“Covenantal Christians”: Beyond Evangelical and Liberal

For years, I’ve had discussions about the term “Evangelical” with other Christians who see peace and justice as a core part of the gospel. I always argue that the term is too far gone and they argue that we should reclaim it. That it is theologically accurate and the best word to describe who we are.

At the same time, I’ve never been very comfortable with the label “Liberal” either. Coming of age with Clinton bombing countries right and left (7 or 8 depending on how you count) in the name of liberalism probably had something to do with it.

This week over on Revolution in Jesusland, Zack Exley used the term Covenantal Christians to describe a category that I instinctively identify with.

Essentially, covenantal Christians are those who are motivated by a sense that God calls us to make sacrifices based on the principles and traditions. Those of us who see our covenant with God above all else. Of course, we rarely succeed in this endeavor, but we at least give it a try.

He sums it up this way:

…they believe that a God who is actively engaged in humanity is inviting us into a new covenant with him–one aiming at peace and justice–and they are desperately trying to live up to this new covenant.

Its a big tent, but I think a useful one. He includes under this label: Emergent, Red-Letter, Evangelical, Born Again and even maybe Fundamentalist. I would add some other labels such as Anabaptist and New Monastic to this list.

I think one of the particularly useful parts of this description is that it crosses the battle lines of the Culture Wars in some way. There’s a comment in respond to Zack’s post that links to this video on the New Yorker site:


If you have 15 minutes sometime, I highly recommend this video of a presentation by Jonathan Haidt. He lays out a compelling explanation for the reasons that issues like gay marriage have come to define politics so much. He also challenges those in the audience who identify as left of center (nearly all of them based on a show of hands) consider a broader view of morality in order to better understand wear conservatives are coming from.

The concept of “Covenantal Christians” forces (or allows) those of us who are left of the center to reclaim what we have in common with conservative Christians, while at the same time offering a common vocabulary for discussing our widely divergent theological and political belief systems.

But before I go much farther, I’d like to test this label with all you YARers out there. Does Zack’s definition resonate with you?

Comments (21)

  1. Jason Barr

    It does resonate, particularly on an intuitive level – I’m not entirely sure how to articulate it (which drives my analytical side crazy).

    I really like Zack’s work in general. He’s a profound thinker and has a real gift to be able to communicate to a wide range of people.

    I think there’s a lot of what he says in that definition that lines up with how I define the Gospel – especially the covenant inherently being oriented towards peace and justice, terms whose Biblical resonances embody far more than what we tend to think of with those terms.

  2. Dan S

    I definitely like the idea of sacrifice as a core value of what it means to be a faithful Christian.

    I’m not so sure about the term “covenantal” though. The term begs the question of what the covenant is, exactly, so in that sense doesn’t really describe what it is we are supposed to be agreeing about, or sacrificing for. Is the covenant supposed to be theological, ethical, economic, etc? I’m sure we would all agree to some covenant, and disagree about the specifics.

    I guess “Sacrificial Christian” would be an obvious alternative, but that also begs the question of what we are sacrificing, and would describe us as victims. It’s also kind of gross.

    Since I have nothing better to offer, I guess I shouldn’t complain about “Covenantal” :)

  3. Sean F

    I guess I’m not really thrilled about adding one more label to the already-too-long list of Christianese monikers. I suppose if you could make everyone you’re trying to include agree to the new name, it might serve to promote some unity, but that’s not likely to happen. Even if it did, the implication is that other Christians outside of your group don’t view their covenant with God as supremely important, and you’ve now accused them of idolatry. Hardly helpful. I recently heard Dr. Campolo talk about his “red-letter Christians,” and I honestly couldn’t believe it. Leave aside the obvious hermeneutical problem (is the rest of Scripture somehow inferior?). Are they really implying that other Christians don’t take Jesus’ words seriously? Creating new labels may be a great way to rally your buddies, but I don’t see anything constructive coming out of any of this.

