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One of the commitments and distinguishing marks of the EFCA is what we refer to as “the significance of silence.” It is our commitment to affirm gospel essentials without equivocation, while granting loving charity on non-essentials. This challenge is, of course, distinguishing, discerning and determining the essential from the non-essential.

An added challenge is defining what it means to claim something is essential and something is non-essential. Essential or non-essential for what? For salvation? For orthodoxy? For Evangelicalism? For the EFCA? Etc.

We are neither the first to think this through, nor the first to be committed in principle (doctrine/truth) and practice (life and ministry) to have such doctrine and life practices. We have examples in church history of this, with greater and lesser “success’ and faithfulness.

I have previously attempted to summarize this, EFCA Theology Preconference: Soteriological Essentials and the “Significance of Silence” (3): What Does the Expression Not Mean?, which I also presented at the introductory message at this past year’s Theology Conference preconference. This past summer I also included this as one of the FAQs that is now included on our EFCA website: The Significance of Silence (Unity in Essentials, Dialogue in Differences)

James Emery White, pastor at Mecklenburg Community Church, recently wrote about how they as a local church are committed to this principle and he further explained how they attempt to live this out in practice: Unity, Liberty and Charity (HT to Paul Schliep). This is a local church, which in many ways, reflects a similar commitment as the EFCA. This is a local church example of what we are committed to, both in principle and practice, in the EFCA as a denomination. And, importantly, this commitment is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Jn. 17; Eph. 2:11-22).

To give this further thought, if the definition of “essential” is not determined, then it causes all kinds of problems. For example, when I teach on our SOF, although Article 2 on The Bible is an essential, it is not a soteriological essential. That is, someone can truly be saved without believing the Bible is inerrant. So if it is not a soteriological essential, is it an essential at all? Yes. It is an epistemological essential. When you begin to nuance it in this way, it begins to make sense. Otherwise you fall off the horse on one side, in which everything is considered to be an essential, or you fall off the horse on the other side, in which virtually nothing is considered to be an essential

And the other important nuance, is raising the issue of “essential for what/whom.” Is premillennialism an essential? What kind of an essential? Although not a soteriological essential or an epistemological essential, it is, however, an essential to affirm our EFCA SOF, and to be credentialed in the EFCA.

It can get confusing when you have different nuances to the same term, but without the nuance, it loses its significance. And at the end of the day, theology matters and theological distinctions matter, such that the presence or absence of an iota can make the difference between an orthodox view of Christ (“homoousios” [“consubstantial” or “of the same substance”]) and a heretical view of Christ (“homoiousios” [“of like substance”]).

What does the expression the “significance of silence” mean?

On a number of doctrinal issues in the EFCA we allow beliefs within certain acceptable theological parameters. We focus on the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as articulated in doctrine while allowing differing views/understandings of the position to be acceptable. For example, this is true regarding the issue of the age of the universe, time and mode of baptism, whether faith precedes regeneration or regeneration precedes faith (the Arminian and Calvinist discussion).

We refer to these theological differences as the “significance of silence”: “This expression does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues but simply that we will not divide over them (Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America, 24, n. 18).

Here is how we have defined/explained this in Evangelical Convictions, 24-25:

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.

Because many misunderstand this expression today, another way to refer to this commitment is “Unity in Essentials, Dialogue in Differences.” It might be helpful to spell out what this means and what it does not mean.

What it does mean – we affirm the following truths and commitments:

  • the gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe;
  • we are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy;
  • 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;
  • 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);
  • from the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing.

What it does not mean – we clarify the misunderstanding:

  • the notion that this commitment means we cannot embrace and teach our view strongly and with conviction;
  • 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;
  • this is a lowest-common-denominator theology that values unity at the expense of doctrine;
  • one cannot affirm a position but must meld them all together (in which everyone feels theologically compromised);
  • 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, or because of this liberty we do not have to allow a voice from the other perspective to be heard.

The EFCA Conference adopted our present Statement of Faith in 2008. In conjunction with this discussion the EFCA Board of Directors affirmed a “process for safeguarding our spiritual heritage.” One aspect of this process was to conduct a theological survey every five years. It was a way the Board sought intentionally to value and safeguard the vital role of the Bible, theology and doctrine in the EFCA.

As we learned in the previous post, one of the doctrinal issues addressed in the 2008 SOF was soteriology. The 1950 SOF was more explicitly Arminian in its doctrinal perspective of soteriology – the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to “regenerate the believing sinner.” The intent in the 2008 SOF was to affirm the essential of soteriology that was consistent with Arminian, Calvinist and Lutheran soteriology, but which did not require or mandate any one position exclusively.

