Leading churches

Autonomous and Interdependent

These seeming contradictions make the EFCA who we are.

This year’s EFCA One Conference in June was a sweet time. Along with the chance to have our hearts lifted through worship and teaching, have ministry tools sharpened through training opportunities and make new connections as we connect with old friends, EFCA One gives us the opportunity to hear about the good work God is doing through the EFCA and to be reminded of who we are.

At the conference, we received the important reminder that the EFCA is centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that no political or social movement can define, contain or bring the Kingdom of God in its fullness. A statement that was approved by the Board of Directors and the Board of Ministerial Standing (and later affirmed by the District Superintendents) helped us to see that we need to work to discern what we can say “yes” to from what we must say “no” to. All the while, we fight for the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. The beauty of the EFCA is the unity that comes as a result of the combination of our autonomy and our interdependence. 

The challenges that face a church—whether in D.C., southern California or rural Iowa—are all unique.

I don’t come across many people in D.C. who have ever heard of the EFCA, let alone understand how we work as autonomous and interdependent churches. It’s a great opportunity to talk about what the evangel means in “evangelical,” explaining our focus on Jesus and the good news of His life, death, resurrection and ascension—that it is a theological term, not a political one.

As to the “free” part of our name, I tell them that we are not free of evangelicals, but that our churches are free to govern themselves.

The benefits of autonomy 

Our autonomy is an essential part of who we are as EFCA churches. An important part of the roots of the EFCA include a reaction against the state churches of Scandinavia and Europe. Our founders had seen the damaging effects of formalized religion aligned too closely with politics and power. They saw firsthand that whenever politics and religion are mixed, the result is politics. Church autonomy is a protection against the overreach of the state, because each local church is its own greatest authority under Christ.

There are important benefits to autonomy as well.  

1. Local mission and contextualization

Every context is different. The challenges that face a church—whether in D.C., southern California or rural Iowa—are all unique. Even with shared doctrine and commitment to the gospel, the churches in those places will differ in the way they communicate, structure ministries and think about evangelism. 

In spite of how it might feel, the best preaching is not the polished conference talks we hear, nor the rich theological lectures we read. The best preaching opens God’s Word to bring the beauty, majesty and truth of the gospel to bear at a particular place, in a particular moment, on the hearts of particular people. The living and active Word of God is not dusty or outdated. Showing how the transcultural truth of the gospel addresses the fears, shame, brokenness, hopes and dreams of those who hear it is hard work. And it’s the hard work we call contextualization. Local churches need the freedom to contextualize the timeless truth of the gospel. 

2. Agility

If the last three years have shown us anything, they have proven that our plans are not certain. The pandemic brought a decade’s worth of decision-making needs in a two-year window. The recommendations and requirements were different depending on region of the country, state and even county. It makes sense that there are different needs in Montana than in New York City. Autonomy gives churches the agility to adjust and make decisions quickly when they are necessary.

Church needs change over time as well. Churches experience different cultural challenges, organizational life stages and transitions in leadership. For each, local autonomy enables the church to be agile in shifting to go a different direction it needs to in any given season.

3. Appointment and accountability

Every church has a context, the need for agility and its own personality, often shaped by a combination of context and the people who make up the church. While shared and centralized credentials for ministry are a major benefit, the assignment of those who are qualified for ministry is best kept in the hands of local churches. This allows each church to assess its context and needs, as well as fit for the church as it calls leaders to serve.  

The benefits of interdependence 

For all the benefits, autonomy can be taken too far. Autonomy does not need to mean isolation or loneliness, and we need to guard against the quick slide into comparison and competition. It can be all too easy to get tunnel vision in our own local churches, losing perspective on the bigger picture of God’s work in bringing the Kingdom to bear. Don’t forget that Christ said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). 

I have come to love and value the polity of the EFCA increasingly over time. Yes, autonomy is important and as EFCA churches, we like to be free. And yet, as we see independent churches and other movements that are less connected struggle with accountability, the importance of our interdependence is all the clearer.

It all starts with unity in our shared Statement of Faith. It is a gift to have a Statement of Faith that is centered on the gospel and that majors on the majors while minoring on the minors. That strong foundation means that our churches don’t have to grasp for individual doctrinal statements. In fact, we even have a commentary that is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the essentials of theology.

Stacks of Evangelical Convictions, a blue book with white lettering
Evangelical Convictions is a commentary on the EFCA Statement of Faith

Another important aspect of our interdependence is ministerial credentials. In the EFCA, a consistent approach to credentialing—that includes the local church as well as district and national involvement and approval—provides strong foundation to test and approve those who feel called to ministry and to provide accountability when doctrine or life conduct contradict the standard of that calling.

It is an important safeguard for our churches, working to ensure theological competency and qualified character for those who lead locally. Credentialing is also important to ministry leaders. Because a credential is granted by the EFCA, pastors and ministry leaders maintain their credential even if they are called to a new ministry or local church in the EFCA, with the confidence and encouragement that they have been tested and approved by a good process and godly people.

All together in unity, we are interdependent with one another as we follow Jesus and live to make disciples.

In addition to our shared Statement of Faith and credentialing, our unity together provides opportunity for missions and ministry that none of our churches could accomplish on their own.

I couldn’t help but have my heart stirred as I heard about the incredible work that God is doing through His people in the EFCA across the world at EFCA One. Hearing updates of work in the U.S. from our ReachNational teams and across the world through our ReachGlobal teams helps us all to have an expanded view of God’s work and the advance of Christ’s kingdom.

As a part of the EFCA, we all have a hand in supporting what God is doing and to celebrate with those who celebrate even as we weep with those who weep. Our interdependence helps us see that God is at work far beyond our local church, ministry or mission.

Unique churches pursuing a unified mission 

EFCA One put the beauty of the EFCA’s autonomy and interdependence on display. The autonomy was shown in the broad variety of approaches, methods and strategies that God’s people are pursuing, shaped intensely by the context we are in: churches who are planting new churches in their communities; missionaries who are custom tailoring their work to reach people, come alongside churches and care for people who are in desperate need; work with immigrants, in the suburbs, in the city and across rural places, different cultural expressions and languages.

All together in unity, we are interdependent with one another as we follow Jesus and live to make disciples. Like a worship service that gathers people each Sunday in order to send them out with the benediction, commissioned into their neighborhoods, workplaces and lives, EFCA One gathered us together in unity centered on the gospel so that we could be sent out again, free to follow God’s calling with the hope that Jesus is building His Church, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

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