Three years ago this summer, the Evangelical Free Church of America adopted a revised Statement of Faith, and this spring the EFCA released a book expounding that statement, titled Evangelical Convictions. We asked Bill Kynes, a member of the EFCA committee engaged in both of these projects and a member of The Gospel Coalition Council, to tell us how an evangelical denomination that includes a diverse collection of churches builds unity around the core of the gospel and guards key doctrines.

One of the objectives of The Gospel Coalition is to draw together gospel-centered believers of various “ecclesiastical tribes” and to help them realize what they all have in common, while encouraging them to hold firmly to that shared faith. I have resonated with this project, for it elevates what is central, reminding us that what unites us is of far greater significance than what divides. A group such as The Gospel Coalition helps us begin to experience the truth of that well-known aphorism: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, charity. In all things, Jesus Christ.”

I have found that same emphasis in the Evangelical Free Church of America. Composed of Scandinavian immigrants who had come out of stagnant state churches and experienced the new birth by faith in Christ, the early Free Churches were committed to being congregations of believers who taught the Bible and united around the gospel. “Believers only, but all believers” was their slogan.

An early champion of this Free Church ethos of evangelical unity in the gospel was Arnold T. Olson, who helped to craft the first EFCA Statement of Faith in 1950 and served as EFCA president for 25 years. In discussing that statement in his book The Significance of Silence, Olson recounted that when the early Free Church leaders began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines that through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity, and love for Christ.

I have appreciated this emphasis on “mere Christianity” as a basis for Christian unity. C. S. Lewis made that phrase famous, but as Timothy George has explained, it actually goes back to the Puritan Richard Baxter. Baxter lamented the division among believers in his day, and he desired unity in what he called “mere Christianity” but not “mere” in the modern sense of that word, “the bare minimum.” Baxter used the word in the older sense, which meant “nothing less than, absolute, pure, unqualified, the very essence of the thing.” [1] In revising our the EFCA statement of faith, that is what we were aiming at—a statement that expressed real, essential Christianity, majoring on the majors while not dividing over secondary issues, thus finding unity in the core doctrines of the gospel.

Structured Around the Gospel

The newly revised EFCA statement of faith is structured around the gospel itself. In covering the major themes of God, the Bible, the human condition, the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church, the Christian life, Christ’s return, and response and eternal destiny, it seeks to follow the logical unfolding of the gospel. The exposition of this statement in the book Evangelical Convictions seeks to spell out more fully the connection between our central doctrinal convictions and the gospel. So, for example, in Article 2 we affirm that God’s gospel is revealed authoritatively in the Bible (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4), in Article 7 we expound the way in which God’s gospel is embodied in the new community called the church, and in Article 8, the statement on Christian living, we describe how God’s gospel compels us to Christ-like living and witness to the world.

The EFCA statement is firmly yet broadly evangelical. It clearly affirms such key doctrines as biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, and justification by faith alone, while at the same time embracing Reformed believers, Lutherans and Wesleyans, baptists and paedobaptists, dispensationalists and covenantalists. Local Free Churches and individuals within them can have their own convictions on all sorts of theological controversies (e.g., almost all Free Churches practice believer’s baptism), but they must be willing to work together in the local church with those who have differing views (so, e.g., Free Churches practicing believer’s baptism do not deny membership to those otherwise qualified but who were baptized as infants). Even our congregational polity, though required to be a Free Church, is not a part of our statement of faith, allowing those with other viewpoints to become a part of us without violating their conscience by having to affirm this polity as the one and only biblical position.

Glaring Exception

The EFCA statement of faith reflects historical evangelical consensus, but, admittedly, with one glaring exception. The EFCA for various reasons has historically been premillennial in its eschatology, and this was included in the earlier 1950 statement. Many of us consider that inconsistent with our otherwise strong commitment to evangelical unity in the gospel, and in the revision process we urged that that particular view be dropped from the statement. We cited Justin Martyr, who in the mid-second century espoused a belief in the millennial reign of Christ on earth. However, he did not make this position a criterion for orthodoxy. He conceded that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise” (Dialogue with Trypho, LXXX).

Relinquishing premillennialism as a required theological position in the EFCA was formally proposed by the EFCA board of directors, and through the course of the discussion many recognized that premillennialism is not central to the gospel. In the end, however, support for retaining it as a denominational distinctive was sufficient to overcome that proposal. [2] This has caused some confusion, and my own local church has decided that, though we require affirmation of our statement of faith by all members, we will allow flexibility on the millennial question.

United in Christ

The process of revising our statement was a healthy exercise, if for no other reason it put theology back on the front burner in our churches and among our pastors. More than that, it has focused us clearly on the gospel and the theological commitments that it entails. It has brought attention to the seriousness with which we take our doctrinal convictions. We want a statement that is truly affirmed and not simply passed on as a historical relic. Examining it and seeking to strengthen and improve it where we can is an edifying enterprise.

As Alistair McGrath has put it, “The doctrinal heritage of the past is thus both a gift and a task, an inheritance and a responsibility. What our forebears in the Christian faith passed down to us must be appropriated, in order that we may wrestle with it within our own situation, before passing it on to those whose day has yet to dawn.” [3]

[1] Cf. Timothy George’s address to the BOD of Prison Fellowship, “An Exposition of Prison Fellowship’s Statement of Faith” (June 17, 2004).

[2] Interestingly, in 2008 the Evangelical Free Church of Canada adopted the version of the EFCA statement of faith that did not include premillennialism.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Blackwell, 1990, reprinted Eerdmans, 1997), p. 200 (the closing line in the book).