Rev. James Anderson: Covenant Conflicts

Rev. James Anderson

Author’s Note: What follows are memories of one who has been in and about Evangelical Covenant churches all of his 80 years. Aside from consulting confutable memories, there has been no searching of archives for facts.

I was young, but not too young to figure out what was happening when scandal disturbed our bucolic Iowa farm community. A well-known young man had secretly married a divorced woman. I learned quickly that divorce was taboo, expected far away in Hollywood but not where we lived. It didn’t help that the man’s family had deep, founding roots in the Mission Covenant Church, or that he was part of our extended family. The couple stayed married to one another and part of that community the rest of their lives, eventually well-respected and admired, but they seldom appeared at my home church other than for weddings, funerals, and other obligatory events.

When I arrived at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago in the early 1950’s, divorce was a hot button topic, stirring opinions right and left—one side proclaiming, “The Bible says. . . ,” others declaring, “But the Bible also says. . . ,” on and on. The source of those arguments was a promising seminarian who had informed seminary and church leaders he would marry a divorced woman, an unheard-of infraction of propriety if not actual rules that must surely block his being pastor of a Covenant church. In those dorm room discussions, most assumed he would move to a more liberal denomination, as had others who were unable to accept restraints of Covenant theology and practice. However, his great desire was to serve in Covenant churches, thus the dorm room discussions, pale reflections, I suppose, of heated confrontation in ministerial boards and seminary faculty meetings.

That seminarian did not leave the Mission Covenant Church, and he and his wife went on to a celebrated career as a Covenant pastoral couple. Despite biblical citations and vehement arguments adduced by those inflamed by the issue, final decisions left the door open for him not only to enter Covenant ministry but eventually to lead prominent churches with great success. Although I was far from where those decisions were made, I am confident that among those who urged leaving that door ajar were seminary leaders, who became my heroes and models of ministry, men like Nils W. Lund, Eric Hawkinson, and Donald Frisk. Now, it must be obvious to all of us that the Covenant Church moved on from that conflict to allow divorce to be almost a non-issue for pastoral calling and service.

Fast forward 20 years to the time when antagonists lined up against and for women’s ordination. Again, biblical texts flew about: “Paul tells us assuredly. . .” and “. . .but Paul also says. . .” or “The Bible makes clear. . .” and “Jesus shows us the way. . .”. For me, the issue had been resolved while I was a staff member at North Park Covenant Church in the convincing presence of several strong, vocal women for whom their equal rights were long overdue. Although labeled and dismissed by many as “militant feminists,” an epithet that probably did not offend them, I abetted their cause by printing a few early issues of Daughters of Sarah magazine, which they founded, a magazine that did not argue for but forthrightly assumed women’s rights. The denominational crisis was resolved at the 1976 Annual Meeting when more than two-thirds of the delegates agreed that women should be ordained. Again, North Park Theological Seminary contributed essential leadership in that decision. Despite snail’s pace progress in placement and acceptance of female pastors in many churches, no significant effort succeeded in denying that women, called to ministry, must have every benefit and privilege of ordination, always with manifest affirmation and assistance by Covenant leaders.

Now 35 years later, the Evangelical Covenant Church is again entangled in controversy around gender issues—what shall be the Church’s posture as to acceptance and affirmation of gays and lesbians—but this debate is evolving very differently. Instead of momentum toward support, pointed sanctions are in place to limit how Covenant pastors may respond to the issue, abetted explicitly by seminary and denominational leaders and boards. The current debate seems much like the divorce debate, when words like “adultery,” “family decay,” and “living in sin” were freely used, but is on a markedly different track. There are definite parallels to the women-in-ministry controversy as well, when despite opponents citing chapter and verse to prove that women must not be admitted to pastoral leadership, many influential church leaders cited biblical words about inclusion and justice, contending that talents and gifts of all persons called to ministry, not gender, must be the basis for ordination. No such affirmation of gays and lesbians comes from church leaders now but instead, apparent desire to keep the controversy well “closeted,” although that effort is definitely compromised by the explicit sanctions of the undebated 2010 rules statement, which thrust the issue into keen focus. I can only assume that debates do go on behind closed doors in board rooms and faculty offices and at Starbucks and elsewhere, including dining tables in homes of Covenant pastors, but so far, there is near total public silence from any leaders who may question the breadth and rigidity of current opposition. Small groups of supporters are forming, which makes the continuing lack of response even more deafening. Meanwhile, without sanction or demand for silence, some Covenant pastors aggressively declare their opposition and operate freely to deny gay rights.

