Redefining the Covenant, Parts I, II, and III

by Philip Keillor

The Evangelical Covenant Church of America (ECCA) appears to be redefining itself as it solidifies positions taken on controversial issues. This action has costs: moving the ECCA away from its treasured affirmation of freedom in Christ and weakening some of its claimed distinctives. The latest evidence comes from debate and actions taken at the 119th Annual Meeting this June in Minneapolis, when delegates adopted a brief motion presented by the Board of the Ordered Ministry that states:

The resolution on human sexuality adopted by the 1996 Annual Meeting (will) serve the ECC as: 1) the guiding statement on human sexuality and the marriage ethic and 2) the basis for ECC policy, practices, and guidelines on these matters.

By a vote of 529 to 46, the modest motion became a position statement that transformed the 1996 resolution on human sexuality into a binding resolution on human sexuality. Here is the 1996 resolution’s core declaration:

God created people male and female, and provided for the marriage relationship in which two may become one. A publicly declared, legally binding marriage between one woman and one man is the one appropriate place for sexual intercourse. Heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage—these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God and amend our lives. (http://www.covchurch.org/cov/resources/resolutions/1996-sexuality.html)

There was virtually no debate on the motion itself.

This article is a protest against the binding action of the new position statement and offers some thoughts about the costs of redefining the ECCA and the costs of moving on with the burden of this binding action upon us.

On the positive side, the 2004 position statement and the 1996 resolution on human sexuality have the potential to strengthen ECCA efforts to prevent future abuse of children and vulnerable adults within our churches, homes, and communities. The resolution also binds us “to compassionately care for the victims of sexual sins of all kinds.” The new position statement should bring full ECCA support behind Covenant Women Ministries Project 2004 “Light for AVA” (Advocacy for Victims of Abuse). On the positive side, delegates at the 2004 annual meeting debated, and defeated, an amendment to the adopted motion requesting that those who don’t publicly and privately affirm the 1996 resolution leave the Covenant.

Debate was limited to this amendment and left no time in the day’s schedule for debate on the motion itself. That debate indicates that a determination to solidify the Covenant’s position on homosexuality is the driving desire behind the binding action and position statement. This article addresses this driving desire. Other aspects of human sexuality are given little mention. I use the designation ECCA to distinguish actions of Covenanters in the US from actions by Covenanters in other countries; actions with which I am unfamiliar.

Part I. Binding But Not Persuading

There are resolutions and then there are binding resolutions. So, what’s the big deal?

The ECCA frequently makes resolutions at annual meetings. Some of these resolutions are position statements on selected issues drafted by a few Covenanters. Adoption of such a resolution represents the conviction or acquiescence of a majority of delegates with the stated position while assembled at a particular annual meeting. The slowly growing collection of resolutions and other statements accessible on the Covenant’s web site is part of the public face that the Covenant shows to interested people using the Internet. How widely these resolutions and statements are held and acted upon throughout the ECCA is a matter of speculation and not usually a matter of interest—not until a binding resolution is sought.

Binding resolutions have significant implications for the ECCA. By such action, the ECCA signals its intent to create or change policy, practices, and guidelines to conform to that resolution. Binding resolutions limit Covenanters’ future freedom to come to their own conclusions about the issues resolved. Probably for that reason binding resolutions are rarely introduced and rarely adopted. I’m told that since 1960, there has been only one resolution other than the one transformed into a binding resolution at the 2004 meeting that has been made binding. It is the resolution requiring Covenant pastors to offer both infant and adult baptism, regardless of their personal conviction.

There is no reason to think that the 2004 binding resolution on human sexuality will be the last attempt to bind Covenanters to particular positions on currently controversial issues roiling American politics and churches. This prospect makes it important to review the recent binding process.

Consensus: a presumption or a reality?

