Echoes from the 2019 Covenant annual meeting

These remarks were shared during the debate at the meeting on Friday, June 28, 2019, included here with permission by the authors and reprinted from their own notes.

Autumn Jeremiah Patterson, Fort Collins, Colorado

Mr. Moderator, I would like to start by thanking the Executive Council for ultimately referring this matter back to our assembly for our consideration today. This gives us the chance to clarify and further direct the Executive Council on how the Covenant should proceed when there is dissonance in our family on how to engage our LGBTQ families with love, respect, and the grace of Christ.

It has been suggested by some over the past month that it is a distraction from our mission to have this discussion, but I beg to differ. First and foremost, this annual meeting in 2004 declined to make our guiding statement on human sexuality binding on churches and clergy to maintain standing in our family of Covenant Churches. This body indicated then, and I urge we reaffirm, that we continue together to pursue the path of grace and understanding.

We can and should continue to dispassionately weigh how our Covenant’s approach to balancing doctrine and grace is best served in this case by recognizing John 3:16, that Christ came for every person; their occupation, race, gender, sexual orientation, notwithstanding. The idea of removing any church for exploring how to best realize John 3:16 for their members and their communities regardless of their station and in the full light of the past decisions of this assembly is, in my estimation, the opposite of dispassionate, measured deliberation.

I would hope that there isn’t a person here today that, if an LGBTQ family walked into your congregation, you would ask them to leave. It is difficult to understand how they would feel a part of our church if we cannot even bring ourselves to a place to recognize, support and even celebrate them and their families.

Certainly, divorce, for different example, is devastating to the lives of the spouses, children, extended family and even friends of the afflicted family. The larger church has never been fully

settled on whether there is any circumstance where divorce is proper. Yet, the Covenant has decided to accept that brokenness is the result of a fallen world and sin, and allow remarriage in our churches and accept remarried families into full fellowship.

And we do this without even hazarding understating the preeminence of marriage being a life-long covenant. Not because we are being fast and loose with the truth or with God’s design, but because we understand the power of Christ’s redemptive work for all, regardless of the sum of their nature and choices that brought them to where they are today.

Quoting from our 2007 report on Human Sexuality and the Marriage Ethic, part one: “We have no authority to form theologically gated communities in exchange for living out the incredibly complex lifestyle of grace in communities of radical hospitality and openness to all who fear the Lord. We are not a self-defined community; we are a God-defined community of the resurrection. This is a dual challenge both to those who would launch out on their own to redefine Christian sexual ethics as well as to those who respond as advocates of the Church’s historic stance.”

I would go so far as to argue that First Covenant is not even working towards redefining Christian sexual ethics. We can affirm that we all exist today as a direct benefit of heterosexual relationship as God’s natural and wise order and at the same time embrace that not everyone, also by God’s providence, fits neatly into that mold. I don’t fit neatly in that mold. Many people do not fit neatly in that mold. We rely on John 3:16, in that while we seem to be born without conforming to human expectations of sex, gender or attraction, we are still created in God’s image and Christ still died for us and we are all in need of Christ’s grace and the koinonia established through His Church.

Anne Vining, St. Paul, Minnesota

In the nearly 30 years I have attended annual meetings, I have never stood at one of these microphones to speak. Until now. I could not be silent. For nearly 17 years I’ve served as pastor just across the Mississippi River from First Covenant Church, Minneapolis, at First Covenant Church, Saint Paul.

One hundred and forty five years ago, immigrants from Sweden came to Minnesota and formed these two Mission Friends churches where they could continue growing in faith in Jesus Christ. Similar ethnic roots, yet vastly different theological perspectives and practices. Over the decades, First Covenant, Minneapolis was known as the “Baptist” Covenant church while First Covenant, Saint Paul was known as the “Lutheran” Covenant church.

In the early 1990s I was serving my first church out of seminary and learned one of the churches in the Twin Cities, my hometown area, First Covenant, Minneapolis, had taken women out of all areas of leadership. How could this be? I was told by wiser and more experienced Covenant pastors, “This is the burden and beauty of the Covenant. Local churches have great autonomy to discern their priorities and practices. We might vastly disagree but at the end of the day, we are still part of the same family. We agree to disagree.”

