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 Stephen S. Bilynskyj, “Response to Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom,” pp. 28-32.
I do not believe that sexual ethics is simply one of many topics toward which the conclusions of Clifton-Soderstrom’s essay might be directed. No, the paper is clearly aimed at clearing a space for faithful dissent in regard to the Covenant position on the morality of homosexual practice. I say this not to diminish the excellent historical research and theological reflection on Covenant freedom the author has offered, but simply to place what has been presented properly in the context of what is surely one of its main purposes.
I begin with the general observation that Covenant freedom has never been meant to embrace, and likely never will embrace, the full range of possible biblical theological positions. This is a mistake that laypeople and Covenant clergy often make, imagining that if a viewpoint is theologically and/or biblically possible within the wider range of the Christian Church as a whole, then it must be an acceptable viewpoint within Covenant life and practice.
Many Covenanters have been misled into thinking that Covenant freedom allows us to hold what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” a pure theology centered on the essentials and allowing complete freedom in regard to non-essentials. That is a worthy ideal, but it has never been an adequate description of Covenant theology… The Covenant is only one of the many rooms of the Christian Church. As such it has its theological boundaries and limits, and its expression of Christian freedom must be somewhat circumscribed.
With regard to the inclusion of marginalized peoples, the Covenant indeed does have a stellar history of seeking to be as broad and welcoming as the kingdom of God is as a whole. As Clifton-Soderstrom’s article quotes from a 1959 report of the Committee on Freedom and Theology in regard to, “other races, religions, and classes, the Bible reminds us that these are persons whom God created and for whom Christ died” (p. 50). However, we must be clear about what such inclusion entails specifically. Surely an inclusive spirit toward those of other, non-Christian religions does not mean that we wish them to continue to live without faith in Christ. No, we send missionaries and engage in cross-cultural ministry so that they may accept Jesus, be transformed in their thinking, and set aside those other religions. So any principle of inclusion in Covenant theology and mission does in fact have limits. And one of those limits is moral….The Covenant’s position and policies in regard to human sexuality recognize that the Bible stands in judgment on our sexual sinfulness and seeks to deal with that reality graciously and redemptively, seeking new life in Christ also in this area of human life.
Of course, the disagreement within the Covenant and within the larger Christian church concerns whether it is in fact true and biblical that homosexual behavior is sinful, as the Covenant position asserts. It is freedom for dissent from that position Clifton-Soderstrom wishes to allow as a consequence of Covenant freedom. To that end she presents another historical example of apparent allowance in an Annual Meeting resolution of significant moral disagreement in regard to just war and pacifism…. One simply cannot derive from a single resolution that acknowledged moral disagreement is a general Covenant practice or principle that would allow theological disagreement in regard to another moral issue like homosexual behavior.
There is still room, as there is on almost any Covenant theological point, for a private, more or less silent dissent. On that same sort of basis, dissenters from our positions on women in ministry and on baptism have long been present and served among us. Their private opinions on these matters simply do not enter into the public exercise of their ministries. I am sure the same will continue to be true in regard to dissenters from our ethic of sexuality.
Read Bilynskyj’s full response here.
Stephen S. Bilynskyj is the pastor of Valley Covenant Church in Eugene, Oregon. He served as the president of the Covenant Ministerium from 2009-2012.