The Covenant’s Board of the Ordered Ministry (joined by the Covenant Executive Board, the Council of Administrators, and the Council of Superintendents) made the motion to adopt the resolution quoted above. In their brief written report to the delegates, they stated: “the 1996 Resolution on Human Sexuality has served as our consensus position” (Companion, August 2004). In claiming consensus, they didn’t indicate whether it was a consensus of the entire Covenant or of their leadership groups. As far as I know, Covenant leaders have no poll results and must therefore rely on an assumption of consensus based on majority adoption of the human sexuality resolution in 1996 and a perceived absence of significant disagreement since 1996. Consensus can’t be achieved by simple proclamation.

Consensus has several definitions and meanings gained from experience. For example, here are a few definitions: “consensus. 1. majority of opinion. 2. general agreement or concord; harmony. Consensus gentium. agreement of the people.” Webster’s Dictionary, 1996.

Some of us experience consensus in a way that sometimes involves a sustained effort of persuasion. My church’s council (Arbor Covenant Church, Madison, Wisconsin) operates on “consensus.” This process sometimes requires lengthy and painful discussion. In our practice, consensus means that debate on any action has continued until council members either agree with the recommended action or decide not to oppose such action. If one or more members continue to oppose an action, consensus is not achieved and the action is not taken. By this process, unity on the council is maintained. Is it unrealistic to expect a denomination of many churches to reach consensus by some persuasive process like my church council uses? I’m unaware of efforts by ECCA leaders to educate and persuade Covenanters to support the 1996 resolution on human sexuality.

Consensus can also be achieved by attrition. At the 2004 annual meeting, Jeremy Males proposed an amendment that “urges clergy and churches to neither seek nor maintain standing within the Covenant unless they affirm this position (the 2004 motion on human sexuality ) both privately and publicly” (Companion, August 2004). Delegates rejected that amendment.

Limiting our freedom to disagree and remain in unity

What is the Covenant’s affirmation of freedom in Christ? It is a position that allows for differences of opinion among Covenanters “where the biblical record itself can be differently read.” This affirmation is part of a concise summary of Covenant experience and understanding of theology written in 1976, in a booklet titled: Covenant Affirmations. The Committee on Covenant Doctrine that gave us the booklet said:

The key to freedom, then, as Covenanters have understood it, is to be ‘in Christ.’ By his grace he is able to make a person, as Luther says, into a perfectly free ‘lord of all, subject to none.’ At the same time, he is able to make that person ‘a perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all.’ This practiced freedom in Christ creates a tension between the liberty of not having someone else’s interpretation of Scripture imposed on us, and our obligation to be subject to one another. This freedom has “kept Covenanters together in times of strain when it would have been far easier to break fellowship and further divide the body. (Covenant Affirmations, 1976).

President Glenn Palmberg may have been thinking of this unifying freedom force in his opening report to the 2004 annual meeting when he urged delegates; “…keep in mind our mission. We can disagree respectfully but may we stay united in what we are seeking to accomplish for the cause of Christ in this world” (Companion, August 2004, p. 13). Not all delegates shared that view. During the debate on the proposed amendment to the binding resolution, Pastor Timothy Ek said: “We want to make sure that in the days ahead people understand that we are not going to come back again and vote on this, this is where we stand, and for those who somehow feel this determination of biblical understanding is out of harmony with who they are, they probably need to seek affiliation elsewhere” (Companion, pp. 16, 17).

Why the need for a binding resolution on human sexuality?

In a handout to delegates (Agenda Item 16.a.), the Board of Ordered Ministry and other ECCA leadership groups stated that it was “timely to articulate cornerstone practices and positions of the ECC again” given “discussion in the larger society” and because of a delegate’s resolution on this subject that had been offered at the 2003 annual meeting and referred to the Board. That earlier resolution “sought a binding policy on sexual morality dealing specifically with homosexuality, for the denomination” (Covenant Companion, August 2004).

The proposed amendment to the proposed motion on human sexuality was clearly motivated by a desire to achieve a united public and private affirmation of the ECCA’s position on homosexuality. Other supporters of this amendment expressed their desire to “establish the boundaries of our community life together” (an unnamed pastor) and to not “allow people who sin and call it good to remain in our body” (an unnamed layperson).

