Why Do We Adhere to the “Significance of Silence”?

An exploration of this term so pivotal to EFCA history and heritage

In the Evangelical Free Church of America, we focus on the essential truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ while allowing differing understandings of some doctrines within certain theological parameters.

For example, we do not require agreement regarding the age of the universe, time and mode of baptism and whether faith precedes regeneration or regeneration precedes faith (the Arminian and Calvinist discussion).

We refer to our openness regarding these theological differences as the “significance of silence.” As we explain in Evangelical Convictions, “This expression does not mean that we will not discuss and debate these issues but simply that we will not divide over them” (p. 24, footnote 18).

According to former EFCA President Arnold T. Olson, “Once [the early Free Church leaders] began to put in writing what was commonly believed among them, they were silent on those doctrines which through the centuries had divided Christians of equal dedication, Biblical knowledge, spiritual maturity and love for Christ.’ This ‘significance of silence’ reflected our strong concern for Evangelical unity in the gospel.”1

Because many today misunderstand the expression “significance of silence,” another way to refer to this commitment is “unity in essentials, dialogue in differences.”

For some, the terms “essential” and “nonessential” (or “majors” and “minors”) are not either understood or helpful. How can we say anything in the Bible is a nonessential or a minor?

That is a good question, but it is not the claim being made. What we acknowledge is that even for Paul, there were doctrinal truths that were “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is referred to as “dogmatic rank.” In the wake of the Reformation, this was explained in three doctrinal categories: the fundamental articles (of faith or doctrine, articuli fundamentales primarii), the secondary fundamental articles (articuli fundamentales secundarii) and the nonfundamental articles (articuli non-fundamentales).2

Statements of Faith should regularly be reviewed and occasionally be revised, so that our faith can be affirmed in the present day.
Tweet

We are not necessarily beholden to the words, as they change meaning over time. However, we are committed to the content and meaning of what those words convey. We must remember that although words pick up meanings over time (i.e., baggage), they also carry history. We want to be aware of changing meanings and nuances of words while retaining the content and significance of what those words mean. Affirming our doctrinal truth, as articulated in our Statement of Faith, and living it out as articulated above is one of the distinctive and unique marks of the EFCA.

To see how this is lived out among us, let’s look briefly at the various views of soteriology (salvation) and discuss commonalities (essentials) and differences (nonessentials). This is pivotal to understanding why the EFCA undertook the unusual process of revising its Statement of Faith, beginning in 2005 and culminating in 2008.

History

The EFCA draws from the heritage of Arminianism/Wesleyanism, Calvinism/Reformed and Lutheranism. There have been times when Arminianism was more prevalent and times when that was true of Calvinism. Lutheranism is also an influential part of our heritage, although it is not often explicitly acknowledged or discussed when addressing soteriology.

The EFCA actually went through phases regarding the doctrine of soteriology, according to Arnold T. Olson: “(1) A period when Arminianism was the order of the day, (2) the decade when the proponents of Calvinism sought to make the Church Calvinist, (3) the time when cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed and a moderation in this controversial doctrine joined the moderation on the time and mode of baptism to become some of the identifying policies of the Church” (p. 135).

In this last stage, when cooler heads and warmer hearts prevailed, Olson considered to be the time prior to the 1950 conference—at which the EFCA was birthed out of the merger of the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church Association and the Swedish Evangelical Free Church Association. About these two soteriological doctrines, Olson added:

“One is privileged to hold either view and still be a member in good standing of a local congregation. It is only in a strict adherence to this principle of freedom, respect for the views of others, and restraint in teaching one view as though it is the official view of the denomination when it is actually silent on the subject, that this unity can be maintained. We must recognize that while some may be Arminians, others Calvinists, others deploring the use of such names, none are heretics!” (Significance of Silence, p. 162)

We attempt to focus on the essentials of the doctrine of salvation while granting freedom of understanding.
Tweet

This emphasis on, and commitment to, biblical truth, along with freedom, respect, restraint and unity, was the ethos of the merger work at that conference.