  4. SteveK

    Sean, I understand what you are saying, “Why bother making a new label.” But I find that if we don’t make a label ourselves, then we will be given one that doesn’t fit what we really believe. “Anabaptist” is a good example. It means “one who baptizes again”, when the real point of the early anabaptists is that the “first” baptism wasn’t a real baptism at all! “Mennonites” is another term that we were given, although I have to say it IS better than the original term, “Mennists”, which sounds much better after “Dennis the…” than as a name of a church group.

    I might also have a problem adapting the Covenant label, but I wouldn’t really have an issue about it if what I really believed was represented. But could it imply a believe in “covenant theology” which is strongly connected with Calvinism?

    Campolo’s name I thought was a good one, but one that most evangelicals can’t accept, because they hold to a “flat” bible.

    What about “followers of Jesus”? A little wordy, perhaps, but it’s got a good history.

    Steve K

  5. Sean F

    I think maybe we need to make a distinction between different kinds of labels. I think there are good kinds of labels, those which are used as tools for unification. Catholics and Methodists and Armenian Apostolic and Mennonites are all united under the common label of “Christian,” and I think this is a very good thing. It makes us recognize that we don’t necessarily have a monopoly on the truth and that we must tolerate a great deal of diversity within the Church.
    However, there is also the type of label that draws lines between different groups: “We’re x and you’re not.” This is the kind that I think is poisonous to the Body of Christ. I think that for persecuted groups (like Anabaptists), these labels have had very positive effects on unity, etc. However, the temptation is to take on the “We’re right and they’re wrong” mindset and entrench ourselves with those labels. The argument that we should pick a label before we’re given one we don’t like doesn’t make much sense to me, given the already detrimental lack of unity that exists in the Body. Having an inaccurate label applied to our intellectual position is not the worst possible outcome; if it comes down to that or breaking the Body into another little chunk, I’d rather be misunderstood.
    Now with all of that said, I don’t think Exley is trying to divide the Church. I do think he’s trying to be constructive. But I think that by focusing too much on healing schisms between “emergents” and “evangelicals,” he’s ended up leaving a lot of people out, and it’s bound to have some negative effects. I think the fact that Tim had to add Anabaptists and New Monastics to the list is illustrative of this point. Instead of reordering Christian nomenclatures, why don’t we just accept that we’re all Christians who disagree about some things, and get on with loving our neighbor? Why do we feel like we have to label ourselves at all? What are we accomplishing?

  6. tomdunn

    Steve and Sean, I have enjoyed reading what both of you have to say, and I want to throw in my two cents.

    I have been trying to balance what both of you are saying in my head for some time. The idea that we “anabaptists,” and “mennonites” are a distinct group, a different group, set apart etc. I’ve sure you’ve heard it all before. While we may be distinct and different, how do we maintain the unity with other Christian’s that Sean is talking about.

    To put it another way, how do we maintain and speak our “prophetic voice” without coming off as arrogant “We’re x and you’re not.” I’m sure many of us had our ego stroked at San Jose, as we were encouraged to let our voice be heard. Alright, that’s nice, now how do I do that. How do I tell John Doe evangelical, or liberal, or conservative, or red letter Christian, or Covenantal Christian, that I am right and you are wrong…..but I’m just being prophetic.

  7. DevanD


    I have to agree with Sean; more labels within Christendom makes it a lot harder to navigate.

    I think the labels become a way for the conversation to stop – i.e., “I am a Mennonite”, and if someone knows what Mennonite means, then they have a handle on what I believe and the discussion can stop there. I would rather say I’m a Christian and then engage in a conversation about what that means to me. Besides, I don’t follow Menno Simons, I follow the Christ that Menno professed.

    Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? – 1 Corinthians 1:13

    Moreover, I think the rise of term upon term upon term springs from folks thinking of Christianity in terms of a philosophy, rather than faith in the fact that Jesus is Lord. The church isn’t a humanities department, with Platonists, Aristotelians, Deconstructionists, Nihilists, Marxists, etc. The church is Christ. As Paul said:

    For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. – 1 Corinthians 2:2

    A stunning statement, given the fact he was a prominent Hebrew versed in the Torah, educated in Greek schools about Hellenistic philosophy, and a citizen of Rome.

    I get uneasy about calling myself a Mennonite before a Christian; I don’t want to add yet another term. If someone asks me if I’m a Christian, I say yes. If they ask me what kind of Christian or denomination, I simply say evangelical (which I see as different from Catholic or Reformed). If they have preconceived notions of what that means and dismiss me based on that, it is their own misgivings. And I don’t think the term is too far gone, I just think no one has seen anyone who represents peace and justice also standing up and proclaiming Christ crucified on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. Peace and justice folks are fine with pointing out the sins of a system, a government, and political leader. Often, though, they rescind their responsibility to point out the sins of their neighbors as well as their own.

    Maybe I’m hopelessly naive, but I don’t think it’s a great witness to the world if we are making different boxes for different Christians to fall into so that the world can choose to be comfortable with some and uncomfortable with others. We are all Christians despite doctrinal differences, and we need to own that.

  8. Brian Hamilton

    Well said, Devan.

  9. Charletta Erb

    I could buy the idea of Covenantal Christians for the groups you described. My term for an integrated Christianity, criss-crossing the benefits of Evangelical and social justice-minded views, is communal salvation. What we need is something that takes into account the need for relationality resulting in love of enemies, connection, transparency, vulnerability in brokenness, care for self and neighbor.

    Currently, I’m growing into the New Monasticism trends as a way of discipling for peacemaking (I’m going to serve in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams this winter).

    Haight presents 5 foundations of morality. These foundations need to be reformed and broadened for a more balanced progressive morality. They are:

    Harm – Kindness, Fairness – Justice, Ingroup – Loyalty, Authority – Respect, Purity – Temperance

    The first two are embraced by liberals, and the last three are additional foundations for conservatives. I would like to round them out:

    Harm – Kindness to others and to self
    Fairness – Justice to restore, not punish
    Ingroup – Loyalty to an ingroup that is universal
    Authority – Respect and patience with history, myth and story, and structures (to be reformed)
    Purity – Purity as wholeness and healing, not perfection or exclusion

    For liberals to mature, we need to recognize and refine all 5 foundations of morality by broadening their definition for the benefits at the heart of each foundation.

  10. SteveK

    There may be a difference here, but I live in the NW, where Mennonites are far and few between. So when I tell someone I’m a Mennonite, it is a conversation opener, not a closer. No one has a clue, and so I can communicate the part of our tradition that is most meaningful to me. I emphasize that we are just Christians, like others, but that we have some distinctives that are significant.

    The other label that I have had a problem with for a long time, however, is “Christian”. Mostly because the concept of Christian is so far from the Christ-follower the label was intended to be. Now, Christianity is Constantinianism and a Christian is a political label as well as a theological one.

    I had a librarian last year treat me suspiciously because a friend of mine told her I was a pastor, and you know what, I understand why. Because the term “Christian” so often is equated with hypocrite that I don’t like using the term. In Bangladesh, the term Christian is a cultural term, not a religious one, so the Muslim converts there call themselves Isa followers (Isa being the Koranic name for Jesus). I’m with them. I am a Jesus follower. I am held accountable by the Mennonite church, but if I am anything less than a follower of Jesus– whether Mennonite or Liberal or whatever– then I don’t deserve to have his name applied to me.

    Steve K

  11. DevanD


    But can’t the term be redeemed? I notice a tendency of some to retreat from the terms because they aren’t comfortable with the way the term brands them, rather than being empowered to change the perception of the term itself.

    Moreover, what are you implying by saying you are a “Christ-follower” instead of a Christian? That Christians don’t follow Christ?

