Out of Harmony?

by Phil Johnson

Most people I know thought First Covenant Church Minneapolis, after a strong and distinguished life in downtown Minneapolis, was dead. However, for a few years there have been rumors of life.

On Communion Sunday in June, Charlie Elowson and I, along with friends Carl and Lizzy, checked it out. Life abounds. The grand old Skogsbergh Tabernacle is filled with freshness. The congregation is taking its place at the heart of downtown Minneapolis again as an inclusive and compassionate force for civil society. Was Skogsbergh, who built the tabernacle, a prophet? Did he know that future Minnesota Vikings would inhabit the neighborhood, making the property very valuable?

In spite of the sweet, vibrant, melodic notes of this congregation, it received a letter from the Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church (a name diluted to abstractness by the acronym ECC) notifying them that they were “out of harmony.” What!? Also, Pastor Collison was notified that the ECC had suspended his ministry license.

How can this be when a remnant has been called forth and a congregation that had been like the dry bones of Ezekiel regained its flesh? These bones live! There is an answer, unfortunately. The ECC prohibits its pastors from coming near the weddings of sweethearts who are gay, lesbian, or of other gender orientation. Maybe a pastor can attend if he or she is silent and takes no part in the service.

Clearly there is a lack of harmony. The matter will be addressed at the annual meeting of the ECC and several “out of harmony” people, including Pastor Collison, have been called before the Board of Ministry.

Late in the last century, some leaders of the Covenant Church decided to define its position on human sexuality. A committee presented its view to the Annual Meeting of 1996 and at the Annual Meeting of 2004, it was adopted as a binding resolution; to wit, human sexuality is not sinful if the sex is between a married man and woman, otherwise it is.

In taking this action the Annual Meeting and the Board of Ministry have redefined the Covenant, as the late Philip Keillor spelled out in his carefully considered article in Pietisten, “Redefining the Covenant” (Fall, 2004).

This binding resolution is out of harmony with Covenant polity, the genius of which has been to provide freedom of practice in matters that are not “salvific,” because friendship and Christian love was the aim. Thus, from the beginning, the Lutheran-oriented infant baptizer and the believer baptizer have been and are both welcome with full blessing in the Covenant. However, there are instances of pastors and churches being out of harmony in this who are undisciplined. Also, some churches will not call women pastors and are out of harmony. Nor have the pastors and churches “in harmony” called for discipline. Rather, as Rev. Herbert Hedstrom writes in his letter to the Northwest Conference, ECC President Gary Walter, and others urging reconsideration in this case, undersigned by many of us, “...we have attempted to follow a course of gentle persuasion.”

“Gentle persuasion” has been the Covenant way at its best, but in making the position on human sexuality binding, the nature of the Covenant has shifted. As the Mission Covenant, our name pointed to the collective sense of agreement and of latitude that marked the denomination that nurtured us. The co-opting of that pietistic and covenanting tradition by American evangelicals and fundamentalists has marked a change in the character of the denomination; it was certainly no longer the place where Don Frisk, Hawkinsons, Henry Gustafson, Mel Soneson, Elder Lindahl, Art Anderson, Glen Wiberg, et al, set the tone.

Meanwhile, regardless of denominational disciplinary actions, the Spirit prevails. Pastor Dan Collison said in a recent sermon: “As our unfolding Covenant congregational story continues in the days ahead, we have reason for hope and we are invited to learn anew how to love those with whom we disagree.”

So, no matter what the ECC decides, it can’t stop the brothers and sisters of First Covenant from loving one another and downtown Minneapolis.

Who’s out of harmony? Who is out of tune?