and attitudes. And government is simply powerless to do what is really the job of the church to do: to preach with “thou shalt” authority to the consciences of men. If a nation like America in a pickle like our current economic slump, is to experience a truly effective recovery, it seems to me it would have to come from a cooperative reformation of both economic systems (led by the State) and reformation of hearts (led by the Church). And that is the place where the biblical practice of National Covenanting seems to fit nicely.

What do the rest of you think? Especially my fellow Reformed Presbyterians who (like me) have heard the stories of the Scottish Covenanters and who hold to the doctrine of Covenanting: is this the kind of scenario in which National Covenanting (ideally) moves out of the pages of theology books and into the living faith and practice of a nation?

By the way, I fully appreciate the fact that ultimately national repentance will have to deal with our sins of idolotry and rejection of Christ. Economic sins are by no means the heart of our society’s troubles. But it is money that gets people’s attention, and the economic crisis seems to be what is opening the doors for thoughts about reform. Would this be the kind of setting in which a more unified, national church would draw up a National Covenant?

What do you think?