Confessions of an Ex-Covenanter

by Arthur Bowman

The title of this article might lead many readers to think that Pietisten has gone tabloid. Some Christian magazine or other may pick up on the tabloid style in an effort to boost circulation to the heavens, but not Pietisten. Its calling is higher. Let some other publication pander to the prurient passions of Protestants.

Chief of sinners though I be, I will spare you an excursion through my scrapbook of sins. St. Augustine and Keith Miller have plowed this field well enough. I do want to share my confession with you, however. This article, years in the making, is about my confession for faith, what I believe to be true and to be false in terms of my understanding of the church, the sacraments, its doctrine of the ministry, and its mission in the world.

I am an ex-Covenanter. I say "ex" because I have been a Lutheran now for close to seventeen years. For the first thirty years of my life, I was a Covenanter. I was baptized in a Covenant Church in Spokane, Washington, and attended Covenant Sunday Schools there and in San Jose, California. I was confirmed under the tutelage of the Rev. Ahlgoth Olson. I attended and graduated from both North Park College and North Park Seminary. My pedigree in the Covenant Church rivals that of St, Paul in Judaism.

I am a Christian today because of the care and nurture of pastors and lay persons in the Covenant Churches I attended. With fondness, I remember many of my teachers at North Park College and Seminary: Calvin Katter, Fred Holmgren, Karl Olsson, Donald Frisk, and Earl Dahlstrom. These teachers, churchmen all, helped me to grow into a more mature faith.

But something was missing. I began the process of discovering just what it was that was missing during my senior year in the seminary. I was working at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church on the northwest side of Chicago. The first few weeks on the job felt as awkward as my first attempts at dating, but soon things Lutheran began to feel right and joyous. The dignity and strength of the Lutheran liturgy cast dark shadows over the Covenant style of worship with which I had grown up. Worship began to take on a whole new meaning for me, especially when the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated. I have since come to believe that Holy Communion should be the center of worship and that without the sacrament, worship is as vacant as a wedding without the bride and groom. Staying in a non-sacramental, non-liturgical church became more difficult as time wore on.

One often thinks of progress as going ahead. For me, however, progress would be turning around and going back to where I came from, or at least, where my great great-grandparents came from. At some time in Sweden, my ancestors became Covenanters, but, before that, they were Lutheran Christians. They were probably typical in that they never officially left the Lutheran Church in Sweden, but that had no real meaning once they came to America. Once in America, their attachment to the Lutheran Church became incidental. In America, my ancestors were Covenanters. I would seek to progress by backtracking.

Being by temperament "a company man," I was very cautious about jumping ship. I decided that after graduation from North Park Seminary I would give the Covenant Church my best effort. Though I believed the Covenant ship to be a leaky vessel, I decided to set sail with her anyway. I took a call as associate pastor of First Covenant Church in Youngstown, Ohio.

Glen Wiberg was the senior pastor when I arrived at First Covenant Church, but he soon moved on to North Park Covenant. Glen had a very deep understanding of worship and I enjoyed our time together. Arthur Anderson succeeded Glen Wiberg. Although Art's proclivities were not so Lutheran as Glen's, he was solid — even though I wondered if there was a tinge semi-Pelagianism in his theology.

During my tenure at First Covenant, my resolve to transfer my ordination to the Lutheran Church firmed. I was reasonably convinced that wanting to be a Lutheran was not just a "grass is greener" fantasy. I talked with many persons before I applied to the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America for ordination standing. Upon application, I was accepted as a candidate for transfer of ordination, but I would have to satisfy several requirements before a transfer would be granted. One requirement was to take a comprehensive examination at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

In preparation for this examination, I read the Book of Concord through twice. Lutheranism began to seem pedantic. I began to wonder about the worthwhileness of what I was doing. The Biblical section of the comprehensive examination involved an exegesis from the Gospel of Matthew. I was stunned for a moment as I looked down at my examination paper; the test was written in Greek. As a gentle act of mercy, the examination proctor allowed the use of an English language Bible. Blood returned to my face and I proceeded to the task at hand. After four hours of writing followed by a faculty critique of a sermon I had submitted, I faced the final hurdle; an interview with a seminary faculty committee.

I don't recall much of what I said during this interview. I do recall a debate that arose among some committee members over Waldenström's theory of the atonement. Waldenström was dismissed as a sort of curiosity in the church and the committee finally got down to giving me their blessing after probing me with questions about my Covenant history.

I had always been of the mind that being a Christian meant being a churchman. But which church? I was obviously slip-sliding away from the Covenant Church. I had gone so far as to apply for ordination standing in the Lutheran Church. Would I follow through with my initial intentions?

