ECC Leaders Address Human Sexuality Challenges

CHICAGO, IL (January 12, 2018) — In the wake of media coverage around the Evangelical Covenant Church and North Park University regarding the prohibition of Covenant clergy officiating at same-sex weddings, denominational leaders have sought to honor the confidentiality of individuals and the integrity of organizational processes. But according to ECC executive director of communication Ed Gilbreath, “Incomplete news reports can create confusion for many ECC churches and members.”

Gilbreath says some media reports have left the impression that the ECC “values rules and policies above human beings—that’s just not true.” Still, he acknowledges that the denomination’s seeming silence has contributed to that perception. “I want the church to know that our decision not to comment is because we value all the parties involved, and it would be wrong to violate anyone’s confidentiality as processes unfold.” At the same time, he says he understands the desire to see the Covenant address matters.

Over the last few years, the ECC’s position on human sexuality (centered in “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage”) has been brought to the forefront by ECC members who advocate for an “open and affirming” stance. A recent petition circulated by the group Mission Friends for Inclusion calls on the ECC Board of Ordered Ministry to suspend existing pastoral and congregational guidelines regarding human sexuality, seeking more review and discussion.

According to Dick Lucco, executive director of ministry development and the interim executive minister the Board of Ordered Ministry, the board is aware of the petition.

“These are complex days and this is a complicated subject,” says Lucco. “We understand that faithful people in our congregations hold varying views, but collectively we believe that the Scriptures call us to live within the boundaries a loving God has set for us.” He adds, “Our commitment is to love all people with God’s love, for all people are made in his image and are loved by him.”

The ECC is not alone in its struggles to navigate the current cultural waves. Other Christian denominations and ministries have faced their own organizational challenges. Earlier this month, the Mennonite Church saw its largest regional conference leave the denomination over the sexuality debate.

“We do truly desire to be people who pastorally care for all, including the LGBTQ community,” says ECC president Gary Walter. “And we are saddened when LGBTQ members are pained by the actions of Christians, including experiences they’ve had within the Covenant. We desire to do better and be better.”

Walter notes that the Covenant and regional conferences have provided an array of workshops in that regard over the past two years. But he is quick to add that the denomination is committed to doing a better job at providing resources that can help Covenant pastors and churches minister well. One way that’s happening, he says, is through the work of the Make and Deepen Disciples mission priority.

In early December 2017, weeks before current events, Make and Deepen Disciples convened a consultation in Chicago on the subject of discipleship and human sexuality. The purpose of the consultation was to engage in deep conversation about the kinds of human sexuality discipleship resources and approaches that would be most helpful today within the context of the ECC position.

According to Michelle Sanchez, executive minister of Make and Deepen Disciples, “Human sexuality is one of the most critical discipleship concerns facing the church today. This consultation was a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on how we can disciple well—in ways that are simultaneously biblical, in harmony with ECC guidelines, and radically soaked in love.”

The nineteen consultation participants included a diversity of gender, race, age, region, and sexual orientation. In addition to pastors engaged in LGBTQ ministry, leaders present included Dwight Perry (dean of faculty at North Park Theological Seminary), Preston Sprinkle (president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender and the author of People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue), Greg Coles (author of Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity), Nate Collins (author of All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality), as well as Midwest Conference superintendent Tammy Swanson-Draheim, and Great Lakes Conference superintendent Garth McGrath.

“There were representatives present from local churches, the Council of Superintendents, North Park Theological Seminary, and the denomination, as well as external experts and advisors,” says Sanchez. “Further diversity was engaged through interviews and surveys with a sampling of Covenant pastors.”

Especially important to the meetings was hearing the stories of members of the LGBTQ community, she adds. “We cannot effectively love and minister to people whose stories we have not heard. Listening is essential to doing meaningful ministry with real people who have real stories.”

Hearing those stories and creating intentional pathways for discipleship will be central to future efforts, says Sanchez.

“We still have much to do,” says President Walter, “but I am encouraged at how Make and Deepen Disciples will move us forward in our development of practical resources in 2018.

Walter, who completes his service as ECC president on August 31, admits that the latest controversies around human sexuality have weighed heavily on him and many in the Covenant. “We are not here to fight a culture war. Our purpose is to love God and to love people, because we’re all made in God’s image. The Covenant is at its best when we embrace that common focus.”

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27 Comments

  1. Perhaps we should first start with the question: Is homosexuality a sin? If God is good, and his word is the “sword of truth” which cuts through lies, then according to the Bible; it’s a sin. Once we’ve established and agreed on that, the next step is to address how to handle the issue from an administrative and leadership perspective at the church. That’s actually quite easy because the Bible is clear “don’t mis-treat people, but correct them and hold them accountable to sin with love”. To trample on one part of the Bible in the name of love or another part of the Bible is illogical and wrong, because God isn’t inconsistent. Therefore the path is really simple. Unfortuantely church leaders are too scared of the financial fallout to speak succinctly on this issue. If I’m the ECC leader, and you’re asking me to trample on the Bible so you can feel better about your sin, sorry, but I can’t do that. What I can do is pray that you let God and his word reign in your life, accept your sin as sin, accept the salvation through faith in Christ, and call me on me to help you anyway I can to help you eliminate that sin from your life. You may always have temptations but you will be able to die of their control over your actions and be born again. Amen. It’s really clear how to handle this issue. But with weak leadership it’s hard.

