June 22, 2019
Last week, the Covenant Executive Board released a series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions regarding the upcoming vote at the Annual Meeting on its recommendation to remove First Covenant Church Minneapolis from the roster of Covenant churches, having found FCCM to be out of harmony with the Evangelical Covenant Church regarding human sexuality and pastoral credentialing.
To be clear, the Board and the Evangelical Covenant Church are mindful of the gravity, complexity, sensitivity and pain that matters of human sexuality can bring, as well as the weighty considerations to our community. In the Evangelical Covenant Church, we love all people and affirm that all people are made in the image of God and are therefore valuable and loved by God. As a church, we welcome everyone and treat all with dignity. Our commitment is to lead with love and to continually seek deeper ways to care for all people with greater understanding, compassion and sensitivity.
The Board and the Evangelical Covenant Church leadership have received more inquiries regarding the vote to come at the Annual Meeting, to be held June 27-29 during Gather 2019 in Omaha, Neb. What follows provides answers to some of those questions.
What are the larger implications of this vote for our polity and communal life together?
When a congregation joins the Evangelical Covenant Church, it enters into the provisions which govern our common life, including the provision that the Annual Meeting is the highest constituted authority of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The Annual Meeting is where delegates (eligible from all churches) together discern items considered to be vital and differentiating for our common life. The Annual Meeting has spoken plainly on this matter.
Just as a pastor’s credential is not his or her own but rather is extended in trust by the Covenant, which both authorizes and limits aspects of its use, so a church’s membership is not an inevitable right to minister under the auspices of the Evangelical Covenant Church in ways contradictory to adopted Evangelical Covenant Church positions.
If a church is consciously able to adopt and practice the opposite of Annual Meeting decisions without accountability, while claiming to do ministry under the auspices of the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church loses its ability to govern and define itself. By extension, additional churches on this and any other matter could be emboldened to likewise locally nullify duly adopted Evangelical Covenant Church matters. The Evangelical Covenant Church at that point ceases to be a Church with order and accountability and instead becomes an ungovernable entity with no communally discerned standards and no ability to distinguish its own identity.
Conversely, any church may choose to voluntarily withdraw if it considers the expectations of the common life of the Evangelical Covenant Church to constrain its conscience or practice. Voluntary withdrawal can preserve relationships when pursued with mutual respect and grace.
How is this different from disagreement about women in ministry? What about churches who will not call a female pastor?
The Evangelical Covenant Church affirms women as called and gifted to all levels of leadership and affirms a biblical basis for the full participation of women in all ministries of the church.
This decision dates to 1976. Because it did represent a change, the Evangelical Covenant Church did not mandate immediate compliance but instead set out on a path to increase congruency over time. This is not an assessment of that approach but rather a description of how this decision was implemented. We lament the inconsistency of resources and advocacy that has meant many women have not been treated with the same dignity, value and respect as their male counterparts.
The resolve to progress is present. The Evangelical Covenant Church has turned away churches who sought membership in the Evangelical Covenant Church but were not aligned with the Evangelical Covenant Church’s communally discerned position on women in ministry. Some Evangelical Covenant Church churches have voluntarily withdrawn because they were not in alignment. The Evangelical Covenant Church has turned down potential church planters who were not in alignment. Some pastors of established churches have been ineligible for ordination or have had their ordination delayed until satisfactory alignment could be demonstrated.
There may be some old church constitutions and bylaws that still speak in male-oriented language, but often these are found in historic churches that have not spent time updating their governing documents – evidence of inaction rather defiance. Superintendents actively work with churches to update governing documents when these incongruities are discovered.
Some churches are still growing in their practice of including women at all levels of leadership. Over time, in each case, these churches are growing toward greater inclusion, not away from alignment. None are publicly denigrating the Evangelical Covenant Church position.
In contrast, the Evangelical Covenant Church has only ever held one position on human sexuality and has only ever prohibited officiating at same sex weddings.
Though we are heartened by the trajectory of the number of women in pastoral ministry, we remain realistic about the work in front of us. We acknowledge that we have a lot of growing to do when it comes to ensuring that called and gifted women have places to serve, especially women experiencing calls to senior and lead pastor positions. We are committed to increasing growth and advocacy across the denomination in this area, which is vital for the benefit of the whole Covenant Church.
How does our Pietist heritage relate to this process?
Pietism is the spiritual renewal movement out of which the Evangelical Covenant Church was birthed. This heritage honors the authority of Scripture, recaptures the importance of a warm, living and deeply personal faith, extends God’s love to the world and respects our interaction with one another. It is intrinsic and indispensable to our ongoing identity. The Evangelical Covenant Church is committed to our Pietist heritage and its influence in arriving at derived and discerned positions and practices of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In this matter, it informs the dimensions of freedom, responsibility and unity that are addressed in the questions above.