I don’t know much about some branches of my family tree. (My wife and I purchased DNA test kits a few months ago to help us trace our ancestry and ethnic backgrounds, but we haven’t opened them yet. Maybe I’m worried because of the television drama I recently watched where a DNA test led to a man being wrongfully imprisoned because his DNA matched the genetic fingerprint of his identical twin he didn’t know existed. Maybe I shouldn’t watch so much TV.) I have, however, heard quite a bit about some of my Scottish ancestors on my father’s side.
These forefathers/mothers were part of a group known as the Covenanters who rallied under a blue banner that proclaimed “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant.” Things didn’t always go so well for the Covenanters — especially during a period in the 1600s known as the Killing Time. According to Scotland’s The National newspaper, “It is estimated that 18,000 people lost their lives for adhering to the cause of the Covenant and to this day many Covenanters who died then are revered as martyrs for their faith” (fmchr.ch/covenanter).
I’d love to throw on a blue kilt and “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant” T-shirt and say these ancestors were right about everything, but the truth is much more complicated. I won’t take the space to detail all of the Covenanters’ intertwined religious and political views, but it’s safe to say that these staunch Presbyterians/Calvinists would be disappointed that one of their descendants is a Free Methodist/Wesleyan. Based on the writings of their theological forerunner, John Knox, they certainly would not like that my wife is pursuing ordination as a pastor.
Nevertheless, I can admire these Christians for taking their covenants seriously despite the threat of imprisonment and death. I fear that many modern Christians are unable to detail their doctrinal beliefs and what makes their home church or denomination unique. Just as people are discovering their genealogies, I think people should understand their theological heritage.
The good news is that the most important covenant is shared by all Christ followers whether Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists or (insert other group here). According to our partners at the Bible Project, “Christ himself is the New Testament covenant —a covenant that cannot fail and cannot be broken. Christ invited people to follow Him and join Him in a new partnership with God” (fmchr.ch/bpcov).
This issue focuses on both covenants and laws — specifically the Law, aka the Torah/the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Bible Project explains, “In the Torah, we see God create humanity, but humanity rebels. Later, God chooses Abraham to bless all of the nations through his family and bring them back to God. Abraham’s descendants, though, end up as slaves to the Egyptians. After God rescues them, He makes a covenant with them, agreeing to protect them and bless them if they follow a set of rules and rituals that we now refer to as the Old Testament law” (fmchr.ch/bplaw).
These are not manmade laws like my Scottish ancestors were sometimes willing to break in order to defend their covenants. These rules and regulations are the Law that came directly from God and that Jesus Christ fulfilled (Matthew 5:17–18). Unfortunately, some people became obsessed with obeying the Law while simultaneously forgetting to love the other people God created. However, Romans 13:8–10 instructs us, “Be under obligation to no one — the only obligation you have is to love one another. Whoever does this has obeyed the Law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not desire what belongs to someone else’ — all these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one command, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ If you love others, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law” (GNT).
I had the opportunity last summer to visit the church graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, where the Covenanter movement officially began in 1638. I’m hoping someday to visit the upstate New York location where the Free Methodist Church officially began in 1860 at an apple orchard and adjacent campground.
While it’s good for us to trace our roots, it’s even more important for us to “not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT). Free Methodists from around the world will gather July 16–19 in an Orlando, Florida, convention center for General Conference 2019. Delegates will elect new bishops and possibly pass new church laws in keeping with our covenants (aka Articles of Religion), but many more of us will join them to meet and encourage each other. Keep reading in this issue for this month’s installment of Light + Life’s ongoing series previewing the GC19 focus groups.
Jeff Finley is the executive editor of Light + Life, which he joined in 2011 after working as a reporter and editor for Sun-Times Media.