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.