More than 400 years ago, a company of Christian believers met in a village in Lincolnshire and made a covenant together.
They were facing persecution, imprisonment and even the prospect of death because they wanted to worship God freely in the way they believed God was calling them to do.
One of their number, looking back on the event some years later, recalled that the members “joined themselves by a covenant of the Lord into a church … to walk in all his ways, made known, or to be made known to them … whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them.”
This congregation left England shortly afterward to seek freedom abroad in Amsterdam where, through reading the Scriptures, they made a startling discovery. At the heart of this covenant promise was the baptism of believing disciples, of those who were able to respond to God’s grace with their own faith.
Baptism expressed the covenant, and through baptism the covenant became actual in time and space.
Thus, this company became the first Baptist church, and some of their members returned just three years later to face oppression and hardship as they established the first Baptist church on English soil.
As time went on, another phrase was usually added to the covenant promise among churches of the Baptist movement.
Members were to “watch over each other,” holding each other up to discipleship and holiness, in a life that might contain many unexpected developments as they “walked together” into a future in which God made their way “known to them.”
These three notes – walking in fellowship, watching in mutual care and openness to ever-new possibilities – have rung down the years in Baptist churches and are enshrined in the “Covenant 21” service of covenant renewal that many Baptist Union churches and associations in Great Britain use today.
Not all Baptist churches have written actual covenants to be read and signed by the members, but Baptists have generally understood their life together to be covenantal in nature, and their understanding of baptism has always been covenantal.
I mean that covenant has two dimensions, which we might call “vertical” and “horizontal.”
In the first place, it is “vertical”: God makes agreement with us, giving disciples gathered together all the benefits of the salvation that has come through the death and resurrection of Christ and calling for our response to these gifts.
At the same time, it is an agreement that is “horizontal,” in which disciples promise to be faithful to each other.
Covenant is, therefore, not merely a human choice to join together and do certain things together. It is not the kind of “strategic alliance” that can be made in business and politics.
It is – as those early 17th-century believers affirmed – “a covenant of the Lord.” It is a response to Jesus Christ who, as the maker of the new covenant, is gathering us together and who stands amid his people as the risen Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. This covenant is sealed in the water of baptism and continually renewed in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
From the beginning of their church life, Baptists thought that “walking together and watching over each other” was not just a matter for individual believers in a local congregation.
Just as members of one church walked together in covenant, so congregations also walked together in “association” with each other.
Just as members in one church watched over each other, seeking to find the mind of Christ for their life and mission, so churches together were to watch over each other and seek the mind of Christ as they assembled together through their representatives.
Paul S. Fiddes is a Baptist minister and professor of systematic theology in the University of Oxford. He was formerly principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and has been chair of the Doctrine and Church Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.