Choosing to remove a 145-year-old historic church, seeking the Holy Spirit’s leading to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their unique context, is contrary to our beautifully complicated, unique denominational identity. In all my years as a Covenanter, I’ve never witnessed our denominational body jockeying for positions of power, giving higher value to law over grace, politics over relationships – until now.

We are people of the Word, led by the Holy Spirit, who have historically been given space to wrestle with what scripture is saying to us collectively as a body. In the past few years, many have asked for space for conversation, biblical study and prayer to communally discern our understanding on human sexuality. It has not happened.

Until we’re given that space, there should be no expulsion of pastors or churches. To do that is to set a precedent that will impact how we deal with any further dissent going forward. It will impact our ability to live out the clear biblical imperative – from Jesus and the Apostle Paul – to seek unity bound together by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

John E. Phelan Jr., Minneapolis, Minnesota (part of the congregation’s 15-minute defense)

Throughout his ministry the Apostle Paul was desperate to keep Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus together. He was furious with those who wanted to impose circumcision on his Gentile converts. He argued that Gentiles were full members of the Jesus community without circumcision and keeping kosher. In Romans he has the opposite problem. Here Gentiles were treating observant Jews with contempt. Now for Jews circumcision, sabbath, and keeping kosher were not minor matters. They were willing to die rather than give up their distinctives. In Romans 14 Paul argues that in spite of their significant differences, Jewish and Gentile Jesus followers needed to find a way to live together.

Paul does not tell the Jews they need to get with the program. He does not tell the Gentiles they need to submit to their Jewish siblings. No. The unity and witness of the church required both parties to accept beliefs and practices that made them uncomfortable. “Those who eat,” he told them, “must not look down on those who don’t, and the ones who don’t eat must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them.” The Jews and Gentiles in the Roman church read their Bibles and practiced their faith differently, but Paul wanted them to stay together. “Who are you,” he concludes, “to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord.”

We Protestants do not have a great record of fostering the unity of the body of Christ. With the arrival of the Reformation the church began to splinter into ever smaller fragmented and squabbling groups. Mutual recriminations and disdain, even violence, were a feature of the post-Reformation period. Our Covenant forebears sought commonality amidst all this diversity — the “one thing needful”: love of and faith in Jesus. If you love Jesus, they would say, you are my brother and my sister regardless of how you understand the atonement, baptism, eschatology; however you interpret your Bible. This did not mean there would be no arguments or discussions or disagreements or that people would not point out the error of your ways. It meant unity was in nothing else but Jesus Christ.

The Covenant Church enshrines this difficult practice of generosity to those with whom we disagree in its constitution. It gives freedom to each church to order its mission and ministry. The church did not develop a “statement of faith” or an extensive confession. It acknowledged the importance of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds and the centrality of Scripture. These things provide a framework, a set of boundaries and conversations. But to go beyond these and require particular interpretations of texts is to go back to the post-Reformation divisions and recriminations. It is potentially, as Paul worried, “to destroy someone for whom Christ died.”

This has never meant that anyone is required to approve of everything done in any particular Covenant church. This has never meant that one should never challenge or disagree with the position of a church. It has and should mean that one should not despise or look down on those with whom one differs. Love for one another in the midst of serious difference has marked the Covenant for more than a century. It has offered a new model, a new way of living with conflict that is today desperately needed in our divided and squabbling world. We live in a zero-sum culture. For me to “win” you have to lose — and lose completely.

You needn’t agree with the stance of First Covenant Church or, for that matter, of the Evangelical Covenant Church. No one is asking you to stop advocating for your biblical, ethical, or moral convictions. But if you excommunicate me along with brothers and sisters in FCC today you give sad testimony once more to the failure of the church to live in the tension of loving others who love Jesus, however you differ with them. More than 40 years ago coming out of a narrow fundamentalism, I found in the Covenant church a wonderful freedom to love Jesus, the Bible, and those different from me. My children were raised in Covenant Sunday schools, attended Covenant camps, graduated from North Park University and one from North Park Theological Seminary. Today they face the painful prospect of seeing their parents kicked out along with the rest of the wonderful people at First Covenant. I hope you will turn away from this painful possibility. Grace be with you.