My journey to “Finding Common Ground”

by Randall Wilkens

I’m grieved to admit that not long ago I viewed gay and lesbian people as my enemies. What they stood for seemed opposed to all I was taught in my conservative Christian upbringing. Back in my college days I was often outspoken in my critique of the “homosexual lifestyle.” I now realize with great sadness that my words caused others harm. I believed I was just trying to rescue people from behavior that was contrary to the word of God. But all the while, my own behavior was contrary to the word of God, because I failed to love my LGBTQ brothers and sisters as Christ taught by his words and example.

I’m thankful that God didn’t leave me there, but began to gently convict me of my attitude. One turning point was when I heard someone say, “Evangelicals are the Pharisees of today.” I could not have disagreed more with that statement when I first heard it. But as I continued to mull it over, it became harder and harder to dismiss. God began a long work of repentance within me that enabled me to recognize my own peculiar brand of Pharisaical sin.

As this change began to occur in my heart, I began reading and listening to the stories of LGBTQ people. I was surprised to discover that many of them are not so different from me. A large percentage grew up in the church, and many still hold on to their faith—or at least try to—despite the rejection of their Christian communities. My assumptions about LGBTQ people’s spiritual lives were shaken to the core when I saw them bearing good fruit in their lives. Dare I even say it was the fruit of the Spirit?

According to the stories of countless LGBTQ individuals who grew up in Christian families and churches, most did not choose same-sex attraction, as some have assumed. Many of these stories are heartbreaking. The boy in the youth group who discovers sexual feelings for his male friends, and has no one to turn to out of fear that anyone he tells will reject him. The woman who loves volunteering at church, until she overhears her fellow congregants whispering behind her back because she’s “different.” The person contemplating suicide because they know no one in their church or family will ever understand their struggle with gender dysphoria. All the gay, lesbian, and transgender persons who have been rejected by their churches and families for coming out—even if they have never acted on their feelings. If suicide rates are higher amongst LGBTQ people than the general population, should we not be asking how the church may bear some of the responsibility for that? At the very least, should we not be asking why those who navigate the waters of same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria don’t feel the church is a safe place for them to find the support they need?

I kept wrestling with questions like these until that wrestling took written form—part lament, part confession, part call to action. I wrote about the value of sexual minority people, how they are loved by God, and how God’s love for them is not lessened by their same-sex attraction or experience of gender. I wrote about how the church has failed sexual minority people by not listening to or believing their stories of struggle, by marginalizing and even abusing them instead of ministering to them, and by exalting marriage over faithful singleness in a way that further excludes them. And I wrote a call for my denomination—the Evangelical Covenant Church—to right these wrongs out of our commitment to compassion, mercy, and justice, while teaching pastors and congregations to provide safe, loving communities for sexual minority persons.

Photo of Randall Wilkens

I believed these concerns could be, or at least should be, embraced by every Christian, wherever progressive or conservative. After all, this wasn’t about being either affirming or traditional, but about displaying the compassion and mercy of Christ, and offering the fellowship of the church to those who desperately needed it. I deeply desired these to be unifying words that would enable the polarized Body of Christ—and my own polarized denomination—to find common ground.

So with some fear and trepidation, I shared what I wrote on the Facebook page for Evangelical Covenant pastors. The response was surprisingly positive. Progressive pastors expressed their appreciation for words of compassion, mercy, and justice towards the LGBTQ community. Conservative pastors agreed that this could be a good starting point for LGBTQ ministry in our churches—in the context of the denomination’s position on human sexuality. And just two days after posting, I heard from Covenant President Gary Walter, who thanked me for my words and said he would probably make some reference to them in his annual talk at the upcoming Covenant Midwinter Conference. I was amazed, humbled, and a little apprehensive. But at the conference when I actually heard Gary refer to several of my points, I was overcome with tears of gratitude. These words seemed to provide a moment of unity in the midst of an increasingly polarized time in our denomination.

I was eventually asked if I would help develop these words into a resource for Covenant pastors and churches. This “Finding Common Ground” resource would be part of the Embrace Initiative that Executive Minister Michelle Sanchez was launching to equip LGBTQ ministry in Covenant churches. Michelle encouraged me to assemble a diverse team to help with this project. Ultimately a team of eleven people agreed to participate, including three who were clearly on the conservative side and three who were clearly on the progressive side, while nearly half of our number were moderate participants who could integrate the contributions of both sides. Our team also included one openly LGBTQ person, whose contributions were very insightful and I believe necessary for the integrity of the project. I actually wish we could have included more LGBTQ voices, but am thankful that at least we had one person who was willing take the risk to join us.

Each participant gave initial feedback through an online survey, which was then used to guide live conversation in several online meetings. This approach ended up working very well, as every single team member contributed important language to “Finding Common Ground.” Together we pored over every word to make sure we were speaking clearly and not putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in people’s way. One person contributed better language about the problems with gay conversion therapy, while another added a new point about the pain of closeted LGBTQ persons within the church. We also discussed whether or not to restate the Covenant Church’s position on human sexuality in the introduction. While at least one of our conservative participants spoke strongly in favor of that, the majority decided not to include it in order to keep things truly on “common ground.”

The Evangelical Covenant Church’s position on human sexuality—based on the traditional interpretation of scripture regarding sex and marriage—has been stated, so I will not restate it yet again here. I don’t disagree with it, but I do disagree with the way it has been used recently. It seems too-often spoken out of fear, rather than love. And instead of sparking conversation about the biblical teaching on human sexuality, it tends to shut that conversation down. Once you’ve decided you’re certain what the Bible says, you cease to wrestle together with what it actually does say. That’s true on both the conservative and progressive sides, though both sides need that robust conversation now more than ever.

Our team was ultimately overruled by officials at Covenant offices, and the human sexuality statement was inserted. I was saddened that this change made our resource no longer representative of all of the voices who spoke into it, and that it was no longer quite the “common ground” resource it claimed to be. But if the inclusion of the denomination’s position makes it more accessible to conservative pastors and churches, that is positive. The fifteen points of “Finding Common Ground” remain uncompromised, loving, and compassionate launching points for ministry to LGBTQ people. That ministry is the responsibility of all of Christ’s followers, whether we are progressive or conservative.

“Finding Common Ground” may be found online at covchurch.org/embrace/wp-content/uploads/sites/92/2018/06/Embrace_Finding-common-ground-web.pdf.