Pastor Ousted Over LGBT Inclusion: 'There's So Much Grace' | Sojourners

Pastor Ousted Over LGBT Inclusion: 'There's So Much Grace'

Rev. Adam Phillips with parishioners of Christ Church: Portland. Image courtesy
Rev. Adam Phillips with parishioners of Christ Church: Portland. Image courtesy Adam Phillips.

Editor’s Note: On Feb. 4, the Evangelical Community Church informed Christ Church: Portland that it was terminating its partnership and severing ties with the Oregon-based church plant over Rev. Adam Phillip’s outspoken support for LGBT inclusion in the church. Since 2004, the Evangelical Covenant Church’s position on sexuality has been one of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage,” which Phillips has said he upholds, while also in favor of extending the same values for gays and lesbians in the church.

According to Religion News Service, the Covenant church "bills itself as ‘evangelical, but not exclusive; biblical, but not doctrinaire; traditional, but not rigid," saying the denomination "has not made homosexuality a marquee issue and has not [to date] been torn by the same internal fights over human sexuality that have divided Episcopalians, United Methodists or Presbyterians."

Just one year into its three year-funded mission, Christ Church: Portland faces financial stress and uncertain denominational status for the still-ordained Phillips. Sojourners caught up with the pastor on what’s next for Christ Church and his hopes for the ECC.

Sojourners: What has been the reaction among your church community since this announcement, and the faith community more broadly? There’s been a lot of support for you and for Christ Church on social media.

Rev. Adam Phillips: You know, folks at Christ Church are really grieving this loss of support from our denomination, but we had a really great community meeting Sunday night and we spent the time in prayer and reflection. I’m really thankful for their friendship and their commitment to keep planting the church.

And I’ve gotten, I mean, thousands of notes of support, from people I’ve never met as well as dear friends in the Covenant and in other church traditions. I’ve had definitely some negative comments or pushback, but by and large it’s just been overwhelmingly positive. And we receive those with immense gratitude. It’s helped us get through this tough time.

Sojourners: In your video statement you mention not always having seen LGBT concerns as compatible with the church. You’ve been part of the ECC community for years — you were baptized into it, ordained into it. What has it been like to be now facing rejection from that community for an issue that is much newer to your heart?

Phillips: Well, it’s heartbreaking to lose my faith family of two decades over what I think is an issue of Christian unity and welcome. You know, I’ve held this position of mine for around the last 10 years. When I was in college and heading into seminary I certainly had more traditional convictions on this — I was really involved in campus ministries at Ohio State, and up until I’d say my first or second year in seminary I felt like the Bible teaching around human sexuality made it incompatible for LGBT Christians to be included in the church. But it was really my seminary education at North Park [the Covenant denomination’s school] that my convictions and my understanding changed.

While I was at seminary, the university fired a professor named Barbara Kelly over her sexual orientation. And a group of eight of us seminary students wrote a letter to the student newspaper kind of asking why. That was back in 2003 — so, these have been long-held convictions of mine.

I was always assured it was safe to have these convictions in Covenant, so it’s really heartbreaking that in the last couple of months something’s changed.

Sojourners: You said the leadership affirmed your Christ-centered beliefs on this, quote, “even going to so far as to say I shouldn’t change my convictions.” How does that reconcile with what you and your church are facing right now? 

Phillips: Covenanters have always had a very pietistic, evangelical understanding of our faith, and so relationship is really important. Rooting everything in the Bible is foundational to our faith. We originally were known as Readers and then Mission Friends, so this idea that we read Scriptures in community is just elemental to my own identity here in 2015 — that we share testimony, and we pray together and sit together and we discern God’s spirit together. And within all of that discernment and community and reading, that we uphold this important idea of Christian freedom.

And that’s what’s been confusing to me about this whole thing, is that when I was finally able to sit down with Covenant leaders and share freely my convictions on this, there were no attempts to convince me to change my position; there was no kind of conversation about where I might have erred theologically or biblically. In fact I felt like my convictions were affirmed.

What broke down to me is that current Covenant leaders want to have conversations only around policy talk, rather than around what I would call ‘God talk’ — theology, reflection, Bible study. So that’s where we are today.

