Glad Hearts: Some of My Favorite Voices from the Covenant Church

As I begin work on a book with one of its pastors about its theological heritage, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Evangelical Covenant Church. So with delegates from its congregations gathering in Phoenix, Arizona for our denomination’s annual meeting, I thought I’d share a few quotations from a few of my favorite Covenanters, clustered around our denomination’s six affirmations.

I started with the work of my late friend Jim Hawkinson, who chose from dozens of “Voices from the Literature of the Covenant Church” for his final book, Glad Hearts: The Joys of Believing and Challenges of Belonging. But since Jim primarily highlighted the Swedish immigrants and their children (mostly sons) and grandchildren who built the Covenant, I tried to curate a more diverse, up-to-date set of “mission friends” — one that includes more of the women and people of color who help make the Covenant such a vibrant movement. (A big source here was the group blog Theoloqui.)

The necessity of the new birth


“Any event / God can / I can / God can through me / Make something new. / I see it / I feel it. / Newness.” (Adaline Bjorkman)

Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys“When conversion occurs a person experiences the new birth of the Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). But Paul implies that it is also a continuing and progressive transformation ‘by the renewal’ of one’s mind. One is not to be satisfied with the spiritual mentality that was present at conversion, but there must be progression and growth.” (C.O. Rosenius)

“The necessity of new birth is not simply about saying yes to Jesus Christ. It is about painful growth that requires death. Usually, it’s the death of those things we hold most dearly—especially if one has security through power (of position, gender, ethnicity, class, age). The necessity (not option) of new birth is about taking the kind of risks that push us to face the fear of losing control of our well-ordered lives. We take the risk of embracing the things that might kill us, knowing that the embrace itself is a public witness to the healing potential of God.” (Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom)

The reality of freedom in Christ

“Covenant freedom… comes from people who know they did not earn and do not deserve God’s acceptance, people who know that their salvation is by grace through faith. It creates in them a humility that refuses to believe that they have the last word on truth. It enables them to hold their convictions with grace toward those who hold a different position.” (Glenn Palmberg)

Olsson, By One Spirit“It’s tempting at times to communicate our ‘freedom in Christ’ as solely grace-filled words extended to one another in hope. While it certainly can be, we must also account for the cycle – that many people’s reality continually serve to help make freedom possible for others, often at great cost to themselves. In this Advent season, I choose to remember those who have been Jesus’ freeing presence to me – those who’ve confounded spaces with conviction and pressed thru into the world believing that somehow…somehow, new life and possibilities can emerge.” (Gail Song Bantum)

“The Covenant is a Bible-believing fellowship…but it has never officially subscribed, even under the pressure of the 1920s, to the tenets of Fundamentalism or evangelicalism if by this we mean an adherence to Scriptural inerrancy or verbal inspiration. There are many Covenanters who are Fundamentalists and there are probably many local Covenant churches that would formulate their faith in these biblicistic terms. They belong to the family of faith together with everyone else who believes that the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct. As indicated, they share the rights and privileges pertaining to membership. But there is one right they do not have and that is to demand that all other Covenanters must believe as they do.” (Karl Olsson)

The centrality of the Word of God

Nyvall Hall at North Park University
Nyvall Hall, home of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago – Creative Commons (Túrelio)

“To believe the Bible is more than believing everything in it, from cover to cover. One can do that and yet be a stranger to the Bible’s message and unmoved by the Bible’s purposes. A living faith in the Bible as God’s Word is the same as faith in God. The Bible’s promises and threats, the whole content of the Bible becomes real when God becomes real. It is possible to believe in the Bible instead of believing in God…. no institutions and no book, no matter how holy it may be, can replace a living faith in the living God. And man cannot lose his Bible in a more frightful way than in this way: that it becomes an idol.” (David Nyvall)

“In spite of the messiness, we continue to affirm that the word is central. And within that word the gospel writer identifies God the Son as Word. Somehow Logos is at the core of our faith—even when it’s not completely clear what that means. So I show up at church in spite of myself and listen to the Spirit-breathed word. And I am healed for another day.” (Cathy Norman Peterson)

“Behind our predecessors’ serious intent of telling the biblical story to the next generation, there was a recognition—sometimes with hesitation and even reluctance—that it could never be done only once or by a single method or experience, or even only in one’s own mother tongue. Likewise, it was a matter of utmost urgency that there be new participants in telling the story, so that in moving to new times and places each new retelling would be an event of saving, transforming significance.” (Glen Wiberg)

A conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit

Gail Song Bantum
Gail Song Bantum – Quest Church, Seattle

“The church affirming its conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit is radical! It’s radical because in affirming total dependence, the church is confessing and remembering its identity, belonging, and beginning as breathless apart from the Holy Spirit. The church affirming its dependence on the Holy Spirit is radical because in uttering this confession we are also saying that who we are as a body cannot be dictated or defined by what we hope the community will be, but we are bound simply [and complexly] by the fact that we have been called. We have been joined together whether we like or resonate with every person, their story, their theological bent, their Scriptural interpretation, or whatever. Was this not the case for the people of Israel? Because YHWH said, they were. Radical!” (Gail Song Bantum)