I am truly puzzled by these contrasting developments. Although a great chorus cites biblical sanctions of homosexuality, can any contend the Bible is more clear on this issue than in sanctioning divorce and remarriage or denying church leadership to women? Doubtless, biblical material can be quoted in opposition in all three of these debates, so I ask why now there is not the casuistry that swayed the two previous debates toward approval? I suppose we must dismiss undercurrents of homophobia, which I expect would be denied vehemently. It probably cannot be denied that the Covenant church today is more conservative on social issues than 60 years ago, or 35 years ago. Although divorce has seemingly been wrapped comfortably into evangelical ethics, it might be considerably more difficult today to achieve a 70% majority approval of women’s ordination—mere speculation, of course.

Of one difference I am quite sure: the Evangelical Covenant Church is held together now by far less dependable loyalty. Once, far in the past, Mission Covenanters rallied around the words, “I am companion of all who fear Thee,” a companionship that usually exceeded even major differences. Whatever bond exists now seems more like a sticky note that flies away in a mere breeze. A few adventurous words from the pulpit send a block of church members off to another church more to their liking, with the same want of loyalty likely as true of churches as individual members, which makes quite plausible the dread that division over gay/lesbian affirmation would decimate the Evangelical Covenant Church. Covenant leaders simply cannot count on the connectedness that once bound the church together despite strong opposition to final decisions. I suspect such polity considerations are paramount in subduing LGBT recognition by the Church. Since few have openly declared their sexual preference to be other than heterosexual, their leaving to fulfill their calling in more favorable surroundings will be far less damaging than any show of support.

It seems clear now that American culture moves steadily toward acceptance and support of gay rights, especially among young people. Perhaps, too, the Evangelical Covenant Church will with time decide that denial of LGBT rights was in error. Who knows whether that will require years or decades? Meanwhile, it seems that if gay and lesbian persons who are called to ministry wish to serve in a Covenant church they must be satisfied with their more accepting but careful pastors and church leaders saying, “Wait, wait, don’t tell me!” as preferable to the outright antagonism of many who would blatantly exclude them.

  • Ann-Britt Keillor

    I am not eighty but well on my way and I hope to live till the Covenant welcomes LGBT people of faith with open arms.  I would only change the phrase “equal rights” to God given gifts. I am sad that gifted people are not joining the Covenant but taking their God given gifts elsewhere.

  • Pastorjohnnya

    Thanks for this great historical journey, Jim.  The voices of your generation that have lived through these other “great issues” of debate are needed now more than ever!

  • Michael Satterberg

    Jim- Thanks for your post.  As always, very inspiring to hear your words.  We will have to get together the next time I am out in Portland or if you ever make your way through Minneapolis. I know my parents would love to see you and Annette too!

  • Leonid Regheta

    I am actually very happy and content to see and hear many (growing number of) Covenant pastors declare their opposition and operate freely to deny gay rights.  Praise God for their stand and clarity of theological conviction (as opposed to going with the flow of pop-culture). 

    • Cjoliver

      Carolyn Oliver

    • I’ll second Cjoliver’s question: “Why?”

      Leonid, if you believe strongly in your position, why not be willing to discuss it?

  • Bob McNaughton

    Very well done, Jim!   Thank you.  

    I remember when divorced persons, though permitted a kind of second-class membership, could not teach Sunday School or hold other church positions, inflicting injustice upon them and losing the offering of their gifts.  

     Another memory: I did research in Covenant statements and other writings for a seminary paper related to the then huge concerns around racial integration and justice.  I discovered that at the time of my writing,  nothing had been written, except for a periodic concern that Swedes should marry Swedes – don’t integrate with people whose names might be McNaughton.

    About 150 years ago the American churches couldn’t find ways to solve the slavery issues, continuing the  injustice, ingratitude, pain, suffering, and the loss of the gifts of those excluded.   Two examples show the results: the Baptists divided north and south, and though there are other differences today, that which separated them was their profound conviction that each side interpreted the Scriptures more faithfully.  The same was true of the Presbyterians, who also divided.  Nearly 200 years later, the divisions remain, in blatant disregard of Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one.” 

    My concern is that unlike divorce and women in ministry, the current issue will further divide the churches into segments that will remain with us 200 years, continuing the loss of gifts of those excluded, and the  injustice, ingratitude, pain, and suffering inflicted upon them. 

    Is leadership today concerned with short-term results?  Shouldn’t we all want to be on the right side of history, rather than having to apologize 500 years later, as we did regarding Galileo, as our government has done regarding our treatment of First Peoples?