Interestingly enough, they’ve allowed me to maintain my ordination. I’m supposed to sit down in the next month or so to hear what it looks like for me to serve as a Covenant pastor of a now-formerly Covenant church plant. … So it does feel confusing to me.

Sojourners: Have you gotten pushback from within your own church?

Phillips: Oh no, we have great support within the congregation. People are heartbroken and sad that this happened — I mean, we’re all grieving it.

Sojourners: Also in your video statement, you say that other ECC churches do hold a more inclusive mentality of LGBT Christians and parishioners and are still able to operate within the larger denomination and haven’t faced something similar. Is that correct? If so — why Christ Church and not others?

Phillips: Yeah, I think that’s the confusing thing for me and for our church. I think it’s confusing perhaps even for my friends and colleagues that remain in the Covenant Church. You know, there’ve been welcoming and inclusive Covenant churches all over the country for a number of years. A lot of denominations, I’m finding out, have these official networks that help them make public, intentional statements on what inclusion means. We don’t have that in the Covenant Church. So we don’t have any Covenant churches that would publicly describe themselves as affirming or welcoming churches, but in practice, there are dozens of churches that do that.

Sojourners: So what’s your hope for the ECC broadly? I’m not sure whether you can even speak to this yet, but are you hoping to stay within the denomination? What’s your hope for where this conversation leads the church?

Phillips: Well, I just, I deeply love the Covenant Church. I keep using “we” language instead of “us” and “them” language, because it really hasn’t sunk in yet. And there’s some confusion around, how do I operate as an ordained minister in a former Covenant church plant. For me, this all comes back to our Covenant pietistic roots about relationship, new life in Christ, and reading the bible together.

I’ve just met dozens and dozens and dozens of gay Covenanters in recent weeks that have said, hey, thanks for speaking up, and they’ve told me their stories of exclusion or being ostracized in some cases. These are good Christian people — people that grew up in the Covenant, working at Bible camps, going to Covenant schools. And some of these folks have experienced depression; some have experienced suicidal thoughts. And that’s the kind of thing that I hope that my friends in the Covenant, no matter where they stand on this matter, can work together to at least find some way for hospitality and inclusion to take place.

You know, I never thought that the Covenant needed to change its policies to become an open and affirming church. I was simply hoping that we could hold in tension this kind of historic covenant agreement to disagree on matters that weren’t what some would call “essential matters” — like resurrection, like new life, like the presence of the Holy Spirit. I have dear friends in the covenant that wouldn’t hold my position, and they’re doing amazing work in ministry — alongside the gay community, even — so you know, I hope that we can find some way forward that can get beyond this moment of confusion.  

Sojourners: What’s next for Christ Church? You’re meeting in a different building.

Phillips: Yep, we’re meeting now in First Christian Church downtown, Disciples of Christ. And we have our first gathering this Sunday at 4:30 p.m. We’re by no means a one-issue church. In fact we weren’t doing much of this at all until the last month or so when we got singled out for my convictions on it. We’ve got an Indiegogo campaign that we’re hoping to raise money through to make up the funding gap.  

Sojourners: You’ve said “confused” and “heartbroken” a few times. Was this at all expected, given the convictions that you and your congregation hold?

Phillips: It really felt like it came out of the blue last fall, particularly in October and November. But over the holidays, it began to sink in that this was a real problem for Covenant leaders. … The finality of it all still is shocking.

Sojourners: Many churches and Christian organizations in the U.S. right now are afraid to take a stand on LGBTQ rights precisely for this reason — whether it’s a hesitancy to break with denominational tradition or, maybe more pragmatically, a fear of getting defunded. For someone newly in this chaos, do you have any wisdom from having this happen to you?

Phillips: I think it’s imperative that we lean into what the Holy Spirit is doing. I think the Holy Spirit is guiding us on this conversation — and there’s so much grace. Even though there’s so much pain and fear. I think in the end, grace wins out.

I’ve found that in the midst of all this, amazing friends emerge, and new friendships are forged. And you know, God’s doing something really cool right now. And it seems chaotic, and it seems scary, because so many of the old models are outdated. But God’s truth is not changed whatsoever, and God’s news is still good. So I just encourage people to keep leaning into God’s promises and friends along the way that can walk with us as we figure it out as we go.

Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.

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