These are some of the same observations I had when becoming personally familiar with the EFCA:
Earlier this year, our church affiliated with the EFCA. In a previous post, I wrote about why we (a nondenominational church) decided to join an association of churches. But—once we had decided to become part of a larger group of churches—why did we choose the Evangelical Free Church of America? Here are some of the factors that led us to this choice:
I’ve been an interested observer of the EFCA for years. One of the things I’ve long appreciated was the theological depth I saw from their pastors and leaders. I’d expect this from people in the movement such as seminary professors (and the EFCA has its share of renowned scholars), but it was encouraging to see this level of knowledge and theological maturity in discussions at the pastoral level.
It’s easy to get so caught up in the minutiae of sterile, ivory tower kinds of theological discussions we lose our moorings in an actual church context with real, everyday ministry concerns. I haven’t seen this kind of imbalance with the EFCA. As a movement, they’re passionate about helping their churches be truly healthy, transforming churches who can multiply transforming, multiplying churches. Their intellectual richness serves and supports the EFCA mission.
The pastors and leaders of the EFCA are uncompromising in their stand on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the essential truths of evangelical Christianity. But from the beginning they’ve intentionally resisted making official pronouncements concerning secondary issues. The movement includes both Calvinists and Arminians. They have no official view on spiritual gifts, infant baptism or the timing of the rapture. At the EFCA One conference in New Orleans, I saw this diversity manifested in other ways as well. There were many different races represented, different styles of clothing, a wide range of ages. I saw young leaders respected and listened to, and also much older leaders equally respected, serving actively and vibrantly (sometimes even assuming new and challenging roles). One could say their unity in the gospel is what makes possible their genuine freedom in nonessential issues.
This is a movement that takes seriously their mission statement: We exist to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people. Over and over again at the conference I witnessed the consistent, ongoing commitment to this mission. This statement isn’t just a formality for them, something to have somewhere on a website. These churches, pastors and leaders really are all about multiplying transformational churches among all people. They are focused on their own churches being transformational and multiplying, and in doing everything they can to help others grow in doing this as well.
I should also mention that the Free church people we’ve met have been some of the nicest, most gracious people you can imagine. They’ve made us feel right at home in the EFCA. In some ways we don’t have to change anything about who we are as a church. But I also feel encouraged and challenged to keep growing, seeking God’s continued transforming work, in my life as an elder and pastor, in the life of our church and beyond. We are excited to share in the life and mission of the EFCA. We too long to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.
(Another EFCA ministry I’m thrilled about is EFCA Gateway—but it deserves it’s own post! Stay tuned.)
Earlier this year, our church joined the Evangelical Free Church of America. (The EFCA is an association of over 1,500 autonomous churches.) Earlier this month, I spent a few days in New Orleans for EFCA One, the national conference of the EFCA movement. This was an incredible time of being renewed spiritually and being inspired and motivated for continued ministry. Experiencing this conference also confirmed to me that the EFCA family is the right fit for us. I’m going to write another post about why we feel strongly the EFCA is the right home for our church, but first I want to look at the question: “Why affiliate at all?”
Until this year, I’d spent my entire pastoral ministry and much of my Christian life in a nondenominational context. The church I serve as an elder and teaching pastor was planted (and replanted) as a nondenominational, unaffiliated congregation. So what led us to contemplate affiliation with a larger group? Here, in bullet point form, are the factors we considered regarding affiliation:
What are the benefits of being nondenominational?
- We’re not controlled by any outside organization. No denomination owns our church property or dictates to us who will serve as our pastoral leaders. We see this as a positive factor, and one that fits the life of the early church. (I’m going to write soon about the relevant early church history.)
- We’re not tied to one narrow denominational tradition such as Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.
- We’re free to follow the Bible and not have unscriptural policies imposed on us.
- We don’t alienate people from differing traditions. We can be more inclusive of all evangelical Christians.
What are the problems of being independent?
- We’re isolated geographically, culturally and theologically. This point is specifically pertinent to our English-speaking church here in Puerto Rico.
- We don’t regularly cooperate with other churches for the sake of our common Christian mission.
- We don’t confer with other churches regarding biblical teaching and church practices.
