Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

What's next for churches dropped from their denomination for supporting LGBTQ+ rights?

A person poses for a photo in their home
Alyssa Paulson, an elder at Awaken Community and member of the Pastoral Advisory Team, poses for a photo in her St. Paul home on Aug. 10.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This summer, an evangelical church in Minnesota was kicked out of its denomination because of the congregation’s support of same sex marriage — and it likely won’t be the last.

MPR News reporter Jacob Aloi joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer with details on the story.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY: This summer, an evangelical church in Minnesota was kicked out of its denomination because of the congregation's support of same-sex marriage. And as Jacob Aloi reports, it likely won't be the last.

JACOB ALOI: When Alyssa Paulson took the stand in front of the Evangelical Covenant Church's annual meeting, her message was simple.

ALYSSA PAULSON: It's not OK that my pastor could perform my funeral, but he couldn't perform my wedding.

JACOB ALOI: The Evangelical Covenant Church or ECC questioned if Paulson's home church awakened West Seventh in Saint Paul should be removed for being out of harmony with church policy because they have accepted policies allowing LGBTQ congregants to participate fully in church life. In 2020, Awaken's lead pastor, Micah Witham, was approached by a same-sex couple to officiate their wedding. He had previously been suspended from his post by the ECC in 2017 for giving a blessing at another same-sex couple's wedding. This time, however, he presided over the ceremony in part to force the ECC to review their guidelines for pastors and churches.

MICAH WITHAM: The last time this happened was 1996. That's almost 30 years ago. Gay marriage wasn't legal in the United States of America at that time. So to say we've already had this conversation is just so inadequate.

JACOB ALOI: Witham is referring to a resolution written in 1996 on human sexuality, which has served as church policy since being voted on in the mid-2000s. The church's official stance quote, "Faithfulness in heterosexual marriage, celibacy in singleness-- these constitute the Christian standard. When we fall short, we are invited to repent, receive the forgiveness of God, and amend our lives." Updated guidelines were provided in the 2010's. But according to Witham, were not voted on or discussed by a majority of pastors in the denomination.

MICAH WITHAM: there's no pastor who dissents on this theologically in the room. That's not a conversation.

JACOB ALOI: An important note is that Witham's goal wasn't to change the ECC's entire view on same-sex marriage. Instead, he wanted more discussion on updating the guidelines and for individual churches to have the freedom to make their own decisions on the issue, which, according to him, would fit with the church's history of differing interpretations of doctrine. When it was time to argue for Awaken's place in the ECC, Alyssa Paulson's prior experiences indicated how the vote would probably turn out.

ALYSSA PAULSON: The second people found out that I was from Awaken. And who I was, literally, eyes shut the other direction.

JACOB ALOI: 75% of delegates voted to remove Awaken from the ECC at the annual meeting in late June. In a press announcement, the ECC's executive board chair, Tim Rogers, said, quote, "We pray for Gods blessing on Awaken and the Covenant Church as we each continue to join God in mission."

The Evangelical Covenant Church was unable to be reached for further comment in time for broadcast. But Awaken isn't the first to be involuntarily removed. In 2019, First Covenant Church in Minneapolis was also removed for adopting policies similar to Awaken regarding LGBTQ congregants and same-sex marriage. Witham has his own opinions about why LGBTQ rights are a central focus.

MICAH WITHAM: For a lot of people, this topic brings up a lot of fear about what's next, kind of the classic slippery slope argument and money. There are a lot of churches who have said, if the Covenant moves on this, we will leave.

JACOB ALOI: Anthea Butler is the chair of Religious Studies at University of Pennsylvania and an expert on evangelicalism. She says, the politicalization of evangelical Christianity means churches risked to lose their base if they move towards LGBTQ inclusion.

ANTHEA BUTLER: Sexuality has always been a part for evangelicals to be not just a moral issue but a political issue as well.

JACOB ALOI: In her view, the era of polite disagreement within churches, especially evangelical ones, is over. And she questions whether such a time ever really existed.

ANTHEA BUTLER: The pastors believed the lie. And so when I say believed the lie, was basically this. We have discussions. We talk about things. But discussions don't mean that they move the needle.

