My (Love) Letter to the Covenant Church

Dear members and friends of the Covenant Church,

Gather 2018 logoTomorrow our denomination will begin its 2018 annual meeting — one that many expect to be a landmark event, as delegates vote on new leaders amid intensifying debate about the ECC’s position on human sexuality and marriage. Part of me wishes that I were on the floor in Minneapolis, instead of doing historical research 1,300 miles away: participating in history, not just reading about the past at a distance.

But since I can’t be there, I’ve instead spent much of the spring and early summer wondering if and how I should speak into this moment. Countless times in my mind, and occasionally on a page or a screen, I’ve written words of conviction and compromise, caution and urgency, anger and sadness… and now that the moment is here, I realize that I’ve actually written nothing at all.

At times I’ve hesitated out of fear: that speaking my mind would reveal my ignorance, cost me influence, or (worst of all) betray relationships. But mostly, I’ve hesitated because I’ve realized how much I simply don’t know.

John WenrichI don’t know presidential nominee John Wenrich, except that I respect what he has done with church revitalization in the Covenant, as strongly as I regret that he seems unwilling to affirm the full, messy implications of the “freedom in Christ” we grant to each other as Covenanters. I wish John would articulate more clearly how he thinks Pietism and its irenic spirit have made the Covenant Church something unique in American religious history, but I don’t know that he won’t grow into that understanding. If I were a delegate on the floor this weekend, I might ask him at least one hard question, but I don’t know that I would vote against him. On principle, I don’t think that the governing body of any congregational polity ought to rubber stamp a preset agenda, but I do trust that the Holy Spirit has been guiding our nominating committees. I pray that, if elected, John will be a wonderful leader of our mission society, and that Lance Davis and Mary Karsten Surridge will lead well our ministerium and university, respectively.

Likewise, I don’t think I know any of the Covenant clergy who have sought to dissent faithfully from the Covenant’s ethical guidelines on sexuality. But while they’ve reached different conclusions than most of us, I refuse to call my view the “biblical” one and so imply that theirs isn’t. On the contrary, I trust that LGBT-affirming Covenanters take that position precisely because they’ve approached the Bible as we ought: as “an altar where we meet the living God.” I see them trying to make their faith active in love of all their neighbors, to live out our common priesthood for the common good. In short, those Covenanters often exemplify the “Pietist option” in practice. If they no longer belong in the Covenant Church, perhaps I don’t either.

In any event, I hope to keep counting those clergy — and those responsible for disciplining them —  among my “mission friends.” And to do the same with John — and those who vote against him.

Where does that leave me? Do I have anything helpful to say?

Again and again in recent months, I’ve found myself wishing that Jim Hawkinson and Glen Wiberg were still here to advise us. We dedicated The Pietist Option to their memory knowing that, as “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1), they would no doubt tell us that no one owns the heritage and mission of the Covenant — or fully understands it. We just do the best we can with our share of the work, for whatever time on Earth we’re given, then pass it on to a new generation.

Still, I’ve taken heart from the written and remembered legacy that Glen and Jim leave behind. If I’ve come to any clarity, it’s inspired by them; if I have any wisdom to offer, it’s in repeating their words.

Glen WibergFirst, it’s mostly from Glen that I’ve learned my maxim that we missional Pietists are a people who not only believe in the Resurrection, but live as if we believe in the Resurrection. Whatever our fears and doubts about this particular annual meeting, let us continue to be “God’s Easter people—those oblivious to the ending of our own days, calmly plotting the resurrection.” Whatever happens to the Covenant on the other side of this weekend, let us proceed in the assurance that “when all is said and done everything in the long run depends on God’s doing, where everything finally serves his purpose, gathering up the fragments in resurrection so that nothing goes down the drain, nothing at all is lost. It will be proclaimed in his remembrance, and to his glory.”

Then second, let me so bold as to paraphrase Jim’s most famous writing — penned half a century ago at another time of seeming crisis for the Covenant and the larger Body of Christ:

I love her, the Church. I love my church. I love her institutions, though I am not unaware of their faults. I love her worship. I am revived daily by her quiet, yet constant fellowship. I love her hymns, and the Word she proclaims. I treasure her celebrations of the sacraments. I honor her teachers. I salute her servants. I stand behind her leaders. I laud her achievements and I love her aspirings.

