New Doctrinal Statement Shows Integrity

The headline in the New York Times on Sunday read, "Anglican Conservatives, Rebelling on Gays, Will Form New Power Bloc." Conservatives from Africa, South America, India, Australia, and the United States met in Jerusalem to "create a new ecclesiastical province in the United States and Canada to absorb the parishes that have been outraged by the American church’s consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the Canadian church’s blessing of same-sex unions." The story put my week at the conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in perspective. As we debated a thorough revision of our statement of faith in St. Louis, there were none of the Anglican agonies.

My Episcopalian brothers and sisters have endured a crisis of doctrine, conscience, and fellowship for years, a crisis induced by an American leadership determined to remake Christianity in their own image. Only now do conservatives have a chance to emerge from the crisis with a communion they can embrace. My friends with Episcopalian parishes would affirm the work God has done among their people, but the strain in their voices when they describe meeting with machine-driven bishops tells some of the cost of that work.

I continue to be inspired by their example while thanking God that I don't have to carry their burden. I am blessed by the godly leaders of the EFCA.

When I first heard about the proposal to revise the EFCA statement of faith, I was suspicious. I have little confidence in organizations. One of my largest challenges as a leader is my own cynicism about institutional goals: I can't bring myself to use the lingo of teams, which I associate with conformism. So when the word unity shows up on banners, I'm chiefly interested in discovering the agenda behind it.

But now I can honestly say --

I interrupt this repentance just to emphasize that my suspicion of many leadership practices in institutions is unchanged. I don't like grand visions, glossy marketing, rah-rah speeches, videos, ads disguised as magazine articles, groupthink disguised as fellowship, the exaltation of the team player as the ultimate example of godliness, or the permanent smile of the mass communicator. Just so that's clear.

I like networks of people in relationship with each other. I like to see those people, as unique individuals interacting with other unique individuals, make corporate decisions on the basis of biblical principles and their shared history. I like leaders who understand that this kind of process can't be reconciled with marketing, but only thrives on good old deliberation.

The reason I was won over to the revised statement of faith is that the EFCA's leaders -- President Bill Hamel, the board of directors, credentialing director Greg Strand, and the Spiritual Heritage committee -- showed that unity was not their slogan but their goal. They showed their integrity with patient engagement and transparency.

To strengthen our unity, we need a statement of faith that stirs us with its truth and timeliness, and the proposed revision certainly delivers. Its statement on the doctrine of God slams the door on open theism, letting the Lord's full glory out:

"We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having limitless knowledge and sovereign power, God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory."

The new statement on the Bible is specific and sweeping:

"We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises."

Paragraph #4 on Jesus Christ is filled with terms evoking the biblical narrative of redemption, and paragraph #8 on Christian living is a needed affirmation of God's purposes for salvation. As a confession of the biblical heritage of Evangelical Free churches, this statement will deepen our unity for decades to come.

But more important than producing a strong document was how the leaders produced it. A key issue for many pastors and lay leaders around the country was whether an affirmation of the premillennial return of Christ (#10) should be included in the new statement. At first, the spiritual heritage committee recommended that the term premillennial be dropped. They had good reasons, and at first I agreed with them. It is not an essential doctrine for a person's salvation, and it does pose difficulties for our cooperation with outside ministries.

But as I listened to older pastors in the movement, the significance of my own commitment to premillennialism deepened. This particular teaching was a passionate focus of the fathers of our movement more than a century ago. It has relevance today as evangelicals decide whether their engagement in politics is a matter of Christianizing the State or evangelizing souls. The EFCA is not among those calling for Christian laws in order to hasten the return of Christ. Christ will set up his own law, in his Father's time.

The EFCA leaders said they would listen to input from the churches. When that input showed a strong desire to retain premillennialism in the revision, the leaders did listen. They put the term premillennial back in the statement. Then they won over most of those who had originally supported dropping it. They impressed me with their reverence for history and fellowship.

The 2008 conference adopted the revision by an 86% vote. I am proud to have been a part of it. I'm grateful for the consistent orthodoxy of our movement. And I'm encouraged to have witnessed the deliberation of a network of people, not the operations of a machine.