UPDATE (July 5): The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) has removed Awaken Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, over “policies and practices that are inconsistent with the denomination’s human sexuality guidelines.”
Delegates to the ECC annual gathering voted the church out on June 30. Awaken—which allows for same-sex marriage and the full participation of LGBT members in church life—is the second church in the ECC’s history to be removed involuntarily.
Weeks before the meeting, Quest Church, in Seattle, decided to voluntarily remove itself from the ECC over LGBT inclusion rather than face a vote at the meeting. In its letter announcing its withdrawal, Quest’s pastor Gail Song Bantum said ECC “has become a space that prioritizes doctrinal uniformity on a singular issue over relational unity in areas that are non-essentials of faith.”
“We are always grieved when fellowship is broken,” said Tim Rodgers, chair of the Covenant Executive Board, after the vote on Awaken Church’s removal. “We pray for God’s blessing on Awaken and the Covenant Church as we each continue to join God in mission.”
“Having a position, as we know in all other aspects of life, does not does not prevent us from loving people well and growing in love for others,” said ECC President Tammy Swanson-Dranheim to the annual gathering.
The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) does not ask its pastors to subscribe to extensive statements of faith. The denomination wants church leaders to unify around six essential doctrines concerning salvation, the Bible, the significance and mission of the church, the role of the Holy Spirit, and freedom in Christ.
And since 2015, it has also asked ECC ministers to refrain from participating in same-sex weddings.
That last detail has become a sticking point for some ECC pastors who have changed their position on whether or not faithful Christians can be in same-sex relationships—and whether or not that should be a litmus test for fellowship.
“We agree on 99.9 percent of things,” said Micah Witham, an LGBT-affirming pastor at Awaken Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. “This one matter … I would contend is a nonessential.”
This summer the denomination’s pastors will vote on whether or not to expel Awaken and Quest Church, in Seattle, for their positions on LGBT issues. The Covenant Executive Board voted in October 2022 to remove both from the roster of ECC churches after pastors from the Washington State and Minnesota congregations participated in same-sex weddings.
This isn’t a new fight for the ECC. In 2018, the denomination suspended a North Park University chaplain who officiated a wedding for two men. The following year, First Covenant Church, a prominent and historic Minneapolis congregation, was expelled after church leaders said they would affirm LGBT members, host same-sex weddings, and ordain married gay people.
Some hoped the decisive action would settle the issue. But Dan Collison, pastor of First Covenant, said at the time he didn’t think the conversation was over.
“Ultimately, it becomes a question of what is love about and what is inclusion about,” he said.
The denomination, founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885, has long emphasized theological diversity and the importance of freedom in Christ. New members are taught that a lot of Scripture is open to interpretation and faithful Christians can differ on peripheral issues. Doctrines that are considered nonnegotiable in many Christian traditions—such as the proper way to baptize a new believer—are deemed open for reasonable disagreement in the ECC. The denomination seeks to “stand in the center” and allow a lot of leeway on everything else.
But more than 850 US congregations do not all agree on whether the theology of human sexuality is periphery or center. For many, the authority of Scripture is at stake.
In the last few years, however, the main divide is over whether or not to fight about the issue.
Paul Lessard, executive minister of the ECC’s church health initiative, said several pastors have petitioned the annual gathering to reconsider the position on marriage it established in 1996, when it issued a statement affirming “heterosexual marriage, faithfulness within marriage, abstinence outside of marriage.”
In 2004 the Annual Meeting made this statement the basis for the ECC’s “policy, practice, and guidelines,” positions that pastors must agree to support in their ordination vows. The Annual Meeting voted again in 2015 to keep its established position on marriage. Each time, the denominational gathering has voted against adding those petitions for reconsideration to the agenda.
“It’s perceived as squashing the conversation, but it is actually the people saying, ‘No, we don’t want to have that conversation. We don’t think we need to open the conversation,’” Lessard told CT.
Some ECC ministers who have become affirming have accepted this and chosen to voluntarily withdraw from fellowship. By choosing not to leave, Awaken and Quest are forcing the ECC to have the conversation.
“People have started to voluntarily remove themselves over issues of human sexuality,” Lessard said. “If they choose to stay and be involuntarily removed, it is because they are seeking to be prophetic.”
Quest pastor Gail Song Bantum said on Facebook that the decision to force removal was intentionally disruptive, but that’s necessary to shift a culture.
“My life’s call has always been about shifting existing cultures toward greater diversity and possibility,” she wrote. “I trust that this removal process and the conversations that emerge will press all of us to acknowledge and be honest about where we are on the spectrum of truly embodying difference and liberation.”
Quest, which was planted by Eugene Cho in 2001, currently describes itself as “fully affirming” and says on its website it welcomes everyone “including, but not limited to, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual, and Queer folks” to all levels of involvement in the church.
At Awaken in St. Paul, however, Witham said the church is not trying to be prophetic but just “faithful to the people and the context in which we find ourselves.”
He said, “We’re just asking to stay, not that people change their posture or position.”
The division over sexuality is commonly thought of as a fight between progressives and conservatives, but some in the ECC say the deeper issue is the lack of racial diversity in the denomination.
“You don’t see any non-white denomination going through this battle,” said Shaun Marshall, an ECC pastor who served as the denomination’s director of congregational vitality. “You don’t see any nonwhite Christian denomination battling back and forth.”
According to Marshall, both the inclination to “rewrite the Bible” to accommodate changing social mores and the impulse to kick people out for straying from traditional Christian positions are evidence of “whiteness.” He wants the denomination to discuss that when it gets together in June.
“When you focus on deconstructing whiteness, all the fear and control will become apparent on both sides,” he said. “Focus on repenting for the ways you have bowed down to the idolatry of whiteness.”
Top church leaders have also expressed concern that conversations about LGBT issues are distractions. In 2019, the president of ECC warned about “groups … diverting our focus away from topics such as immigration, mass incarceration, justice, and evangelism—matters that have never needed the presence of the faithful more than they do now.”
In 2023, however, church leaders will be forced to vote on what do about Awaken and Quest, deciding whether or not there’s room in the ECC to agree to disagree on human sexuality.
Most observers think they know what the answer is.
“Part of being a Covenant church is agreeing to stand in the same space on these issues,” Lessard said. “What’s interesting in the conversation is the sense [from the affirming ministers] that ‘if you knew what I knew, if you knew the people I knew, if you read what I read, you would agree with me.’ We are saying ‘We know those people, we read those books, and yet we continue to land on the same position.’”