…in this climate of unrest, when she suffers so much from foe and friend alike, let me raise a song from the heart. I stand gladly in her battlements. I participate joyfully in her wider ministry, and in the seeking with her of that renewal we all so sorely need.

For all the many things I see but dimly, this I know to be true:

I love the Covenant Church.

See what large letters I write with! For I dearly love my denomination. I love the Covenant’s institutions and leaders, even knowing their faults. I love the Covenant’s worship and hymns, the Word she proclaims and the sacraments she celebrates. I love what the Covenant has done, and what it hopes to do.

This, then, is not just a letter, but a love letter — with all the complicated emotions and incoherent thoughts that you’d expect from such a missive.

All the more so because while I love the idea of the Covenant, I love it more as that idea has been incarnated in the lives of Covenanters. To say I love the Covenant is really to say that I love women and men like:

  • David Nyvall, Karl Olsson, Don Frisk, Jean Lambert, and other Christian scholars whom I never met but who taught me an integrated faith of head, heart, and hands;
  • Bethany Covenant Sanctuary
    The worship space I knew best as a teenager – Bethany Evangelical Covenant Church of Stillwater, MN

    Art Fretheim, who baptized me as an infant, Rob Kronberg, who confirmed me as an adolescent, and all the people in that new church in Cottage Grove and that old one in Stillwater who vowed on those occasions to pray for me and join my parents in nurturing my faith;

  • Mark Pattie and my other friends at Salem Covenant in New Brighton, who welcomed me back to the Covenant and helped me understand what I’d been missing during my sojourn in other churches;
  • My grandparents Peterson, who were my bridge to the immigrant faith of our denomination’s founders, and my Uncle Lowell and Aunt Annie, who have extended that tradition to a new generation and modeled faithful service in the midst of personal and congregational adversity;
  • And Donna Harris and my colleagues on the board of Minnehaha Academy, and the faculty, staff, students, and parents of that school, who know more about hope than any author.

As much as I love the Covenant in my memory of these and other relationships, I expect to love it in the future — whether within its fellowship, or as one who has moved on but remains your companion, striving for the mission we share with all the Church.

I pray the former. As our outgoing president, Gary Walter, writes in his final report, our “identity as missional Pietists is uniquely important in keeping us centered,” for Pietism makes us not only biblical, devotional, and missional, but connectional. In Gary’s words, “it is all better done together.”

Amen! So as a parting thought, let me repeat words that I wrote for all Christians, but with our fellowship foremost in mind. (I even quoted our Affirmations in the last paragraph.) It doesn’t solve everything, but we won’t go too far wrong trying together to live it out:

Gehrz & Pattie, The Pietist OptionWe bear the image of God most fully when we are together, to the extent that we have “the same love” and are “in full accord and of one mind” [Phi 2:2]. Conversely, we feel distortion of this image most keenly when love, accord, and unity are lost. And we sense this loss often. For what is the fall but this: created for relationship, we were made strangers to our Creator and to each other? Because of sin, we are prone to see God and everyone made in his image with fear and suspicion rather than awe and wonder.

But because Jesus Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,” we, members of his body, “regard no one from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:15-16). With the eyes of Christ, we see everyone made in God’s image as a stranger to be welcomed (Mt 25:35). After all, Jesus asked, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Mt 5:47) But speaking in his name, now we tell even our enemies, “It is well that you have come into our lives.”

It is well: what was sick is being healed; what was broken is being made whole.

So what is our mission if not “the befriending of others… in the name of the One who first befriended us?” How can we engage in such reconciliation if members of our own body readily accept estrangement from each other? If the Great Commandment… animates the Great Commission… then a missional church should take the shape of an ever-widening circle of ever-deepening intimacy, with Jesus Christ at its center. (The Pietist Option, pp. 85-86)

And so may the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, with Christ our Center. Together, with one voice, may the Covenant Church glorify God; together, with one accord, may we seek our neighbors’ good.

Grace and peace to you all,

Chris Gehrz

Member, Salem Covenant Church

New Brighton, Minnesota

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