  12. Sean F


    I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I’ve done some inner city ministry, and we consistently identified ourselves as “followers of Jesus,” not as Christians. The cultural assumptions that are tied to the term “Christian” can immediately close some doors, but I don’t think the word is beyond redemption.

    I strongly believe that our obedience and love for each other are capable of overwhelming any prejudice against “Christians” in the minds of those we encounter. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples…” I tend to focus on interpersonal relationships much more than impersonal “societies” and “cultures,” though.

    In our inner city work, once people got to know us and they got over the fact that we were “church people,” we were able to build some genuinely constructive relationships. I think ultimately the terms don’t matter, so long as we are indeed following Christ and letting people know that we are following him. This is what should unify us, not necessarily the label that we use.

  13. Charletta Erb

    I’m still on this idea of the five foundations for understanding the liberal-conservative spectrum. I’m intrigued by a recent conversation with my friend, Rolland, who pointed out the connections between the 5 foundations and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg's_stages_of_moral_development

  14. TimN (Post author)

    Hey folks, thanks for all your lively responses. Its interesting to see people focusing on the idea of a label. In rereading my post I see that I used this term a number of times, but a better way to describe what attracted me to the post was Exley’s description of a common identity that gets beyond the labels.

    I’m not suggesting we start telling everyone we’re a “covenental Christians”. Rather I am saying that this identity gives me a more helpful way to articulate my faith in simple words that connect me with other Christians rather than divide. Something like this: My relationship with God motivates me to live sacrificially. It calls me to take actions that anticipate the upside down kingdom of shalom that Jesus lived out and invited us to join.

  15. SteveK


    Most Christians don’t follow Christ. They talk about Christ without being Christlike, wear crosses without carrying them, attack their enemies instead of loving them, build up kingdoms instead of seeking God’s.

    Of course, not all Christians are like this. But do we really want to label ourselves with something that most people connect in a word association test with “hypocrite”?

    Steve K

  16. Sean F


    I disagree with the statement that most Christians don’t follow Christ. I don’t think any of us do. The standard we’re supposed to measure ourselves against is much higher than just not killing our enemies; we’re supposed to love them as well. Jesus says that even insulting someone is as bad as killing them.

    Our biggest enemy lies not outside of ourselves, but in our own hearts. We are all murderers. If we aren’t willing to recognize that every one of us is a hypocrite in one way or another, we’re not being honest with ourselves.

    Much as I’d like to dissociate myself with people like Dobson and Robertson, they’re my brothers in Christ, and I’m supposed to love them and work towards unity with them. If we can’t love our brothers who we can see, how can we say that we love God, who we can’t see? Instead of trying so hard to associate ourselves with the right group (whoever they are), we should be focusing on doing our best to obey Christ and love others. The rest of it will take care of itself.

  17. TimN (Post author)


    I think you’re on to something here. I often feel like we’re good at loving our enemies far away, but when it comes to loving folks like Dobson and Robertson, we’re not so good. Like it or not, those are exactly the folks Jesus was telling us we’ve got to love. That doesn’t mean not challenging them or disagreeing with them, but it does mean that those actions should be grounded in the same compassion we have for our Iraqi brothers and sisters.

    As far as hypocrisy goes, I think we’re all guilty of it in different ways. There are a whole lot worse things to be associated with then hypocrisy (which isn’t to say Christianity hasn’t managed to be associated with those too). Hypocrisy at least implies that we have a goal and are falling short. If we’re going to see transformation in the church its going to be when we consistently, lovingly call ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ to a higher standard. But to do that, we also need to identify the common ground we share. Which is what excited me about Zack’s post in the first place. For the first time in a long time, it helped me identify some common ground with Christians with whom I usually only see our difference.

  18. SteveK

    The difference between Dobson and terrorists or the guy who calls me an idiot for speaking the gospel is that Dobson supposedly “knows” the truth. He is a Christian leader who is denying the gospel.

    The difference (I hope!) between us who screw up and we know we screw up and that is that we repent. We screw up and then we realize our fault and we try to make it right. What Jesus is opposed is the hypocrisy of those who take their clear sin and make it a part of their theology.