The authors of Covenant Affirmations might have been predicting the present moment in the Covenant when they said that Covenanters’ deeply-felt desire for consistency in life and witness struggles with their innate fear of creeds and codes where the Scriptures have not spoken clearly; and their desire to cooperate—to “covenant” with each other—competes with a hesitance to adopt concepts and programs which limit their individual freedom. To many, such freedom is no freedom at all. They would rather have all the marching orders clearly defined from the beginning…freedom is a gift, the last of all gifts to mature. (pp. 23 and 24).

Tony Campolo speaks of continuing to freely covenant together in another context in spite of a difference of opinion.

While I believe that this (homosexuality) is an important issue, I do not think it is a defining one. We must not allow ourselves to think that those who differ with us on the matter of homosexuality are less Christian or even less committed to Scripture than we are. Differences over this issue should not be the cause of church schism. My wife and I are evidence that it is possible to have opposing opinions on this subject without getting a divorce. (Speaking My Mind, 2004. pp. 55, 56).

Part II—Weakening Covenant Distinctives

At the 2004 annual meeting, the Evangelical Covenant Church of America’s (ECCA’s) adoption of a motion binding the ECCA to a 1996 resolution on human sexuality potentially strengthened the denomination’s efforts to prevent abuse of children and vulnerable adults within our churches, homes, and communities. This benefit came at some cost: the motion forced Covenanters to accept one position on the controversial issue of homosexuality. Part of the cost of doing this is a weakening of Covenant distinctives. Consider three of the distinctives (from the booklet Covenant Distinctives). The Covenant is: 1) traditional but not rigid, 2) biblical but not doctrinaire, and 3) evangelical but not exclusive.

Traditional, but not rigid

The ECCA need not apologize for being traditional. There is a Christian standard (or norm) for marriage. Many Christians will agree with Stanley Grenz’ conclusion: “scholars who propose that the church accept committed same-sex relationships have yet to produce a sufficient basis for revising the traditional belief that the biblical writers condemned homosexual conduct, at least as they had come to know it” (Welcoming But Not Affirming, page 62). Just how those biblical writers were acquainted with the subject is not clearly known or clearly understood. Other Christians will not agree with Grenz. Their experience and understanding lead them to other conclusions.

To make a resolution binding is an action of rigidity. Making the 1996 resolution on human sexuality binding has nailed our collective ECCA shoes to the floor: it defines, but also boxes in, the ECCA position on the subject. Human sexuality, like sexual physiology, is complex and has its variants. As a gay activist told me one day: “We’re queer, we’re here. Deal with it!” The resolution leaves little room for the ECCA to adapt to: a) a future, clearer understanding of the cultural context within which biblical statements about human sexuality were made, b) new scientific knowledge about the physiological causes of variants in sexuality, and c) our future experiences in knowing homosexual people. Maybe our present understanding of homosexuality is as incomplete as the Church’s pre-modern understanding of mental illness. Sometimes people treat homosexual people as if they were demon-possessed.

Biblical, but not doctrinaire

A biblical understanding of homosexuality is not casually acquired. To say that the Bible is perfectly clear on the subject is unconvincing and diminishes the understanding of what it means to have a “biblical understanding.” Contrast such casual claims of clarity to the careful search for understanding engaged in by Stanley J. Grenz in his book: Welcoming But Not Affirming, An evangelical response to homosexuality (1998). He devoted one chapter to the interpretation debate among biblical scholars. In another chapter he addressed the question: what does the Bible say about homosexuality? Grenz demonstrated hard, strenuous labor in developing what he believed to be a biblical attitude towards committed, homosexual Christian couples: an attitude revealed by the title of his book.

I’m disappointed that the gospel writers didn’t mention any encounters that Jesus may have had with homosexuals as he moved among the outcasts in his society, or offer any teaching that he may have given on the subject.

