When Pastor Adam Phillips moved across the country with his wife two years ago and planted a new congregation in Portland, Ore., he was heeding the call of his Christian roots, an Evangelical Covenant tradition that today has a primary mission “to reach young people, engage a growing multiethnic population, and develop vibrant local churches that make disciples.”
“Pastor Adam,” as his congregation at Christ Church: Portland calls him, was well suited for such a mission. Young, familiar as much with Tumblr as with theological tomes, and a former director of faith mobilization for the ONE Campaign, the antipoverty group cofounded by U2’s Bono, Mr. Phillips brought a charisma and enthusiasm common to generations of evangelical ministers.
Phillips is also part of a growing movement of young Evangelicals who have come to support the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Christians in the church, including in leadership positions, he says. Though he does not perform same-sex marriages, which are strictly forbidden by his denomination, he has advocated that traditional church teachings on what he has called “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage” be extended to, and expected of, LGBT Christians as well.
Because of these views, he says, in early February, leaders of the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), a denomination begun by Swedish Pietists in 1885 and which ordained Phillips in 2007, told their church-planting pastor that they would no longer support his ministry. They withdrew their commitment of $150,000 a year for three years.
Across America, many Evangelicals, estimated to be about 25 percent of the US population and a potent political force, have been grappling with the swift-moving cultural changes that have transformed attitudes about LGBT people and have so far made same-sex marriage legal in 37 states and Washington, D.C.
As a group, Evangelicals remain by far those most opposed to same-sex marriage in the United States, a Pew Research poll found last September. But over the past decade, support has nearly doubled among this mostly conservative segment of Christianity. In 2004, 11 percent of white evangelical Protestants expressed support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry. By 2014, a younger generation of Evangelicals had pushed this figure to 21 percent, according to the Pew survey.
“I would say that 2014 was a watershed year,” says David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, who notes that many evangelical books, conferences, and congregations have begun adopting a pro-LGBT stance. Considered one of the leading evangelical ethicists in the country, last year Professor Gushee declared his full support for LGBT inclusion in the book “Changing Our Mind,” a biblical defense of gay relationships from an evangelical perspective.
While he is among the few of his generation of evangelical thinkers to change his mind, the movement is coming “mainly from young people, Millennials, who symbolize and speak for a generational transition that is happening,” Gushee says. “In many instances, they are insisting upon their gay and lesbian friends being treated as equals and as peers in the church, as they are increasingly being treated in society.”
Last November, the ethics scholar spoke at The Reformation Project conference, a gathering in the nation’s capital of thousands of pro-LGBT Christians, but who continue to hold a conservative, biblically based theology. "I do join your movement tonight," Gushee told the conference. “I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be.”
In January, shortly before his denomination withdrew its support of his church plant, Phillips, too, joined a large gathering of pro-LGBT Evangelicals – at the Gay Christian Network Conference in Portland.
“There’s definitely something very different happening now,” the 30-something pastor says. “You saw this beautiful mix of 1,400 attendees, and they were all very rooted in an evangelical tradition and very much coming into it as kids that grew up trying to follow Jesus, went to Sunday school and Bible camp and youth groups, and they happen to be gay.”
Phillips had been open about his pro-LGBT views with Evangelical Covenant leaders during his ordination and his church-planting ministry, he says. They had encouraged him to keep a lower profile on these matters, he says, but adds that the denomination had not been outspoken on the issue and had not made it a doctrinal priority. So he was shocked by their withdrawal of support.
The ECC declined to speak about “personnel matters,” but in a statement said, “ECC congregations care about ministering to everyone, including the LGBT community. Decisions on any particular church plant are made between the regional conference and the ECC, taking into account a variety of contributing factors, only one of which is agreement with ECC positions.”
As a faith tradition, Evangelicals have defined themselves for centuries with a high view of the integrity and authority of Scripture. In both the Old and New Testaments, most argue, the Bible is clear in its condemnation of same-sex relationships as an affront to the natural, God-ordained order of human sexuality, expressed only within the confines of a marriage between a man and a woman.
“Some people want ... [to] take a surgeon’s scalpel to the Word of God,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical denomination, in a response to the movement last year. He accuses the movement of trying to reinterpret “what the Bible clearly calls immorality.”
“This is infidelity to the gospel we’ve received,” Mr. Moore continues. “First of all, no one refusing to repent of sin – be it homosexuality or fornication or anything else – will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This strategy leaves people in condemnation before the Judgment Seat of Christ, without reconciliation and without hope.”
The new movement of pro-LGBT Evangelicals, however, insists they want to maintain evangelicalism’s high view of Scripture and remain faithful to its traditions. After all, they could always move to a more "mainline" or liberal Christian denomination that embraced LGBT Christians years ago.
“I’m Covenant through and through, and it’s just been critical to my formation,” says Phillips. “And we've always had this idea going back to our foundation that the Bible is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and life, and that’s what guides me on this stuff today.”
Many point out that the Bible sanctions and regulates slavery and has been used to justify anti-Semitism, certain forms of racism, and the subjugation of women.
“In all of these areas, evangelical Christians have altered their interpretation of Scripture in light of what God has taught us through encounters with suffering, and the dignified human beings whom we have harmed with our interpretations of Scripture,” Gushee says.
“If you take the facts in the world seriously, and you ask what does a Christian sexual ethics look like in light of the authority of Scripture, where I come out is, to extend the very same sexual ethic ... to LGBT Christians as we would to straight Christians.”
“So they get grafted into the evangelical sexual ethic – one that is really quite demanding,” he continues. “It says, you find somebody, you commit your life to them, and you stay with them.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted David Gushee.