  • Ruth Johnson

    Thank you for sharing your memories both of the Covenant as a people and of the manner of decision-making and discussion-having around contentious topics. I understand the concerns of  separation, but I also believe that willingness to engage together can strengthen and deepen common bonds. Avoiding this discussion due to fear seems to be more damaging than taking a risk of thoughtfully listening and sharing.

  • Joanne Ekberg

    Thank you for your bold and honest words.  The silence on this issue from non-retired, younger Covenant pastors is deafening andquite frankly, embarassing.  I interpret their silence not so much as not caring about forming more inclusive churches, but fear of hierarchical reprisal.  It’s a sad day in the Covenant when what could be open, honest dialogue is repressed.   Peace to you, Jim. 
    Joey Ekberg

    • Jim Anderson

      Thanks, Joey. Your affirmation means a lot to me. I’m not surprised at the silence of Covenant pastors who support LGBT affirmation. The current sanctions are real and intentional. What does surprise me is the silence of those who believe denying LGBT rights is good and right and biblically required, since that view is not at all forbidden. Except for one brave commenter, there is no opposing response to this post. I wonder why. I’ll hazard a guess: most do not want to be known publicly as anti-gay. Better to keep that prickly side of their persona hidden, so posts on Coming Out Covenant are best ignored. Thus, there is no  dialogue. I agree with you–that’s sad.  Jim

    • Debra Gustafson

      Hi Joey and Jim~
      I’m not a retired Covenant pastor.  I probably won’t pass any longer for a younger Covenant pastor.  Some might call me a middle-aged ordained Covenant pastor.  I would call myself a Covenant pastor who deeply cares for individuals, families, communities and our entire denomination regarding this blog’s topic. My impression was that this space was created for individuals to share their stories in safety without judgment or theological or biblical critic.  As a Covenant pastor I am listening with openness, care, and compassion to each person who chooses to write. Were you expecting these posts it to be a place for Covenant clergy to make comments of approval or disapproval of peoples stories?   Were you expecting Covenant clergy to make comments of the ECC’s policy on human sexuality?  I could be wrong, but I thought all readers, clergy or not, were being trusted and  invited to listen and know the journey of our colleagues and fellow human beings as they vulnerably share sorrow, grief, and future hopes.  That is how I am approaching this blog.Active Covenant clergy are bound to confidentiality as we hold the personal stories of congregants and civic leaders who confide in us and seek pastoral care and Biblical guidance from us.  In my opinion, this blog is not the place for myself, as a Covenant clergy, to communicate much except I deeply and pastorally care about the real-life stories being entrusted to us all.I am not intending to embarrass anyone by my silence in this blog as a Covenant clergy.  I do not fear hierarchical reprisal from Covenant colleagues in roles of servanthood as they oversee my ordination, Biblical teaching, and character.  I’m thankful for them and for the accountability. I know my own sinful heart too well.  My silence does not mean I am not in favor of the human rights of the LGBT individual in American society any less than I am in favor of the human rights of children, disabled persons, the elderly, persons of all ethnicities, immigrants, and persons of any faith that seek to do no harm. My personal concern about this blog topic:  As a follower of Jesus Christ and servant in His church living in America, what concerns me is that I not embrace a definition of love that is not God’s definition of love, or succumb to an enlightenment ideal of freedom that is not God’s definition of freedom for those called by His name, or that I sleepily slide into some postmodern deconstruction of ultimate truth that is built on cultural customs and experiences.  I find the Kingdom rule of Jesus Christ in my life to be much, much harder to faithfully follow than abiding by the laws of my state or country.  Jesus Kingdom rule calls me to trod a sacrificial, servant path.  The Apostle Paul called himself “a servant of Jesus Christ” – not a servant of Rome (Romans 1:1).  As individual states in America approve gay marriage, providing proper human rights for citizens, I remain a servant of Jesus Christ before I am a servant of my state.   Jesus’ way involves surrender of my personal will and the call to repent of my idolatries: My idolatry of seeking to be liked, affirmed, and accepted by family, friends, society, and other Christians with differing perspectives.  Regularly I am in need of repenting for my idolatry of self-preservation and self-protection when I’m tempted to bless what God does not bless so I avoid relational conflict that casts me into sleepless nights and takes a toll on my body.  I am a single, celibate, heterosexual Covenant clergy woman who still wrestles with my pride, insecurities, fears, twisted heterosexuality, loneliness, desire to belong, frustration of communing in churches more oriented to families and couples than affirming the worth and contribution of singles, etc.  God has not healed me of these struggles, but He is faithful to be with me and renew me with His Word, His Spirit, and a few trusted friends as I keep seeking to follow Him.  Here is my suggestion for a place for the kind of dialogue that my sister Joey and brother Jim and many others may be desiring in the Covenant family: I suggest that the venue of conventicles (small groups), where we (heterosexual and gay) do life-on-life community, honestly seeking to know and be known, with freedom to share our theological and Biblical beliefs and questions while remaining open to on-going honing even as we agree to disagree in authentic Christo-centric relationships . . . would be of value to the ECC now and over the next 10 years.  Respectfully shared, Deb Gustafson

