My heart breaks. My head hurts. My spirit is broken on the question of LGBTQ inclusion in Christ’s church. In many ways, I am in the right place in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). We affirm the central role of friendship in our life together. We believe in the freedom to hold diverse theological views in the spirit of renewal. Yet, to draw from Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, freedom has a dull ring for me on this topic. Not only have some in my church family questioned the right to hold a minority view on LGBTQ questions, they have questioned the spirit of dissent.
The faithful pursuit of deeper answers in conversation with Scripture generates enormous fear, and this fear is understandable. Talking about LGBTQ questions is divisive in the current climate. Many believe the church has clearly spoken on this topic. Those ecclesial groups who have engaged it have lost churches and people. Understandably, leaders want to avoid this kind of thing happening under their watch. Still, pastors and lay people are on the front lines of ministering with and to their LGBTQ members — some of whom are clearly gifted for ministry and should be working themselves as pastors.
I could cite stories of bullying, statistics on youth suicides, or examples of micro-aggressions directed at the LGBTQ community on a daily basis. The evangelical world knows this, however, and they still insist on debating the theology. So here is where I, as a Christian ethicist, underscore the importance of faithful dissent. Why? For starters, Jesus did it all the time, and yes, he drove a lot of people crazy. For reference, see Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The fact is, sometimes the majority view gets it wrong. We see it over and over throughout church history.
I do not accept the option of dissent — only faithful dissent. The values of my church’s identity (friendship, freedom, treasuring Scripture, and faithfulness) are there in our history. They are stored in our archives and written on our hearts.
What does this look like? The ECC has a beautifully written report on biblical authority and Christian freedom that offers a set of reflections on the relationship between Scripture and the practice of theology. Five themes woven throughout this theological short and our archival documents offer helpful parameters for evangelicals discerning the parameters of faithful dissent. These five criteria offer up what I call “Best Practices for Faithful Dissent.” They include:
1. Is the dissenting view following policy?
My advice to pastors is always to follow policy, do theology, and make sure you know the difference. Policy and theology are not the same thing, and policy has to take a lot of external goods into account that theology is simply not bound to.
2. Is the dissenting person or group sincere?
This criterion addresses the posture and practices around discerning the Spirit’s work, including Scripture reading, prayer, perseverance, and worship. It also has to do with the spirit of the dissenting voice. In ECC history, those who have been suspended around dissenting topics were charged with an “unchristian spirit.” Sincerity and earnestness are marks of Christian character. Sincerity also applies to scholarship. Our history notes that research should be pursued with “complete sincerity and earnestness” even though there may be fear and alarm regarding conclusions that seem contrary to sound Christian doctrine.
3. Does the dissenting position relate to the dominant position by being more or less inclusive?
The ECC has always sought to err on the side of inclusion (e.g., baptism, women, millennialism, and theories of inspiration). Our writings on the nature of the church report that the Bible calls us to repent of exclusiveness. When the church cuts off members, Scripture calls us to remember that there are many members in Christ’s body and that all must work together for the health of the whole. Barriers and the failure to understand those with whom we disagree are failures of sin.
4. Does the dissenting person/group confess Jesus Christ and agree that Scripture is authoritative for the argument?
This criterion pertains not a particular interpretation, but simply that Scripture is, and ought to be, meditated on and used to inform the conversation. In other words, it is possible to agree on the centrality of Scripture and hold a range of interpretations. A good litmus test incorporates the following questions: Are there others who share the dissenting interpretation? Who are they — are they reading from an experience of marginalization? How large is the community of dissenters? A single pastor, or a single church would be on shaky grounds for dissent, while a group of churches, pastors, and laity constitute more solid ground.
5. Is the dissenting position a central issue of faith or it is a secondary issue?
The question of primary and secondary matters is always tricky for any church. The ECC historically offers boundaries around what we see as essential and sufficiently clear, namely the creation of all things by God, all made in God’s image, the fact of sin and the inability of humans to achieve redemption, the incarnation and sinless life of Christ, the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the necessity of faith, the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Christ’s coming again. These essential doctrines of the Christian faith follow the narrative of the gospels and of the conciliar creeds. Secondary matters of faith include views on such doctrines as biblical inspiration, the sacraments, the incarnation, and the atonement, and the consummation of the age. Further, in matters of the application of the Christian ethic, a diversity of perspectives keeps the faithful open to the richness of spiritual growth.
My church’s ability to hold a loving, respectful dialogue on LGBTQ inclusion will deeply challenge our spirit of friendship, our theology of freedom, and our ability to wrestle with Scripture. Faithful dissent has always been protected in the history of the Evangelical Covenant as a guard against ecclesial soliloquy and as a sign of openness to the Holy Spirit. After all, we began as a renewal movement of minority, dissenting voices who were critical about static positions and rigid orthodoxy. Without faithful dissent, my church, who began as a group of Mission Friends, would not exist.
Faithful people live in the world in ways that are over our hearts, head, and spirits, and this can be cause for much division and brokenness. Our original denominational seal pictures three things: our name, the recumbent lamb resting on the word, and the extension of the right hand of fellowship. Our motto is conjuncti in Christo, or together in Christ, and it serves as a good reminder to all evangelicals struggling with diverse theological perspectives on any moral topic. Only in Christ is the church together.
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.