JACOB ALOI: Butler also questions whether the ECC even cares about losing churches like Awaken, as they may prefer uniformity over diversity among their congregants. Jacob Aloi, MPR News, Saint Paul.

CATHY: Jacob joins us right now with a little bit more. Thank you for joining us.

JACOB ALOI: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY: So one thing that folks need to remember is important to note is that the ECC is part of this larger movement of evangelicalism. Is that right?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah. That's exactly right evangelicalism is a much larger movement and really saw a surge in the '70s, but the ECC is certainly part of it. Some things to note about the ECC's, specifically, is that they allow women in leadership roles and in pastor roles, and they also believe in baptism at infancy and also later in life. But the main point is that they have six primary affirmations that they follow-- the centrality of the word of God, the conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, the necessity of new birth, commitment to the whole mission of the church, the church is a fellowship of believers, and the reality of freedom in Christ. Generally, evangelicalism is very Bible-focused, and it looks at it as the infallible word of the Christian God.

CATHY: Mm-hmm. As you reported, this situation with Awaken church is just the most recent in a long line of debates around LGBTQ inclusion in churches.

JACOB ALOI: Yes. And it's important to note that this happens in multiple denominations. It's not just evangelical denominations or the ECC. But First Covenant Church in Minneapolis was removed from the Evangelical Covenant church's roster in 2019. And in the entire denomination's history, Awaken and First Covenant are the only churches to be involuntarily removed, and that's according to statements on the ECC's website, but it goes even further. There was another church this year that was accused of being out of harmony with the ECC in connection with LGBTQ acceptance. They chose to leave voluntarily rather than take it to a vote before the national conference.

CATHY: You mentioned this in the story, First Covenant. They were removed from the denomination in 2019, and I lost track of what happened to them. We did so many stories. What's their future right now?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah. I spoke to the chair of the executive board, Brent Carlson, and in his opinion, the choice to have a hard line on this in the ECC's willingness to kick member churches out goes against its history of valuing various opinions on religious beliefs and interpretations.

BRENT CARLSON: Covenant Church was about dialogue, community, love within the community for-- I want to say, secondary issues of doctrine. That seems to have changed, and that's unfortunate.

JACOB ALOI: He even compares this situation to the split of the Baptist church pre-civil war over the issue of slavery.

BRENT CARLSON: But ultimately, the Christian community came to, obviously, correct decision that slavery is wrong. We may be in the forefront on the evangelical part of the spectrum of this.

CATHY: What might the future hold for awaken church.

JACOB ALOI: Yeah. Well, if you look at First Covenant as a template, they've reoriented themselves towards social justice issues, especially on homelessness, and what the future of churches look like in a changing environment. But Michael Witham says that Awaken is doing fine. They had a recent 20% increase in their budget. And he questions if being removed might hurt the ECC more than it hurts Awaken. He paraphrased a quote from Galatians, a book in the Christian Bible, to illustrate the point.

MICAH WITHAM: If a Christian church is like in the sweet spot of Gods heart and where the spirit is leading, it will produce good fruit. And look around at Awaken, and there's fruit everywhere. So some ways, I'm sad for the Covenant.

CATHY: We have a little time here, Jacob. You mentioned that Butler raised a question about whether the Evangelical Covenant Church even cares if churches like Awaken are removed. You want to say more about that?

JACOB ALOI: Yeah. Well, at first the, Church of the Executive Board Chair, Tim Rogers, said, of course, that they're always grieve quote, "they're always grieved when fellowship is broken." Obviously, they wish them well, but Butler has a different take on that and raises a different question.

ANTHEA BUTLER: Maybe the denomination doesn't care. Maybe the denomination doesn't want them. And maybe the denomination is looking for purity. In other words, they want people who are going to toe the line and not do anything.

JACOB ALOI: Of course, this is a story with a lot of nuance and will likely be updated in the coming days. And I'll revisit it next week on All Things Considered.

CATHY: All right. Jacob Aloi, thank you so very much.

JACOB ALOI: Thank you.

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