One of the questions/concerns raised during this aspect of the revision was that this was an intentional shift to become more Calvinist/Reformed in theology. My response, in brief, was that the reason one may sense this statement is more Calvinist/Reformed could be because it is less explicitly Arminian.  But one must be assured, that neither is it explicitly Calvinist. More specifically, the change from “regenerate the believing sinner” to “He [the Holy Spirit] regenerates sinners . . .”, is neither an attempt to accommodate Calvinism nor is it an attempt to move away from Arminianism.

The EFCA provides a home to both Arminians and Calvinists.  In fact, we believe this is one of our strengths, and serves as an identity marker of the EFCA.  This is one of the ways we manifest in practice that we do find our unity in the essentials of the gospel.  In all that we have done, our attempt is to craft a SOF that was compatible with both views, but which at no point required one or the other.  This is an appropriate correction that is consistent with the intent of our original framers of the 1950 SOF, which is more explicitly Arminian.

Last year we conducted our five-year EFCA Doctrinal Survey. All senior pastors of EFC churches (not all are credentialed in the EFCA), and everyone credentialed by the EFCA (not all are in EFCA ministries) were part of the survey. The Survey was sent to 1928 individuals, with 1074 responding, a 55.7% response. For any who conduct surveys, they grasp the significance of that high percentage of respondents. Not only is the response rate significant, but it was a response to a 46 question survey that took approximately 20-25 minutes to complete. What does this tell us? Doctrine matters to the EFCA! (Two other important assessments of our Survey that are relevant to our Preconference and Conference: (1) there is a strong agreement on essential doctrinal truths; (2) there is breadth represented in the areas of the “significance of silence.”)

In relation to the question/concern noted above, under Article 6 on The Holy Spirit, two questions were asked in the Survey about soteriology, the doctrine of salvation.

Q17. As you consider the logical order of a believer’s exercise of saving faith and the Spirit’s work of regeneration, which best describes your belief?

Assessment: Lean slightly in a Calvinist/Reformed direction on matters of salvation (38%; 35% Arminian/Wesleyan; 28% did not list any logical order)

Q18. Do you believe that those who have truly put their faith in Christ and have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit can lose their salvation?

Assessment: Strongly affirm (94%) that “those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit” cannot lose their salvation (3.4% believe you can; 2.6% don’t know)

In light of our forthcoming Theology Preconference, I include four observations.

First, we are truly committed to the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ and living with charity on the non-essentials. This is not a lowest-common-denominator theology but is grounded in and driven by our commitment to the gospel.

Second, the responses to the first question reflect that the soteriological views are quite evenly represented in the EFCA. This, at least for this group, validates my first point.

Third, the responses to the second question are more reflective of the Calvinist/Reformed view, not the Arminian/Wesleyan view. What this means is that Arminianism in the EFCA is nuanced, at least based on this Survey. Traditionally Arminians have affirmed one can lose their salvation.

Fourth, in our EFCA history, the doctrinal issue was about assurance and whether one can apostasize and lose one’s salvation. In our more recent history, until the present day, the major issue has been around the notion of the ordo salutis and the connection between faith/belief and regeneration. In the latter, the focus is on the beginning point of salvation (faith and regeneration), while with the former, the focus is on the end of salvation (final preservation/perseverance to glorification).

At our upcoming Theology Preconference, we will address the importance of the “significance of silence” as it pertains to the doctrine of soteriology (salvation). Because of a new day, the original meaning of that expression has been lost. Today it would be more accurately described as “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences” (without division). We will look closely at the various views of soteriology – Arminian/Wesleyanism, Calvinism/Reformed, Lutheranism – and learn about and discuss commonalities (essentials) and differences (non-essentials).

History

This is both part of our history and a mark of the EFCA. Regarding our history, there have been times when Arminianism was more prevalent than Calvinism; but then again, there have been times when Calvinism was more prominent than Arminianism.  Both are our heritage. So is Lutheranism, although it is not explicitly acknowledged or discussed. But that does not mean the theological perspective has not influenced those in the EFCA.

