Thomas Ogletree on Covenant

ogletree book

“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.”

-St. Augustine

With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community.  Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.

One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress.  In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about.  It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder.  Ogletree notes,

“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric  of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”

Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect.  This moral code, says Oglegtree,

“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”

Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion.  And yet, it is a part of our DNA.  Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:

Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.

As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything.  The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC.  Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:

“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)


[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]

17 thoughts on “Thomas Ogletree on Covenant”

  1. What examples have you to back up this sweeping judgment, Drew? The only one I can read into your post is the swipe at Tom Ogletree. That is not a good example in my opinion. We ought not to oversimplify the our covenant nor ignore the reality of multiple and at times conflicting covenantal obligations. Most pastors I know whose sense of Biblical Obedience leads them to minister fully and equally to gay folk (including same sex marriage ceremonies) do so in full and serious regard for the entirety of their covenantal obligations as clergy. And the movement of gay folks towards marriage is about love and commitment. As a married person yourself, you surely appreciate that holy marriage is sacricial and not self-seeking.
    In peace and friendship,

    1. Isn’t that the whole point being made here, Dave? Individuals are acting out of their own sense of Biblical obedience rather than what the covenant community has discerned (albeit far from unanimous and via far from perfect means, though the only ones prescribed by our covenant) to be obedient to Scripture? I readily concede that on all sides of this and other issues, individuals work out of their own sense of what is the right thing to do. However, when different perspectives are mutually incompatible they can’t all claim to keeping faith with the covenant community. Either the moral judgement of the individual is supreme, or it is superseded by the moral judgement of the covenant community. If the former, then the word “covenant” no longer has any meaning among us.

      1. Perhaps “no longer has any meaning” is a bit melodramatic. However, if the discernment of each individual is supreme, it does beg the question what we even mean when we use words like “covenant,” “community,” “connected,” and “united.”

      2. I do “get” that Drew’s point is that we can’t each independently discern and follow (or disregard) our own sense of “what the rules should be.”

        Do you “get” my point which is that today’s UMC rules are contradictory so that no one is fully complying with the letter of all our rules regarding ministry with gay folks? It is not just the “progressive” who point out that the UMC constitutional provisions that we be in ministry with all persons is in conflict with rules telling pastors they cannot perform a same-sex marriage in states where that is legal. Increasingly bishops are making the point that BoD is self-contradictory and/or is legitimately seen as self-contradictory by people of good faith. Retired Asbury professor Steve Harper makes that point in his book For the Sake of the Bride. So it is not like Bishop Mel Talbert is violating the BoD and Rev. Rob Renfroe is not; each is making a faithful choice to keep the BoD as best they see it.

        Also think it is incorrect and a misuse of the covenantal concept to reduce it all to covenant at a General Conference level (as if our covenantal commitments at local church and Annual Conference count for nothing) and to judge keeping/breaking that covenant based only on one’s actions with respect to same sex marriage.

        Those pastors going boldly into Biblical Obedience are not doing so as individual agents but in discernment with others in the clergy covenant both formally (in certain annual conferences) and/or informally (signers of RMN’s Altar for All).

        Covenant is complex and multilayered. Again conservative Steve Harper does a better job of explaining this than I can. Some readers might also like progressive Jeremy Smith’s treatment at

        You say “when different perspectives are mutually incompatible they can’t all claim to keeping faith with the covenant community”, but I’d like to suggest that we need unity in Christ and not uniformity of thought. Pastors across our connection can hold different perspectives and take different action doing or not doing same-sex marriage ceremonies, but still they can be faithful to Christ, to the UMC and to our covenant.

        I didn’t understand Harper’s book as fully affirming same-sex marriage, but rather as saying that differences of opinions on this question should not divide our denomination. I fear I cannot due justice to his whole book, so typically I just recommend it for reading for all connectional delegates.

    2. Dave,

      I would like it very much of UMC progressives would speak more about ways in which they view marriage as holy and monogamy as God’s intention for covenant relationship. I would feel reassured that the left is not just arguing “all things are lawful for me,” and instead seeking the same sanctifying grace of marriage for our LGBT sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, your assertion that this is the view of the progressive lobby is not born out by the conversations and opinions that I overhear. There is much talk on the left about rights, about love, about equality – little to none about holiness, sanctification, self-sacrifice, and monogamy.

      As far as competing covenants, yes and no. My work as an elder sometimes conflicts with my work as a husband or son, and that is difficult. But my relationship with God is always mediated through the church; as someone who has taken vows to uphold this particular body as an ordained clergy person, it is duplicitous for me to get on my knees and vow loyalty to this church, its doctrine, order, and liturgy and then break that when I suddenly realize a conflict after the fact. I took my vows 2 years ago knowing full well that I could change much over the next years, but my understanding is that – like marriage – the covenant that I freely enter is not undone even if I happen to change down the road.

      Thanks for your thoughts, as always, Dave.

      1. [See above where I’ve attempted a longer comment on the substance of covenant in my reply to Billy Watson above].