However, the Statement of Faith crafted at that merger conference still leaned toward Arminianism. As a result, in 2004, the EFCA Spiritual Heritage Committee began exploring how to better focus on the key truths of soteriology without making an explicit statement in the Arminian or Calvinist direction.

Let’s briefly step back and look at how the SOF developed and changed over the years.

Statement of Faith

The Swedish EFC originally had one article in its SOF; the Norwegian/Danish Free Church Association had a 12-point SOF. In light of the forthcoming 1950 merger, the Swedish EFC Ministerial Association expanded its SOF, and a number of those statements were later included in the EFCA SOF that resulted from the merger. One significant change addressed soteriology:

The (Swedish) Evangelical Free Church Ministerial Association (1947)

IV. We believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, and during this age to convict men of sin, regenerate the unbelieving sinner, indwell, guide, instruct and empower the believer for godly living and service.

Compare that to what was then affirmed:

Evangelical Free Church of America (1950)

4. We believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ, and during this age to convict men, regenerate the believing sinner, indwell, guide, instruct, and empower the believer for godly living and service.

The Swedish Ministerial’s SOF is more explicitly Calvinist, “regenerate the unbelieving sinner” (i.e., regeneration precedes faith). The EFCA’s SOF (1950) is more explicitly Arminian, “regenerate the believing sinner” (i.e., faith precedes regeneration).

I actually find nothing in EFCA history that explains this significant change.

While working through three draft revisions of the EFCA SOF between 2003 and 2008, the Spiritual Heritage Committee asked whether the goal of the original framers had been accomplished in the 1950 version. If not, could new wording be crafted to match the original intent?

The committee concluded it could be and ought to be stated in a better way to affirm similar truths of both theological views without mandating or requiring either.

On the doctrine of soteriology, the EFCA movement desired to be sensitive and welcoming to Calvinists, Lutherans and Arminians, without mandating or excluding one theological view or the other. As a result:

EFCA Statement of Faith (2008): The Holy Spirit

6. We believe that the Holy Spirit, in all that He does, glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ. He convicts the world of its guilt. He regenerates sinners, and in Him they are baptized into union with Christ and adopted as heirs in the family of God. He also indwells, illuminates, guides, equips and empowers believers for Christ-like living and service.

Often, when a denomination revises its SOF, the new version is more theologically liberal and less rigorous biblically. Members of the Spiritual Heritage Committee believe that through our process, we strengthened an already strong SOF. And we did so by affirming the Bible as the norming norm (the absolute authority) and our SOF as the statement that is normed by the Scriptures.

We also included biblical teachings in our revised SOF that were not included in the 1950 version—not because they were not believed in 1950 but rather because they were not being discussed or denied among Christians or the broader culture at the time.

That aligns with one of the purposes of a Statement of Faith: to state what is believed in the midst of a culture that is presently questioning, doubting or denying those biblical truths. Thus, SOFs should regularly be reviewed and occasionally be revised, so that our faith can be affirmed in the present day.

A closer look at what could, but need not, divide

Historically, denominations have been created with a specific theological understanding of soteriology. Discussion has often led to division, not only between denominations but also within denominations, and even within local churches.

There is a place for these discussions and differences, but will they inevitably lead to divisions?

This is the significance of silence: We will debate an issue but we will not divide over it.
Tweet

In the EFCA, we think not. We attempt to focus on the essentials of the doctrine of salvation while granting freedom of understanding. And we do this together in the same denomination and even within the same local church. It is, we believe, an implication of acknowledging that the gospel is of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3) and a small fulfillment of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer for unity and oneness in Him (John 17). It is truly a manifestation of our unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).

How then are these areas of freedom delineated?

The soteriological essential is this: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. This Reformation principle affirms in summary form some key biblical truths.

But does faith precede regeneration or does regeneration precede faith? Does one believe and is then regenerated? Or is one regenerated and then believes?

The fact that God initiates salvation is an essential truth affirmed by Arminians/Wesleyans, Calvinists/Reformed and Lutherans. However, some expound this through effective grace while the others do so through prevenient grace. Evangelicals from these various theological traditions repudiate Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.