“It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes the Christian life an abundant life, that is, a life of meaning, richness, and purpose (John 7:37-39, 10:10). Without the Holy Spirit the early church would have been left with only the memory of some dramatic events…. Without the Holy Spirit the Christian life would become a tedious effort to adhere to principles laid down in the past. With the Holy Spirit the Christian life becomes the expression of the presence of the living Christ in continuing experience.” (Wesley Nelson)

“Pilgrims, strangers, ‘mid life’s dangers, / we on you would e’er depend; / Spirit tender, our defender, guide us, keep us to the end. / Amen.” (Joel Blomqvist)

A commitment to the whole mission of the church

“The missionary enterprise is not optional, to be accepted or rejected at will by the believers. It is a mandate from the Lord. Our own spiritual life demands this expression, as does the hopeless condition of a Christless world. A church without a missionary vision is a dying church. An individual Christian devoid of missionary zeal is living a dwindling spiritual life.” (T.W. Anderson)

Smith, The Post-Black & Post-White Church

“Historically in our nation we have separated truth, justice, and righteousness. Some churches preach truth by focusing on an individual approach to repentance and salvation. Or they only focus on sin issues such as fornication, murder, and adultery and leave racism, sexism, and oppression alone. On the other hand some churches focus on issues like racism and sexism and give no attention to the biblical truth of the authority of Scripture or the necessity of the new birth.

“The church must connect truth, justice, and righteousness in order to advance the Kingdom of God in these days and live out ancient biblical mandates.” (Efrem Smith)

“The ultimate concern of the Christian is that God’s ‘will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Because God wills a social order in which justice, righteousness, and peace are possible, the Christian will be involved in the struggle for such a society. Because God desires that every man participate personally in the redeeming grace of Christ, the Christian will be concerned in every form of its ministry to bring his fellow man to the conviction of sin and conversion to Jesus Christ. These two mutually support one another. They ought not to be in competition.” (Don Frisk)


The church as a fellowship of believers

Hawkinson, Glad Hearts“Peace within the group does not mean that all think alike and interpret all things alike, each wishing to see, as it were, his own self in another, but it does mean that each one recognizes his brother in Christ, whatever else the condition may be. It is not the identity in thought and comprehension of all possible particulars that constitutes the perfect bond by which we love one another; that bond, rather, is the mutual filial condition to which we are born from above.” (C.J. Nyvall)

“…it is in the breaking of bread (or breaking out the rice in its many versions) and in the act of fellowship amongst sisters and brothers in faith we should find that the differences matter because there is space to delight in the variety, creativity and abundance that is from God. Look around. God doesn’t paint all the leaves one shade yellow. Our differences don’t define us; our Creator does.” (Kathy Khang)

“I will be a fool! I will love her, the Church. I love my church. I love her institutions, though I am not unaware of her faults. I love her worship. I am revived daily by her quiet, yet constant fellowship… While many cry out the news of her death, let me hail her life. For I believe in her and love her, and will stay by her with joy until the end.” (Jim Hawkinson)

3 thoughts on “Glad Hearts: Some of My Favorite Voices from the Covenant Church

  1. Inevitably, as soon as I pressed publish, I thought of other voices I should have included. Let me add just one… One way or another, LGBT Christians are important members of the Covenant. Here’s one of my gay “mission friends” reflecting on “freedom in Christ”: “This means we focus on the evident biblical center of what unites us in Christ, not on peripheral matters not clear in Scripture. Within the boundaries of all of our other affirmations, we extend ‘space’ to each other. The Covenant is not a self-contained echo chamber that only reinforces to each other a single voice or perspective. At our best, we speak into one another, not past each other. We want to live respectfully in the polishing cross-currents gained by wrestling with matters together biblically and with hope.” (Andrew Freeman)

  2. Chris, Thanks for these memories and reminders about the Covenant Church and its spirituality. When I was growing up, some of my relatives were members of First Covenant Church in Des Moines, Iowa, and we (my family) occasionally attended Youth for Christ events there. I have spoken at North Park Theological Seminary and always enjoyed my contacts there (e.g., John Weborg). I was just in Minneapolis two weekends ago and my friend and I went downtown to see the new Vikings stadium (USBank Stadium). I saw First Covenant Church immediately across from it and that reminded me of a time when I spoke there (to an adult Sunday School class). Paul Rees had been pastor there many years ago–a name I grew up hearing as a great evangelical preacher and leader. I also spoke once at First Covenant St. Paul–a very different church from First Covenant Minneapolis (so I was told and experienced however briefly). A couple years ago I had the privilege of speaking at one of the Covenant’s most unusual churches in America: Vox Veniae in Austin (Texas). Beer on tap in the worship space. Pretty unusual. I have spoken and written about the Covenant Church as a model of how denominations can adapt and thrive in an allegedly “post-denominational age.”

    1. I’ve been curious about Vox Veniae since the NY Times wrote about it. (First time I can remember a Covenant Church being featured *there*!) Just one more reason I need to visit Austin…

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