I am in over my heart on the LGBTQ situation and the church. I am also in over my head. As a Christian ethicist who believes Scripture is the measure for matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct, I have to say my head hurts to the point that it aches. It aches because I know that how evangelicals have taught me about loving LGBTQ Christians is myopic, and we need to think through many questions anew.
There are themes I am clear on: the place of love, the importance of family, the image of God, the mystery of bodies, the centrality of children. When it comes to faith, doctrine, and conduct, I plan to occupy myself for a long time on these themes to engage the questions that I am still unclear on. These include: What is the ideal marriage? Who is deemed family? What kind of sex reflects the character of God?
A few years ago, my then 7-year-old son was flipping through a children’s Bible during church when he came to a picture of Jacob and Rachel. He looked up at me and challenged, “What’s this? One wife? Where are the rest of them?”
Clearly the illustrator had an interpretive lens for choosing not to portray the messiness of the patriarch’s family and children. Our world simplifies and sanitizes marriage and sex to the point that we evangelicals endanger the kind of complex thinking on family structures that Scripture itself narrates.
Fortunately I am in a church where questioning over your head is okay. Formed by people who first called themselves Mission Friends, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) was birthed as a renewal movement in the late 1800s. Many established clergy thought the people who gathered in homes to read Scripture and to interpret it for themselves were divisive. Yet the Mission Friends saw themselves as reading with a mind toward renewal. To them, the church was in danger of dying. It had become rigid and legalistic. Laity were not required to think for themselves, and the clergy conflicts over doctrine were anything but gracious and loving in tone.
As a result, the ECC grew into a non-confessional, relationship-oriented church centered around Jesus Christ and the word. We affirm our freedom in Christ to breathe life into our faith and ground our wisdom in the midst of complex ethical questions. The New Testament’s word on freedom sets the tone. John’s gospel tells us that if we continue going back to the word, we are his disciples. Those who receive Christ and have faith in his name are free to become children of God (John 1:12). Paul emphasizes that those who love Christ are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Galatians reminds us that freedom to live a new life is evidenced by such fruits as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:16-25). The letter to the Philippians promises that what God has begun will eventually be completed (Phil. 1:6).
In the midst of this celebrated freedom, the ECC acknowledges that it is a fragile gift. One of our forebears called this gift of freedom in Christ a “turtle without a shell” — how free it is to live unencumbered, yet how vulnerable to lose one’s protective layer. While I don’t want to say we Covenant evangelicals always use our freedom well, we do have historical precedent for thinking in morally complex ways.
For example, our 2005 resolution “Christian Discipleship in the Midst of War” is hospitable both to those who accept Just War theory and to pacifists. These two views are antithetical to one another on the moral absolute of killing, and yet, our heritage deems both commitments as forms of discipleship in equal measure. How is this acceptable? Is it because the practice of pacifism is seen as a “non-essential” moral question? Is it because taking a life is sometimes justifiable? Is it because the question of violence is a secondary matter of faith, disconnected from the nature of God and matters of salvation?
The short answer is that the Evangelical Covenant’s affirmation of Christian freedom recognizes the imperfect knowledge of humans and the need to be open to the Holy Spirit. No question of interpretation around ethical topics is off the table. The freedom we are granted is coupled with the burden of thinking together about God’s own character. Christians must continually go back to the word, depending on the whole body and the whole of Scripture for interpretation, and face the new questions as gifts potentially drawing the faithful closer to God and one another.
Clarification of the Evangelical Covenant’s cherished freedom came in 1963, when our annual meeting voted to approve a report describing the nature of Christian freedom as it relates to biblical authority. The language the report uses to describe Scripture is the “altar where we meet the living God,” a “treasured message,” a book that “transforms readers through the work of the Holy Spirit, and a “means of grace.” Concerning freedom, the report says it is a gift to be extended to one’s brothers and sisters. Further, the importance of diverse theological perspectives is something not to be taken for granted. Rather, the faithful ought to exercise Christian freedom in the spirit of God’s creative and redemptive love.
In yielding ourselves to diverse expression, we Christians become who we are — servant, child, and friend of God. Rather than censoring diversity for its potential to divide the church, our theological heritage claims that diversity preserves the vitality of faith in the life of the church. It forces us to continually go back to the word, to tell the stories in all their varied expressions, which in turn corrects and deepens our faith. The practice of freedom reveals its deepest power when it is employed in the context of reading Scripture with those who, like the LGBTQ community, have been and are still marginalized.
Mine is a heritage that believes that matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct are fully discerned in the context of transformed people thinking with one another. Hearts and minds go together, and both must wrestle around matters of faith. David Nyvall — the founder of our denomination’s university, North Park — hoped for great minds to be warmed by great hearts and for great hearts to be enlightened by great minds. When we are in over our hearts and over our heads, the habit of befriending and the exercise of freedom around God’s word can only take us where the Spirit leads — toward renewal.
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 with David Bjorlin of Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom.