Navigating Theological Differences and Maintaining Unity

How churches throughout the EFCA live out the “significance of silence”

As a movement, the Evangelical Free Church of America is distinguished by its commitment to the “significance of silence”: the practice of focusing on the essentials of salvation while granting freedom of understanding in other theological matters. Following Greg Strand’s recent article “Why Do We Adhere to the ‘Significance of Silence’?,” hear from church leaders throughout the EFCA on how their churches balance unity in the essentials and charity in the nonessentials.

This is family!

When I tell the Evangelical Free Church story, I often emphasize two values: We are people under the authority of God’s Word, and we are people who strive to stay together even in the midst of significant disagreements. In my opinion, this “staying together” makes our fellowship all the richer (and can make our theological and methodical conversations an adventure).

In practice, it has meant that we are one of the few church families where Larry Osborne and D.A. Carson can share the same pulpit at a conference. A place were “Gospel Coalition” congregations do church alongside “Willow Creek Association” congregations; where Wesleyan believers and Reformed believers do more than merely tolerate each other.

We insist that we are brothers and sisters in Christ by staying in church together, and we try not to fight too much at the dinner table—but come on, this is family!

— Brian Farone
Superintendent, North Central District

A spirit of unity rather than division

At our church, we have a number of parishioners who come from church backgrounds that practice infant baptism (Catholic, Lutheran, mainline denominations). We have tried to be respectful of those traditions while presenting a strong case for believer’s baptism. We have told our congregation that when it comes to issues like mode and time of baptism, our pastors will seek to persuade but not coerce. Therefore, we urge believer’s baptism (rebaptism) for those baptized as infants under a “baptismal regeneration” tradition, and we encourage believer’s baptism for those baptized as infants under a “covenant baptism” tradition, but we do not require re-baptism for membership. For the most part, this approach has worked well.

Regarding the Lord’s Supper, we have advocated both the spiritual presence view (Presbyterian) and the memorial view (Baptist). The memorial view is obvious from the frequent commands to “do this in remembrance of me,” but the spiritual presence view requires a little more thought. We explain that the sanctions offered in 1 Corinthians 15 for coming to the table in an unworthy manner seem severe if communion is only a memorial. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, communion is discussed as an active participation in the body and blood of Christ. By not forcing our church to choose between these views but rather to see the best in both, we have achieved a spirit of unity rather than division.

When we talk about church governance, we emphasize that the New Testament is descriptive rather than prescriptive with regard to many issues. While standing firm on issues like the plurality and qualifications of elders, we present many of our other decisions regarding polity as choices we have made that work well and help maintain unity. For example, our appointment of trustees, our quarterly membership meetings and our membership covenant are all pragmatic decisions that work well at the present time but are not biblical requirements.

— Mike Andrus
Senior Adults Pastor, First Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, Kansas

Partake of this table with us

I do not often have to deal with issues that come under the “significance of silence” principle (e.g., differing modes of baptism, the Lord’s presence at the Lord’s Table, etc.). What I do experience is that so many other issues (e.g., homosexuality, porn, hedonism, materialism, immediate gratification, youth apathy and self-destruction) are like a tsunami and pressing much harder.

Still, when such questions as baptism, communion or the timing of the rapture arise, I am grateful for the guidance and attitude we in the EFCA have taken. I am so glad our brother Greg Stand has written on this and affirmed and strengthened the statement, “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, charity.” Most of us know and accept the reality that divisions in the body of Christ will occur and, at times, are even necessary (1 Corinthians 11:19). But we must be extra careful that we do not divide the body of our Lord Jesus unnecessarily because we, especially as church leaders, will be held accountable.

Some years ago, we amended our church constitution to open up membership to those who believed differently on mode of baptism. We encourage believer baptism by immersion but paedobaptists are welcomed. On the Lord’s Table, we have several Roman Catholics and Lutherans who regularly fellowship with us. One parishioner who is a devout Roman Catholic publicly reads the Scripture for us (and he is one of my favorite readers!). Although we greatly differ on this matter, he feels welcomed. I state right before we partake of the elements, “If you have trusted in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you are in the family of God and are welcomed to partake of this table with us, regardless of your church membership.”

— Ruben Martinez
Pastor, Living Word EFC in Pharr, Texas

The speed of the leader is the speed of the team

“Major in the majors and minor in the minors.” If taken out of context, this saying could easily be misunderstood as a reference to the Oakland A’s being one of the farm teams of the NY Yankees, or a reference to basic music theory that all pastors should know before leaving seminary, or a John Denver concert.

Rather, it is a phrase I had commonly heard about the EFCA while I was in seminary, and it’s one I have grown to love because it captures the culture of unity in the EFCA. This principle is one of the reasons why I chose to be a part of the EFCA.

As Greg Strand stated, the significance of silence is a commitment to a denominational culture of “unity in essentials, and dialogue in differences,” where we agree and stand united in our understanding of the major doctrines, such as the Trinity, christology and soteriology. But when we disagree in various other theological categories, we do not allow our disagreements in these nonessential doctrines to cause division.

The challenge for a local pastor, then, is to recognize that these differences exist and yet still continue to foster a culture of unity grounded in the gospel. Are there effective ways for a pastor to lead a congregation of sinners who will eventually find disagreements in the nonessentials and possibly allow these differences to drive a wedge of division inside the church? I believe there are many answers; here is one of many.

The speed of the leader is the speed of the team. Whether it’s a specialized group of infantrymen, a team of production line workers or a local congregation, if the leader has direct influence over his people, the leader sets the tone of the culture in the group by his word and example.

In the local church, this leader is most commonly the main teaching pastor, often the senior pastor. When the senior pastor emphasizes the importance of unity in the church from the pulpit and lives out this conviction, I have witnessed that congregations often follow suit. But the leader must both humbly walk the walk while he talks the talk. The people in the church take on the flavor of the leader in the way he teaches the truth and demonstrates grace and humility in his life. If the pastor truly values unity in the church and demonstrates this in his conversations with others, the church will learn from his example and often will do the same.

I minister as a pastor at a local church alongside Bill Kynes, the senior pastor. Bill has been pastoring this church for over 30 years now. It is arguably the healthiest church I have ever been a part of, a church where grace and truth are lived out. This, I believe, is due largely in part to the three decades of Bill’s humble leadership and gracious influence. He has consistently emphasized unity in the church. As ministers of the gospel and as pastors who oversee God’s precious flock, it is a privilege to be able to take part in God’s work to bring unity in the church through our teaching and demonstration of grace in our lives.

— Timothy Cho
Associate Pastor, Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale, Virginia

How does your church handle differences in nonessential theological positions? Let us know in the comments.

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