I am blessed to be part of a covenant group. The group consists of a clergywoman, two clergymen, and a staff person, also a woman. We meet regularly to encourage each other in our individual spiritual journeys. This group is a space to receive empathic listening when one of us needs to share where we are struggling in our devotion to Christ. The group is what is called, also, an accountability group.
Gregory S. Clapper, in “Making Disciples in Community" (The Wesleyan Tradition), refers to the misuse of John Wesley’s focus on “heart religion.” For many, Clapper writes, heart religion has been a permission to ignore all except the “inner impulses of the individual heart.” Rather, Wesley taught to trust the available means for guiding us along the spiritual path, not give absolute trust to inner impulses.
One of the chief means we trust, according to Wesley, is community. Okay, I admit that community generally is not necessarily trustworthy. However, community does not have to be the whole community. The community we trust to help us live wisely may be a small group within the community or even a small covenant group with persons not in our faith community. One is not wise, indeed, to trust or divulge to persons who are not trustworthy, even if they belong to the faith community.
A small, intimate, and trustworthy community of like-hearted persons is a vital instrument in spiritual living. Such an empathic and compassionate group provides formative possibilities. This is why John Wesley set up, wherever he went on circuit, small groups, or mini-communities of seekers and Christian believers. Clapper calls these groups “little churches within the church.”
As a pastor I have learned that often, likely, the transformation of a congregation must begin with a small “church within the church.” This “core church” models covenanting, being the yeast that slowly expands, transforming the over-all faith community.
Hebrews 10.24-25 provides a helpful guide to any covenant group, or spiritual core group:
24And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (ESV)
“Stir up” is the Greek paroxusmos (par-ox-oos-mos'), implying to provoke or incite and is used negatively of irritating or being contentious. The King James Versions renders “stir up” by “provoke.”
What is a covenant group to stir up? A covenant group is to stir up participants to two practices: love, or agape (ag-ah'-pay), and good works. “Good” can refer to what is beautiful or honorable.
The stirring up is added to by another process, given in v. 25: “encouraging,” from the Greek verb parakaleo (par-ak-al-eh'-o), implying a range of ideas, including “to comfort, to instruct, to implore,…”
Of importance is that a spiritual accountability group plays a role alike the inner Work of the Spirit in the Christ Apprentice’s mind and heart. In St. John 14-15 the sacred Spirit, who will come to the disciples, is referred to as the “comforter" (KJV). The Greek noun, akin to parakaleo, is parakletos (par-ak'-lay-tos), literally “called to one’s side”(Thayer’s, Strong’s). A close spiritual community functions in the same capacity as the holy Spirit in individual lives.
1. Have you ever been in a covenant group? Are you now in a covenant group?
2. If you are not in a covenant group, prayerfully ask at least two others persons, no more than three other persons, to join in a covenant group with you.
Spirit of Christ, grant us each the gracefulness to be called alongside a few who need our presence and, likewise, grant us each the humbleness to welcome those few whom you call alongside us to serve as Your Presence. Help us not to focus on those persons who resist the ministry of covenanting in love but, rather, to delight in the companionship of those who welcome our ministry of being called alongside. Grant us not to be distracted nor intimidated in any way by those who, without knowing, are afraid of the calling to live in covenant and, thereby, seek to subvert efforts at covenanting together in Love and Good Works. Amen.
*Brian K. Wilcox
OneLife Ministries is a pastoral outreach and nurture ministry of the First United Methodist Church, Fort Meade, FL. For Spiritual Direction, Pastoral Counseling, spiritual formation workshops, Christian meditation retreats, or more information about OneLife, write Rev. Dr. Brian K. Wilcox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian's book of mystical love poetry, An Ache for Union, can be ordered through major bookdealers.
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