Baptism serves as another example of where we believe disagreement can lead to discussion rather than division. Again, I refer to Evangelical Convictions:

“We recognize that the interpretations of Scripture on the relevant points regarding the two positions on baptism differ with one another and are in some ways incompatible. We allow different interpretations, not because we think Scripture is intrinsically ambiguous on the matter, nor because we think Scripture provides so little information that it is unwise to hold any opinion, but because some of us think the credobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the paedobaptist position is mistaken, and some think the paedobaptist position is in line with Scripture and that the exclusively credobaptist position is mistaken.

“In other words, both sides hold that Scripture speaks to the matter, but each side holds a view that excludes the other. However, we do not believe that our differing views on this matter (among others) should prevent our unity in the gospel in full local church fellowship. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that the Statement of Faith ‘allows’ both views” (p. 170).

This is precisely the sort of robust dialogue that ought to occur in the EFCA. Our goal is to present various views in an irenic and constructive manner so that we can instruct and inform of the positions. We desire that people have an accurate understanding of the various views, rather than misunderstanding and mischaracterization.

We in the EFCA live and minster together in unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ while allowing various positions on the specifics of doctrines, such as salvation and baptism. So caricatures of someone else’s position are not only not helpful, but they are also hurtful. We desire to highlight the places where there is unity in the essentials. And where there are differences, we choose not to ignore or conceal them but model how discussions can take place.

This is the significance of silence: We will debate an issue but we will not divide over it. If this is the case, then what are the parameters within which we live and minister together? Let me name a few:

  • For candidates pursuing EFCA credentialing, we explain the significance of silence and ask, “Are you willing to minister alongside those whose views differ from yours on nonessential matters?”
  • Then, we require those candidates to defend their own positions on such matters biblically and theologically and be able to give an accurate presentation of the other position.
  • In any conversation, my general pastoral commitment is to help those with another view know and understand it even better. Then, I desire to model for them what it looks like to hold a position (and to preach and teach it, even passionately) but do so in a respectful manner.

Going forward

The EFCA Conference adopted the present Statement of Faith in 2008. In conjunction with this discussion, the EFCA Board of Directors affirmed a “process for safeguarding our spiritual heritage.” One aspect of this process was to conduct a theological survey every five years. It was a way the board sought intentionally to value and safeguard the vital role of the Bible, theology and doctrine in the EFCA.

In 2013, we conducted that initial doctrinal survey. Included were all senior pastors of EFC churches (not all are credentialed in the EFCA) and everyone credentialed by the EFCA (not all are in EFCA ministries). The survey was sent to 1,928 individuals, with 1,074 responding—a statistically significant 55.7-percent response. This tells us that doctrine matters to the EFCA.

We believe the gospel is both foundational to and yet also supersedes our theological views or preferences.
Tweet

Question No. 17 was specifically addressed to soteriology: “As you consider the logical order of a believer’s exercise of saving faith and the Spirit’s work of regeneration, which best describes your belief?”

The response demonstrates the fact that soteriological views are evenly represented in our movement, at least as reflected by the respondents: Calvinist/Reformed (38 percent), Arminian/Wesleyan (35 percent), and those who did not think salvation could be put in any logical order (28 percent).

The Spiritual Heritage Committee, under the authority of the Board of Directors, will conduct the next five-year doctrinal survey in late 2018.

Additionally, the committee is working on a new book, Evangelical Unity, which will address these issues and serve as a companion to Evangelical Convictions (2011). In the past, the companion volumes outlining the EFCA understanding of the biblical and gospel essentials were This We Believe: The background and exposition of the doctrinal statement of The Evangelical Free Church of America (1961) and The Significance of Silence (Vol. 2, Heritage Series, 1981).

Our aim is to set forth guidelines for distinguishing and delineating between essentials and nonessentials of the faith (or doctrine). We will then apply these to numerous doctrinal matters in our Statement of Faith in light of the pressing issues in our present day.

Our aim is that it would honor and glorify the Lord and edify and nourish the people of God.

A helpful summary

We affirm the following truths and commitments:

  • The gospel is central and essential to who we are as the people of God and what we believe.
  • We are committed to the essentials of the gospel in principle and practice, in belief and behavior, in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
  • We acknowledge that there are differences in theological views (what we would consider nonessentials), but they are secondary and ought not to distract from or prevent our shared commitment to the gospel and a ministry of the gospel.
  • We are committed to the essentials of the gospel of Jesus Christ and we acknowledge differences, although we do not believe these differences are absolute, either as they relate to unity or purity (doctrine).
  • From the foundation of the essentials we will engage in robust dialogue regarding the differences, without dividing.

And we refute these common misunderstandings about “significance of silence”:

  • We deny that this commitment means we cannot embrace and teach our views strongly and with conviction, nor discuss the differences that exist between views.
  • We deny that we are not allowed to talk about either our own theological views or the differences that exist between views.
  • We deny that this is a lowest-common-denominator theology that values unity at the expense of doctrine.
  • We deny that we as believers cannot affirm a position but must meld them all together (in which everyone feels theologically compromised).
  • We deny that the EFCA expects the local church to reflect in practice what the EFCA states as an overall principle—with each church equally representing each view and not allowing a voice from the other perspective to be heard.

In sum, we in the EFCA are tethered to the text and grounded in the gospel. We are also committed to unity in the essentials of the gospel and dialogue in differences. We believe the gospel is both foundational to and yet also supersedes our theological views or preferences. This does not make them unimportant but rather of secondary importance to the gospel, which we affirm in our proclamation and manifest in our life together.

Some only experience this sort of life together in the gospel as they attend conferences. We seek to live this sort of life together in the gospel in our local churches, a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer (John 17) and a manifestation of his creation of one new humanity (Ephesians 2:14-16).

For further reading on this topic, visit the author’s blog post “Christian Unity in the Essentials of the Gospel.”

And consider the following for personal reflection:

  • How do you understand the expression “significance of silence”?
  • Do you have personal examples of ministering in its reality?
  • Is it time to update this term for greater understanding?
  • Do you consider this position a strength of the EFCA?

1Evangelical Convictions, pages 24-25. President Olson had earlier written The Significance of Silence, where he focused on four key doctrinal issues: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eternal security and the Tribulation. Today, other topics would be added to this conversation, such as age of the universe and miraculous gifts.

2Richard A. Muller (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Baker Academic, 2nd edition, 2017) identifies the way in which the Lutheran and Reformed Scholastics addressed this issue in order of importance: articuli fundamentales, the fundamental articles (of faith or doctrine); articuli fundamentales secundarii, secondary fundamental articles; and articuli non-fundamentales, nonfundamental articles.

Articuli fundamentales: “The basic doctrines necessary to the Christian faith are distinguished from secondary or logically derivative doctrines.” These are the “doctrines without which Christianity cannot exist and the integrity of which is necessary to the preservation of the faith” (the body of truth once for all entrusted to the saints). This “includes only articles given by revelation, viz., the doctrine of sin and its consequences; the doctrine of the person and work of Christ; the doctrine of the resurrection; and the doctrine of the scriptural Word as the ground of faith.” This category is used to distinguish these fundamental articles, those of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) “from certain highly important derivative articles, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

Articuli fundamentales secundarii: Some of the fundamental articles “such as those concerned with baptism and the Lord’s Supper, might be lacking in a person’s faith, or at least lacking in correct definition, and that person still be saved in the promises of the gospel, since forgiveness of sins rests on faith in Christ, as witnessed in the Word, and not on acceptance of the doctrines of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” Despite these differences and divides, the conclusion was that adherents of the other view were “Christian and participated in the promise of salvation in Christ because of their acceptance of the primary fundamental doctrines of the person and work of Christ,” even though they voiced concern that the other person’s doctrinal system was considered endangered.

Articuli non-fundamentales: “Articles the denial of which does not endanger salvation since they are not fundamental to the maintenance of Christian truth and are not concerned with the objects of faith,” e.g., identity of the Antichrist and the nature of angels. “Such doctrines, nonetheless, are scriptural and, therefore, if rightly stated, edifying.”

Email Updates

Subscribe to receive EFCA blog updates.

* indicates required