Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom (1963)

From Hauna Ondrey, ed., “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom (1963): Full Report with Supporting Historical Documents(all excerpts drawn from the 1963 report):


The 1963 report cover

The human situation, as described in the Bible, is a situation in servitude. Humanity is enslaved to numerous powers: to sin, law, death, and spiritual forces. These debilitating servitudes keep individuals from realizing their own meaning and potential. Enslaved by these powers they cannot discover what God meant them to be. They are not free.

The good news assures us that these many servitudes may be exchanged for one new commanding control—a voluntary bondage to God. Paradoxically, this voluntary bondage to God is freedom itself. For the yielding of one’s life in obedient love to the will of God is the avenue to human fulfillment. In this yielding of self to God, the person discovers their own true destiny. Hereby one becomes what they were meant to be: the servant, the child, the friend of God. To become what one is meant to be, to realize the very purpose for which one is created, that is freedom. Freedom, then, is the gift which comes through obedience to God’s will.

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If we believe that our freedom is found in our conforming to the will of God, then it becomes imperative that we know what that will is. According to the Christian faith, God has revealed his will to humanity in the Bible and supremely in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hence, the Bible is the avenue to freedom. Its message is God’s word, to which human beings, if they would be free, must respond in obedient faith.

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This understanding of freedom as submission to the will of God was exemplified in the work and teaching of the founders of our denomination… While they were appreciative of the wisdom reflected in the creeds of the church, they saw the creeds to be partial and imperfect summaries of what is said more powerfully in Scripture itself. Therefore, they refused to make any of the written creeds binding in an absolute sense, lest slavish adherence to a creedal statement make it difficult to hear and respond to the full implications of the word for their day. They believed that true freedom came by faith in and surrender to Christ and the word alone….

For them the church was the fellowship of believers and was brought into being through the redemptive work of Christ and the “renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Accordingly, the one basic requirement for membership in the church was the experience of the new birth and a consistent confession of Christ as Savior and Lord…. Thus, our forebears found it spiritually meaningful to live in Christian fellowship with persons holding different doctrinal viewpoints in some important areas as long as their life and spirit witnessed to their submission to Christ and devotion to the word of God.

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If we are to be true to this aspect of our heritage, we should sincerely and faithfully use this principle of freedom as a basic element in our existence as a Christian people in today’s world. To do so we must enter into the stream of present theological discussion and exercise our freedom creatively and helpfully with respect to the issues which now confront the Christian church. The theological concerns of the present moment differ in many respects from those of the past. Although many of the questions now being debated in the church were well known to our predecessors, others have arisen since their day and could not have been known to them. Thus, to say that we may differ only at those points where they permitted differences would be to deny to the present generation the freedom in Christ which prior generations enjoyed. In the basic and central affirmations of the Christian faith there must be unity, but in their expression and interpretation there is room for wholesome divergence. It is, therefore, our duty to approach the areas of theological tension with courage, fraternal understanding, and unfailing devotion to Christ and the Scriptures.

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We maintain this principle of Christian freedom only as we maintain our spiritual vitality, which we have by the grace of God. The problem of maintaining it, therefore, must be approached in a contrite and penitent spirit in which we seek the mercy of God in permitting us to return to him. Out of such an attitude, we pray, will come a renewed experience of the vital life in which we become free children of God under the lordship of Christ as the truth is revealed to us in the Bible.


 Read the full article here

Find the original report here, in the Frisk Collection of Covenant Literature, created and maintained by the Covenant Archives and Historical Library. The Covenant Yearbook excerpts reprinted in the article are available in full through the Frisk Collection of Covenant Yearbooks.

Covenant Freedom: Issue Live + Comment

A new issue of the Covenant Quarterly is now live at covquarterly.com. Over the next few weeks, we will feature each article in turn, with opportunities for dialog. In this post we publish the editor’s Comment, which frames the issue as a whole.


At its founding in 1885, the Covenant Church committed itself to a single confession: “This Covenant confesses God’s word, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct.” This statement was as significant for what it did not confess as for what it did: implicit in its brevity was the decision not to adopt a formal, human-made confessional statement that specified precisely how Scripture must be interpreted. Rather, Scripture itself would be the Covenant’s only confession. The founders were not naïve to the uniqueness of this freedom nor to its vulnerability. Yet they were too wary of the dangers potential to confessional statements they had experienced in Sweden and within prior attempts at organization in the United States.

This freedom—freedom from any human confession in order to enable freedom for submission to Scripture—constituted the Covenant. In its most essential nature, the Covenant was founded as a believers’ church whose only confession was Scripture. This boundary intended to encompass within the Covenant only believers while not excluding any believer, as articulated in 1942 by E.G. Hjerpe (Covenant president 1910–1927): “The Covenant’s principle in this matter, we may say, is very narrow and at the same time very broad. It is so narrow that there is room only for believers in Jesus Christ, and so broad that there is room for all such believers and they on that ground are entitled to membership and all the privileges of the Christian Church.”

