An Interview with John Weborg and Gary Walter on the Legacy of Pietism in the Covenant Church

by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

An excerpt from Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com.

The inspiration for this book was largely my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC or Covenant). To those brothers and sisters, I write in hope that we might continue to remember our roots and journey together into the future embracing the gifts that Pietism has given us. There are many ways that Pietism has formed the Covenant. In everything from its constitution to its affirmations, its worship life and its attention to compassion, mercy, and justice, one can note seeds of Pietism germinating in the church today. As our preamble notes, Pietism forms the backbone of our theology and character.

In continuity with the renewal movements of historic Pietism, the Evangelical Covenant Church especially cherishes the dual emphasis on new birth and new life in Christ, believing that personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is the foundation for our mission of evangelism and Christian nurture. Our common experience of God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ continues to sustain the Evangelical Covenant Church as an interdependent body of believers that recognizes but transcends our theological differences.

In addition, we are a church who has central affirmations that shape the way we do theology, live into our identity as Christians, and engage the church’s mission. These affirmations begin with the Centrality of the Word of God and include the Necessity of New Birth, a Commitment to the Whole Mission of the Church, The Church as a Fellowship of Believers, a Conscious Dependence on the Holy Spirit, and The Reality of Freedom in Christ. Each of these six affirmations is embedded in Pietist commitments to a deep and rooted faith, a transforming and charitable love, and a Gospel-shaped hope.

In reflecting on the ways that Pietism has and continues to influence the Covenant, I conducted two interviews. The first was with C. John Weborg, Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary. Second, I interviewed the current President of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Gary B. Walter. (Nov. 10 and 11, 2009)

Michelle: What are a couple of ways you think Pietism has informed the ECC historically?

John: The Evangelical Covenant is an ecclesial piety who has traditionally valued some of the gifts passed on by the historical church, including confirmation, the lectionary, good preaching, and hymnody. One of the fruits of this churchly Pietism is that while we treasure a personal relationship with God, especially as summed up in the metaphor of God as friend in our hymnody, we do not take this relationship as private or individualistic. Our relationship with God is also a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we affirm the church as the fellowship of believers, this comes from our ecclesial piety and is marked by the fruit of the spirit. The fruit of the spirit, furthermore, is a communal virtue that, when embodied, witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ.

John: How have our Pietist roots influenced the ECC as an evangelical church?

John: The sum total of congregational life at its best and most convincing is the body of Christ as a social apologetic for the Gospel. This was abundantly clear in [Phillip Jakob] Spener, who, in the Pia Desideria, sought ways for the rebirth of congregational life in Germany. One of his points was that congregations are called to be compelling witness of the gospel, and that church accomplished its ministry when it empowered the common priesthood.

Michelle: Is there a word of challenge from Pietism for the ECC today?

John: The Pietist theme of the fear of God in relation to the radical gift of grace. Fear, for them, was never about terror of God’s wrath or punishment; rather, it was the fear of not grasping the gift of God’s free grace as precious. Both German and Swedish Pietists were well aware that Luther’s doctrine of justification could be taken advantage of, rather than understood as a radical statement of grace to be lived out by the church. The commitment to piety and holy living was based on receiving this gift with a joyous thanksgiving. As John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace” notes, grace teaches our hearts to fear and grace our fears relieve. We would do well to recover both fear and proper thankfulness in our worship and in our living.

Michelle: Where do you see the most exciting fruits of Pietism in the ECC?

John: In our mission. Our sense of the church’s mission, both locally and abroad, is based on Francke and his missionary activities.

Michelle: Our most recent affirmation, “a Commitment to the whole mission of the Church,” chronicles this ongoing development which began as a community of “Mission Friends.” Do you see the influence of Pietism in the addition of the Department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice, as well as our ongoing outreach ministries around the world and world missions?

John: Yes, that’s right.

My second interview was with our president, Gary Walter, who responded as follows.

Michelle: What are a couple of ways you think Pietism has most gifted the Evangelical Covenant?

Gary: I believe our pietistic heritage is intrinsic, and indispensible, to our identity. Often I hear people newer to the ECC (clergy and laity alike) say “I’ve been Covenant all along — I just didn’t know it.” I think what they are really saying is “I’ve been a Pietist all along—I just didn’t know it.” What resonates with people is the devotional approach to an orthodox faith more than the orthodoxy alone.

Michelle: What are one or two ways you think Pietism continues to influence the ECC? Are there any recent areas of growth or change that you would attribute to our Pietist heritage?

Gary: Pietism has given rise to our core ethos and character. Our ethos is derived from the interplay of four historic commitments. We are first a biblical people. But knowing about God is not enough. Pietism directs us to the deeply personal knowing of God that those scriptures reveal. And so we are also a devotional people. But even knowing God is not enough. Those scriptures also call us to join God in God’s work in the world to the lost and the hurting. And so we are thirdly a missional people. And finally, in meeting together in homes to study those scriptures we understood that living with God and for God is much more powerful when lived out with others. We are a connectional people.

Those four principles of being biblical, devotional, missional, and connectional all arise from a pietistic approach to faith that still shape our distinctive identity today. Moreover, Pietism uniquely results in both humility and graciousness. If we are serious about internalizing the word of God, we can do no other than live in gratefulness to God’s goodness and grace. That’s the source of humility. Knowing God wants to do the same for others leads to a graciousness of spirit, inviting others to experience what we ourselves have experienced.

Michelle: How does our rootedness in Pietism uniquely position us as an evangelical church?

Gary: At our most elemental, we are missional Pietists. We are Pietists who came together to form a mission society to do the work of Christ in the world. That means there is a simple rhythm to our identity: we live with God (our pietistic side) and for God (our missional impulse). We want to move in two directions at the same time: deeper in Christ and further in mission. We pursue Christ and Christ’s priorities in the world.

Michelle: Do you have any concluding thoughts on Pietism and the ECC? How does Pietism challenge the ECC today?

Gary: Deep in my heart I believe that there is a convergence between who we are and the yearnings of the day. Our core pietistic ethos and approach to mission and ministry is what can reach this world. We live in an increasingly post-Christian, post-modern, multiethnic environment. As such, people are hungering for a faith of authenticity, not plasticity; biblical depth and spirituality, not simply practicality; community, not individuality. They seek a faith that integrates kingdom values, present and future, not simply looking to our eternal hope; of life-giving service to others, not self-interest; one that breaks down all kinds of barriers. That is precisely who we are at our best. Make no mistake. Who we are underlies our momentum as much as what we do.

Both Weborg and Walter affirm the depths to be celebrated and the gifts to be tapped in Pietism. Who we are, what we do, who we become, how we are the light of Christ in the world — all of these are ethical questions that we take up in conversation with past and present. All shape the way we communicate the good news, which marks the end toward which all Christian ethics aim. The words of our present church leaders are reminiscent of the late Covenant ethicist, Burton Nelson. In the foreword to “God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good,” he wrote that the church’s Pietist roots offer a perennial challenge for followers of Jesus Christ to bring together the glory of God and the good of the neighbor in everyday life. “Gods glory, neighbor’s good” has become one of the slogans of the Evangelical Covenant Church. It indicates the simple message that love of god and love of neighbor go hand in hand as the embodiment of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Covenant cherishes this faithful, charitable, and irenic spirit, and such a posture is arguably a primary reason that the ECC continues to grow and flourish as a church. And so, to our Pietist mothers and fathers who entreat us to enact faith in love, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor, we give thanks.