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A Bittersweet Announcement

Over the last few years, we’ve studied and discussed together the different views that evangelical Christians hold regarding the nature of hell. At two separate times we studied these differing views intensely. Both of these studies were prompted by questions or requests from people in our church. The first study was a “detour” in a leadership training class, and the second was a topic requested for study in our Forum (where we study and discuss anything requested). At the end of both of these studies there were varying responses to these different views, but there was overwhelming consensus that we should not dogmatically insist that faithful Christians can hold only one of these views.

After much prayerful study and discussion, we decided as a congregation (with no one dissenting) that we should provide freedom for our people—including our pastors and leaders—to hold and teach any of these views. We felt this approach to be in harmony with our evangelical free church tradition. This heritage is committed to scriptural truth over tradition, as reflected in the familiar question: “Where stands it written?” It also includes a desire to not “major in the minors” by demanding uniformity on doctrines about which faithful Christians can disagree. This “significance of silence” has caused free church associations to not make official, denominational pronouncements regarding such issues as election or predestination, spiritual gifts, the security of the believer, different views on the end times, etc.

We continue to study and discuss all of these doctrines, but the free churches have historically left the position of each church up to that congregation. The exact nature of hell is an issue on which first century Jews didn’t agree. There were differing views on the nature (not existence, but nature) of hell that were widely held in the first 600 years of the life of the church, with proponents of different views continuing on through church history. And those who hold each of these views can appeal to careful biblical study and theological arguments that are thoroughly evangelical in order to support their views (even though, of course, all the views can’t be correct). Because of all this, we felt it was as inappropriate for us to insist on only one view of hell as it would be for us to insist on only one view of predestination or the rapture. (You can find our original announcement of this decision, in an updated form, here.)

But while we feel strongly that this approach is very much in harmony with our free church heritage, it was not in harmony with the Statement of Faith of our denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America. This doctrinal statement, on which all member churches of the EFCA are to be united, explicitly states belief in “eternal conscious punishment.” (You can find the EFCA Statement of Faith here.) As the website notes, the EFCA is an association of congregations united around a Statement of Faith. We were providing freedom of conviction for us as a church beyond that provided by the association’s Statement of Faith.

So we immediately contacted our District Superintendent, Neal Brower, who has been a faithful friend and brother to our church for a long time. Neal appreciated our approach and the integrity of communicating what we were doing, but also saw the challenges to our remaining in the EFCA. Our church family had made this decision knowing it would likely result in the necessity of us leaving the denomination. We didn’t want this separation, but were resolved to provide this freedom of belief.  Neal worked very hard to find some way for us to remain in fellowship with the EFCA. Fairly early in this process, we were at the point of announcing our departure from the denomination, only for Neal to find a way at the last minute for us to remain. All of this finally culminated last Saturday (May 14, 2022) with our participation in a meeting of the Western District board.

The meeting was very warm, with a lot of camaraderie and laughter. There were many expressions of appreciation for our church’s approach to ministry and for our integrity in how we had communicated with them about this issue. But we were all faced with the same problem. The issue for the board couldn’t be about how valid any other views of hell might be; they’ve been entrusted with the Statement of Faith as written, and have to be faithful stewards of what was entrusted to them. The only issue for them was the question of whether we are in complete harmony with the EFCA Statement of Faith, and we clearly are not. So the reluctant conclusion was that by us providing this freedom that goes beyond the EFCA Statement of Faith, we have essentially separated ourselves as a church from the EFCA. There was no animosity or condemnation in this decision, but only a sad realization of the truth. We respect and affirm the integrity of the board of the Western District, and consider them faithful brothers and sisters doing what was required of them. In their place, we would have come to the same conclusion. We were asked to provide a letter formally disaffiliating The Orchard from the Western District of the EFCA, and we’re including a copy of that letter below.

So what will change for us a congregation? As far as our daily and weekly ministry, not much. As we’ve discussed previously as a church, we will be pursuing membership in the National Association of Evangelicals. This will give us a connection with an association of evangelical churches beyond just our congregation. When there’s any crisis to which we want to respond, we’ll be able to donate through their excellent World Relief ministry. We’ll continue to network informally with other churches and Christian ministries, and we may find another association of churches we’d like to join. We’ll have many options going forward.

Why do we describe this as bittersweet rather than just sad? Some within the EFCA seem to be recognizing that our approach to this issue is very much in harmony with the historical ethos of the evangelical free churches. We didn’t make the decision to provide this freedom of belief because of a desire to separate or to aggressively advocate for any other position. This was an act of conscience on our part because it was right thing for us to do as an evangelical free church. This is similar to others in the past who called the free churches to allow for freedom of belief regarding different views of the rapture or the millennium. Perhaps the most faithful thing we can do for the EFCA right now is to be denominationally separated because of our commitment to our common heritage. We will continue to love our brothers and sisters in the EFCA, pray for them, and maintain our friendships with them as we move forward to what God has in store for us as a church. And maybe someday the EFCA will provide liberty to the free churches regarding this issue, and we will once again be able to be part of this association we love.