Across Covenant history, this precious and precarious freedom has been challenged and maintained. Current debate regarding the nature, extent, and limitations of Christian freedom within the Covenant is not new; rather, it occupies a succession of such debates that span a century and beyond. In this current context, the work of the Covenant Committee on Freedom and Theology (1958–1963) has resurfaced from relative obscurity. The committee’s final report, Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom, sought to “inquire into the nature of Christian freedom, the way in which [the Covenant] has experienced that freedom, and the ways in which that freedom may be maintained” (p. 9). While frequently referenced, the significance and ongoing relevance of this document are interpreted variously. To facilitate this critical discussion, we offer here the entire report along with excerpts from the 1958 and 1963 Annual Meeting minutes relaying the report’s origin and reception.

It was announced at the 2018 Annual Meeting that the Executive Committee of the Evangelical Covenant Church has commissioned a new resource paper regarding the intersection of freedom and responsibility. As this new work unfolds, the questions raised in 1963 face us once again:

Can we continue to look upon ourselves as a fellowship of believers bound together only by our common life in Christ and conformity to Christ as Savior and Lord? Can we maintain the kind of personal relationships required in a Christian fellowship without any limitations other than that we submit to the authority of the Bible as the revelation of God’s will, or must we return to uniform dogmas and carefully defined interpretations of Scripture to help us understand one another? (p. 12)

It is always up to those in the present to determine whether continuity with the past is desirable—and, if so, which course of action in fact offers such continuity. It is our hope that these historical documents will resource this dialogue.

A sustained attempt to interpret and apply the 1963 report and the broader history it represents is offered by Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary. In “Covenant Freedom: Freedom for All or Free-for-all?” Clifton-Soderstrom explores the necessary relationship between freedom and the Covenant Affirmations of Scripture’s authority and the necessity of new birth. Within this framework, she then offers a theological account of, and criteria for, faithful dissent within Christian freedom. Her final argument is that such faithful dissent is essential to the church’s ongoing renewal.

Clifton-Soderstrom’s work warrants careful reading and serious, critical engagement. We hope the inclusion of Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom will facilitate such thoughtful interaction, and we welcome formal responses for publication in a subsequent issue of this journal. Please contact the editor or submit directly to our website by October 15, 2018, noting guidelines for authors.

In 1910 C.V. Bowman (Covenant president 1927–1933) described the Covenant in this way:

But concerning church order, the Mission Friends have a principle that is still more unique and takes a very prominent place in their program. They hold that the local church shall consist of only believing members but at the same time have room for all true believers, no matter what their viewpoints are on controversial doctrines. It is this principle which really distinguishes Mission Friends from other Christian denominations, and which justifies their existence as a particular church.

This question confronts us today: What distinguishes the Covenant from other Christian denominations and justifies its existence as a particular church? As we grapple with this question in the present we would do well to consider how Covenanters have answered it in the past.


Read the Comment in context and access full issue here.

Sneak Peek: CQ 75:3-4 | Covenant Freedom

Much recent dialog has taken place in the Evangelical Covenant Church regarding the nature and limits of Christian freedom. The upcoming double issue of the Covenant Quarterly seeks to both resource and further this conversation, offering historical context and theological application and inviting your responses


Hauna Ondrey, assistant professor of church history at North Park Theological Seminary, offers introduction and annotation to Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom, a report adopted in 1963 by the Annual Meeting of the Covenant Church. The report is reprinted in full with updated language, preceded and followed by the Annual Meeting minutes detailing the report’s origin (1958) and adoption (1963).

“If we are to be true to this aspect of our heritage, we should sincerely and faithfully use this principle of freedom as a basic element in our existence as a Christian people in today’s world. To do so we must enter into the stream of present theological discussion and exercise our freedom creatively and helpfully with respect to the issues which now confront the Christian church. The theological concerns of the present moment differ in many respects from those of the past. Although many of the questions now being debated in the church were well known to our predecessors, others have arisen since their day and could not have been known to them. Thus, to say that we may differ only at those points where they permitted differences would be to deny to the present generation the freedom in Christ which prior generations enjoyed. In the basic and central affirmations of the Christian faith there must be unity, but in their expression and interpretation there is room for wholesome divergence. It is, therefore, our duty to approach the areas of theological tension with courage, fraternal understanding, and unfailing devotion to Christ and the Scriptures.”

From “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom (1963): Full Report with Supporting Historical Documents”


Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom, professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary, surveys the historical and theological understanding of Christian freedom within the Evangelical Covenant Church, linking it to other Covenant Affirmations and offering a theological account of, and criteria for, faithful dissent within Christian freedom.

 

“This is the heart of freedom, the commitment that distinguishes the Covenant Church in significant and life-giving ways. The Preamble to the Covenant Constitution celebrates freedom as essential: “Our common experience of God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ continues to sustain the Evangelical Covenant Church as an interdependent body of believers that recognizes but transcends our theological differences.” Growth is painful, and the renewing work of the Spirit is vulnerable. Yet these commitments lie behind the Covenant’s historical commitment to freedom in Christ.”

From “Covenant Freedom: Freedom for All or Free-for-All?”


Stay tuned for the full issue, which goes live this Monday.