On June 28th the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) Annual Meeting involuntarily removed First Covenant Church of Minneapolis, a charter member of our denomination, because of its policy and practice concerning inclusiveness and human sexuality. This is a monumental mistake and I think it matters to people everywhere, inside and outside the Covenant, people of faith and people who have none.
Until now I’ve not written publicly about my views on the theology of human sexuality or my frustration with the ECC. In part from an attempt to abide within the framework of my credentials, but more accurately because I believe in the power of face to face conversations and local community over and above America’s disintegrating ability to hold public dialogue online (or anywhere else). I’ve never sought to have a broad influence through social media and I’m not convinced that social media channels actually help. There are many reasons why I’m writing now, but ultimately those are a distraction from the task at hand, which is simply to describe to anyone who is listening why the ECC has made a massive mistake and why that matters for so many.
This is an open letter to my church, to anyone who is a life long Covenanter, and to anyone who follows Jesus. But it is also to anyone who longs for a more inclusive world and especially anyone who can’t believe in God because of the tangible actions that have been carried out in God’s name.
First of all, let’s not pretend that this is a new phenomenon that started with First Covenant Church Minneapolis (FCCM.) The ECC has been on a nearly decade long campaign to quietly usher any dissenting pastors and congregations to the exit. Years ago when my friends Adam Phillips and Andy Goebel were unceremoniously muscled out of the denomination that trained them, nurtured them, and sent them into the world to make disciples almost no one made a sound: myself included. They were only two of a what has been an ongoing silent purge of dozens of our best pastors and congregations. I confess that for years I have held out hope that the ECC would “come around” and that there would be space inside our denomination opened up for pastors and congregations that are working for a more inclusive world. In the last two years, culminating with the removal of FCCM, that hope has evaporated.
This year’s annual meeting was the first time that we have had the opportunity to democratically decide the question about who might be part of our fellowship. What should have been a fellowship of believers gathered to seek the kind of special unity that only the Spirit of God can offer (or so we Christians claim) was instead a tribal sacrifice. This image and quote from artist Scott Erickson was sitting in my head and heart during the proceeding of the meeting:
Tribalism hates love… because tribalism’s highest value is self interest and it must kill anyone in the way of that. Love’s ultimate goal is the freedom for self-emptying… the capacity to give up ones own interest for the benefit of others. This is the daily cross we are invited to share in with Love.”
The language from the ECC was all about self preservation, the upholding of rules, submission to authority, etc. etc. I heard pastors before the vote joking about getting the “surgery” started… the implication that FCCM is a cancer that needs to be cut away for the body to survive. I kept waiting for someone to come raging into the conversation and yell “stay the knife… there’s a ram in the thicket: its name is Jesus.” The implications of the vote were made clear: if we do not sacrifice this congregation we will not be able to survive as a denomination.
I reject that premise. It is based on fear and scarcity and hot-garbage.
Where I had once hoped that the ECC had the unique gifts, history, and groundwork to navigate our world in a way that is different from others I saw clearly at the annual meeting that whatever resources we may have had were either discarded, forgotten, or not powerfully at work among us enough that we might avoid the same fate as the rest of of the Christian world, and indeed the rest of our culture. The ECC has fallen into the foxholes of predetermined political and religious ideologies like everyone else. The annual meeting was a tribal sacrifice to maintain the status quo of mainstream American Evangelicalism.
With the building of the altar and the plunging of the knife the ECC has begun a new de-facto hobby that will dominate its gathered life for at least the next decade. This sacrifice will be perpetual because it simply continues to avoid the root problem at the heart of the ECC’s newly adopted positional thinking. The problem that kicking FCCM out has not solved is the inherent hermeneutical (hermeneutics = tools, practices, and worldview that we use to read the Bible) inconsistency that remains in the ECC’s thinking. The Biblical conversation that pastors and parishioners have been calling for over the last decade will continue to be persistently needed.
Allow me to briefly (stress on briefly) lay out the inconsistency I’m talking about.
A traditionalist reading of the Bible (one that deny’s God’s blessing of same-sex marriage) bases itself on essentially 6 texts which are summarized here. (Credit to author David Gushee for laying this argument out)
Genesis 1-2 creation narrative
Genesis 19/Judges 19 Sodom and Gomorrah = violent rape and abuse
Leviticus 18:22: men lying with men = abomination. Punishment = death
Mathew 19:1-12/ Mark 10:2-12: Jesus appeals to creation texts to ground his rigorous response in setting limits on initiating divorce. A teaching about eunuchs is appended to Mathew.
