The Covenant Family
At first glance, visitors to Tri-City Covenant Church are confronted by a paradox. On one hand, it’s difficult not to notice the large (and growing) number of small children and young adults scattered among the adult population (representing in at least one family four successive generations of faith). On the other hand, there is a distinct absence of organized “programs” to “occupy” our young people’s time. We offer no “youth” programs, no skating or bowling outings, and no “youth only” activities or “ministries,” nor do we hold services on Sunday or Wednesday evenings. In fact, other than those relatively few occasions suggested by the Christian calendar (such as Good Friday), the only time we formally meet as a congregation is Sunday morning.
One may be tempted to infer from this admitted lack of enthusiasm regarding “structured” or “directed” church activities that we have a low or minimalist view of the life of the Church. But it is precisely because of our “high” view of the Church that many programs, from our bus ministry to segregated “youth” groups to “children’s” church, have been unceremoniously scrapped as distractions from, or worse, evasions of the importance and centrality of the family to the success and relevance of the Church.
In other words, our view of Church and worship (including the frequency and purpose of worship) is inescapably linked to our view of the covenant family. For we believe that the family is the God-ordained institution intended for the perpetuation and propagation of the faith (Gen 1:28-30; Gen 9:1). The purpose of the Church is complementary to the life of the family: weekly worship and communion and the covenant renewal of the faithful prepares each man, woman and child for the challenges of the week to come. The purpose of the Church is not to compete with the family, or to become a “surrogate” family for bored teenagers. Given the choice between attending another churchy “church service,” or staying at home and relaxing and enjoying the fruits of your labors and the intimate company of your family over a bowl of popcorn (and perhaps a good movie), our advice is: Stay at home. God, after all, is not honored by our being “manipulated” into church for “busy” work; and we’re not doing ourselves or our family any favors, either. Teenagers are entitled to a social life; but if our children prefer being any place but home with mom and dad and their brothers and sisters, the damage may already be done.
Our God, we believe, is the God of the Covenant. And central to the Covenant is the covenant-keeping family.
All history, as redemptive history, is the story of God revealing Himself to and “covenanting” with His people. God is a God that deals personally with His people, which means that God is a personal God. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him?” (Psa 8:4) Thus, the Psalmist’s utter incomprehension of a God who is not only “mindful” of man (acknowledging and interacting with man), but of a God who would actually deign to visit man. That the infinitely self-sufficient and all-powerful Creator of the universe should take notice of us personally, and treat us as individuals and not merely as nameless blurs obscured among the vast multitudes of humanity born since time began, reveals to man not only the boundless depths of the love and grace of God, but of His personhood. It is between the sublimely personal God of the Bible and His fallen and imperfect creatures, that the Covenant is made. It is a covenant extended from God to man, as an act of sovereign grace. We accept God on God’s terms; He never accepts us on ours. “We examine our condition not simply by our present condition,” writes Christian economist and historian Gary North, “but by the Word of God, the Bible. History is governed by God in terms of His eternal standards. God placed mankind under a covenant, and He told man he must subdue the earth.”1
The word “covenant” has a prominent place is the word of God. In fact, the Bible is divided neatly in two, into the “Old” and “New” Testaments. The word translated “testament” (from the Greek testamentum) is equivalent to the Hebrew word “covenant” (diatheke), so we could just as easily say that our Bibles are divided into the Old and New Covenants. The word “covenant” appears 286 times in the Old Testament, and 33 times in the New.2 In its most simplistic terms, a “covenant” is an agreement made between at least two parties, with the terms of the covenant defining in detail the conditions of their future relationship, as well as each’s responsibility and mutual obligations in maintaining the covenant. Ancient Egyptian and Hittite political treaties, for example, allude to a specific covenantal form. The studying of these texts is valuable, as they consist of covenant structures similar to those used in the Scriptures.
According to theologian and exegete Dr. C. van der Waal, the ideal structure of such a dynastic treaty would be: 1) Preamble, 2) Historical Prologue, 3) Stipulations, 4) Curses and Blessings, 5) Invocation of Witness, and 6) Directions for Disposition of Public Reading.3
The Rev. Dr. Ray Sutton, in his trail-blazing study on the nature of the Covenant (emphasizing the unity of the Covenant throughout both the “Old” and “New” Testaments), reveals a similar “five”-point covenantal model. In Dr. Sutton’s model, the Covenant is structured in terms of: 1) Transcendence, asking Who’s in charge? 2) Hierarchy, To whom do I report? 3) Ethics, What are the rules?, 4) Oaths, What are the penalties? and 5) Succession, Does this outfit have a future?4 (For a more thorough examination of the Covenant and how the Covenant “works,” Dr. Sutton’s scholarly but down-to-earth book is indispensable.)
The centrality of the family to the Covenant becomes apparent as we consider the biblical record. The first instance of the word “covenant” occurs in Gen 6:18: “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark; you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Gen 9:9 makes it clear that God’s covenant was intended not only for Noah, but for his family, as well: “And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you.” The multi-generational character of the Covenant is confirmed with God’s call to Abram, later renamed Abraham, “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5):
And the LORD said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: ‘Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are; northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered’ (Gen 13:14-16).
And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you (Gen 17:7).
The promise was repeated to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Gen 26:3,4), and to Isaac’s son, Jacob (Gen 28:13). Jacob, we’ll recall, was the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. And God said: “Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 28:14).