  2. Perhaps it is time for our next denominational paper on sexuality and marriage. It has been more than 10 years since the last one. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is inviting us to participate in this effort/quest. We could do this as stewards of our unique legacy of being mission friends.

    The effort/quest could be exegetically centered with many participants and many points of view. Let us attempt to discover the sexuality and marriage activities of first-century Rome and Corinth as we focus upon Romans 1:18-31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and bring them into the 21st century. From my exegetical study and reading, I have come across first-century Rome and Corinth sexuality and marriage activities that included catamites, pederasts, and hierodules. I wonder how these activities relate to our current conversations.

    Perhaps our next effort/quest will also include the learning we received from Bill Henson and Mark Yarhouse, who held gatherings throughout our denomination a couple of years ago. Their presentations expanded my LGBTQ horizons.

    I hope our next effort/quest will help us understand these difficult scriptures. As we exegete together, Jesus goes with us and before us so we have nothing to fear (John 14:1-7). Maybe we can be the first denomination that does not split over marriage and sexuality activities because we are who we are….mission friends.

  3. The complex science involved in human biochemistry as it relates to sexuality or the adoption of an opposite-sex persona tells us nothing about the morality (i.e., sin nature) of volitional homoerotic activity, or cross-dressing, cross-sex hormone-doping, tracheal shaves, castration, or mastectomies in the service of adopting an opposite-sex persona. Christians should understand that not only are our hearts, minds, and wills affected by the Fall but so too are our biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

    Neither does the unchosen nature, power, persistence, and seeming intractability of feelings tell us anything about the moral nature of acting on those feelings. The Bible is clear about homoerotic activity and the adoption of opposite-sex personas. It wasn’t until the latter part of the latter part of the 20th Century that any theologian came to the conclusion that God approves of homoerotic activity and the refusal to identify with one’s objective, immutable biological sex. And it wasn’t the discovery of new documents that led to the exegetical revolution. It was the anarchical, secular sexual revolution and subjective desire that led the revolution that is, in turn leading people to hell, led by false teachers in the church. Christians should spend more time reading articles and books or listening to lectures by Dr. Robert A.J. Gagnon.

  4. The policy statement issued at the end of December raises two major issues.
    The first issue is that Covenant leaders apparently do not recognize the biological complexity of human sexuality. Genitalia, hormones and the way the brain is wired all affect sexuality. Definition of male and female is far more complex than imagined even 50 years ago. Paul had no conception of these complexities and looked only at the acts and not at populations. Now we know differently. The evidence is accumulating that LGBT orientation is part of the core being of a significant population. Surely, God formed them. It cannot be simply turned off.
    The second issue is process. Apparently, Judy Petersen had to persist to get due process by the Covenant. Leadership of the Covenant has not engaged the church in any significant way regarding LGBT people. One meeting held a month ago with little notice, with apparently limited points of view, and no report is not engagement. A much better process would be to appoint a commission to study both the policy and how we minister to, respect, and love the LGBT community. It should include people who are proponents of affirmation and inclusion. It should report to the Annual Meeting.
    The Church long ago realized that scriptures pertaining to slavery, the role of women, and divorce are no longer fully pertinent to society today. Now is the time to apply the scientific and psychological knowledge we have today to the interpretation of scripture regarding LGBT people.

  5. Although no longer an ECC member, I was so from 1989 to 2005. I now belong to the Anglican Church of North America, which does not allow our priests to perform same-sex marriages. See http://www.anglicanchurch.net/?/main/page/1060. In case you haven’t seen this site, take a look at http://www.livingout.org/, a UK-based site that was started by Anglicans, I believe. At least one of their testimonies is by a British same-sex attracted Anglican priest living a celibate life. In the US, Wesley Hill, Ph.D., (author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faith and Homosexuality, where he discusses his journey of being gay and Christian), is a tenured professor of New Testament in one of our seminaries.

    Another perspective, FYI.

    1. Thank you, Sue. Glad to hear there is a denomination that acts in accord with God’s teaching and instructions. God bless them.

  6. Mistakes by the Christian church in the past cannot be remedied by compromising in the present the clear teachings of Scripture on human sexuality; no more than a referee should compromise on a call because he/she made a mistake earlier in the game. The teachings of Scripture are quite clear on the intrinsic duality of male and female and the heterosexual union of a man and a woman in marriage. This Edenic teaching is the preface to the entire Hebrew Bible. Hopefully the Covenant leadership will remain mindful of this as they develop their discipleship resources.

  7. “. . .within the context of the ECC position.” My wife loves it when I tell her I’m willing to listen to what she has to say within the context of what I already insist is true.