Covenanters deserve more help than the ECCA has furnished on homosexuality as we instinctively repeat our historic question: “Where is it written?” There seems to be meager evidence that biblical texts relating to the issue have been thoroughly studied, and alternative theological arguments considered before either the 1996 resolution or the 2004 motion to make the resolution binding were drafted, presented, and adopted. Whatever resources the ECCA leadership used to develop these resolutions have not yet been widely disseminated to Covenant churches.

The resolutions on human sexuality and the arguments of supporters of these resolutions and the failed amendment seem to be sincere efforts to be both biblical and doctrinaire on the issue of homosexuality. Doctrinaire is defined in Webster’s Dictionary (1996) as: “Dogmatic about others’ acceptance of one’s ideas. Synonyms: authoritarian, uncompromising, inflexible, unyielding….Dogmatic. asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner.”

Evangelical but not exclusive

Resolutions on abortion (1994) and human sexuality (1996) and modifying motions (2004) adopted 1 by the ECCA to date appear to be steps to redefine what it means to be evangelical within the ECCA and to make that meaning more exclusive. These resolutions and motions are notable steps towards exclusivity because they remove from further consideration other Covenant opinion on the subject.

Part III—Moving on with a Binding Resolution on our Shoulders

As the Evangelical Church of America (ECCA) moves forward to apply its newly-binding 1996 resolution on human sexuality to Covenant policy, practice, and guidelines, there are obviously a lot of matters that need to be worked out by ECCA leaders, and within local churches. The resolution contains a declaration and a call for a response from Covenanters. Most of that call is welcomed. This article addresses one problematic part of the call: “To care for persons involved in sexual sins such as adultery, homosexual behavior and promiscuity, compassionately recognizing the potential of these sins to take the form of addictions.” For the context, you can read the full text of the resolution on the ECCA web site at: http://www.covchurch.org/cov/resources/resolutions/1996-sexuality.html or the portion printed at the end of this article.

Embracing wholeness and shunning sinful behavior

Christ’s community welcomes all sinners, affirming them as persons of value in God’s sight. But like the Master who boldly commanded the adulterous woman the Jewish leaders brought to him, “from now on do not sin again” (John 8:1), the welcoming community of Christ’s disciples steadfastly refuses to affirm any type of sinful behavior. (Grenz, p. 156).

It seems obvious that a strong Christian sex ethic should include faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. Mental as well as physical aspects of faithfulness and celibacy are important, as Jesus taught when he equated lustful thoughts with lustful actions. Shunning physical and sexual abuse (including abuse within our churches and families), rescuing and protecting victims are vital actions as well, and they are receiving considerable attention in the ECCA. Creation of the manual, Making Churches Safe, to prevent physical and sexual abuse in the church is an example of this attention.

If Covenanters are newly-bound to the resolution on human sexuality on order to take a stand on homosexuality, that’s fertile ground for hypocrisy. We can’t allow concerns about homosexuality to diminish ECCA efforts to repent and correct for past failures to adequately protect children from sexual abuse. The ECCA needs to transform its resolution on human sexuality into adequate policies, guidelines, and teaching materials on all aspects of the subject.

The 1996 resolution includes a declared intent: “To care for persons involved in sexual sins…of homosexual behavior.” How is this going to be done? Just what to ask of committed Christian homosexual couples (particularly those raising children) living in faithful relationships will be difficult to determine.

Welcoming, tolerance, or acceptance?

The newly-binding action on the 1996 resolution on human sexuality does not appear to be good news for homosexual people presently within ECCA churches. The binding motion took an eight-year-old resolution out of the file cabinet and made it harder for some of us to decide how to respond to homosexual people inquiring about our churches.

The Response portion of the 1996 resolution doesn’t promote a welcoming atmosphere with a sin label linking homosexuality to promiscuity. Maybe that linkage was an unfortunate grammatical error.

