This post concludes our series highlighting the dialog following from Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom’s article, “Covenant Freedom: Freedom for All or Free-for-all?,” published in the most recent Covenant Quarterly issue. Here Clifton-Soderstrom responds to Bantum, Bilynskyj, Erickson, Safstrom, and Snodgrass. We invite you to engage directly with the author in the comments section below (comments policy).
From Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom, “Response to [responses to] Clifton-Soderstrom,” pp. 47-57:
The intention of my proposal, drawing on archival sources, is not to adjudicate a conversation around any one particular moral issue. Rather, the intent is to describe Covenant freedom historically and to raise questions regarding the limits of this freedom. While my proposal has relevance for many ethical topics, far more is at stake. Specifically, if the Covenant determines that its long-cherished freedom is no longer a viable way forward in all matters of life together—perhaps most especially in those matters over which there is present conflict—we move decidedly in the direction of becoming a confessional church requiring doctrinal adherence.
Covenant freedom—freedom from binding confessions—preserves Scripture as the highest authority for all matters of faith, doctrine, and conduct, as Safstrom also notes. The founders of the Covenant were convinced that when an ecclesial community places one interpretation over Scripture itself, it runs the danger of human interpretations being more authoritative than God’s word. In other words, if a community truly believes that Scripture has authority and power to transform those open to its truths, then the real work of communions such as ours is in faithful, communal, rigorous, charitable, and holistic reading, as the Covenant Resource Paper on the Bible outlines.
As far as corporate unity is concerned, one could arguably say that faithful dissent or disagreement engenders Christian unity in that one of its criteria, emphasized in Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom, is sincerity in personal relationships, showing the courtesy of listening to others, exercising care in our words, never using disagreement for advancement, refraining from public shaming, and in all things reflect-ing commitment to Christ. Such practices are the building blocks of unity, and they have great potential to move us from the ease of sameness that a monolithic culture affords to the difficult but valuable work of embracing the diversity of a multicultural communion.
This brings me to the excellent questions raised by several respondents around my third criterion, Does the dissenting position relate to the dominant position by being more or less inclusive? Bilynskyj rightly notes that inclusion has limits. He clarifies that inclusion of all people does not mean including all theological viewpoints. Similarly, Snodgrass writes that “the gospel is distorted if inclusion affirms sinful behaviors.” These points are well-taken. Inclusivity in itself and by itself is not a criterion for the boundaries of dissent. Inclusivity is only a helpful criterion if it is tethered to the other four criteria, most especially to faith in Christ and the recognition of the centrality of the word.
[I]t is neither helpful nor clear to pit plausible exegesis against cultural values as a general rule. Culture, its values, and Christians’ relationship to culture all need further definition. Culture is an extremely useful and valuable aspect in historical-critical interpretive methods, and a rich understanding of the cultures surrounding the worldviews of the biblical authors even illumines the meaning of texts. Surely a rich understanding of the culture within which readers seek to apply a text also has great potential to illuminate faithful application. Culture and text are not always antithetical to one another. In short, cultural influences have at times driven solid exegetical conclusions. The relationships between both biblical authors and culture and also readers and culture, therefore, must be further clarified before making claims that definitively pit culture against plausible exegesis.
With an eye toward renewal through the conventicle-like work of reading together, I ask readers to wonder with me: Does the Covenant need to take a step back and refocus our energy on building and rebuilding relationships with one another rather than foregrounding doctrinal and moral disputes in our life together? Do we need a radical transformation and reimagination of who we are as a body of faith, as Bantum suggests? If lay people, leaders, pastors, and teachers could overwhelmingly say “yes” to this kind of renewal—not one of doctrine but of renewed relation-ships—Covenant freedom may be the very thing that saves the mission of those who have historically been friends.
Read the full response here.
Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom is professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary, where she also serves as the director of the School of Restorative Arts at Stateville Correctional Center. She is the author of Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism (Cascade Books, 2010) and co-author of Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom (Cascade Books, 2014).