EFCA Midwinter Conference related to the Doctrinal Survey of 2018
This February, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School will be hosting the Midwinter Theology Conference: Contending for the Faith–7 Critical Contemporary Doctrinal Challenges: A Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Response. Though the topics of the theology conference vary from year to year, this session will focus on core areas of theology that have long lasting impact on the church: The doctrine of humanity, the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the scriptures, the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of God.
Last Summer, the EFCA made the step to remove pre-millennialism from its Statement of Faith. The main reason behind this shift was that the board of directors no longer feels that pre-millennialism is a “first order” issue of gospel importance. The amendment had approval of more than 75% of the delegates. Premillennialism gets its name from Revelation 20:1-6, where the text refers to Satan being bound and Christ reigning for a thousand years. Premillennialism is closely associated with Dispensational Theology, popularized in the U.S. by the Scofield Reference Bible, the writings of Hal Lindsey- Late Great Planet Earth, and more recently Jerry Jenkins and Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series.
How will this decision affect the EFCA going forward? First, many pastors will remain distinctly pre-millennial in their orientation, because that is what all EFCA ordained pastors have affirmed up until now. The net result will be more freedom for members of EFCA churches who find themselves agreeing with an amillennial position, or a post-millennial position on the return of Christ. Also, we expect that some new churches and pastors would align themselves with the EFCA, now that premillennialism is no longer a requirement, doctrinally speaking.
From now on, new churches coming into the EFCA will need to affirm this broader position in their statement of faith, whereas existing EFCA churches have the option to retain the wording of the 2008 Statement of Faith, or adopt the amendment which passed in 2018–which simply replaces the word “premillennial” with “glorious”–in article 9 of the Statement of Faith. For our church, the elders are recommending that we adopt the amendment to article 9–removing the word premillennial, and replacing it with glorious–by congregational vote at our next business meeting on February 23.
We, the elders, are recommending the change for the same reason. Premillennialism has been a distinctive position–but not a gospel essential–of EFCA churches since the founding of the denomination in 1950. For example, the original Statement of Faith referred to the “imminent” return of Christ. In the context of the 1950’s, the word imminent essentially meant “pretribulational rapture”, among EFCA leaders and pastors. The EFCA did not ordain its first pastor with a position different from a pre-tribulation rapture until the mid-1970’s. Within the EFCA, the prevailing consensus in 1950 was that an amillennial position or a post-millennial position on the return of Christ was an indicator of liberal theology, or at least a more figurative, less literal, hermeneutic. But dispensational theology has more to do with certain assumptions about how the Old Testament and New Testament fit together, specifically in relation to God’s plan for national as well as ethnic Israel. (In dispensational theology, the millennial kingdom is seen as the 7th dispensation, coming after the Church (the 6th), with the 7 years of the great tribulation in between, when God focuses his purposes on the Jewish people).
Covenant Theology, on the other hand, emphasizes more of the unity between the Old and New Testaments, while Dispensational Theology emphasizes more of the differences. Both of these distinct theologies are really “systems of theology”; that is, they reveal a person pre-commitments to a particular way of understanding scripture from beginning to end. More recently, movements called Progressive Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology have gained a foothold, indicating some variation among different groups of evangelicals with regard to traditional Dispensationalism.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s evangelicals gradually came to see that those who held to an amillennial view were not necessarily liberal in their overall interpretation of scripture. Prominent author and scholar, the late R.C. Sproul, does not hold to a specifically premillennial view, and cautions people to not be dogmatic in their position. There are some within the evangelical circles who would hold to “historic premillennialism”, (some argue this is what the early church fathers believed) which teaches a post-tribulation rapture of the church, which is different than dispensational premillennialism. John Piper, although he believes in a millennium, does not classify himself as a dispensationalist.
All of these differing positions, among Christian believers who affirm the orthodox essentials of the Christian faith and hold to the inerrancy of scripture, serve to underscore the point that premillennialism is not a doctrinal issue of the “first order” when it comes to asking the question, “What are the essentials of being an evangelical Christian?” Rather, the topics referenced above at the midwinter theology conference are questions of “first importance”. Here is my best one sentence summary of each of them:
The doctrine of Humanity- Humanity is lost in sin, broken and fallen beyond hope. Without a savior, we cannot be reconciled to God.
The doctrine of God- God has one nature, existing in three co-eternal and co-equal persons, each of them fully God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of Christ- Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, born of the virgin Mary, is Israel’s promised Messiah and the one who came to give his life for sinful humans. He was crucified, died, and rose again on the third day.
The doctrine of Salvation- Only by Christ’s atoning work and trusting in Him can a person be born again and enter the kingdom of God. God saves people by his grace and not by any merit on their part.
The doctrine of Hell- Those who reject God and reject Christ face eternal conscious punishment in hell.
The doctrine of the Church- The Church is composed of those who are true believers in Jesus Christ from all nations. They are the eternal Bride of Christ and will reign with him in eternity.
The doctrine of the Scriptures- God has given us the Scriptures- the Old and New Testaments- which are inspired by God, infallible, inerrant in the original writings, and the final authority for faith and life.
On behalf of the elders, I urge you to make your relationship with Jesus about issues of first importance–that is–to focus on the essentials, not the non-essentials. A famous Free Church motto from past years has been: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”