While the Moravian Church is known (and respected) for not being overly doctrinal or adhering to strict dogma or rules—thus the many ideas of what it means to be Moravian—at its core, the worldwide Unitas Fratrum/Moravian Church has two important documents that do a pretty good job spelling out who we are and what we believe: The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living (MCCL) and The Ground of the Unity.
While in a recent workshop, I realized that for many Moravians, the last time they came in contact with one of these documents was in confirmation class or when becoming a new member of the church. Perhaps your Sunday School class took a look over them once, or you worked through the excellent study guide on these pieces called Jesus Still Lead On, a Moravian Study Guide to the Covenant and Ground of the Unity.
But since these two statements are so important to understanding what makes Moravian Christianity unique, I was struck by the idea to present them in The Moravian Magazine for everyone to share over the next two years. While both documents are readily available from www.moravian.org—and I encourage you to download them—a constant reminder and review in these pages should prove helpful in continuing the study of our core faith.
Following the outline established by Jesus Still Lead On, we will cover different aspects of these two important documents each month. In 2015, we’ll start with the Covenant for Christian Living and continue with the Ground of the Unity in 2016.
To introduce the idea, we’ll discuss the background for studying Moravian doctrine and the basis for the MCCL. In subsequent months, we will share different aspects of the MCCL, along with commentary and thought-provoking questions.
Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead On (produced in 2005) for this material. If you are interested in obtaining the entirety of Jesus Still Lead On, please contact the IBOC or visit store.moravian.org. —Mike Riess, editor, The Moravian Magazine
The Moravian Church is nearly 550 years old. Our church was established in a remote village in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) by a small group of people who wanted to live according to their understanding of the New Testament rather than by the official teachings of the churches of their day. Despite the enormous changes in the world over the past six centuries, the Moravian Church has never lost its attitude that it is preferable to follow Christ as part of a community rather than individually or merely as a passive member of an impersonal institution. The Moravian understanding of Scripture, theology, and Christian living has always been worked out in the midst of a loving and intimate community.
It has been very important for Moravians that the members of the community of faith personally understand the teaching of the Church and participate in the ongoing formation of that teaching. We have not restricted the study and formation of doctrine to professional theologians or ordained clergy. From our earliest days we have included the entire community in the discussion of what it means to be a Christian and a member of the Moravian Church.
Our doctrinal statements are intended to help us understand the word of God in Scripture and to live according to that word. We have been reluctant to create binding doctrinal systems, preferring to let the Bible in its simplicity and rich complexity inform and shape our life as Christians. We also recognize that some portions of Scripture have greater relevance for the Christian life than others. Moravians strongly encourage all Christians to study the Bible on their own and in study groups, but we have found it helpful to have statements that guide our reading of Scripture. Such statements identify what we as a community of faith have found to be the most essential ideas in the Bible through the centuries, but they are always subject to revision as our understanding of Scripture grows.
The Moravian emphasis on simplicity, which we see in the architecture of our churches and in our music, is evident in our doctrinal statements. However, simplicity does not mean that we are simplistic or simple-minded. Moravian doctrine, like the doctrine of all Christian churches, deals with some of the most profound mysteries of God and human existence. Different people will have different understandings of these mysteries based on their own experience, knowledge and reason. Through study and discussion, we can learn from the wisdom of our predecessors in the faith and from one another.
The study of our doctrine, therefore, is a great privilege and should be a joyful and energizing experience. We study our doctrine to enrich our lives, not to determine who does or does not belong in the Moravian Church. We study doctrine together so that we will learn from each other and be drawn into closer communion with God and one another. As a result, we will have a clearer picture of what it means to be Moravian in the modern world.
Doctrinal statements provide us a way to communicate what is most precious about our community to the outside world and to new members. Our doctrinal statements help answer the frequent question, “Who are the Moravians?” Our doctrinal statements are part of our worship and service to God. They are joyful proclamations of what God means to us and how we hope to respond to God’s grace to us.
Through the centuries, the Moravian Church has produced many doctrinal statements, some of which were called confessions of faith. The church has never been without such expressions of our common faith, but it has also never seen such statements as rigid. As the world has changed and our understanding has changed, we have changed our statements of belief. Each time, though, changes were made in continuity with what had been said before and with scripture.
These doctrinal statements also help Moravians to understand ourselves and our life together as a church. They lead us into a deeper appreciation for our common values and aspirations; thus they help unite rather than divide us. Furthermore, our doctrine guides us as we make decisions so that we keep before us what our fundamental beliefs and values are. This is particularly important during times of stress and crisis.
It is very important to understand that Moravians have always developed their doctrinal statements as part of the larger body of Christ. Moravian doctrinal statements do not attempt to define the meaning of Christianity for all Christians; rather they are expressions of our understanding of being Moravian within the Body of Christ. Therefore Moravian doctrinal statements use older statements of faith that are common to other Christian churches, such as the Apostles’ Creed. They do not attempt to say all that can be said about God and the Christian life but discuss what is most important to us as Moravians.
It is also important to understand that since its founding, the Moravian Church has been more concerned with right living (sometimes called Orthopraxy) more than with right belief (Orthodoxy). Theology is important, but for Moravians the practical aspects of Christianity have had priority over academic debates. This is reflected in our doctrinal statements, especially compared to other churches.
Background on the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living (MCCL)
In early days of the Moravian community of Herrnhut there was a danger that the fledgling community would collapse because of conflict. People were divided over theological opinions, religious ceremonies, organizational matters and ethnicity. Under the leadership of Count Zinzendorf, the residents of Herrnhut discussed their many differences and began to recognize that what they had in common as followers of Christ was more important than their divisions. They also saw the need for some guiding principles to help organize their life as a community. The result of this discussion and prayer was the Brotherly Agreement that was signed on May 12, 1727. The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living is the modern version of the Brotherly Agreement.
The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living is part of the Book of Order of both the Northern and Southern Provinces and is therefore an official doctrinal statement of the Church. It has been changed many times through the centuries in an effort to express more clearly the Moravian understanding of Scripture and Christian living. It includes guidelines for individuals, congregations and the denomination as a whole. Although it is not binding on people, it is a statement of what the Moravian Church most values. It is intended to guide our decisions as a community of faith.
The original Brotherly Agreement included rules for living together in a community as well as specific economic instructions and legal matters in Herrnhut. All of the Moravian settlements, such as Bethlehem and Salem, developed their own Brotherly Agreements. Since these settlements were closed communities rather than congregations in our sense of the word, their Brotherly Agreements also included economic and legal matters. With the dissolution of the communities in the middle of the 19th century, the old Brotherly Agreements were obsolete. There was a sense that the church should have some type of statement and in the 1860s both of the American provinces established new Brotherly Agreements to guide their members. There were slight differences between the two Brotherly Agreements, but they were similar in most respects.
The Northern Provincial synod of 1946 proposed that the Brotherly Agreement be recast in a more contemporary style with a closer conformity with Scripture. The Sunday nearest May 12 each year was to be a day for educating congregations about the document. Few changes were actually made at that time, so the issue came up again in 1961 in a proposal to the Synod. “It is the feeling of many in the Church that the present form of the ‘Brotherly Agreement’ has lack of organization, no particular thought being given to an organized statement of the Christian life and discipline, but rather items being added on as they were felt necessary. It is also felt that some of the language used is outmoded and that some of the thought expressed reflects attitudes of the 19th century.” A committee consisting of bishops, pastors, theologians and laity was assigned to compose a new Brotherly Agreement. Their work was approved, with some revisions, by the Northern Provincial Synod of 1966.
There was also growing dissatisfaction with the Southern Province’s Brotherly Agreement in the 1960s. The special synod of 1969 that had been called to deal with the social unrest of the period instructed the Provincial Elders’ Conference to appoint a committee to revise the Brotherly Agreement. That committee in turn proposed that the Southern Province should adopt the Northern Province’s Brotherly Agreement. This was part of the planned merger of the provinces which did not take place. Synod also instructed the pastors to lead their congregations into study of the Brotherly Agreement.
In 1986 a number of revisions to the Brotherly Agreement were made by both provinces. Most of them related to the use of non-sexist language. Thus “mankind” became “all people,” “Brethren’s Unity” became “Moravian Unity,” and “brotherly love” was changed to “Christian love.” Most significantly, the title of the document itself was changed to The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living. The last revision to the Covenant came in 1995 when the statement on Scripture was changed to conform to the revised Ground of the Unity.
Studying the MCCL Part One: Called Into Fellowship
We are called into a Christian fellowship by the Lord Jesus Christ, according to the eternal purpose of God the Father (Ephesians 3:11) by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:18-21), and as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, to serve all people by proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to our faith by word and deed.
The opening paragraphs of the Covenant conform closely to the Ground of the Unity in order to emphasize that we are part of a worldwide church. It is also appropriate that we are reminded that this Covenant is not based on our desires but on our calling. We believe that our church, as imperfect as it is, exists because the Lord has called us together to serve the world. Within our fellowship we offer a model of Christian community for the world to see. Outside the walls of our church we reach out in love to our neighbors. It is important to recognize that our fellowship is worldwide and so is our outreach.
- What does it mean to be called by Christ?
- What does it mean to you that your congregation is part of the Body of Christ in the world?
- Why is it important to see our connection to all followers of Christ?
- What does it mean to serve people by proclaiming the Gospel?
- Why do we say we do this in “word and deed”?
- How do you proclaim the Gospel? How does your congregation? ν
Next month: Scripture and A Church Among Churches.
From the January/February 2015 Moravian Magazine