        So hard for me to resist the snarky reply here, that if you are forming opinions on others based on “conversations and opinions that I overhear” then you’re not doing dialog in quite the right way. But I know you to be a thoughtful engager of diverse views and I really appreciate that about you. And I rely, here, on your sense of humor.

        So instead let me just say that I probably talk to more progressives, and I do have a very different take on what they think. So I’d encourage you to talk to more of them directly. Go to a marriage ceremony officiated by them. They take marriage very seriously. (Ditto God, the Christian faith, covenant). It strikes me as unsupportable to the point of being silly to suggest that progressives are “just arguing ‘all things are lawful for me’.”

        Just because you hear conservatives talk more about monogamy doesn’t mean progressives don’t take it seriously. My 26-year old marriage is testimony to that. (Ditto holiness, sanctification, self-sacrifice). I just wish the UMC would allow that same possibility equally for our queer kid as well as for our straight kid.

        Sure progressive leaders and conservative leaders will emphasize different themes and especially so in what you hear during connectional conferences and in twitter. And at their local churches, while you’ll still hear differences, you’ll also hear that they have quite a bit more in common based on Christian unity, a common Bible and shared Wesleyan heritage.

        We would do better to emphasizing our common ground rather than to exaggerate our differences.

    1. The only time I’ve heard a progressive UM advocating for LGBT marriage and ordination speak positively of monogamy was Althea Spencer-Miller at the panel discussion in New York; otherwise, it’s a very rare topic in public forums and denominational advocacy for progressives (I’ll grant that the conversation is different within progressive circles, but I don’t run in those, so I have to take your word for it.) Publically, the logic that progressives continue to bandy about is some simplistic version of “love over law” or inclusivity – which sound great, but are not theological claims. In contrast, I would point you to the work of Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopalian LGBT advocate (who is himself in a partnership) and theologian whose case for gay marriage in the church is quite grounded in Christian doctrine and tradition. It may be that UM progressives have quite traditional beliefs about marriage vis-a-vis sacrifice, sanctification, covenant, etc. – but if that’s only an internal conversation, and everything public is couched in rights/justice language, it should not be a shock progressive views are viewed with suspicion. I continue to make this charge in hopes that progressives will step up their theological game. I was even at a public even with James Howell and a conservative WNCC pastor, and during the Q&A James made a very similar assertion that you’ve made. My comment then was the same: where are the LGBT rights activists who ever talk about covenant, holiness, monogamy, etc.? Again, the logic that the UM left regularly deploys does not gel with those. If it’s all about my experience, all about non-judgmentalism, and all about inclusivity, what would lead me to believe that the left cares about the above concerns?

      In friendship and genuine concern,

      1. Well, as disappointed as I am that you don’t place sufficient stock in Althea Spencer-Miller, James Howell or me as “LGBT rights leaders,” I will pick up the challenge to read more. It seems you do understand the theologically affirming arguments as you point to Eugene Rogers (affirming), and I seem to recall your blogging about Steve Harper’s book (which embraces affirming UMCers for sake of unity). But you seem to particularly want that argument to come from progressive theologians and from UMC’s left leaning caucus groups — have I got that right? I’ll go down that road with you (just give time to do more reading please).

        But, if that’s the case, I’m not sure why the proponents matter more than the arguments? Or why conservative folks making gay-affirming arguments don’t count? Or why you need the liberal caucus groups to convince you? Because seems to me this Christian cause we share to make disciples is not about who’s convincing whom in an intra-UMC debate, but rather it is about bringing people to faith in Christ. And our current UMC policies are turning too many gay kids/adults, family and friends away from Christ. Note that I said “away from Christ” (not “from UMC”).

        The most interesting reads of 2014 making the affirming case come from theological conservatives who are trying to persuade non-affirming conservatives. So “affirming” no longer means or depends exclusively on “progressives.”

        Thanks for suggesting I read Eugene Rogers. I wasn’t aware of his work before. My stack of books is shorter than the one you posted to facebook. (BTW, I agree with Talbot Davis on your needing more fiction though). I read 3 authors publishing on this topic in 2014 although they’d be characterized less as theologian and more as Bible scholar (James V Brownson), lay prodigy (Matthew Vines), and Christian ethicist (David Gushee). But I’ll read Rogers on your recommendation, my friend. Where should start. So far I’ve found:

        Click to access ss_document_final.pdf

        Peace brother. 🙂

    2. Dave,

      What I “get” is that it is intellectually dishonest, grade-school level evasiveness on par with “I know you are, but what am I?” to try to distract attention from where I am knowingly breaking covenant by pointing to cases where I think others are breaking covenant.

      The same can be said for pointing to an issue that has commanded the attention during and increasingly between every General Conference for decades, and acting as if it is ludicrous for this “one rule” to draw so much attention. It has earned the attention it has been given by virtue of the time invested by so many in debating and by others in ignoring it.

      Further, you may be dismissive and call it a reduction for some to point to General Conference all you want, but those pastors “boldly” moving in the direction of what they believe to be Biblical obedience have entered into a covenant in which they expressly pledged to keep faith with the General Conference (and in which they declared that doing so was an act of Biblical obedience), not with a caucus formed expressly to circumvent the will of General Conference.

