Ed: What was the EFCA’s history with premillenialism? It seems that premillenialism was disproportionally important to the Evangelical Free Church. Why?
Greg: An exclusive premillennial view had not been the Free Church view historically. However, in our more recent history, the merger between the Swedish Free Church and the Norwegian-Danish Free Church occurred between 1946-1950. The emphasis on a pretribulational and premillennial view of Scripture, specifically in the EFCA, was connected to Israel being reborn as a nation, which happened in 1948.
Arnold T. Olson, who served as the merger chairman of the Committee in Unity and the EFCA’s second president (1951-1976), said a number of times that the EFCA came into being “for such a time as this.” In other words, this is, at least according to Olson, the primary reason for and unique role of the EFCA denomination.
Olson writes in This We Believe, 1961,
There was seemingly no interest in the possibility of Israel’s being reborn and restored in Palestine and such other signs as might indicate that the return of Christ was nearer than ever. It is only in recent years that the renewed cry, ‘Behold, He Cometh’ has been heard in the land. Therefore it does not fall in the same traditional category as the rest. [Those issues in our Statement of Faith (SOF) in which we are silent, those doctrines which through the centuries have divided Christians of equal dedication, biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity, and love for Christ.]. The Free Church was born in this revived interest and assurance. It has been convinced that these are the last days and that it was brought into existence ‘for such a time as this.’ The view reflects the time in which it was started and the attitudes of evangelical leaders during the years of its existence. While new voices are now calling for a new evangelicalism and a re-appraisal of the teaching pertaining to eschatology, the Evangelical Free Church statement will continue to stand until it no longer reflects the view of the majority. This we believe!
There are a number of important things to notice here, but one of the most important is that Olson concludes the Free Church is the harbinger of the news about the fulfilled prophecy of the rebirth of Israel.
This, he believed, was one of the major purposes and reasons for this new denomination known as the EFCA. However, another interesting and important matter to notice is Olson’s conclusion that this view will remain the Free Church view until it no longer reflects the majority. In some ways, even though Olson affirmed the view, he acknowledges there may be a time when it is not the majority view.
At that point, it might not be a specific belief that must be exclusively affirmed. In some ways, this opened the door for the discussion we had and the decision we made. There is one more critical observation to make: It is unthinkable that Olson would make that kind of statement that he does about the temporal specificity of Christ’s return eschatologically on any of the other essential doctrines in the SOF.
Ed: I remember we had a conversation the last time the denomination tried to make this change. Why did you keep trying? Or, put another way, why was removing premillenialism such a big deal?
Greg: We believed the insistence in the EFCA that you must be premillennial is in conflict with our strong value of unity in the gospel in which we major on the majors. And what is central to the gospel—and ought to be central in our SOF—is that the coming of Christ will be glorious.
Our SOF reflects a desire for unity in the fundamental tenets of the gospel. We are silent on those doctrines which through the centuries have divided Christians, fellow believers who affirm the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. We were silent except in this one place—where we came down on one particular view—and we required that only those who are premillennialists can be full members of our association, and in many cases, of our churches.
You can be young earth or old earth, you can be Covenantal or Dispensational, you can be Arminian or Calvinist (I listed those alphabetically!), you can be baptistic or paedobaptistic, you can be cessationist or continuationist, but you must be premillennial.
For many, this was a tension that was left unresolved in the first revision in 2008. The thought was that we must either stop saying we are a denomination that majors on the majors by focusing on doctrines of first importance and minors on the minors, or we must stop requiring premillennialism as the one and only eschatological position that was allowed among us. The Conference delegates agreed (79 percent) with this assessment, making a decision to remove the term “premillennial” and inserting “glorious,” thus resolving the tension.
Ed: Changing a doctrinal statement is a big deal, and often means that a denomination is actually moving away from orthodoxy. What does this movement mean?
Greg: It is important to note this is part two of a single SOF revision. The first happened in 2008, in which virtually every Article in our SOF was strengthened. There were three draft revisions that did not contain the term “premillennial.”
However, it was determined it was not the time to move away from our exclusive premillennial view, so it was reinserted in the SOF presented to the Conference, which was adopted by 86 percent of the delegates. The discussion revealed that there would come a time in the future when premillennialism would be addressed again, and this, then, became part two of that single process of revising our SOF.
Specifically related to this Conference decision, broadening our position on the millennium is not a standalone doctrine that will open Pandora’s Box. One must not only affirm our recently adopted SOF with a broadened view of eschatology, without dismissing any of the millennial views, one must also affirm the rest of the doctrines espoused in our SOF, which ensure our orthodox, evangelical theology, all in submission to the Bible as the “ultimate authority” (Article 2).
An important “commentary” on this is church history. Many of the ardent defenders of inerrancy through the years have been premillennialists. But ardent defenders of inerrancy are not limited to premillennialists. For example, consider the following list throughout history: Augustine (4th -5th centuries), Martin Luther (16th century), John Calvin (16th century), Jonathan Edwards (18th century), Charles Hodge (19th century), B. B. Warfield (19th-20th centuries), J. Gresham Machen (20th century), Greg Beale (21st century).
Furthermore, it is critical to remember that anyone who affirms the EFCA statement on eschatology in Article 9 must also affirm the complete SOF “without mental reservation.” This means one must affirm not only Article 9 on Christ’s Return, but the whole of the SOF.
This entails going back to the beginning and affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, over against open theism, and God’s purpose in creation and redemption (Article 1), the inerrant and authoritative Scriptures (Article 2), God’s creation of Adam and Eve in his image, who sinned and are under God’s wrath, and that it is only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed (Article 3), Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection (Article 5), and unbelievers experiencing condemnation and eternal conscious punishment (Article 10), plus more.
These are all biblical truths and strong doctrinal affirmations included in our SOF. These are both explicit statements of doctrinal affirmation and implicit hedges/fences to keep out those who deny biblical and theological truth espoused in our SOF.
Ed: Most denominations are known for certain theological or doctrinal issues, which emphasizes where they are different from other denominations. What would you say about the EFCA?
Greg: This Conference decision about our SOF moves us closer to what the EFCA claims to be, our unique identity as a denomination, that we emphasize our evangelical unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We appreciate our history, but this change reinforces that ethos in our present context.
The way I think about this is related to C. S. Lewis’ reference (Mere Christianity) to a hall where Christians gather. But it is not where life is to be lived. The place for life-on-life fellowship is in rooms off the hall.
If the hall is the place that represents evangelicalism—the place where Evangelicals gather—and if the rooms off the hall are the places where the denominations gather, the EFCA is unique in that we are between the large hall of evangelicalism and the denominational rooms off the hall. Although we are not to be identified as a denomination of the via media, those who are often fence-sitters regarding essential doctrinal matters, we do focus on first order doctrinal essentials and grant charity on non-essentials. We intentionally and purposefully exist in the space between the hall and the rooms and believe it is a strength because it reflects our professed and lived unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 17; Eph. 2:11-21; 4:1-6, etc.).
I confess this image breaks down somewhat since a room off the hall to the rooms might be considered a hallway. That is not the intent!
Rather, if a Wesleyan (Arminian) goes into the Presbyterian (Calvinist) room, they would know quite quickly, and vice versa. Whereas in the EFCA, that would not be noticed as quickly. And this is on a number of issues that normally distinguish denomination from denomination. And this is, I believe, the uniqueness of the EFCA as a denomination. Our identity is not then described or explained by how we are different, but rather how we are the same, without compromising doctrinal truth.
This decision on eschatology means we are more consistent with who we say we are, and aligns with the other issues in which we allow appropriate latitude/charity, within boundaries.
Ed: Some conclude this change is for the sake of greater inclusiveness and relational unity, but at the expense of doctrinal purity. Was that the goal? Is this a shift to doctrinal minimalism?
Greg: There are three issues in the question. First, it is never one over against another. Doctrinal truth and purity is always foundational to relational unity. Any true experienced unity is grounded in doctrinal truth.
Second, this is not a matter of doctrinal minimalism. If it were, many biblical truths would not be included and necessary to affirm in our SOF. The better way to understand our SOF is that it is an essentialist statement, not a minimalist statement. This is also why it is necessary for all those credentialed to affirm the SOF “without mental reservation.”
That means we are strict subscriptionists. There is no good-faith subscription allowed, which would grant certain exceptions or caveats in belief as long as they are approved.
Finally, in the EFCA we take seriously the one new community God creates through his Son by the Spirit. This is experiencing and living out the truth and reality of the work of Christ. This is somewhat the realization, a foretaste of Jesus’ high priestly prayer for oneness (Jn. 17; Eph. 2:14-16; 4:1-6). We do not need to go to a conference to experience being together in and for the gospel.
We are truly together by, with, and for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We experience this reality every Sunday in our churches and throughout the week. We give thanks to God for creating this one new humanity, and we give him thanks that by his Spirit we can live out this truth in community, by walking in a manner worthy of the gospel together.
This unity in belief and practice as we live life together as the local body of believers is not a unity that is hierarchically governed or forced, but rather a true fellowship created and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is a unity centered on the truth of the gospel, even if and when there are differences on secondary and tertiary matters.