We can expect homosexual couples to seek tolerance, if not acceptance from Christians in the ECCA. As the resolution implementation develops, these couples will discover the ECCA’s policy, practice and guidelines concerning them. They will note how divorced and divorcing couples are welcomed and graciously treated. They will eventually compare the ECCA’s grace-filled resolution on divorce and remarriage2 with the binding resolution on human sexuality and ask some tough questions. They will want similar treatment.

It is a shame and a sin that persons with homosexual orientations usually are forced to discover and use their gifts outside the church. Through their struggles, some of our homosexual brothers and sisters have grown in the Lord to the point where they have much that would benefit and bless the straight church. (Campolo, p. 76).

Campolo writes about his experience with committed Christians who are homosexual singles and couples within churches. He offers some possible responses to their varied situations and ways in which churches can offer support for such people.

Welcoming, tolerating, or accepting homosexual people include an obligation to defend them, particularly in situations where they are social outcasts or persecuted.

“Beyond any arguments over what the Bible says or does not say about homosexual behavior is my concern about the meanness and ugly, untrue rhetoric that gay men and lesbians have to endure from many Christians” (Campolo, page 70).

Campolo gives some frightening examples that show how denunciations of gays by Christian speakers can bring a hostile, violent response from some of their listeners. Covenanters should oppose the actions of militant religious people who intimidate persons of homosexual persuasion. In my community, homes of homosexual couples have been publicly identified, postered, and picketed. Covenanters and other Christians in Madison, including members of Arbor Covenant Church, have not remained silent in the face of this intimidation and invasion of privacy.

In the interest of fairness and justice

“I sincerely hope that all Christians, regardless of their opinions about causes and possible ‘cures’ for homosexual orientations, will agree on at least this: homosexuals are entitled to the same civil rights that heterosexuals enjoy” (Campolo, page 73).

The position that Campolo takes and urges on us requires courage because it is in sharp contrast to a different message from a majority of voters in states that have passed referendum measures intended to prohibit homosexual marriages and, in some states, prohibit civil unions.

In the interest of fairness and justice, the ECCA should acknowledge the special economic and legal circumstances of homosexual couples. In particular: hardships affecting children in these relationships need attention. These hardships include not having visitation rights in hospitals, not having access to benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples in health insurance, inheritance, pension, child custody, etc. Covenanters should be urged to work with others to change laws to provide gay couples with access to benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples, to prohibit discrimination in residential housing and the workplace, and to have protection against hate crimes.


The Covenant leadership, who proposed the motion to bind the ECCA to the 1996 resolution on human sexuality, and those who voted in favor of the binding action at the 2004 annual meeting, decided for the rest of us, that on the issue of homosexuality, the Bible cannot be “differently read” by Covenanters. The process that they followed (binding but not persuading, voting without discussion) sets an unfortunate precedent for future annual meetings where more binding resolutions can be expected on controversial issues that some people (inside and outside the ECCA) believe require a particular position.

The positive aspects of “taking stands” are offset by damage done in treading upon Covenanters’ freedom to disagree. Achievements gained by winning the approval of those who want us to take these stands are offset by the resulting erosion of important, historic Covenant distinctives: traditional but not rigid; biblical but not doctrinaire, evangelical but not exclusive.

The ECCA faces a big job in working out a binding resolution that can help safeguard children and vulnerable adults in our homes and churches, a resolution that can be defining or dividing, a resolution that can encourage personal holiness or hypocrisy, a resolution that can meet certain political needs to satisfy dissatisfied churches and large donors, or encourage such groups and individuals to ask for more.

It is important to re-affirm the ECCA’s cherished affirmation of our freedom in Christ and historic Covenant distinctives in anticipation of further efforts to redefine the ECCA with future binding resolutions.

I treasure my freedom in Christ within the Covenant and don’t want this freedom to disappear step-by-step at Covenant annual meetings. I’ve been willing to leave some important issues at the door of my church and enter to worship God among those who disagree and agree with me on those issues. My companion members of Arbor Covenant Church do the same. As a Covenanter, I am newly-bound by a Covenant resolution that takes a stand against homosexuality, yet the practical implications for my church and me are unclear.