If you read A. T. Olson’s The Significance of Silence (1981), you will find that then (1950) and before in our history both theological positions have been represented in the Free Church. Certainly there has been, and continues to be, a stronger emphasis one way than the other, but that has shifted through our history as well. In the Part Four, “Eternal Security,” Olson writes (p. 135):

The Evangelical Free Church went through three phases: (1) A period when Arminianism was the order of the day, (2) the decade when the proponents of Calvinism sought to make the Church Calvinist, (3) the time when cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed and a moderation in this controversial doctrine joined the moderation on the time and mode of baptism to become some of the identifying policies of the Church.

The last stage, the time when cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed, he considered to be the time prior to the merger conference. (Interestingly, Olson, like most who address these sorts of controversies, placed himself in the middle position, the time at which “cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed.”) He concluded this section with these words (p. 162):

One is privileged to hold either view and still be a member in good standing of a local congregation. It is only in a strict adherence to this principle of freedom, respect for the views of others, and restraint in teaching one view as though it is the official view of the denomination when it is actually silent on the subject, that this unity can be maintained. We must recognize that while some may be Arminians, others Calvinists, others deploring the use of such names, none are heretics!

Our sense is that this was the ethos of the merger work and the merger SOF, the 1950 SOF. If that is true, which we believe it is, then the article on how this biblical and theological truth is stated could be stated better to focus on the key truths without making in an explicit statement in the Arminian or the Calvinist direction.

Statement of Faith

The Swedish EFC originally had one article in their SOF, which consisted of a statement on the Bible. The Norwegian/Danish Free Association had a 12 point SOF adopted in 1912. In light of the forthcoming merger in 1950, the Swedish EFC Ministerial Association expanded their SOF. This was done with a view to the forthcoming merger SOF which is made evident in that a number of their statements became the statements in the 1950 EFCA SOF. One change that is significant but not commented on addresses soteriology.

The (Swedish) Evangelical Free Church Ministerial Association (1947)

IV. We believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, and during this age to convict men of sin, regenerate the unbelieving sinner, indwell, guide, instruct and empower the believer for godly living and service.

Evangelical Free Church of America (1950)

4. We believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, and during this age to convict men, regenerate the believing sinner, indwell, guide, instruct, and empower the believer for godly living and service.

The Swedish Ministerial’s SOF is more explicitly Calvinist, “regenerate the unbelieving sinner,” i.e. regeneration precedes faith; the EFCA’s SOF (1950) is more explicitly Arminian, “regenerate the believing sinner,” i.e. faith precedes regeneration. What was actually written in the 1950 SOF must be matched against the stated principle of those who worked on the 1950 SOF: to craft a statement that would affirm similar truths of both theological views without mandating or requiring either. Interestingly, I find nothing in what I have read of our history that explains or gives a rationale for this change from the view espoused in 1947 to that stated in 1950. That is astounding in light of the significance of the change!

When we worked through the revision of the EFCA SOF we (Spiritual Heritage Committee) asked the question if the goal of the original framers was accomplished. If it was not, then we asked whether or not it could be stated in a better way to match the goal.  We concluded it could be and ought to be stated in a better way to make that intention clear. We desired to be sensitive and welcoming to Calvinists, Lutherans and Arminians, with their different soteriological understandings without mandating or excluding one theological view or the other.

EFCA Statement of Faith (2008): The Holy Spirit

6. We believe that the Holy Spirit, in all that He does, glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ. He convicts the world of its guilt. He regenerates sinners, and in Him they are baptized into union with Christ and adopted as heirs in the family of God. He also indwells, illuminates, guides, equips and empowers believers for Christ-like living and service.

This means that being sensitive to our history and heritage, keeping in mind the principle behind the statement on soteriology, we believe that from the one side of “regenerate the unbelieving sinner” (article 4, Swedish, 1947), to the other side of “regenerate the believing sinner” (article 4, EFCA, 1950), we have captured it best by the statement “He regenerates sinners” (article 6, EFCA, 2008).

EFCA Theology Preconference

This will be the focus of our EFCA Theology Preconference. As stated in an earlier post, we will address the doctrine of salvation and how it is understood biblically, theologically and pastorally. This is particularly pertinent to those in the EFCA since we allow and welcome these various views on the doctrine of salvation and its application in the life of a believer. We will debate this doctrine but not divide over it. This position, we believe, allows us to thrive and flourish in a way greater than embracing one view denominationally. In this way we seek to reflect our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that this truth is of “first importance” in doctrine, ministry and life.

Plan to join us!

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.

  1. How do you understand the expression the “significance of silence”?
  2. How would you have responded?
  3. 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?
  4. Do you consider this a strength of the EFCA?