In the meantime, please note that our church website can now be found at:

orchardonline.org

The old url will continue to forward people to this new web address. Also, our church email addresses have changed:

info@orchardonline.org
admin@orchardonline.org
and Curt Parton can now be reached at curt@orchardonline.org.

If you’re interested in reading more about the nature of hell, Curt has written a blog series exploring the issue, and you can find the first post here.

If you have questions, comments or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact anyone on our senior pastoral team.

Our letter to the EFCA leadership:

Dear Neal, Matt, and members of the Western District board,

We’re writing this with heavy hearts, but thankful for the camaraderie, fellowship and sense of shared mission we’ve experienced in the Western District. As you know, in June of last year we decided as a church to allow the freedom for the people of our congregation, including our pastors and leaders, to hold and teach differing views concerning the nature of hell, particularly its purpose, duration and final outcome. This was the result of multiple interactive studies and subsequent prayerful discussion. This issue wasn’t introduced into the church by any of our leaders, but was prompted by questions from people in the church. Even though we don’t all agree regarding this belief, we made this decision as a congregation, without any dissent, to allow this freedom.

Please excuse our restating the issue that’s at the heart of this for us. We unanimously affirm that the punishment of unbelievers in hell is both conscious and aionios. But when such a broad range of evangelical scholars, as well as the theological exposition of the EFCA Statement of Faith, acknowledge that aionios in passages such as Matthew 25:41, 46 doesn’t mean “eternal” but “pertaining to the age to come”; when there is a well-documented variety of views regarding hell among first century Jews and in the history of the church (especially the first 500 years, including many of those we consider great leaders of the early church); and when proponents of other views can articulate these differing views with biblically and theologically robust arguments, it’s hard to see why this one understanding, “eternal conscious punishment,” should be considered an absolute that all Free Churches must affirm without exception or caveat. We feel strongly that this freedom we are allowing as a church is very much in line with the historical ethos of the Free Church. Since this matter can be disputed among those who are consistently evangelical in their theology—even conservatively so—we see it as consonant with our heritage of a “significance of silence,” majoring in the majors and not the minors.

With that said, we do understand that how valid any other view may or may not be can’t be the issue for the board. The board has been entrusted with the Statement of Faith as it’s written, and you must be faithful stewards of what’s been entrusted to you. We also, of course, understand that our decision puts us out of step with the EFCA Statement of Faith; the congregation made this unanimous decision knowing this incongruence. This is what prompted us to meet with Neal as soon as possible after taking this step, to let you know what we were doing and why, and what ultimately led to the recent meeting with the Western District board. It was never our desire to force this issue, but simply to openly communicate with integrity the decision we had made as a church. It’s not our desire now to contend for any other view within the EFCA or to push for the association to take a different approach, although we understand how our presence within the district could have this kind of effect regardless of our intention.

We are incredibly appreciative of your attempts to find a way for us to remain in partnership and fellowship with the EFCA. This is what we desired as well. We’re also very thankful for the graciousrespectful way the board has handled this. This combination of pastoral warmth with theological rigor is part of what we love so much about the EFCA. But we understand the place the Statement of Faith holds in the life of the EFCA, that this is largely what unites the Free Churches, and that we are no longer aligned with this detail of belief in the 10th point of the Statement of Faith. Since this sole view of hell is an absolute belief on which the churches of the EFCA are united, then we clearly no longer share in that unity. We don’t feel it would be appropriate for us to formally affirm an exclusive doctrine knowing that we, in reality, do not. So, for the sake of the integrity of The Orchard, the integrity of the Western District and of the EFCA, the time has come for us to disaffiliate our church from the Western District of the EFCA. We’ll be sure to change anything that might identify us as currently associated with the Western District or the EFCA, and we’ll be in touch, if necessary, regarding any practical steps that may need to be taken in this disaffiliation process.

Neal, we’re so thankful for your service and friendship to our church family. You’ve never failed to be encouraging to us, and also challenging when we needed it. You’re a big part of the good things that have happened here—but not responsible for any mistakes we may have made! While we may no longer be in partnership with the Western District, we remain your brothers and sisters in Christ. We certainly have no feelings of resentment or animosity toward anyone in the EFCA, and we pray that our friendships with those in the Free Churches will continue in the grace and peace of Christ. We remain grounded in the same gospel and committed to the same mission. We pray that God will continue to richly pour out his blessings on and through the EFCA and the Western District.

Your brothers,
Chris Brackett
Jack Foster
Curt Parton

senior pastoral team
The Orchard

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