Romans 1:26-27: Paul describes lives of the godless and wicked.
1 Corinthians 6:9/1 Timothy 1:10: Involves a textual problem of a new word that Paul invented. Options range from pimps/sex abusers, sex traffickers, prostitutes, “Johns”, etc.. all the way to homosexuals.
Most of these 6 texts ought to be completely off the table in the ECC’s current discussion (or lack there of) about human sexuality. For example: no one is advocating for the violent gang rape talked about in Sodom and Gomorrah to be a normalized or ok. Imagine an ECC scholar arguing in public for a traditional reading of the text with his core text being Leviticus 18 and saying “we got to read this in context.” The context of Leviticus 18 is, of course, an ancient set of laws which, several thousand years ago, constituted a significant advance in community based justice, but almost none of which any of us (that scholar included) are prepared to abide by now. That happened just as I’ve described last year at the ECC Northwest Conference’s so-called “theological symposium.”
There has been all kinds of ink spilled, of course, on all of these texts especially the translational and contextual uncertainties in the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy texts. There’s just no way that I could have a full discussion about those here. So I’ll summarize by saying the core of the Biblical discussion that I think the ECC needs to have revolves around the Romans 1 text in which Paul makes and appeal to the created order described in Genesis 1-2. Essentially Paul says “God made it this way, we need to keep it this way.” This is the heart of the traditionalist argument.
As luck would have it, last year Lance Davis, the executive minister of the ECC’s Develop Leaders/Ordered Ministry put on clear display the problem that persists in the ECC. During the proceedings fo the 2018 ECC annual meeting (where Rev. Davis was being questioned as part of the nomination process) an obviously conservative Biblical literalist read from the floor 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and asked simply “what do you do with that.”
1 Timothy 2:11-15 reads:
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (ESV)
Rev. Davis’ reaction was pricelessly good, he opened with a joke “I’d like to see you to try that with my wife!” The annual meeting roared in applause and laughter. I clapped and laughed along. Rev. Davis went on to describe how it was about “context, context, context.” Obviously this text doesn’t mean for us now what it did for the first century readers Paul was writing to. I believe Rev. Davis was correct. He closed with another joke “I don’t know what Paul was thinking, but I bet some sister straightened him out.”
We’ve been told by our ECC leadership (repeatedly) that conflating the biblical issues of women in ministry and same sex marriage is a “persistent theological mistake.” The real persistent mistake is the silence about why, or how, exactly is that theological mistake consistently made. The problem with the 1 Timothy 2 text is that it makes the same kind of appeal to the Genesis created order that Romans 1 does. The arguments are closely mirrored.
The Covenant is unabashedly (at least on the surface) Egalitarian in that it is has, for 30 years, made steady progress in elevating women in ministry (there’s still plenty of work to do). So why then do the Hermeneutics that we use in 1 Timothy to argue away Paul’s appeal to the created order suddenly not work in Romans 1? Are those ways of reading the Bible suddenly broken? Why is it a mistake to conflate the two? How is it that the Biblical skills I learned so well to read faithfully the scripture and hold fast to full inclusion of women in ministry are no longer at my disposal in the human sexuality debate? Or do we really even believe in an egalitarian view of scripture?
I’ve been waiting for 10 years for the Covenant to address that question as a group.
The answer has been essentially: “we already decided.” “its just doesn’t” “lets move on.”
In the end, the ECC silence on the matter has been the loudest thing in the room.
But why does it matter? Some of you know exactly why, some of you are still wondering why you are reading.
The Church worldwide, both historically, and contemporaneously has done inestimable damage to humans. There is so much blood and so much anguish on the hands of those who keep Jesus’ name on their tongue. Sure we’ve done lots of good stuff too, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t own up to the damage that continues in God’s name. Oppressing minorities of EVERY POSSIBLE kind with the power of politics, shame, and money is a favorite pastime of Christians; especially American ones. My pastor-friend Judy Howard Peterson likes to use the term“dismembered” to describe the way that Christians have cut people apart.
