Editorial: Remembering Who We Are Before a Momentous Annual Meeting

As many of Pietisten’s readers are faithful members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, as we are ourselves, we take this important moment to speak a word of assurance and encouragement to all those who may feel voiceless and marginalized by the recent barrage of correspondence issued by the denominational leadership.

Each annual meeting of the Covenant Church is a new moment of discernment. The delegates are not bound to vote in any way other than as their consciences are directed by the Holy Spirit. This is a true exercise in democracy, in which delegates may listen and consider matters from all sides. They are not obligated to rubber stamp measures that are brought before them.

In recent letters from the executive board, president, and superintendents, delegates have been urged to vote to disfellowship First Covenant Church of Minneapolis for being deemed “out of harmony” with the policies of the denomination. The congregation does not see themselves as being out of harmony with the theology of the Covenant Church, however, and has raised concerns about the policies that have been introduced in the past couple decades that they feel restrict the reach of their ministries and impinge on their congregational autonomy.

Some delegates may view this vote as an opportunity to lash out against LGBTQ persons and other Covenanters who wish to include them in their ministries and congregational life. We find this zealous spirit bewildering and foreign to the ethos of the church that we love. This is not an up or down referendum on sexuality. This is a vote to remove an entire congregation. If passed, this measure will set a new standard for expelling other churches on a range of issues. Delegates who are overeager to expel another church should consider well the president’s own charge to proceed with a gracious spirit and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

We affirm the centrality of scripture. We affirm the authority of the annual meeting and understand the need for clear policies regarding the conduct of pastors. Nevertheless, annual meetings can change their minds, and policies can be introduced that themselves are out of harmony with the ethos and theology of the church. The “communally discerned position” of the church regarding its policies may change over time, and indeed has throughout the past 134 years. Delegates have the opportunity to evaluate past decisions and make this discernment anew each year.

The president has asserted that appeals to historic Pietism and Covenant theology are a “distraction” from the issues at hand. Yet, navigating differences of opinion about what the Bible says is a recurring theme in Covenant history, and studying our historical theology is informative for understanding current interpretive disagreements. We assert that there is no Covenant Church without this theological heritage, and that this is always relevant to discussions of policy.

Generations of Covenanters have sought to weigh seemingly conflicting biblical passages against one another to gain a holistic view of the Christian congregation and its limits. This challenge is perhaps illustrated nowhere better than in Covenant founder, Paul Peter Waldenström’s allegory, Squire Adamsson (1863). When several people join Mother Simple’s congregation without having first been healed of their sins, she concludes that if Immanuel said that all believers should be included, then he must have really meant “all.” When the Squire tries to drive them out of the congregation, she rebukes him. Mother Simple’s defense of the marginalized echoes Waldenström’s congregational ideal. Discerning the boundaries of the congregation is no easy task, yet professed faith in Jesus Christ has been the essential marker of Covenant fellowship. “To have a hypocrite in one’s fellowship is less dangerous by far than to exclude a truly believing person by mistake,” Waldenström cautioned.

Unlike the claims in the president’s letter, there have indeed been other moments in Covenant history in which individuals and congregations have openly challenged the authority of the leadership of the church, and can be seen as having been disruptive. Such is the case of the so-called Doughty controversy in the 1950s. In that instance, as in others, the Covenant did not vote to disfellowship these individuals or involved congregations, such as Bethany Covenant in Washington State. Instead they took the harder and more courageous path of ongoing dialogue. This story and its significance was recently addressed in the Covenant Quarterly, in a reprinting of historic materials and several responses.

The president urges Covenanters to act decisively and “to follow the convictions of God’s word at all costs,” yet at whose cost? There doesn’t seem to be any sacrifice on the part of the people demanding that the others leave. We believe that Jesus calls us to follow him at our own costs, not at the expense of our brothers and sisters. If there is no mutual sacrifice and attempt at consensus and compromise, then this is Pharisaical self-righteousness and not Christian discipleship.

People who are bound by their conscience to critique the actions of the executive board and president should not be accused of having “attempted to subvert the discernment and authority of the annual meeting.” Conscientious dissenters to the current policies of the denomination should not be portrayed as disloyal. Indeed the Covenant Church exists because of conscientious dissenters, who found themselves unwelcome and marginalized in the Church of Sweden and other Lutheran Synods. This is the origin of our ecclesiology and why preserving space for conscientious, biblically based dissent is vital to the future of the Covenant Church.

Yes, clarity of policy is important. But clarity is not synonymous with expelling an entire congregation and all of its people. Delegates should vote with their hearts. After our own communal discernment, our recommendation is to vote ‘No.’

In prayerful consideration, and with steadfast hope in Christ’s unchanging, boundless love.

– The Editors of Pietisten

10 June 2019