  8. How can you suspend pastoral & congregational guidelines that are 100 percent biblical….to discuss further b/c it’s a worldly “popular” issue? God’s Word is the same everyday & we are to follow it regardless of outside pressure. This saddens me that the ECC is suspending a command from the Lord. Yes, we are to love everyone, but God created marriage to be 1 man & 1 woman…and sex is a gift in marriage for unity & procreation. Any other sex (premarital or same sex) is sin. According to God’s Word….NON NEGOTIABLE! But thank the Lord, He died for all our sins. But, that does not give us the right to apply God’s laws at our own convenience. You reserve the right to edit? Just like you want to edit biblical truths?

  9. I am so deeply saddened that the church today is being pressured by the culture to follow its agenda. A core of our faith is “where is it written,” and I pray that our discussions are centered in the Word and nowhere else. It seems have we lost our prophetic voice to the world.

    1. Please read Robert McNaughton’s words below and take some time to think about how culture has led the way in the past. The Word has been used against people throughout history. Help the Covenant be on the right side of history this time.

  10. Because the article has no byline, I will address my comments to Covenant leadership generally. I am glad that you are engaging the role of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the life of the Covenant with a new openness and care, but sad that it took a major crisis of pastoral discipline and national news to move you to open engagement. The collective church has been begging you to lead for ten years or more, and the response up until this point had been to remind us of “the position” and hold ministerial workshops with little diversity of perspective or open dialogue, never including LGBTQ voices. The result has been a hemorrhage of LGBTQ members and young adults from the church. We could have spent the last ten years engaging in the community-building dialogue Rev. Sanchez invites, but fear and failed leadership has erupted into divisive crisis from which it will be difficult to heal. What if your response in this piece had been sorrow, apology, confession, lament, and a plea for unity, and not defensive claims regarding a program begun a few weeks ago? I continue to believe that if any Christian body can model careful engagement and retain unity among diverse perspectives on LGBTQ inclusion, it is the Covenant. Our heritage of gospel passion, loving disagreement, unity in essentials, charity in adiaphora, non-credal faith, and faithful dissent can unleash the better angels of our nature…or not. Much of what happens depends upon you. Count me as a partner in this process. Be bold enough to lead with weakness and without fear; and strong enough to give all a seat at the table.

  11. “Our commitment is to love all people with God’s love, for all people are made in his image and are loved by him.” “… how we can disciple well—in ways that are simultaneously biblical, in harmony with ECC guidelines, and radically soaked in love.” These are beautiful comments by our leaders. The best Christian leaders stood behind similar words not so long ago in America when slavery was the issue, which was defended by good people who stood firmly on the Bible. As did similar people when divorce, and later, women in ministry, were issues. And for 1800 years nearly everyone in the world thought that government was accomplished by a king (seldom a queen), or a leader by another name. The Bible doesn’t support democracy, and 40% of Americans in the late 1700s did not want democracy but wanted to be good Christians and to faithfully follow the leadership of their king.
    More importantly, science is tracking down the genetic and biological factors that determine sexual preference. About 8% of the human population is gay, which is about the same percentage of people with blue eyes – 600 million human beings. Soon we will know scientifically that sexual preference and blue eyes are both to be expected in 8% of all births.
    There has been too much needless suffering: Now Is The Time for Change.

  12. I appreciate that our denomination strives to love all people through this process. One question I have on this is if the consultation included any LGBTQ people who experience our position as personally harmful and a barrier to their relationship with God. This is an incredibly important perspective to have at the table, as it is the lived experience of a large majority of those in the LGBTQ community.

  13. I am very glad that talks about sexuality are happening. But a conversation that begins with the leadership saying or implying, “We know what the Bible says about this. We have the authority to make that decision. We have decided the Christian standard,” is not a real conversation that is likely to lead us forward. The conversation first needs to be about polity. Is the ECC going to be like most denominations where the current majority decides how everyone needs to understand and apply scripture, or will we return to our Pietist roots that allow freedom in Christ? For helpful background see “The Pietist Option” by Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie (IVP 2017).

  14. Some of our modern theological positions, and not just those concerning sexual orientation, are hurting denominations across our nation and they are losing members in droves. And are causing confusion in our society. The Lord always frowned on disobedience back in the day and has not changed. Let’s learn to love and care for all but please do not cower to the pressure to exchange God’s will for our own.

  15. Do not waiver. Please keep the same position. God does not change and neither should the ECC! Be steadfast.

  16. I am glad to hear Make and Deepen Disciples organized this consultation. Were any members of Mission Friends for Inclusion invited to participate?

  17. I am so thankful I left the Covenant in 1983 and found the Metropolitan Community Churches. Your hypocrisy is amazing. You welcome/restore pastor credentials for divorced and remarried pastors, yet don’t allow pastors to officiate at gay weddings. Really? I know it happened with our pastor at Hillcrest Covenant in Prairie Village, Kansas, who married another woman in the church. No wonder young people are leaving the church. The only thing I can say all these years later is as Jesus said on the cross, “Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.”

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