      1. Well golly, Dave, did you just make the argument, “We all break the Discipline in one way or another. Therefore we shouldn’t worry so much when it happens?” It is fairly automatic for my children, when confronted with their inappropriate behavior to start pointing out the inappropriate behaviors of their siblings to make their own infractions seem less significant.

  2. Dave,

    There are powerful arguments to be made for full inclusion: the value and worth of all, the love and grace of God, our mandate to love all, that no one would choose a lifestyle fraught with such difficulties, and more. These are the strengths of the posisition.

    However, when proponents of full inclusion engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to make Scripture say something other than what it says, when they equivocate on the vows they entered into at ordination, when they manouver and manipulate they system to avoid the repercussions of their actions, and when they demonize those who stand with millennia of Orthodox Christian understanding, they actively undermine their own integrity and credibility.

    The beauty and power of civil disobedience is that those who defy laws, rules, or traditions they deem unjust, do so with the full expectation they will face the consequences of their actions. It is not brave, prophetic, or an act of leadership to break a rule, law, or tradition I believe to be unjust when I know there will be no consequences for my doing so. In fact, to manipulate the system to avoid consequences short-circuits the act of civil disobedience, for it is in the horror of the consequences that civil disobedience effects change. The Larry Creeches of the world may satisfy proponents of orthodoxy and tradition in the short term, but they ultimately galvanize and grow the ranks of proponents for inclusion. The DeLongs, Talberts, Ogletrees, et. al. do just the opposite.

    Am I saying there have to be sacrificial lambs in order for the movement to succeed? Perhaps that is the way of things. What is clear to me is that “civil disobedience” without consequences is a farce, and those who excercise it have serious credibility and integrity issues to overcome. To continue to pretend otherwise only digs that hole deeper.

    1. Okay Billy. I appreciate your thoughtful engagement in this latest message.

      It now seems you thought I was being “intellectually dishonest, grade-school level evasiveness” because you did not understand my argument. You thought I was making “two wrongs make a right argument” or a “if she’s breaking rule A, then I can break rule B” kind of argument. But that was not the case. Some others say “well if some of our pastors practice adult rebaptism, then other pastors should be able to marry gay folks,” and I reject that position as “apples and oranges.” But it seems you thought that was the core of my argument. So, peace, brother, we can be friends. To clarify: I was dealing with “two apples” and saying the Book of Displine deals with issues related to pastoral care for homosexual people in multiple places such that the multiple values and rules are in conflict. As to the question of same-sex marriage, I beleive that both affirming pastors and non-affirming pastors are making valid and respect-worthy choices. Naturally, I have a strong opinion about which is the “right choice”, but I feel like we should not be criminalizing either.

      I appreciate that you can see and acknowlege some of the arguments advanced by affirming pastors. And I appreciate that you can see a role for civil disobedience.

      I agree that civil disobedience means being willing to accept that the power-one-challenges naturally will use its power against you. Consequences could be trial and punishment, and one must be ready for that. However one challenges “the system” seeking to change not only unjust laws themselves but also the administration of justice. So I disagree that civil disobedience to unjust laws means to acquiesce to unjust punishment. And if accountability processes within the UMC begin to see that for themselves, and deem it in the interests of justice and UMC’s on-going mission to not punish Bishop Talbert, then I don’t see that as a miscarriage but rather as an advance towards justice.

      I will continue to respectfully note we disagree about some using “hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to make Scripture say something other than what it says” and that SSM-officiating pastors “equivocate on the vows they entered into at ordination.”

      I quite strongly feel that we’ve had too many “sacrificial lambs” and it needs to stop. In terms of “sacrifice,” our pastors-at-trial are the least of our sacrifices. The sacrifices that worry me are lives lost to suicide, souls driven away from the church due to harmful policies, and harm to our witness and our mission which in numbers is much greater than the numbers of LBGTQ folk because it includes their family and friends and increasing a majority of all Americans.

      In saying that, I don’t mean demonize those who disagree with me. And I acknowledge that some passionate advocates for “my side” have stepped over the bounds at times in criticizing those on “your side”, and I regret each instance in terms of covenant, ethics and strategy. And while I see those transgressions in both directions, the error of one is no license for the error of others.

      Naturally it is hard because some believers see “homosexual practice in same sex marriage as a sin” and others see “heterosexism as a sin.” But I feel like we can have strong opposing opinions on this and still be UMCers together. The Bible doesn’t talk about same sex marriage and writers of scripture didn’t understand homosexuality as a natural orientation and they had no concept of heterosexism either. So we have opposing theological views that necessarily read more into scripture than is actually there (that’s what theology is for, I guess) — equally true on both sides. So I’d hope we could agree that our opposing views are not essential questions of Christian orthodoxy and should not be be a barrier to our unity in this denomination. (side point: if it is cause for split of UMC, then what does that bode for our ecumenical efforts?)

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