- We have no real connection with anything larger than our own independent congregation.
- We’re in danger of being a “lone ranger” church.
So here’s the question we asked ourselves:
Can we keep the benefits of being nondenominational
and address the problems of being independent?
The answer for us was “Yes.” By affiliating with the EFCA, we kept all the benefits of being nondenominational while addressing all the problems of being independent. I’ll be writing more soon about why we’re excited to be partnering with the EFCA.
There’s an ancient saying you may have heard, and it expresses an important principle we seek to emphasize in our church:
In all things—love
This is a healthy principle for any church to follow, but it’s especially appropriate for a church such as ours. Church without Walls is the only English-speaking church in our area. Because of this, we have people attending who come from very different church backgrounds. We don’t want to compromise our commitment to the historic, biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also don’t want to exclude sincere followers of Christ by being overly narrow and dogmatic regarding secondary issues. We want to major in the majors, and minor in the minors. So we don’t form official church positions on non-essential doctrines unless it’s necessary for us to function together as a church body.
I deeply appreciate groups such as the Evangelical Free Church of America who strive to keep their association open to “believers only, but all believers.” Within this fellowship of churches you can find congregations that have differing views on predestination, eternal security, speaking in tongues, the rapture, baptism, etc. It’s not that they view these issues as unimportant; they study and discuss these scriptural teachings often and in depth. But they don’t see these as essential issues over which Christians should divide, nor do they refuse to fellowship with believers of differing views.
We too strive to be as open as we can. Everyone is welcome to attend our church services, and we want any sincere follower of Christ to feel they can be part of our church family. But an individual congregation must sometimes be more definitive about these issues than an association of churches. For instance, a church may welcome Christians who believe in speaking in tongues and those who do not. But each church is going to have to decide how they will handle the issue of speaking in tongues during the church service. They don’t have the freedom to not have a clear stance. When faced with such challenges, we have resolved to not automatically fall back on any particular church tradition; we listen carefully to all traditions, but seek the clear teaching of Scripture as our supreme authority and guide.
The issue of baptism has unfortunately been a divisive one in the history of the Christian church. All church traditions believe in the importance of baptism. (Some are dogmatic about the specific mode of baptism, although our church is not. See What is baptism? for more information.) All church traditions also believe in baptizing new believers in Christ. On this, there is no debate. But some churches baptize infants, and some do not. From time to time, we’re asked, “Will you baptize our baby?” When we explain that, no, we don’t baptize infants, but that we can have a special time when the parents and church dedicate themselves to the care and growth of the child, occasionally the response is a confused, “Why don’t you baptize infants?”
The purpose of this post is not to criticize churches who do baptize infants. It’s not to convince them they’re wrong, or to call into question those Christians who were baptized as babies. This is simply to explain why we don’t baptize infants. Why do churches such as ours not follow this long-standing church tradition?
We don’t find it taught in Scripture
There is no place in the Bible that directly teaches the baptism of infants. If the normal means of people entering the church community is to be baptized when they’re babies, it’s very surprising to see no mention at all of this in Scripture. Think about the incredibly important place the baptism of a child holds in certain church traditions, and then compare this to the silence of the Bible on the subject. Something doesn’t seem to fit, and throughout history many have questioned whether this practice comes from clear biblical teaching or from church traditions.
In the section below, I list passages describing baptism, some of which describe the baptism of whole households. Now, some assume these households would have included infants who, therefore, would have been baptized. The problem is the text doesn’t tell us this. Does every household include babies? Think about all the households around you. How many have infants? We need to be careful not to fall into circular reasoning. We can’t speculate that the households who were baptized in these passages included infants, and then try to use these passages to establish that infants were baptized!
So we don’t find any clear teaching or examples of baptizing infants in Scripture. But there’s an even more important reason why we don’t see the baptizing of babies in these passages.
Baptism always follows faith
Last week, we explored the significance of baptism in first century, Jewish culture (What is baptism?). We learned that baptism was a common way of publicly declaring one’s conversion to a new faith. Even with just this basic understanding, we see that infant baptism doesn’t fit the concept. Converting is something one must do for oneself; you can’t convert for someone else. An infant can’t convert.
