Freedom in Christ
A petition that my Evangelical Covenant readers should sign
Four years after our family started attending the Lutheran church a block from our house, I’ve recently had occasion to spend significant time at two congregations in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Between teaching a three-week adult class at one ECC church and attending a funeral for a friend at another, I was reminded why I love the Covenant — and why it’s such a distinctive presence on the American religious scene.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m enjoying the chance to put to the test Eugene Peterson’s advice that Christians should just “go to the church closest to their home,” after spending most of my life driving 10-20 minutes to nearest Covenant church. But there is much that I miss about my home denomination.
That list could go on and on, but I’ll try to sum it up in this way: Better than any other denomination that I know, the Evangelical Covenant Church has inhabited the tensions that tend to fracture Christianity in America.
• When it calls itself “evangelical,” it means it in the way that my present denomination means it — as a legacy of the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the good news of salvation by grace alone — but also in the way that non-mainline Protestants tend to mean it — as a legacy of the 18th and 19th century awakenings that sought to revive churches and renew societies through the spiritual rebirth of individuals.
• That theme came up in the first week of my class on evangelicalism at First Covenant of River Falls, WI, where I participated in worship that was intentionally ancient and modern, with guitars and drums offering newer backing to old words. The pastors didn’t robe or lead responsive prayers, but they did emphasize the importance of the liturgical calendar, connecting an ongoing sermon series on the Gospel of Mark to the season of Advent. Communion included the grape juice in plastic cups that would be familiar to many evangelicals… but I doubt their bulletins usually include explanations of why communion is a sacrament and mystery.
• While other American evangelicals have been tempted to set evangelism against social action — as if seeking the latter required neglect of the former, the Covenant has long affirmed the “whole mission of the church.” During my weeks there, First Covenant-River Falls both presented a living Nativity scene as a way to start conversations about the Gospel and sent missionaries to Poland to help alleviate the suffering of Ukrainian refugees. Other Covenant congregations dedicate themselves to addressing problems as vexing as hunger and climate change.
• And the fact that I was invited to teach a class on evangelicalism underscored that Christian formation is also a part of the church’s mission — since conversion is not just a destination for Covenanters, but part of our ongoing walk with Jesus. Like every Covenant church I’ve known well, this one not only offered Christian education for all ages, but didn’t shy away from my attempts to ask hard questions and raise difficult issues.
• For example, I spent our second session on evangelical approaches to politics and then part of the third on the problem of race in evangelicalism… quite conscious that I was speaking to members of a denomination that advertises itself as a “multiethnic mosaic,” a former enclave of Swedish immigrants that has had increasingly diverse leadership at virtually every level.
While I did allude to debates over sexuality in the American church and American society, I didn’t linger on that topic, knowing how deeply it still divides my home denomination.
But that doesn’t mean I want to avoid that issue. In fact, I hope and pray that the Covenant soon seizes the chance to revisit and reconsider it.
After a long-percolating debate over human sexuality, matters reached a head in June 2019. Delegates to that year’s annual meeting in Omaha voted to expel First Covenant-Minneapolis, one of the ECC’s oldest, most historically significant congregations, from the denomination for its affirmation of full LGBTQ participation in the life of the church. With Gather 2023 on the horizon, the same possibility looms for two more affirming congregations: Quest Church in Seattle, and Awaken West Seventh in St. Paul.
Given the size of the majority in 2019, it may seem unlikely that there could be a different outcome in 2023. But the denomination has new leaders, and last summer the Covenant ministerium did not vote in favor of removing the ministerial standing of Awaken pastor Micah Witham. In fact, I’d argue that the 2019 vote against First Covenant-Minneapolis was the historical aberration, while voting to keep Awaken and Quest in the ECC would be more in keeping with the denomination’s Pietist heritage.
By saying that, I don’t mean to argue for (or against) LGBTQ affirmation. But I absolutely mean to argue for the distinctive way that Covenanters — up until very recently — have approached arguments within their churches.
For centuries, other Protestants and other evangelicals have been all too quick to accept Christian disunity on matters on which faithful followers of Jesus Christ can reasonably disagree — can reasonably apply the authority of “Scripture alone” differently. Yet because they come to Protestantism and evangelicalism via Pietism, Covenanters have spent their history agreeing to disagree about baptism, eschatology, atonement, biblical inerrancy, Christian participation in warfare…
The list went on and on… until it reached human sexuality, which somehow stood out as an essential matter on which disagreement was ultimately impossible.
By voting to keep Awaken and Quest in the denomination, delegates to Gather 2023 don’t need to change their own position on human sexuality. They just need to “honor the tension inherent” in what Covenanters affirm as freedom in Christ:
The Covenant Church has understood that God’s word is sovereign over every human interpretation of it—including its own. Covenant freedom operates within the context set by other principles the Covenant Church regards as primary, particularly the authority of Scripture. Within these parameters the principle of freedom applies to doctrinal issues that might tend to divide. With a modesty born of confidence in God, Covenanters have offered to one another theological and personal freedom where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God.
They can again demonstrate that the “Pietist Option” — as Covenant pastor Mark Pattie and I argued in a 2017 book that drew frequently on ECC history and theology — “is to insist that unity—while impossible to achieve perfectly—is essential to Christian community, mission, and witness.”
The summer of 2023 is still a ways off. But before churches elect and instruct their delegates to that denominational meeting, let me encourage all of you who (unlike me) are currently members or pastors of Covenant congregations to read and sign this petition.
Wherever they stand on this debate, I wish God’s peace to all of my Covenant friends. Like the apostle Paul, temporarily separated from his sisters and brothers at Philippi, “I long for all of you with the tender affection of Christ Jesus” and pray that “your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Phi 1:8-11).
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