For centuries, the people of God have depended on and trusted in the Word of God for truth and hope in a broken world. Yet, throughout history, some have strayed from the foundational grounding of the Scriptures; despite that, God called leaders and faithful people to His Word, including the earliest people of the Free Church. This is what I love about the Free Church: since our founding, we have always been a people with deep love for and commitment to the Scriptures. Free Churches were birthed out of a desire to study the Word of God and to share the gospel with their communities. Through their faithfulness, God blessed them, and they multiplied thousands of Free Churches all over the world.
The Evangelical Free Church of America has not wavered from this heritage and affirms the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I encourage you to read Article 2 of the EFCA Statement of Faith to be reminded of what we as a movement believe about the Scriptures.
This foundation stone, among others, supports the EFCA’s mission to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people. It’s the rock we stand on amidst ever shifting sands. It‘s the compass that guides us through crashing waves and billowing winds. It’s the oasis that refreshes, renews and restores us to new life. As the apostle Paul writes:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
As you’ll read in the following article, credible signs point to evangelicals and the larger body of Christ moving away from the authority of the Scriptures. To have a healthy church community, a commitment to the Scriptures must be the bedrock of that community. The same is true for our movement of churches. So, how do pastors, missionaries and ministry leaders lead the people of God to stand on the authority of the Scriptures in their lives for their good and God’s glory?
To celebrate the Scriptures, I’ve invited Bill Riedel, pastor of Redemption Hill Church in Washington D.C. and EFCA Board of Directors chair, to write an article about the topic and join me in an interview discussing it. In his article, he affirms the power of the Word of God and encourages everyone to continue standing on the authority of the Scriptures. Please take a few moments to read his article and watch our interview.
Our world and our country have changed. There are real questions about the viability and relevance of the Church as we look ahead. It’s not just a feeling; the data backs up the sense and reality of the shifts. Ligonier’s 2022 The State of Theology survey provided striking insights about evangelical beliefs on God and the Bible. It is not entirely surprising to see that the data reflects a diminishing belief in the authority of Scripture and a number of foundational Christian doctrines.
The ever-shifting wind and waves of the world around us (Eph 4:14) can cause us to either withdraw to safe harbors or get knocked around and risk being capsized into capitulation. Healthy churches must stand on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture as God’s Word and the complete revelation of His will. So, how do we cling ever more closely to what we have heard so that we don’t drift away from it (Heb 2:1) and call those in our church to do so as well?
While we face myriad challenges, three rise to prominence.
The first challenge is biblical illiteracy. People in our churches simply do not read their Bibles at a high rate. We are well past the point culturally of the Bible carrying much interest, let alone people having even a basic familiarity with its contents. It’s not just the Bible, though. People simply read far less than in generations past. The lack of understanding of what Scripture even says and the narrative flow of the text makes it impossible to expect that people will trust it or submit their lives to Scriptural authority.
The first challenge is biblical illiteracy. People in our churches simply do not read their Bibles at a high rate. We are well past the point culturally of the Bible carrying much interest, let alone people having even a basic familiarity with its contents.
A second challenge is that we are rapidly closing in on the apex of Western individualism – at least it seems that way. The result: trust or submission to any kind of external authority is unimaginable. When individual discovery is the highest good, there is no place for self-restraint. It follows that a text that is held up trans-cultural and authoritative is a hard cut against the prevailing tides. That creates a dissonance that is nearly insurmountable in the hearts of too many.
A third challenge is how the entanglement of Christianity with partisan ideologies has led people within and outside the church to see Christianity as a pragmatic pathway to power. When Scripture is primarily experienced as proof texts to support views in political and cultural battles, it will not be seen as the transcendent and authoritative Word of God, but as a political playbook. The younger generations are especially skeptical of that kind of pragmatism. These entanglements diminish people’s view of Scripture and of God.
The health and flourishing of the Church is dependent on our commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Article 2 of The EFCA Statement of Faith affirms:
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.
In teaching and preaching, our posture toward Scripture will communicate whether the EFCA’s Statement of Faith is relevant and true. It’s all too easy to unintentionally undermine Scripture’s authority when we apologize for it, saying things like, “I wish this wasn’t in here, but it is.”
Avoiding uncomfortable topics, passages or whole sections of Scripture places us in the seat of deciding what is good or bad based on our own perspectives and preferences. We can’t ever forget that when there is a conflict between our perspectives and God’s Word, it’s not Scripture that needs to change, but our own hearts. Remember that the whole of Scripture is God’s Word. Consistent, faithful commitment to the whole counsel of God’s Word is one way to build confidence in Scripture’s trustworthiness.
It’s all too easy to unintentionally undermine Scripture’s authority when we apologize for it, saying things like, “I wish this wasn’t in here, but it is.”
We also need to faithfully do the hard work of interpretation. We cannot assume that the people in our churches understand how to bridge from the world of the text to their lives and circumstances. Every Sunday is an opportunity to train the church how to do exactly that. Teaching and preaching that shows how to understand the words of Scripture in their connection to context will shape the way people approach Scripture in their own lives. Show the connections from words to immediate context, the broader context of the book they are in, the connection to canonical context and ultimately how any passage fits into redemptive history.
Once the hard work of interpretation is done, we need to connect Scripture to our context. The best preaching is not the polished conference talks we hear, nor the rich theological lectures we can find or read. The best preaching opens God’s Word to bring the beauty, majesty and truth of the gospel to bear at a particular place, at 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 speaks into a particular moment to address the fears, shame, brokenness, hopes and dreams in the hearts of those who hear it – it’s hard work! And it’s the hard work we call contextualization.
The good and hard work that every pastor, Bible teacher and ministry leader is called to is to understand the people and the place that God has called us to as His witnesses, and bring the light of Scripture and the beauty of God’s goodness and grace into it. Syncretism compromises truth for relevance; Fundamentalism compromises relevance for truth. On the other hand, contextualization clings to the truth of the gospel and its transcultural power to reach all people, with the belief that every question and human need will find its ultimate answer in Christ.
Don’t ever forget what God has said:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
A word for pastors
I am going to make the assumption that you believe everything written above. There isn’t much there that is new or novel. So, what can we do this week as we prepare to stand before God’s people in the pulpit, meet them for counseling, serve communion and care for their souls?
Immerse yourself in Scripture. Saturate your own life, heart and soul, into meeting God in His Word. That will give you the stability to weather the storms that come and the ability to rest in the ability Christ has to still the wind and waves. As the Spirit moves in you, that passion and settled rest in God’s goodness will bleed through you.
We must never forget that it is God’s work that does it all. Rest and enjoy it. We do nothing; the Word does everything.
Trust God’s Word. God’s limitless knowledge and sovereign power mean that He can guarantee that His Word will never return empty but will accomplish His purposes. That doesn’t mean we pull back from people or “the culture” but gives us the confidence to step into any space with the grace and love of Christ, confident in the power of God to move in people’s hearts, to heal brokenness and to humble the proud.
Enjoy God’s good gifts. Take a break and enjoy God’s presence. We are His servants, planting and watering, but only God brings growth (1 Cor 3:6-8). After lighting the spark that blew up the powder keg that started the Reformation, Luther said:
“In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing...the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
Yes, the world has changed. Yes, we need to thoughtfully address the issues in the hearts of the people God has placed in our lives. We must never forget that it is God’s work that does it all. Rest and enjoy it. We do nothing; the Word does everything.
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