This past Friday, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that inaugurated the gay liberation movement, the Evangelical Covenant Church did something they had never done in their history: voting to expel a congregation from their denomination. They did so because the members of this congregation, First Covenant Church of Minneapolis (FCCM) had declared themselves to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ people and a staff-person who wasn’t the pastor had presided at a same-sex wedding off-site in 2014.
The ECC decided that this was the only violation of its covenant in its 134 year history egregious enough to merit expulsion. Which is more radical than even the most conservative United Methodists, who have never sought to expel an entire congregation. Thus, the ECC chose to define itself most preeminently as an anti-gay denomination.
Who you kick out of your community is how you show what really matters to you and which of your stated beliefs you actually take seriously. What apparently matters most to the Evangelical Covenant Church is to hold onto their evangelical credibility card by rejecting the validity of same-sex marriage. They have embraced this single-issue litmus test of evangelical “orthodoxy.” Their sloganeering about being “evangelical, but not exclusive, biblical, but not doctrinaire, traditional, but not rigid, congregational, but not independent” is just empty marketing.
What was particularly nasty in their national gathering was the way the ECC’s white leadership tried to recruit people of color to figurehead their anti-gay cause to give themselves cover. I have a friend in their circles who informed me of these machinations. It’s the same colonial strategy the Wesleyan Covenant Association has used in United Methodism. It’s part of the narrative of trying to cast queerness as white liberal elitism which is rejected decisively and triumphantly by the Rapidly Growing Global Church That Stands 100% In Line With The Agenda And Priorities Of White Evangelicalism.
There was a time when I had a lot of admiration for the ECC because of their leadership role in the Christian Community Development Association and similar missional and social justice spaces. But even before they showed their true ugliness in this year’s annual meeting, I started having a lot of questions about how they were monetizing their social justice brand. Indeed, ECC president John Wenrich reveals the ideological function of the ECC’s social justice branding in his open letter about expelling FCCM.
He explains that allowing an LGBTQ-affirming congregation to remain in the ECC would force the ECC to “continue to devote time, energy, and resources to conversations we have held now for more than 20 years, 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.”
So in other words, as far as John Wenrich is concerned, the purpose of the “topics” of immigration and mass incarceration is to change the subject from the conversation that has been settled and decided about rejecting LGBTQ inclusion. Because God knows, you can’t talk about more than one social justice topic at a time. Also, notice that they’re conversation topics, not movements for change. They’re topics to discuss at social justice conferences that you can saturate with Evangelical Covenant branded bling. John revealed way more about himself than he intended in his manipulative rhetoric.
There are two very different ways to be a “social justice” church. One way is to try to do everything you can to save the poor and marginalized. This approach can be quite radical (just like the title of David Platt’s book). It can involve making the sacrifice of moving your family into disadvantaged neighborhoods to help out. It can involve doing tons of research and strategizing around local government initiatives. The point is to make sure that poor and marginalized people see Jesus in all that you’re doing to help them and as a result they come to accept the Christian gospel.
The second approach flips the first approach on its head, because it involves the church seeking not to save, but to be saved by the poor and marginalized, out of the recognition that Jesus is not someone the church is introducing to the people on the margins, but someone the church must go to the margins to meet and accompany. In the second approach, the marginalized are the protagonists of the story among whom Jesus has already made his home, and the church receives its salvation to the degree that we recognize ourselves as the religious authorities who have crucified Jesus, repent of our sin, and take up our crosses in solidarity with the pueblo crucificado (see Jon Sobrino’s Principio Misericordia and Fuera Los Pobres No Hay Salvacion).
The million dollar question is whether church leaders are able to recognize their own lust for power and control as an idol that plays a major role in reifying the sinful structures of the world that crush the crucified. Men like John Wenrich who need power and control turn mass incarceration and immigration into conversation topics that monetize the social justice brand for them. The marginalized are commodities in this equation, not protagonists. It’s a very different thing to repent of your love for authority and take up your cross to follow Jesus into prisons and concentration camps.
When solidarity is an evangelism tactic by which the church can “reach” the marginalized, then social justice is ultimately just marketing. It’s penultimate to the goal of bringing new people under the patriarchal authority of the man in charge of the church. On the other hand, for some Christians, solidarity with the marginalized is not just a hip way to brand your church and attract millennials, but the actual culmination and purpose of Christian holiness.
For people who understand holiness to be concerned with making us into the embodiment of God’s mercy rather than conforming to an authoritarian patriarchal social order, the use of heteronormative sexuality as the one non-negotiable litmus test of doctrinal orthodoxy is completely incomprehensible. It has no logical place in our framework because “there is no longer male and female for all are one in Christ.” Accepting queerness in its inexplicable, disruptive messiness is simply another aspect of the surrender of authority that is authentic solidarity with Jesus and his fellow crucified humans. Anti-gay “social justice” Christianity tries to use “social justice” as a marketing bait and switch when its actual social vision is patriarchy.
I hope that John Wenrich and his fellow power-brokers in the Evangelical Covenant Church will discover authentic solidarity instead of just having brand-building conversations and workshops and conferences about mass incarceration and immigration. And I hope they will stop using their anti-gay stance to cling to their evangelical credibility card.
Maybe the shock of what they have now done will open eyes that weren’t open before. Maybe Jesus will reveal himself to the denominational overlords in the queer people they are persecuting just like Saul of Tarsus persecuted Jesus. I pray for the people in the pews of the Evangelical Covenant Church who will need to summon up the courage to speak out or walk out.