Giving the Dead a Vote—But Not a Veto

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The late 1950s were a difficult time for the Covenant Church. Questions were raised about the adequacy of the church’s position on the Bible and its lack of a clear statement of faith. Some seminary professors were accused of being “liberal.” One student went so far as to surreptitiously go through the garbage cans behind professors’ homes looking for beer bottles. Be that as it may, the 1958 Annual Meeting assigned the Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology the task of studying “the real nature of our highly cherished freedom in the Covenant and of our theological positions within evangelical Christianity.” The result was a report entitled “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom” received by the 1963 Annual Meeting.

It is a remarkable document. On the one hand, it is very much a document of its time. The pronouns used to refer to pastors, leaders, and professors are all male. On the other hand, in some ways it is as fresh and relevant as ever. It begins by affirming the Covenant’s commitment to the Scriptures. It rightly insists, however, that “in its primary sense God’s revelation of himself is made in the person of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Scriptures bear witness to that primary revelation.

It also insists that the value of the Bible lies in its power to bring about our salvation and call us to new life. “To read it properly. . . is to find it an altar where one meets the living God and receives personally the reality of redemption.”

People holding diverging positions must honor each other even when they disagree.

The document goes on to give an account of the development of Pietism. Although Pietists respected the creeds and statements of faith, they did not consider them final or binding. Believers did not need to swear loyalty to a particular creed or biblical interpretation: “To have added the requirement of uniformity in all doctrinal matters,” claims the document, “would have been to forget that ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ and would have presumed that a final and authoritative theological position was now in their possession.” The authors note that there are differences of opinion within the church regarding biblical inspiration, the sacraments, the incarnation, the atonement, the application of Christian ethics, and the consummation of the age. They insist that people holding diverging positions must honor each other even when they disagree.

The majority, they insist, must respect the minority: “minorities have no voice where conformity to ‘official’ interpretations is required. Unless we wish to stifle all emergent spiritual vitality, we must be sure that people within our fellowship will be free to express themselves in ways which are different from the majority position without the fear of being labeled as disloyal.” To avoid life in an intellectual and spiritual bubble, they argue, we must listen to the minority voices within our community, the questions and concerns raised by those outside of the church, and permit our scholars to ask new questions and seek new answers. At the same time they insist we must be guided by what the Spirit is saying through the Scriptures to the community of God’s people.

Forty years ago the Covenant Church followed the advice of those wise leaders of 1963. They listened to the long silenced minority voices of women. They permitted their scholars and students of the word to re-examine the Scriptures and ask new questions of the text and tradition.
The church decided that there was no biblical or theological reason to deny women ordination to Christian ministry. At the same time, they preserved the right of other voices to question and dispute that decision without being driven out of the church.

Today we are a much richer church for the ministry of women. The 1963 document and the Covenant Church’s long history of openly listening to the word and the Spirit enabled new life to spring from neglected soil.

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jay, for this article. My dad, Paul Fryhling, was one of the members of this 1963 committee and a signer of the document. I and several of us at my church have been reviewing it relative to conversations we are having. We value this historical document for its wisdom and insight into the theology of the Pietists and others who founded our denomination. Your article reinforced the uniqueness of the Covenant and its valuing, within the context of Christ’s teaching, the act of listening to and honoring each other, “even when we disagree”.

    1. Louise – in the last year I have spent some time in our archives and seen some of your dad’s work. Wonderful! I’m grateful for his wisdom. If you are ever in Chicago and want to see some of the papers/letters written behind the scenes on this, I’d be delighted to show you.

  2. I’m old enough to remember those turbulent times, but, as you indicated, the Covenant survived and has now seen the product of that openness.

  3. Thank you, Jay! It is always good to be reminded that, in spite of many blows from the rigid fundamentalists, I was privileged to grow up in a church fellowship that held the true course of being rooted and grounded in love. I can still see the kindly faces of those saints, most of whom I knew, as I read those words!

  4. Sage advice on an important document in the life of our church. As always, Jay, thanks for your perceptive analysis and deep appreciation for the richness of our pietistic roots.

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