      • Jim Anderson

        Dear Debra:

        Thanks much for so many reasons: your
        desire to read what’s posted in this blog, your openness to learning
        from the heart cries of individuals and families as they share the
        pain of rejection, and now your taking the time and effort to respond
        in a deeply thoughtful and heartfelt way. You have helped me to
        understand the internal conflict felt by pastors who want to respond
        to this pressing issue but are perplexed by how to go about that. You
        are not about to join a parade on either side of the issue, but
        neither are you willing merely to ignore it. I hear you questioning
        whether using this blog to open up the dialogue fits the original
        purpose. I wondered that, too, when I presented my post, knowing it
        was different from the very personal writing of those who have been
        injured by rejection, but the administrators accepted my post,
        probably feeling that somehow it advanced the discussion. I
        detect in your response the kind of generosity and kindness that
        helps me to think of a young person in your church coming to you,
        perhaps with fear and trembling, but trusting that you are one whom
        s/he can trust with the very deep, dark, forbidden secret s/he lives
        with. I’m confident from reading that you would be a marvelous
        confidante and guide and be able to give full assurance of your
        support and willingness to walk through the hard places with him/her
        without judgment or condemnation. But then on that shared
        journey through the dark valley must come the question, “Will my
        church accept me?” Perhaps there have been words spoken by
        others, teachers or a youth leader perhaps, or from peers, maybe from
        the pulpit, that indicate the answer must be, “Not likely.”
        What then do you do, being the caring shepherd that you are? Must you
        recommend silence, given the consequences of speaking the truth, but
        overlooking the pain of silence upon the one you counsel? Or will you
        suggest s/he leave the church of his/her growing up, of his/her
        family? Now suppose that s/he has told you, maybe long before this
        new revelation, “I am sure God is calling me to ministry.”
        What must you advise then? Do you see any fork in this rough road
        other than, “I’m so sorry. You must look elsewhere to fulfill
        God’s call”? Isn’t this the horn of the dilemma that pushes us
        beyond willingness to listen and being kind and accepting–the next
        steps the troubled person will take toward fulfillment? How then
        shall we be affirming of that LBGT person we counsel? These
        are theoretical questions for me, long retired, not having to face a
        dilemma such as I have just described. I recognize that shortcoming
        and will try to be a genuinely open to a response as you obviously
        are to sharing your own questions. Again, I thank you kindly not only
        for your response but also for the wise and warm shepherding you
        provide for those God brings to you, in the best of Covenant
        tradition of pastoral care.

        Jim Anderson

  • Jim, thanks for your perspectives.  Too many people seem to forget that this is just one in the long line of conflicts that represent the various prejudices the church has had to work through in its history.  There is always some scripture which appears to justify or deny whatever we may wish to justify or deny on any given day, but the important thing to remember is that Jesus didn’t turn away anyone, and the topics he preached about most were love for all, and the avoidance of hypocrisy and judgment. 

    I appreciate your thoughts.

  • Tstohlberg


    The story you tell sounds familiar. Thanks for telling it.

  • Michael

    2 Timothy 3
    Perhaps you will reconsider your first love, and not be so quick to fall away from God’s truth.
    It’s truly amazing that your 80+ years in ministry has given you such wisdom to subject God to
    the whims of man’s folly using Affirmation #6 as the basis for your desire for change in the ECC
    as to the “rights of man”. Perhaps you have forgotten man’s sinful nature, or your true desire
    is to hide it in the closet. Revisit Affirmation #1 and reflect on God’s truth and realize
    that man has no rights except those provided by a sovereign, loving, all powerful God as
    revealed in His truth. Don’t confuse social justice as overruling what God’s word clearly
    teaches about man’s moral nature and the wickedness of sexual perfusion. Romans 1:20-32 comes
    to mind.
    God bless you young man. I urge you to turn back to God’s truth – as it really is not up to man
    for change that which God has put in place – even before time began.