Yet the Church holds a unique possibility and responsibility to address and engage the suffering of the world. All around us people are cut off from one another, cast out of communities because of their differences sacred and secular. As our world becomes more deeply divided, more deeply distrusting of the “other” we have to ask ourselves, is there any force on earth that could invite us out of our foxholes, out of our socio-economic, political, and racially divided cliques, and into relationship with and care for people who are unlike ourselves?
The miracle of the Jesus is that response to Him requires exactly that: that we seek to tear down the dividing walls of the people who don’t think like us. There are no enemies, only other creatures of God, people marked with the image of the divine, and deserving of all the care and love that we can muster. The Christian Church has the unique power to, as Judy would say “Re-member” people.
I have remained in the Covenant because I believed that the Covenant was uniquely resourced to do exactly that work: to bring unlike people together in the unity that only Christ could possibly call us to. The hope of putting limbs back together has been a driving force in my life.
If you are a Covenanter you should be concerned for the possibility of that promise to continue. Whatever ethos we used to draw on that bound us together despite our differences is diminished or gone.
If you are a Christian you should be concerned, because there are few things that undermine that efficacy of the Gospel as the way Christians treat each-other.
For LGBTQ+ Christians and Covenanters the annual meeting vote matters because it’s yet another clear communication that the ECC is resolved to treat them as second class humans who must be fixed, can’t be called, and won’t be blessed. They may take part in our sacramental communion but not be blessed in our non-sacramental marriages or be called to lead in our broken congregations. They are “loved” but not welcome to full participation in the body.
Christians have missed the opportunity to lead the way with our careful, consistent, and loving dialogue and life. We’ve traded the hope of unity in Christ and love for our neighbor for the power and comfort of controlling our institutions.
If you have no faith you should be concerned, because an institution that could have been a powerful force for sane dialogue, for lived loving kindness, for real change in the world has abandoned its motivation for that work.
We should all be concerned. But what can we do?
Here’s a short list of things you can and should do:
Get involved: Go to a church that is striving for inclusive life. The Church could and should be the thing that moves us all into a new era of life together. If you’ve been hurt by the church, at least don’t give up on Jesus. Christians tend to suck, but Christ remains wildly for you and your flourishing.
Vote with your $$$: institutional leaders have done the math and decided that the best course of preserving the financial efficacy of the institution is to land with the 75% who will continue to fund their cause. They will tell you its not about the money, but they know that is half truth at best. There is a deep fear that the biggest churches will head for the door if the conversation is opened. Meanwhile congregations who are deeply engaged in doing the difficult work of inviting all into the Kingdom face uphill battles and are increasingly being pushed to the margins of Evangelical denominations. Congregations like this (like mine!) need support systems to thrive. Even if you are a person of no faith who is fighting for a more just world: imagine that you could give money to an organization that would selflessly spend itself to help people who have been wounded by their own religious background be reclaimed by a family from which they have been cut off: those are dollars well spent.
Write your pastor and denominational leaders: make the conversation happen in your community. It will be painful, but unity held in silence is no unity at all.
Actually be friends with someone who believes differently than you: The dissolution of relationships is the root of our ability to dismember humans.
Read some books from the other view point: The very least thing you can do is seek to understand people before you try to demonize and exclude them. Most Christians I know have never seriously considered a reading of the Bible that allows for same-sex marriage, they have taken for granted that there is only one way to understand the texts. Almost all the Christians I know who have seriously examined the text have, at the very least, an appreciation (even if they disagree) for Christians who hold the differing view.
What am I going to do?
I’m going to continue planting a church the exists in the strange wasteland that some of us like to call the “Third Way.” That means intentionally crafting community that rumbles with classically divisive issues, but does it with a sense of grace, openness, and humanity.
I’ve found that people are drawn to the idea of a third or middle way, where we don’t necessarily agree, but we don’t dehumanize the other. However, living out or even talking about what that looks like can be difficult to do or even to imagine doing in a realistic way.
Over the next month I’d like to take the “gloves off” and rumble with difficult topics in a way that I think represents centered-set values. I’ll hold fast to my convictions while trying to engage ideas that differ from mine from a place of humility, curiosity, and generosity. So if you want in on that, let me know.
What do you want to talk about? Race? Immigration? The President? Mental health? Whatever you’ve been itching to ask, let’s do this and commit to doing it well.
Most of all I will press into my community and continue to love the people in front of me, whatever they believe, because it is both commanded of me by Jesus and it also happens to be one of the great joys of my life.
Grace and peace to you friends. May God find you and cause you to flourish.