Consistently in the Scriptures, the people who are baptized are the ones who believe:
Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
But now the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized.
Then he brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. . . . Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. . . . and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.
Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and everyone in his household believed in the Lord. Many others in Corinth also heard Paul, became believers, and were baptized.
Now, again, all Christian traditions practice the baptizing of new believers. But what we need to see is that it’s not just that believers are baptized in Scripture, but that these are the only people we see being baptized in Scripture. Over and over again, baptism is tied to belief. So not only is this the common sense understanding of the practice from its historical context, but it’s also the consistent biblical teaching. For these reasons, we practice what is known as “believer’s baptism”—we only baptize people who can testify to their personal faith in Christ.
The church is made up of believers
The biblical teaching of believer’s baptism is closely connected with the biblical teaching of a believers’ church. The differing traditions not only have a different understanding of baptism, but of the church community. Some Christian traditions see much more continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament. They feel there is little difference between the Old Covenant people of God and the New Covenant people of God. (To read more on the differences between these covenants, see Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament Law.)
The Old Covenant people of God included all the physical descendants of Israel. The sign of becoming part of this covenant people was circumcision. Every male infant was circumcised, and therefore became part of the covenant community. But while every physical descendant was part of the covenant community, not every Israelite was in true covenant relationship with God. Paul says in Romans 9:6 that “not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people.” So we have the entire covenant people—of whom all the male children bear the sign of the covenant; but we also have a remnant, a people within a people, the true covenant believers and followers of God.
Now, we can see baptism as, in some ways, analogous to circumcision. It’s a physical sign that someone is entering the New Covenant people of God. But then some assume that the New Covenant community of God works the same way as the Old Covenant community. They believe there are large numbers of people who are part of the New Covenant community, but that only a remnant within this covenant people are truly saved—a church within the church.
The problem with this is, again, we don’t see it anywhere in Scripture. We don’t see anywhere in the Bible where the New Testament church includes unbelievers. The Old Covenant was established with a specific nation, Israel, but the New Covenant is not. Where people were physically born into the nation of Israel, we don’t find in Scripture where anyone can be physically born into the New Covenant community of God’s people. Quite the contrary, to become part of the New Covenant community of Christ requires a new spiritual birth. We can’t find in the New Testament any distinction between members of the church and members of the body of Christ. The New Covenant community of God is the church, and the church is made up only of believers.
With no animosity intended toward other sincere believers, we must conclude that this idea of infant baptism comes from a confusion of the New Covenant with the Old. It rests more on tradition than it does the clear teaching of Scripture.
It’s interesting that throughout the Old Testament (and even a few times in the New) people are distinguished as either the “circumcised” or the “uncircumcised”—meaning those who were part of the Old Covenant people of God or those who were not. Corresponding to this, church traditions that baptize infants have historically distinguished between the “baptized” (those in the covenant community) and the “unbaptized” (those who are not). But Scripture never distinguishes people as the baptized or unbaptized. Not even once. Instead, over and over again in the New Testament, people are described as either believers or unbelievers.
We see baptism as beautifully symbolizing the spiritual reality of our salvation. We also understand it to be a public declaration to everyone of our faith in God. It is a sign that one has entered the covenant community of God—the church; but one must be spiritually reborn to be part of this covenant community. This covenant community includes only those who have thus been regenerated. So baptism is only appropriate for people who place their faith in Christ and commit to following him. Baptism is for believers.
I love Keith Green’s old saying: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In a similar sense, I would say
If you baptize someone who hasn’t placed their faith in Christ,
all you have is a soggy unbeliever.
“But what if I was baptized as an infant?” Churches who baptize infants also take their children through some form of confirmation. The culmination of this process is usually a time when they stand before the congregation, publicly declaring to all their faith in Christ. For some this is merely a religious ritual, a traditional rite of passage; but for others this is deeply meaningful, a profound, public expression of faith and commitment. Some Christians eventually feel the need to be baptized because they have never truly made a personal, public declaration of their faith, while others don’t feel this need because they have made such a public declaration. “Let each be convinced in their own mind.”
Baptism is meant for those who place their faith in Christ, but is it necessary for salvation? We’ll tackle this question next week.
Who should be baptized? [see above]