I remain puzzled about homosexuality. The biblical texts appear to condemn homosexuality as the writers understood it, but by themselves, these texts seem insufficient to provide me with clear and adequate guidance on the issue. In this unsatisfying state of information, I choose to offer kindness, tolerance, and acceptance to homosexual people that I encounter.

As we anticipate future individual accountings of our lives before the Lord and the strong possibility that each of us has of being wrong about a number of things, recall Jesus’ recorded disputes with the Pharisees. Wouldn’t we prefer to be criticized by the Christ for not being discriminating enough? Wouldn’t that be preferable to a rebuke for excluding some of those whom Christ accepts?

References and Recommended Resources:

Agenda Item 16.1. Report to the 119th Annual Meeting. Human Sexuality and the Marriage Ethic.

Covenant Affirmations. 1976. Covenant Press. Current long and short forms of the Affirmation are to be found on the Covenant web site: http://www.covchurch.org/cov/resources/affirmations.html The original 1976 booklet was presented to the ECCA by the Committee on Covenant Doctrine: James R. Hawkinson, Donald C. Frisk, Paul E. Larsen, Edward Parson, A. Eldon Palmquist, Richard O. Sandquist, and Milton B. Engebretson (ex-officio, and president of the ECCA).

Covenant Companion. August 2004 issue. Jane K. Swanson-Nystrom: “Keeping the Mission in Mind.” Pages 12–25.

Covenant Distinctives. See the Who We Are statement on the ECCA web site or the Covenant Press booklet: Covenant Distinctives for the complete list of identified distinctives and commentary on them.

Speaking My Mind. 2004. Tony Campolo. W Publishing Group. Chapter 5: Are Evangelicals handling the gay issue all wrong? Pages 55-76.

Welcoming But Not Affirming, an evangelical response to homosexuality. 1998. Stanley J. Grenz. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky. At the time of publication, Grenz was Pioneer McDonald Professor of Theology and Ethics at Carey/Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. and affiliate professor at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.

The 1996 resolution on human sexuality was copied from the list of resolutions on the following ECCA web page: http://www.covchurch.org/cov/resources/. That web site also includes an undated policy statement on divorce and remarriage.

The resolution to which Covenanters are now bound

What is the resolution on human sexuality that Covenanters are now bound to uphold? The 1996 resolution opens with a few paragraphs providing a biblical basis for the resolution, followed by the following declaration.

God created people male and female, and provided for the marriage relationship in which two may become one. A publicly declared, legally binding marriage between one woman and one man is the one appropriate place for sexual intercourse. Heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage—these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God and amend our lives.

The 1996 resolution follows the declaration with the following call for a response from Covenanters:

We recognize that God’s gift of sexuality is like a deep and swiftly moving river, beautiful, mysterious, and powerful. The boundaries of Scripture must be built into our lives in order for this immense power to be a source of blessing rather than destruction. Therefore, we call upon pastors, church members, and Christian families to forsake silence about sexuality and to declare God’s truth about the beauty and potential of sexuality and to warn and counsel with compassion when it is misused. In the local church, we encourage ministries to address these needs:
  • To teach children, teens, and adults the biblical basis for the Christian standard of sexuality.
  • To prepare people for marriage and enrich marriages.
  • To affirm the gift of singleness and welcome singles into the full life of the congregation.
  • To oppose the proliferation of pornography and prostitution.
  • To care for persons involved in sexual sins such as adultery, homosexual behavior and promiscuity, compassionately recognizing the potential of these sins to take the form of addiction.

1. In 2004, delegates voted to remove the exception of “cases of rape and incest” from the 1994 resolution on abortion.

2. For the ECCA resolution on divorce and re-marriage, see the following web page: www.covchurch.org/cov/resources/divorce.html