Mark Safstrom, Response to Clifton-Soderstrom

Each Monday (1/21-2/18) we are highlighting in turn the six “Responses to Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, ‘Covenant Freedom: Freedom for All or Free-for-all?’” published in the most recent issue of the Covenant Quarterly. We invite you to engage directly with the authors in the comments section below (comments policy).


From Mark Safstrom, “Response to Clifton-Soderstrom,” pp. 37–41.

Mark Safstrom

Christian freedom is not an afterthought to Covenant ecclesiology. Rather the very kernel, the central idea, of the historical polity of this church is that people would be able to gather in the same congregation, read and discuss Scripture, agree and disagree about it, and yet find ways to remain in one body. This is not a concession to relativism or a low view of Scripture; rather, as Clifton-Soderstrom demonstrates through numerous examples, the Covenant leaders of past generations held stubbornly to the ideal that “[t]wo faithful readers may differ in their interpretations and still both hold a high view of the authority and place of Scripture” (p. 51). This aspect of Covenant ecclesiology facilitates a pathway to Christian maturity by embracing freedom and the tensions inherent to that freedom. As Clifton-Soderstrom is keen to point out whenever she speaks on the six Covenant Affirmations, there is a natural progression from “the centrality of Scripture” to “freedom in Christ.” The Covenant Affirmations are not a confession (articles to be professed) but rather an embodiment of a Covenant way of being together.
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[Clifton-Soderstrom’s] organization of Covenant values into five principles for discerning what makes faithful dissent faithful serves as a significant complement to Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom, filling a need for practical guidelines for church leaders and congregants to understand better the mechanics of how Covenant freedom can work in practice. For instance, she provides answers to questions like, “How can ‘sincere dissent’ be identified?” and “What is the difference between policy and theology?” The definitions Clifton-Soderstrom provides are anchored in the historical literature of the church and, as such, provide a much-needed service to the Covenant in filling a void apparent in many key denominational resources on sexuality from the past few years, which have often neglected to define this issue in relation to ecclesiology.
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This lack of attention to historical ecclesiology is an unfortunate omission, as attention to it could provide the church significant resources for how we can resolve, or at least diminish, current disputes and be as welcoming to divergent views as possible. The ongoing relevance of Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom has even been called into question in recent years….I believe that accepting a “that was then, this is now” paradigm deprives us of a critical opportunity for productive discussion. The  authors of Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom present depth of insight and a careful treatment of freedom. This document and other literature on Covenant ecclesiology is extraordinarily prescient, timeless, and relevant to today’s debates regarding sexuality….Covenant ecclesiology matters because we must understand not only what the Bible says about sexuality but also what it says about the congregation and how we are to make room for dissenters and seek unity in our diversity of conclusions about what the Bible says.
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The resource paper on freedom and responsibility recently commissioned by the Covenant Executive Board provides a timely opportunity to explain, clarify, and build on historical Covenant ecclesiology. It will also be important that this group meet the high bar set by the 1963 committee that produced
Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom in terms of breadth of authorship and length and transparency of deliberation….Trust and transparency will be better served if the freedom and responsibility writing team follows the Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology in being comprised of a similar size (a dozen) of diverse people (to avoid the pitfalls of “groupthink”), conducting their work for a similar duration (five years) in a manner valuing transparency of process and authorship, and seeking approval for their work at an Annual Meeting.
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In a highly polarized conversation, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s article offers an essential reminder that the Covenant’s historical theology is directly relevant to understanding how the Covenant’s approach to divisive ideological conflicts must be distinct from that of other evangelical churches, because our ecclesiology is different….An ecclesiology can be lost. But an ecclesiology can also be reclaimed if the leaders of the church today truly seek to understand the institutions they have inherited. It is imperative that leaders seek a longer institutional memory, beyond the past few decades. There is still time for all of us to start reading.
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Read Safstrom’s full response here.

Mark Safstrom

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