One of the marks of the EFCA is our commitment to the “significance of silence.” It was foundational in forming who the EFCA was and who we would become. Those present during the merger and that generation knew its importance and were committed to ensuring that remained one of the distinctives of the EFCA.
With the passing of time, however, the original meaning has been lost and its meaning obscured. In fact, for many the expression entails something negative, a least common denominator sort of theology, or a singular commitment to unity, but at the expense of doctrine or purity. This is contrary to what is meant by the expression. Although there is a commitment to unity, it is driven by doctrine/theology.
This expression reflects our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ in doctrine (purity) and practice (unity). We believe the gospel, which is of “first importance” (1 Cor, 15:1-3), grounds and frames both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. With the gospel as the foundation and frame, we are committed to partner with any and all who share that same commitment to the essentials of the gospel, while acknowledging the differences on matters of non-essentials.
This misunderstanding occurred again when I explained the title, theme and focus on our upcoming Theology Preconference. Upon hearing the expression, the person concluded that it means we so value peace that a concomitant principle is that one must remain silent about his/her view, which entails a drift toward lowest-common-denominator theology, a view which is dangerous. Furthermore, the person concluded, to remain silent in these matters is to act functionally as if there really are no differences.
But this is not the way the expression has been understood in the EFCA. In response to this person’s concerns, I replied in the following way (which consists of some of what is included above).
The expression and meaning of the “significance of silence” was articulated by A. T. Olson and those who drafted the 1950 EFCA Statement of Faith. Many years later Olson wrote a book with that title, The Significance of Silence. This is a major aspect of who we in the Free Church are. Often when we discuss our Free Church ethos, this is the heart of what it means.
In Evangelical Convictions this expression is explained and defined. The explanation:
Once [the early Free Church leaders] began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines which through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ. This ‘significance of silence’ reflected our strong concern for Evangelical unity in the gospel
The brief meaning/definition:
This expression does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues but simply that we will not divide over them.
Since that time, and with the passing of time, the original meaning has been lost. Many conclude that it means we cannot discuss a theological issue. We must remain silent. Some conclude that this downplays theology such that we become minimalist or lowest-common denominator theology. We so value unity or peace, but we do so at the expense of purity or the gospel essentials.
The question and concern raised is a common (mis)understanding, which is not what is intended in the expression “significance of silence.” Often people conclude that it means either we cannot talk about these disputed matters at all, or we have to come to some amalgamated, via media position because silence demands we don’t hold our positions strongly. Neither is what is intended.
Historically this expression was used in a certain context in which the drafters of the 1950 Statement of Faith chose to be silent on certain disputed doctrinal matters. It is the silence in the Statement of Faith that is referenced, not silence in the church talking about such disputed matters. Your question/concern reinforces this is not a good term, and, in fact, is a misleading expression. Because of this, maybe it is time to change the terminology.
This confusion is part of why we need to push hard to clarify what this means in the EFCA. What we mean by the expression is “Unity in Essentials – Dialogue in Differences.” We don’t downplay or ignore differences. We acknowledge them and yet we have determined to live and minister together based on the essentials of the gospel and engage in robust dialogue in the areas of differences (what would be considered non-essentials). This is what we have written in Evangelical Convictions (p. 170, n. 40) about this regarding baptism, which we also reference when we address soteriology:
We recognize that the interpretations of Scripture on the relevant points regarding the two positions on baptism differ with one another and are in some ways incompatible. We allow different interpretations, not because we think Scripture is intrinsically ambiguous on the matter, nor because we think Scripture provides so little information that it is unwise to hold any opinion, but because some of us think the credobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the paedobaptist position is mistaken, and some think the paedobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the exclusively credobaptist position is mistaken. In other words, both sides hold that Scripture speaks to the matter, but each side holds a view that excludes the other. However, we do not believe that our differing views on this matter (among others) should prevent our unity in the gospel in full local church fellowship. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the Statement of Faith “allows” both views.
My sense is that this is precisely the sort of robust dialogue, the “Unity in Essentials – Dialogue in Differences,” that ought to occur in the EFCA.
This means we affirm the following truths and commitments: (1) the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe; (2) we are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy; (3) we acknowledge there are differences in theological views, what we would consider non-essentials, but they are secondary and ought not to distract from or prevent our shared commitment to the gospel and a ministry of the gospel; (4) we are committed to the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ and we acknowledge differences, although we do not believe these differences are absolute, either as it relates to unity or purity (doctrine); (5) from the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing.
This also means we address these issues to clarify the misunderstandings: (1) the notion that this commitment means we cannot embrace and teach our view strongly and with conviction; (2) we must remain quiet and passive so that we are not allowed to talk about either my theological view or the differences that exist between views; (3) this is a lowest-common-denominator theology that values unity at the expense of doctrine; (4) one cannot affirm a position but must meld them all together (in which everyone feels theologically compromised); (5) we expect that the local church will reflect in practice what we state in principle, viz. the church will be equally represented by each view, overlooking the reality that the “big tent” is reflective of our denomination, not each local church.
This Preconference is not intended to be a debate. It is vital that this whole session be marked by an irenic spirit (unity) and be constructive theologically (doctrine). My hope and prayer is that this session will serve as a model of how this can and ought to be done. I would be delighted if some (many/most/all?) of the pastors and leaders in attendance could follow what we do as a model and replicate it back in the local church where they serve.
A few questions for you to consider/ponder as you prepare for our upcoming Theology Preconference.
- How do you understand the expression the “significance of silence”?
- How would you have responded?
- Is it time to change/update the term we use to refer to our commitment to focus on the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ while granting liberty on the non-essentials?
- Do you consider this a strength of the EFCA?