As I once again looked at the Covenant understandings of worship (a form of revivalism), the sacraments (more Reformed than Lutheran), and ordination (a license to preach), I knew that I could no longer remain a Covenanter. I was not thoroughly convinced of the truth of all things Lutheran, but I could not remain in the Covenant Church.

Yes, the Covenant Church had borrowed much from its Lutheran heritage, such as a strong Confirmation program and an emphasis on good seminary training for its clergy. However, most Covenanters I knew felt more comfortable breaking bread with Baptists than with Lutherans. In fact, graduates of Fuller Seminary were more to the liking of many Covenant churches than were North Park Seminary graduates. Covenant churches with which I was familiar really wanted to be back under the old revival tents. Covenanters seemed best described as a fellowship of moderate Baptist types with a sprinkling of fundamentalism here and there for flavor. Some good old Presbyterian decorum was thrown in for good measure to make sure there was no roll-over into the Assemblies of God campground. That was my caricature of Covenanters. I still think it fits. When you don't have a strong ecclesiology, you end up having to spend a lot of time creating a personal and political posture. That was what I saw many Covenant pastors doing and I wanted to avoid serving as a pastor of a Covenant church pretending to something I was not and did not want to be.

In 1973, I accepted a call to First Lutheran Church in Freeport, Illinois. Since that first call, I have served Holy Communion Church in Chicago; developed a new mission congregation in Reno, Nevada; served nearly ten years as senior pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Maple Plain, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis; and am now beginning a ministry as Associate Pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As I reflect back on my experience of leaving the Covenant Church, I can say that, although it was not a terribly traumatic event in my life, there have been difficulties. Because I did not attend a Lutheran Seminary, I do not have the support system that some of my clergy friends enjoy. Any committees I have wanted to be part of opened up for me only because I actively pursued membership on them. If I hadn't put myself forward, I would have been lost in the woodwork. The good fortune has been mine to be a District Dean and a delegate to the Constituting Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I still experience a bit of the "fish out of water" syndrome because my formative years were not shaped by the Lutheran ethos.

I believe I made the right decision to leave the Covenant Church for the Lutheran Church. I was not just expressing a personal preference, as one does in choosing a Burgundy over a Zinfandel. More was at issue. I had come to believe that the Covenant Church had missed the mark. It had thrown the baby out with the bathwater in breaking from its historic roots in Lutheranism. The Covenant Church seemed more sect than church. I yearned for a full sense of catholicity within the Christian faith. In the Covenant tradition I felt marooned on an island, cut off from the mainland. Being a part of the Lutheran Church would, I hoped, be like living on the mainland, in touch with the breadth and width of the church's catholicity.

As years go by, I see even more clearly than before the very real differences that exist between the Covenant Church and the Lutheran Church. As saintly a man as Nils Lund may have been, his statement that "my only creed is the Bible" seems both naive and misguided. Whose Bible? King James or the NRSV? Luther argued for "sola [only] scripture" but not in the sense that Lund and most Covenanters I know did and do. What about the Nicene Creed and Apostles' Creed? Adiaphora [matters of indifference]? Using the Bible as the only creed has led to the tragic proliferation of denominations and independent churches in America. The unity of the church has been sacrificed on the altar of Bible idolotry. The Protestant Church exists as little islands of egos, scattered over a large sea and cut off from each other and the mainland.

As part of the baptismal liturgy in Lutheran Churches, the Apostles' Creed is spoken by the congregation. In fact, many scholars believe the Apostles' Creed was formulated to accommodate baptisms. On the Sundays when baptism is not celebrated, the Nicene Creed is recited as part of the liturgy. Subtle differences between the use of these two creeds can be noted if one pays attention. The Apostles' Creed begins "I believe... " and the Nicene Creed begins "We believe. . . " This subtle difference expresses well a major difference between Covenant and Lutheran Churches.

The use of the word "we" in the Nicene Creed dissolves the individualism that is so much a part of American Protestantism. The pietism of the Covenant Church is full of this individualism. Covenant hymnody and Billy Graham "born again" theology bear witness to it. The Lutheran Church, though itself steeped in pietism in some locales, seeks to rise above self-centered individualism in its hymnody, its liturgy, and its doctrine of the church. Lutherans still like to sing "In the Garden" and "Just As I am." Hymns with "I" as the main subject do exist, but there are only 12 such hymns in the Lutheran Book of Worship. How many of this type there are in the Covenant Hymnal I do not know, but I remember singing quite a few.

