I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation within the church. As a Christian ethicist, life-long evangelical, and devoted Christ-follower, my heart aches to the point where it’s breaking. I have friends, students, and family who are gay or lesbian, and my faith in Christ would be worse off without them. Among other things, they witness faithfulness to God amidst exclusion and persecution.
Fortunately, I’m in a church where being in over your heart is a good thing. Now called the Evangelical Covenant Church, my denomination’s founders called themselves Mission Friends at the outset. We began as a renewal group in Sweden around the practices of reading Scripture and hospitality. We began out of a love for spiritual formation, and we countered the dominant culture by allowing all people to be readers of Scripture.
Scripture reading in rural Sweden developed as a subversive practice. Though they were few and poor, lowly and insignificant, our Covenant forebears enacted justice by crossing prohibitive lines of class, gender, and age. Three things sustained them: the Jesus of the word; a new spirit of freedom and joy; and the word of God and the sacraments. As a result, these faithful groups gained the capacity to hear God’s word through the hearts and minds of individuals who differed from one another.
This practice of diverse interpretation amongst lay people forged ahead through the strength of friendships. The name “Mission Friends” grew under the Psalm 119 banner, “I am a friend of all who fear thee,” and the people of the movement treasured friendship and unity in Christ above any doctrinal or confessional statements. They believed that friendship is not only the method of advancing the gospel — it is the heart of the gospel. Friendship reflects in the simplest terms the way that the Evangelical Covenant church does ecclesiology, or life together.
Psalm 119 sets the course for the Evangelical Covenant’s theology of friendship in prioritizing friendship with the divine. God first befriends us, and this grounds the pursuit of Christian friendship with our neighbors and our enemies. God’s friendship launches the faithful into challenging ways of walking together.
Many of the biblical images of friendship compel Christians into demanding rigorous discipleship. Take the example of “love your enemy.” There is no cheery affect or warm fuzzies in this command. Enemy love is simply the onerous work of honoring all of God’s children. Jesus himself called Judas his friend (Matt. 26:50). Certainly Judas was not deserving of the label, yet perhaps Jesus saw the naming in hopes that Judas would grow into it. Difficult as love of enemy is, I find the image salty — befriending enemies is offensive in and of itself, but in Christ, such work flavors the world and preserves the divine order.
On the flip side, it takes Jesus forever to call his disciples friends! It is not until they “graduate” at Jesus’ farewell dinner, in John 15, that Jesus finally names them friends. Faithful discipleship, receptivity to Jesus, and caring for others in the disciples’ journey with Jesus earns them the title representing a love so deep that one is willing to sacrifice one’s life.
Just as Jesus’ life does not end in mere sacrifice, neither does friendship. In the gospel of Luke, friendship is good news and light. Friendship reflects a future, eschatological hope that gifts our present life. Accompanying Elizabeth’s greeting of her dear friend Mary, John the Baptist is already preparing the way of the Lord even in the womb. Mary responds by singing her faith in the canticle that many see as the summation of the gospel.
Related to the good news is the missional purpose of friendship. Mary is not alone in presenting the gospel in the context of friendship. As Luke draws to a close, the resurrected Christ reveals himself to the two friends on the road to Emmaus. The final words of the fourth evangelist close with the news of the risen Lord.
Perhaps almost as powerful, the man suffering from demons in Mark 5 is healed in Jesus’ first mission to the Gentile region. The healed man desires to join Jesus along with the disciples. However, Jesus refuses him, saying, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” (Mark 5:19)
Jesus’ prescription for the isolated Gentile brings us full circle to love of enemies, for surely this newly healed man does not see his community of bystanders as friends? And do the Jewish disciples understand these foreign Gentiles as friends? Yet, the Gerasene is called to stay and evangelize, and we evangelicals evidence the success of the Gentile mission.
Friendship moves us into new and difficult spaces. It would be nice for the template to be Mary and Elizabeth’s or David and Jonathan’s love. But other demanding forms of love constitute the fullness of Christ-like friendship. In extending beyond companionship with like-minded persons, friendship is radically inclusive and utterly transformative.
That anyone, most especially evangelicals, questions God’s — and by extension, the Christian community's — love and friendship for and with my Christ-professed gay and lesbian sisters and brothers breaks my heart. Christ-like friendship is the heart of the gospel and surely the ultimate risk belongs to Christ alone. Yet for the sake of the mission of the church, such friendship is worth risking our hearts as well.That is why I believe I’m in the right place in this denomination whose theology of friendship undergirds its mission.
Friendship fuels not only congregational life, but also pertains to our conferences and the denomination. These three levels of polity work together interdependently and are each part of the whole even as they maintain authority and identity in themselves. Power is not top down with one level in charge but rather based on mutual trust and common mission. As we struggle to discern the difficulties facing our LGBTQ community, our theology of friendship offers something challenging for everyone.
I don’t understand all of the questions and issues that face the LGBTQ community. So I pray for their friendship and I go with my heart — a heart that God continues to transform.
Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is Professor of Theology & Ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is ordained to word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church and co-author of Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom.