Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Free Church Statement: 'Ordinances Nourish the Believer'

The Evangelical Free Church in America has a new statement of faith. On June 26, delegates to its National Leadership Conference affirmed the revised statement by a wide margin. Because of their relationship to the EFCA, Trinity International University (including Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Trinity Western University will adopt this revision as well. (Read the EFCA’s 2008 statement here, and compare the text of the denomination’s earlier statement from 1950 here.)

My colleague Collin Hansen will be writing on the Christianity Today website about the significance of the revised statement. (Collin is an interested party, since he currently attends Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.) But on this blog, I want to focus on one particular aspect that Ancient-Future Christians will find especially interesting.

The subject is “ordinances” (or as some of us call them, “sacraments”). The EFCA’s prior statement treats their observance as a matter of duty and warns against thinking they might be means of salvation. Here’s the text from 1950:

Water baptism and the Lord's Supper are ordinances to be observed by the Church during the present age. They are, however, not to be regarded as means of salvation.

The new statement is of an entirely different tone. First, it embeds the ordinances in an article on the church, rather than splitting them from the life of the community and treating them in the abstract. This is important because the ordinances are actions of the gathered community. Baptism is into the body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a community meal. Solitary baptism and solitary communion would be meaningless.

Second, the new statement says baptism and the Lord’s Supper “visibly and tangibly express the gospel.” This is significant, because some parts of the EFCA have (like much of evangelicalism) been highly logocentric. But as many, including Bob Webber, have pointed out, we are in an age when worship needs to recover its ancient connection to the material creation. This is not to downplay the importance of the Word. It is to recognize that human beings are multidimensional, and that God ordains (the verb from which we get “ordinance”) that his material creation should participate in his salvation.

Here is a brief passage from Bob Webber’s Ancient-Future Worship (Baker, 2008). After reflecting on Irenaeus’s insight that Christ’s Incarnation shows God’s intent to save the whole creation, Bob writes:

God has descended in the incarnation and taken union with humanity so that humanity may ascend into union with him. This profound theme of the incarnation has rich implications for an earthed worship. By “earthed worship” I mean to emphasize how ancient worship is not an escape from this world. Worship uses the substance of nature—water, oil, bread, wine, movement, symbol—to proclaim that all of creation has been redeemed.

Third, the ECFA’s new statement says that the ordinances “confirm and nourish the believer.” Whereas the 1950 statement used the language of command (“ordinance”) and warning (“not to be regarded as means of salvation”), the 2008 statement echoes the ancient notions of the Eucharist as medicine and food. The ordinances are positive gifts of God to be celebrated, and not merely duties to be observed with caution.

In an e-mail, Greg Strand, the EFCA’s director of biblical theology and credentialing, told me: “Our commitment to the ordinances is stated more strongly, and we acknowledge, in a positive, affirming way, they are to be celebrated by believers.”

Here’s the full text of the new statement’s article on the church:

We believe that the true church comprises all who have been justified by God's grace through faith alone in Christ alone. They are united by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, of which He is the Head. The true church is manifest in local churches, whose membership should be composed only of believers. The Lord Jesus mandated two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which visibly and tangibly express the gospel. Though they are not the means of salvation, when celebrated by the church in genuine faith, these ordinances confirm and nourish the believer.

Many of the older statements of faith adopted by evangelical denominations and institutions had a astringent flavor, as they appeared primarily to be drawing boundaries so that they could tell who was in and who was out. This new EFCA statement seems to celebrate God’s goodness and grace. This seems to reflect the confidence of a community that, while still guarding truth against error, no longer sees itself as embattled but as blessed.


dr. darrell a. harris said...

such encouraging news, david.
thanks for your perceptive reflections.

as one who has journeyed from the awkward abstraction of ordinances toward the boundless mystery carried in these living symbols, i am heartened that others are resonating in similar ways.

i even like the sound of the word, "nourish."
for me it comes close to the poetic device of onomatopoeia . . . and that ain't glossolalia~
darrell a. harris, pastor
the stonebridge community
dean of the chapel
the robert e. webber institute for worship studies

David Neff said...

Thanks, Darrell. I have had a similar journey from the "duty" of "ordinances" to the "nourishment" of "sacraments."

Unknown said...

Dear David,

Your readers should be clear that the debate and discussion preceding the final vote established that we in the EFCA still do not accept sacramentalism, or a high-church view of the ordinances. The revised statement of faith takes a hard stand on justification by faith alone, and denies that the ordinances communicate any saving efficacy. The phrase "real presence" was struck out of an earlier draft, due to a nearly-unanimous number of our pastors objecting to it (especially those who came to the EFCA from Lutheran backgrounds, or who minister in heavily Roman Catholic or Lutheran communities). This came up at our Midwinter Ministers conference of three years ago.

So Greg Strand is right, in that we wanted to say what the ordinances are for in a positive sense. But a man affirming any sort of baptismal regeneration belief could not be ordained in the EFCA. I don't know what would happen if someone applied who adhered to Federal Vision, or an Continental Reformed view. I expect they would be turned down; though I also imagine there aren't any men like that longing to become EFCA preachers, so the real-world probability of us being confronted with that question is probably quite small.

Jack Brooks
Pastor, Georgetown Evangelical Free Church
Georgetown, KY

Andrew said...

I am glad to see these changes in the EFCA's statement on the church. They are of interest to me, especially as I was raised Lutheran and now hold a growing commitment to confessional Reformed theology. I will probably be joining an EFCA church following my move to Chicago, and I hope to teach in it while holding to my Reformed views.

I do think it's wise to say that the "ordinances" (I'll always call them sacraments) aren't themselves means of salvation, but to say that there is no "real presence" is unscriptural, I believe. It ought rather to be clarified that Christ is present in one way and not another: his Spirit is present among the gathered church, which unites believers by faith to spiritually partake of Christ's own flesh and blood, which remain in "heaven." (I deny trans- or consubstantiation.) "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16).

Likewise, to put one's foot down and definitively say that the sacraments, ahem, ordinances have no saving efficacy is to deny the saving efficacy of the Spirit through the gospel. The EFCA statement says that they "visibly and tangibly express the gospel," just as Paul writes that the Supper proclaims Jesus' death until he comes. Is this not proclaiming the gospel? And even if this sort of sacramental proclamation only serves to "confirm and nourish the believer," isn't that part of salvation as well--growing in our trust in Christ (confirmation) and growing in faith for a life of repentance and discipleship (nourishment)? That sounds much like salvation to me, just not in the sense of one's once-for-all justification.

Overall, I think the EFCA statement of faith is good, except for the strangely specific requirement of believing in premillenial eschatology. What other church actually demands a millenial view of any sort? Even in the lengthy Westminster Confession of Faith (Presbyterian), you won't find a demand for a certain millenial position (though a close reading rules out dispensationalism).

jim roane said...

Nourish the imagination, or the soul? Wittgenstein could teach us all in this regards. Why dance around a sacrament by calling it an ordinance? It is either His body and His blood, or it simply ain't. If it isn't, then all we do is excite the imagination, but in reality the soul is still famished. Personally, I would rather not reduce my theology of the Eucharistic celebration down to just a symbol or sign when the real presence is needed. Thoughts can not save us. He can, and apparently through very tangible means-i.e., the Cross, a real death, followed by a real tangible presence after the resurrection-"touch me, Thomas. See, I am really Jesus." If ultimates do not have empirical origins, then pray tell me what imagination is all about.