Three crucial points related to the Covenant (and the covenant family) can be gleaned from these pas-sages. First, as already mentioned, God initiates the Covenant, and man receives it. Second, God extends the Covenant far beyond the life of the individual with whom He is presently dealing; that is, the Covenant is family- and future-oriented. Third, not only is the Covenant future-oriented, it has a perpetual shelf-life. It is an “everlasting” covenant, a theme repeated again and again.
The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth ( Gen 9:16).
He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and con-firmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant (Psa 105:8-10).
For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery for burnt offering; I will direct their work in truth, and will make with them an everlasting covenant ( Isa 61:8).
The good news is that the “everlasting covenant” is alive and well in the New Testament era. After all, what’s “new” about the New Covenant? It’s a “better” covenant; we have a better sacrifice, and a better High Priest. All the types and shadows and promises of the “Old” Covenant have now been fulfilled. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, God’s people have more power, and more glory. The Lord of the Covenant, King Jesus, didn’t come to do away with the Covenant; He came to establish it:
Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen ( Heb 13:20,21).
Someone may say: “Well, the Covenant is everlasting, but was limited to Israel.” Who then is Israel? The apostle Paul said that circumcision and uncircumcision “avails nothing.” As “new creations” all believers become “the Israel of God.”5 All people of faith, Paul said, “are sons of Abraham,” that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles.6 We quote the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, who recognized that the coming of the Lord Jesus was the fulfillment, and continuation, of the ancient Covenant promise:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:68-73).
“Everlasting” means forever, as in “without end.” Is God still the God of the Covenant? Or has God changed? God has not changed. Nor can the Covenant be limited or “individualized.” No Covenant made between God and man has ever been limited to the individual man. Childless men notwithstanding, the Covenant is always a “family” affair, with long-term consequences for both the covenant-keeping family and the covenant-breaking family. Consider Numbers 14:18: “The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.”
This means that not only has God never changed, but the covenant between God and men is not “voluntary.” In rejecting the Covenant there are automatic multi-generational negative consequences, for the individual and his family. The negative con-sequences for the “guilty” are relatively short-lived (three or four generations compared to “thousands” of generations). The Covenant, therefore, is inescapable. Whether or not someone “believes” in God (or the Covenant) is immaterial; the terms of the Covenant apply to all men, generation after generation. The promises God made in the “Old” Testament are the same promises being made (and fulfilled) today. Since God doesn’t change,7 neither can His Word-based promise.8
The Family, the Future, and Building the Kingdom
The Covenant is ethical cause-and-effect in action, both in time and in history: blessings for covenant-keeping, and curses for Covenant-breaking. Understanding the Covenant is impossible apart from God’s law. “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD!” (Psa 119:1), and “You rebuke the proud; the cursed, who stray from Your commandments (Psa 119:21).
“The purpose of the law,” writes theologian R. J. Rushdoony, “is the fulfillment of the creation mandate. Scripture gives us one law, one Lord, one covenant, one plan of salvation, and one law. The members of that one covenant live and die; the covenant continues. The old Israel gives way to the new, but the covenant continues. It is an everlasting covenant. It governs man, and it governs the earth.”9
God’s plan is the re-establishing of the created order and the restoration of all things under Jesus Christ.10 Christ’s enemies must be defeated. Then, and only then, will Christ return.11 Christendom, led by godly families, is to grow, generation after generation, exerting its influence “here a little and there a little,” until the Christian faith is the dominant and normative faith and fills the entire world.12 It is not without reason that the family, as an institution, has been singled out and is under constant attack. Radical feminism, militant homosexuality, compulsory government education, extortionary inheritance laws, the abortion culture, “children’s rights” crusaders, the social engineers and the central planners and the army of taxpayer-subsidized bureaucrats leading the charge, are at war with the traditional family. The ungodly understand (even if we don’t) that other than the Church, the sovereign, self-determining, independent family is all that stands between our national legacy of Christian liberty and the unrelenting advance of the total, God-rejecting State. For both the Church and our families, our only defense is a strong offense: the unequivocal assertion of a Biblical, covenantal faith, grounded in God’s law-word.
Programs, pizza parties, “busy” work, multi-purpose rumpus rooms and “user friendly” multi-media extravaganzas are not the answers to a culture in collapse; nor are they solutions to flagging church membership rolls. Strong godly families are. It doesn’t take a “village” to raise a child. It takes godly, covenant-keeping parents faithfully teaching their children covenant obedience in order to prepare them for their lives as adults, with families and children of their own.
Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from [the] children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments (Psa 78:1-7).
Our homes are not meant to be substitutes for church. We are not to neglect corporate worship, tithing, assisting the brethren, helping the deserving poor, engaging in social activism, spreading the gospel, and doing good works. But neither are these things proper substitutes for our lives as covenant families. As history moves inexorably toward the restoration of all things under Christ the King, the future of the Church, the advancement of the kingdom, and the life of the covenant family are inextricably linked. As the family goes, so goes the kingdom.
- Inherit the Earth, Gary North, Dominion Press, 1987
- Koehler-Baumgartner Lexicon, Grand Rapids/Leidon, 1951/58
- The Covenantal Gospel, C. van der Waal, Inheritance Publications, 1990
- That You May Prosper, Ray Sutton, Institute for Christian Economics, 1987
- Gal 6:15, 16
- Gal 3:7, 8, 13, 14
- “For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” ( Mal 3:6).
- “Forever, O LORD, Your word is settled in heaven” (Psa 119:89); “My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips” (Psa 89:34).
- Law and Society, R. J. Rushdoony, Ross House Books, 1982
- Acts 3:21
- 1 Cor 15:24,25
- Mat 13:31-33; Dan 2:35,44; Isa 11:9