The late 1950s were a difficult time for the Covenant Church. Questions were raised about the adequacy of the church’s position on the Bible and its lack of a clear statement of faith. Some seminary professors were accused of being “liberal.” One student went so far as to surreptitiously go through the garbage cans behind professors’ homes looking for beer bottles. Be that as it may, the 1958 Annual Meeting assigned the Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology the task of studying “the real nature of our highly cherished freedom in the Covenant and of our theological positions within evangelical Christianity.” The result was a report entitled “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom” received by the 1963 Annual Meeting.
It is a remarkable document. On the one hand, it is very much a document of its time. The pronouns used to refer to pastors, leaders, and professors are all male. On the other hand, in some ways it is as fresh and relevant as ever. It begins by affirming the Covenant’s commitment to the Scriptures. It rightly insists, however, that “in its primary sense God’s revelation of himself is made in the person of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Scriptures bear witness to that primary revelation.
It also insists that the value of the Bible lies in its power to bring about our salvation and call us to new life. “To read it properly. . . is to find it an altar where one meets the living God and receives personally the reality of redemption.”
People holding diverging positions must honor each other even when they disagree.
The document goes on to give an account of the development of Pietism. Although Pietists respected the creeds and statements of faith, they did not consider them final or binding. Believers did not need to swear loyalty to a particular creed or biblical interpretation: “To have added the requirement of uniformity in all doctrinal matters,” claims the document, “would have been to forget that ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ and would have presumed that a final and authoritative theological position was now in their possession.” The authors note that there are differences of opinion within the church regarding biblical inspiration, the sacraments, the incarnation, the atonement, the application of Christian ethics, and the consummation of the age. They insist that people holding diverging positions must honor each other even when they disagree.
The majority, they insist, must respect the minority: “minorities have no voice where conformity to ‘official’ interpretations is required. Unless we wish to stifle all emergent spiritual vitality, we must be sure that people within our fellowship will be free to express themselves in ways which are different from the majority position without the fear of being labeled as disloyal.” To avoid life in an intellectual and spiritual bubble, they argue, we must listen to the minority voices within our community, the questions and concerns raised by those outside of the church, and permit our scholars to ask new questions and seek new answers. At the same time they insist we must be guided by what the Spirit is saying through the Scriptures to the community of God’s people.
Forty years ago the Covenant Church followed the advice of those wise leaders of 1963. They listened to the long silenced minority voices of women. They permitted their scholars and students of the word to re-examine the Scriptures and ask new questions of the text and tradition.
The church decided that there was no biblical or theological reason to deny women ordination to Christian ministry. At the same time, they preserved the right of other voices to question and dispute that decision without being driven out of the church.
Today we are a much richer church for the ministry of women. The 1963 document and the Covenant Church’s long history of openly listening to the word and the Spirit enabled new life to spring from neglected soil.