What's in a name? The first Covenanters chose the name "Covenant" to affirm their joining together to be a church; they "covenanted" together. Lutheran teaching, in contrast, does not characterize the church as something established by people as if from the ground up. Lutherans confess that the church was established by God, not by persons. Lutherans are received into the church just as they receive rather than take Holy Communion. Joining has to do with volunteerism, a nice idea for civic groups but not appropriate for a true understanding of the church. Covenanters have a tendency to see the church as the work of persons rather than the creation of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Baptism for Lutherans and most Christians is the sacrament whereby persons are received into the church. These persons may be infants, adolescents, or adults. Infants can be made members of the Church, Christ's body. Lutherans do not classify infants as second class just because they are not of the age of accountability and haven't made an adult decision for Christ. The Covenant teaching on baptism seems to be a political compromise to keep the crypto-Lutherans and Baptists in her midst happy, reconciled, and Covenant. I think it is theologizing out of both sides of one's mouth. The Covenant teaching on baptism has resulted in a most forlorn attempt to tranquilize the anxious sensibilities of parents with infant children — the practice of "dedication" of infants. This practice of dedicating infants will only insure a confused understanding of baptism and the nature of the church.

I do think the Covenant Church has a fuller understanding of Holy Communion than of baptism. Why this is so, I am not sure. I do think the use of grape juice instead of wine is unbiblical, but pietism will creep in given half a chance, whatever the Bible teaches. I believe the practice of coming forward to receive Christ versus sitting in the pew and waiting for the bread and juice to be passed is sound practice. Billy Graham is right about the need to come forward and receive Christ, but Billy Graham doesn't understand that coming forward for the body and blood of Christ is truly receiving Christ. If you don't believe Christ is truly present in the bread and wine, I guess you do the next best thing — invite his spirit into your heart. Gnosticism [salvation through special insider's knowledge — this heresy held that Jesus' divinity was in spirit. only and did not include his body] rears its ugly head.

Near to closing, I would like to reflect upon Church and politics. When John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States of America, many of my contemporaries began announcing the coming of the Kingdom. Enamored of Kennedy's politics and charisma, they saw him as a messiah-like figure. I didn't then and I don't now. Because of some good Covenant theology centered in a Pauline understanding of our human sinful nature, I have never succumbed to the idolatry of raising political persons or platforms to divine status. I am thankful for the countless sermons preached on Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." The many sermons on this text etched in my mind and heart the truth that human beings and human programs are not the way to salvation. The separatist instincts of pietism do help provide a necessary caution against the idolatries of our time, A healthy pietism can help foster a healthy cynicism. I do not see that happening now in the Covenant Church per se, but I do think the people associated with Pietisten are on the right track.

When all is said and done, Thomas Howard's book says it best, Evangelical Is Not Enough. The Covenant Church is at home in Evangelicalism. Whatever else the Covenant Church may be, it finds its heart and soul aligned with Evangelicalism, a mix of Reformed theology, revivalism, pietism, and good old American individualism — with a touch of anti-intellectualism and gnosticism thrown in for good measure. I'm sure Howard's book is not on North Park Seminary's required reading list, but it should be. As some of you may know, Thomas Howard is a Christian writer who began in the evangelical tradition, but who has since been received into the Roman Catholic Church. With no axes to grind, he gently leads his readers along with him as he shares his faith journey toward Rome.

I have not moved so far as Thomas Howard, but it is my prayer that the Lutheran Church will one day reach accommodation with Rome and some sort of mutual acceptance of each other will be affirmed. It would be wonderful to have the Covenant Church join the party, but I suspect the Covenant Church will always feel more comfortable drinking coffee in Wheaton, Illinois, than wine in Rome, Italy.

How does it feel to be a Lutheran after growing up a Covenanter? There are two parts to my answer. The first part is a reflection upon my feelings about being a pastor and the second part is a reflection about being Lutheran.

Being a pastor in the Lutheran Church is not much different from being a pastor in a Covenant Church. The same polity applies to both churches. Similar call processes exist for pastoral vacancies. The job description for a pastor is similar.Job stress is no respecter of denominations. There is a notable difference, however, and that is the role the pastor takes as worship leader. In the Lutheran tradition there is an opportunity for the pastor to worship right along with the community because there is no pressure to perform well. Dynamic preaching from a dynamic personality is not the end all and be all in Lutheran worship, as I believe it is in evangelicalism. The sacramental/liturgical role for the pastor is important. Lutheran pastors are not forced to make Christ seem real by the power of persuasion. Christ is present and we point to that presence through our role as leader of the liturgy.

I have never been a Lutheran layperson. I have sat in the pew of Lutheran churches. If I had to join a Lutheran Church, there are many I would not join. The preaching and worship life in many Lutheran Churches is anemic. There is a lot of tired blood out there. But, I believe that the catholic sensibilities of the Lutheran Church offer it the necessary resources to keep it on course in the years ahead. The Covenant Church will eventually have to decide if it will be sectarian or part of the mainland. I believe the basic ethos of the Covenant Church is sectarian, and so I have committed myself to membership in the Lutheran Church. Here I stand.