    There are a couple ways this could be done– in Dobson’s way, by saying that Jesus WANTS us to bomb terrorists (after all, GWB prays, right?). Or, we could say, “God forgives everything, so we can’t judge anyone, not even ourselves.”

    The New Testament strongly disagrees. It says numberous times that we will be judged for everything we do and say, except for that which we repent of. Jesus condemned the Pharisees in very harsh (even insulting!) terms in Matt 23. Paul said that we do not have the right to judge those outside the church, but inside the church, we’ve got to straighten it out. (I Corinthians 5)

    Nevertheless, we DO need to love our enemies. And if our enemies are in the church, and they need to repent, then the most loving thing to do is to gently, kindly, tell them to repent and to get right with Jesus.

    We can’t just pick and choose which morality we are going to correct in others. We need to let Jesus do that. He commanded us to love our enemies, so we need to pray for the church leaders who are leading their followers gleefully into evil practice. And we cannot compromise.

    Anyway, I call Christians really not followers of Jesus, not because they fail. Like you said, we all fail. They aren’t followers of Christ because they deny what Jesus said, because they’d rather listen to their theology than Jesus. “If anyone denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father in heaven.” matthew 10:33

    Steve K

  19. Sean F


    I’d be interested to know how exactly you think Dobson and crew are denying the Gospel. The Gospel isn’t a list of social goals that we should be trying to achieve; it’s Christ and him crucified. We can disagree about what implications that has on our social actions, but I don’t think those are necessities of the Christian faith. I think Dobson is very misguided, but God is the one who judges his heart, not me.

    I agree that we need to lovingly call the Church to repentance when it strays, and I think that we are certainly capable of judging those within the Church. This is exactly my point, though. By drawing lines with our labels that exclude these people, we remove any possibility of doing just that. If they’re no longer within the Body, we have no jurisdiction and they have no reason to listen to us.

    This is so important to me because I grew up on military bases and have bucketloads of respect for the faith of Christians who are just-war theorists, even as I strongly affirm that I believe that they are wrong. As a “convert” to pacifism, I want to make sure that we don’t burn any bridges between Anabaptists and the rest of the Church. If we say that they are misguided, we allow for conversation and possibly conversion, but if we call into question their commitment to Christ, we immediately kill the possibility of dialogue.

    Tim: I went back and reread your post and the post on Exley’s blog, and I think I’m willing to retract most of my original objections. My only remaining qualm is with the fact that he excludes liberals from the fold of Covenantal Christians. I think it’s just inaccurate to say that liberal Christians don’t see their covenant with God as supremely important. They just interpret what that means differently than conservatives do (even that’s problematic, though, because it’s not as if either group is monolithic).

  20. SteveK

    Two responses:
    First, I think we have a difference of opinion about what a “Christian” is. There could be two definitions– a cultural one in which anyone who gives intellectual assent to Jesus is “Christian”. And there is the biblical definition which is that anyone who ACTS like Jesus is their Lord is a “Christian”. To have Jesus as one’s Lord is not just to believe, but to obey and act like Jesus. Thus, those who talk about Jesus but don’t do what he says (like “Love your enemy” and “sell your possessions and give to the poor”) are only Christians in name, no matter how much they proclaim Christ crucified. This is in accord with what Jesus says in Matthew 7 (as well as other places)– “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father will enter.”

    Secondly, I think you do have a point there as far as communicating with those who are “Christian” but do not obey or act like Jesus. If we completely alienate ourselves from them, then we can no longer communicate the full gospel. This is what evangelism is. Finding a way to acceptably communicate the full gospel to people who don’t know it or who refuse to listen to it. So I do not want to show animosity against “Christians”, but I do want to have a lifestyle and a speech in which I am displaying Jesus, but in a way I can be heard.

    I hope I am doing that, though I stumble often.

    Steve K

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