We affirm the importance of the gospel which is foundational to our doctrinal convictions. Furthermore, we affirm its centrality to all of life and ministry. What this means for us in the EFCA is that we affirm our Statement of Faith, which is our foundational confessional statement. This is essential to and for the EFCA. However, many do not think through the practical implications of what we affirm doctrinally, of what it means to be confessional.
What this often means, more often than not, is that there is tacit acknowledgement of the gospel and doctrine, i.e., it is assumed, with a focus on ministry and the practical realities of that ministry. There is not sufficient time, thought or prayer given to how the foundational truth affects, determines, forms and shapes the ministry. It is as if they are two stand-alone realities we affirm, but there is little to no discussion about the foundation (although I am grateful it is there, but it is assumed) and there is little to no thinking about how it is formative to what we do in ministry and how we do it. Although these two matters are different and can and must be pondered in this way, they are also inseparable.
One of the weaknesses in the Evangelical church, I believe, is that there is very little thought given to this so that the exigencies of ministry inevitably trump the foundational gospel framework. It is seldom the foundational framework from and through which we consider ministry so that we ensure that ministry is formed and framed by the gospel’s foundational framework.
I learned this and its importance through Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 124. He insightfully and importantly writes,
The Christian gospel calls us not only to a well-formed theistic matrix but also to make conscious connections between that matrix and the other matrices of our lives. What I believe about God ought to influence how I view my own identity, my vocation, my family, my leisure pursuits, and so on. It is this matrix of matrices that I have been calling the theological vision. It is composed more narrowly of the theistic matrix (what I will be calling a theological framework) and more broadly of the interconnections between the theistic matrix and all other matrices in one’s noetic structures. Theology involves not just the study of God (theistic matrix) but also the influence of that study on the rest of one’s life (theological vision). It is possible to distinguish these two levels, but they are never separable in practice.
I read from one recently who discussed something similar raising parallel concerns, although the writer refers to this as theological confession and theological vision. In working with many churches, church plants, etc., the writer notes,
While for the most part they could pass any confessional test, many of them don’t know how to do theology. They have a theological confession but not theological vision. They lack the vision and ability to connect what they know with how they plan to creatively and constructively advance the mission of God in the world. Theological confession is, by definition, defensive and classically expressed in series of affirmations and denials. This is good and necessary. But successful church planting, ministry, and even the Christian life needs more than confession; it needs theological vision. This concept of theological vision explains how so many churches have similar confessions and yet radically different and even competing expressions of ministry. Without the clarity of a comprehensive theological vision, we succumb to emphatic theology with no connection between all the different fragments of theology and the arenas of our lives.
Tim Keller explains this practically through the illustration of computer. Keller states that our doctrinal/theological confession, our foundation, ought to be considered to be our hardware. The practical, methodological strategy, the ministries in which we engage, ought be considered our software. But there is an important piece that links the hardware with the software, that which he refers to as the middleware. This middleware is the vital piece that brings the foundational confession to life in ministry and it provides the rationale for doing so. Thus we have three vital aspects, all grounded in and guided by the gospel: doctrinal confession (doctrinal centrality of the gospel) => gospel, theological vision => life and ministry (functional centrality of the gospel).
The author I noted above concludes in the following way:
Every Christian and church has theological vision—however much it may be distorted, malnourished, or neglected by certain vices (e.g., letting methodology rather than theology drive vision; poor understanding of biblical and systematic theology; unhealthy accommodation to culture over proper contextualization; lacking the maturity to embrace paradox or hold tensions together). We embody our theological vision. And too often our theology of grace is robust in our hearts and minds, but it never finds a way to our hands and lives.
Based on what is focused upon and what is assumed, let me ask two sets of questions:
- For those who assume the foundation and focus on the ministry, what needs to happen to ensure your ministry is formed and shaped by the foundational gospel and doctrinal truths?
- For those who focus on the foundation and assume the ministry, what needs to happen to ensure the foundational gospel and doctrinal truths lead to forming and shaping ministry?