Many people have seen First Covenant Church of Minneapolis: It is the large, redbrick edifice across the street from U.S. Bank Stadium. If you walk into the church on a Sunday morning, there is a lot to take in.
Some people linger from working at the homeless shelter in the basement as artists set up at the front of the sanctuary, ready to paint as the liturgy proceeds. The people who filter in represent the city and the neighborhood, a mixture of young and old, rich and poor. There is human warmth and remarkable energy in that room.
One might not suspect that this congregation is on the verge of being ejected from its denomination for electing to treat LGBT members (and nonmembers who encounter the church) the same way it treats everyone else.
And yet, it is. At the Evangelical Covenant Church’s annual meeting on June 27-29, delegates gathered in Omaha, Neb., will decide FCCM’s fate. The denomination’s executive board has declared FCCM “out of harmony” and has recommended to the delegates of the meeting that they vote to involuntarily remove FCCM from the roster of churches. It is, according to denominational president John Wenrich, the first time that this has been done in 134 years.
First Covenant Church is, in fact, a decade older than the denomination. It was founded to serve waves of Swedish immigrants who flocked to Minnesota and found a church home in the middle of the city. In recent decades, though, the descendants of those immigrants moved to the suburbs and left the church behind. Ten years ago, FCCM began a process of revitalization that has embraced the community around it, which was no longer a haven for devout Swedes.
Part of that became an openness to the LGBT neighbors who found their way in the doors.
At the same time, the denomination was headed the other way by stiffening its hostility to those same people. The Rev.Judy Peterson, who was the campus minister at the ECC’s North Park University in Illinois, was pushed out of the denomination last year after marrying two of her male congregants to one another.
She explained her action by saying, “I discerned this care not because I was caving to cultural norms, but because I was seeking to follow the Jesus I know, who healed on the Sabbath, thus breaking a long held religious rule, one in fact written in stone, in order to heal a man’s image of himself and his image of God.” At last year’s annual meeting, delegates rejected a proposed task force study of the denomination’s stance on sexuality.
It’s a tragic thing that may happen. The ECC has tolerated a wide variety of practices within its churches — on infant baptism and women in ministry, for example — yet somehow this is the issue with which it may define itself to the nation.
There is a strange irony in the ECC leaders’ use of the phrase “out of harmony,” too, since harmony is created by different notes or tones blending together. Actually, harmony would involve a simultaneous coexistence of difference, which is exactly what they condemn.
I am not a theologian; I’m just one of those people who is sometimes in the pews (and occasionally in the pulpit) at FCCM. Yet it does seem deeply contrary to the example of Christ that what seems most important to some ECC leaders is who to exclude. That was not the way of Jesus, whose longest recorded discussion was with a Samaritan woman at a well, a doubly transgressive expression of love.
No doubt, some believe that “the Bible” insists on such a singular hostility to LGBT people. But the part of the gospels most often called upon to justify that view is Matthew 19, where a group of Pharisees approached Jesus and questioned him regarding the Mosaic law, which allowed a man to divorce a woman through presentation of a certificate.
Jesus told them: “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In so doing, Jesus does describe marriage as between a man and a woman.
To stop there, though, is to read the Bible very selectively — following only the parts you like. Jesus goes on from this lesson to condemn not homosexuality but remarriage after divorce: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
So, to put it bluntly, the condemnation of homosexuality is inferred within an express condemnation of remarriage after divorce.
To have integrity — to claim that their view is rooted in a true and consistent belief in the Bible — the leaders of the ECC would have to throw out not only those churches that accept and fully include gay members but those that accept and include members who are remarried after divorces not rooted in immorality.
We all know they are not going to do that. If they did, there would be very few churches left in the ECC. So the ECC leadership proceeds on without integrity.
The better course is to love and include all who choose to come through our open doors.
When the vote is taken later this month, I suspect that some of the delegates voting to cast out FCCM will carry a secret burden. In the back of their mind they will know that their action runs contrary to what they know of a son or daughter, a nephew or niece, a grandchild, an old friend, or perhaps two women who sit quietly in the back of their church. Someday, 10 or 15 years from now, when love prevails, perhaps some of them will circle back to those people they love and apologize.
Or, perhaps, some of them will choose love now.
Mark Osler holds the Ruthie Mattox Chair in Preaching at First Covenant Church, Minneapolis. He is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas.