The Evangelical Free Church Drops Premillennialism

TEDS

TEDS campus

When I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) between 1989 and 1992, the official position of the sponsoring denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, was premillennialism. In other words, in order to teach at TEDS or receive ordination in the denomination, one needed to espouse the belief that the second coming of Jesus Christ would usher in his literal 1000-year reign as king of the earth.

Since my early evangelical experience was filtered through premillennialism, I never really thought twice about any of this.  I have always been interested in the relationship between premillennialism and American evangelicalism, but at the time I was a student at TEDS I was more obsessed with the intramural theological debate over whether or not one was a dispensational premillennialist or a Reformed or “covenant” premillennialist.  Theologians of both persuasions taught at TEDS.

Now, as Daniel Silliman reports at Christianity Today, the Evangelical Free Church has decided to drop the word “premillennial” from its statement of faith.  Here is a taste of his piece:

An internal document explaining the rationale for the change says premillennialism “is clearly a minority position among evangelical believers.” Premillennialism has been a “denominational distinctive” for the EFCA, according to the document, but shouldn’t be overemphasized.

“The thought was, we must either stop saying we are a denomination that majors on the majors … and minors on the minors, or we must stop requiring premillennialism as the one and only eschatological position,” said Greg Strand, EFCA executive director of theology, in an interview with Ed Stetzer.

The revised statement says, “We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Whether or not Jesus will set up a literal kingdom on earth for a millennium is left to individual discretion.

The EFCA has been considering the change for more than a decade. John Woodbridge, a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), the ECFA-affiliated seminary in Deerfield, Illinois, spoke in favor of the shift back in 2008.

Read the entire piece here.

As of Friday night, August 23, 2019, the doctrinal statement of TEDS still reads:

We believe in the personal, bodily and premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.

I will be eager to see how this change will influence future faculty hiring at TEDS.

The “Rapture Bet”

rapture

Check out Fred Clark’s piece titled “A death bet is morally repugnant.  So is a ‘Rapture’ bet.”

A taste:

Donald Trump is making a death bet on climate change. The president is 70 years old and he just doesn’t care about what the world will be like three decades from now. By 2050 he, personally, will be gone, so why should he care about anyone or anything in a future that he will not, personally, live to see?

The idea of a death bet is as vile as it is simple. Live large and indulge yourself, free of all responsibility, paying for it all with debt that won’t come due until after you, personally, are dead. This screws over your heirs, and your creditors, and everyone else who is not you. But, hey, what do you care? You’ll be dead…

But it’s not just Donald Trump making the death bet of climate-change denial. He has the support on this of millions of white evangelical Christians. They don’t care about climate change because they believe the world is about to end anyway. They’re not making a death bet so much as, in their minds, a “Rapture” bet: Can you imagine, Rayford? Jesus coming back to get us before we die!

This isn’t quite as brazenly immoral and selfish as Trump’s death bet. He doesn’t care about what the world will be like in 50 years because he doesn’t care about anything he does not personally experience. These Rapture-Christians don’t care about what the world will be like in 50 years because they don’t believe the world will still be here then. They’re sure it won’t. They’re sure the Rapture is imminent — that it will occur any day, any moment, maybe even before you finish reading this…

Ask them about climate change and they’ll assure you there’s no need to worry about famine and flood in 2050, because they’re “certain” that Jesus is coming back before then. Ask them about their teenage child’s plans to major in art history or theater arts and they’ll give you a very different outlook.

Or just consider the way, say, Rapture-preacher John Hagee is grooming his son to take over his family ministry to ensure that it continues for another generation. Or, more cynically, look at the way these Rapture-preachers and Rapture-believers invest for their own retirements. They’re hedging their Rapture bet when it comes to their own future, but not when it comes to a future they imagine will only affect the lives of other people they don’t personally know.

Read the entire post at Clark’s blog Slacktivist.

Historically, things are a bit complicated.  Of course there is a longstanding history of rapture thinking in modern American evangelicalism.  This is part of the reason why some early 20th-century fundamentalists did not like the Social Gospel.  Why work for social reform when Jesus would be coming back soon? But to be fair to the historical record, many fundamentalists also combined rapture-longing with social action.

A belief in the end times was also the reason why some premillennialists did not initially support U.S. involvement in World War I.  Why fight a war to “make the world safe for democracy” when Jesus would be coming back soon?

And we could go on.  Not all rapture Christians broke with the social demands of Christian faith that their 19th-century Second Great Awakening ancestors championed, but some did.

There is also some question about whether the general failure of evangelicals to support environmental causes today is directly related to their views of the “end times.”  In 2012, political scientists David Barker and David Bearce argued in an article titled “End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change” that “believers in Christian end-times theology are less likely to support policies designed to curb global warming than are other Americans.”  Religion scholar Robin Globus Veldman challenged their findings in a piece at Religion Dispatches.

This all reminds me of when PBS host Bill Moyers accused James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior in the early years of the Reagan administration, of arguing that there was no need for Congress to pass legislation protecting the environment because Jesus Christ would soon be returning. Moyer quoted Watt as saying “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” In 2005, Watt wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post claiming that he never said these things.  He wrote: “I know no Christian who believes or preaches such error.” Moyer apologized, but Watt wanted to make sure, over twenty years after he left office, that Americans understood that evangelical belief was not incompatible with environmental reform.

Today, in a piece on this issue by Washington Postreligion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey, does not mention the “rapture” argument.

In the end, I am sure there are evangelicals out there who believe that the environment is unimportant because the rapture is coming soon.  Clark is right when he says that these rapture Christians are inconsistent. They plan for the future when it comes to their own retirements and inheritances, but they do not plan for the future when it comes to the fate of the planet.

I will end with a tweet from conservative pundit Erick Erickson.  Not sure if it fits into the “rapture Christian” category, but it is certainly revealing.

Premillennialism as a Serious 20th-Century Option For Thinking About the Direction of Human History

SuttonOver at Syndicate, a theology website that has been churning out some very interesting commentary and conversation on new books, a symposium is underway exploring Matthew Sutton’s American  Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins, a doctoral student in intellectual history at Columbia University, edits the symposium that includes Fred Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Schneider, and Joe Creech.

Here is a taste of Jenkins’s introduction to the symposium:

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Fred Sanders’s opening review praises American Apocalypse, but he thinks that Sutton has missed an opportunity to explain “what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.”  He adds, “we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire characters to think this way.” Sanders, I might add, teaches at Biola University, a school that has deep roots in the premillennialist tradition that provides the subject of Sutton’s book.

Sanders chides Suttton for not taking seriously the various eschatological formulations that rivaled premillennialism in 20th century America.  He asks Sutton why he did not situate the history of American premillennialism in the context of these competing views about the direction of human history.  Sanders is not talking here about post-millennialism and amillennialism, the kind of stuff seminary students study in their eschatology courses.  No, Sanders suggests that communism, environmentalism, patriotism, and progressivism all offer their own eschatological vision.  Fundamentalist eschatology offered men and woman an alternative to these “isms.”  It is a fascinating critique.

Sutton seems to dismiss this argument without really addressing it.  (He titled his response “Those Wacky Premillenialists.” Since he identifies Biola as a premillennialist school, and Sanders teaches at Biola, it is hard not to read this as disparaging).  He writes: “But mine is a not a book about competing eschatologies.  It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology.”  Fair enough. But Sanders seems to rightly suggest that premillennialism and fundamentalism did not exist in a vacuum.  Those who upheld these views of the end of the world seemed to define their view of human history over and against other visions of human history.  From a historical perspective, premillennialism was a serious option for thinking about these things–one of many options available to those in the West.  Communism and Progressivism were just as “wacky” to fundamentalists and evangelicalism.

Great symposium.  I look forward to reading the other responses.

 

 

I Wish We’d All Been Ready: John Turner on "A Thief in the Night"

Over at The Anxious Bench, John Turner of George Mason University writes about showing the 1972 evangelical apocalyptic classic “A Thief in the Night” to his class on religion and film.  

Watch the entire movie below.  If you don’t have time, the first five minutes should give you a sense of what it is all about:



I have seen “A Thief in the Night” and its sequels several times over the years.  As a young evangelical these movies scared me to death.  The guy with the lamb chops who is secretly working UNITE is frightening.  

As a divinity school student, I organized a “Thief in the Night” marathon in which we watched all three movies in the series.  This viewing party could best be characterized as a mix of entertainment and theological reflection, but we also made fun of the 1970s evangelical subculture. 

We have mentioned this film several times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  You can find those posts here and here and here.

And here is a taste of Turner’s post:

My church — a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism — did not screen the film when I was a teenager. We were encouraged to make a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ, but not because the world was about to end or because we might be left behind to suffer the assaults of Satan after the rapture. So while thousands or millions of American evangelical young people watched A Thief in the Night in the 1970s and 1980s (the film’s producer claims that in all, three hundred million people have seen the movie), I watched it for the first time this week.

Here are a few thoughts:

– Laugh and groan all you want. It’s no small accomplishment to make a $60,000 film and have millions of people see it. A Thief in the Night is certainly one of the very few most significant evangelical movies ever made. As Randall Balmer observes, “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that A Thief in the Night affected the evangelical film industry the way that sound or color affected Hollywood.”

– People make films for all sorts of reasons. The primary purpose of A Thief in the Night was evangelism, to persuade nominal Christians to make a heart-felt prayer asking Jesus to come into their hearts. What the film intended to do it apparently has done rather well. “I have found,” writes Heather Hendershot in her Shaking the World for Jesus, “that A Thief in the Night is the only evangelical film that viewers cite directly and repeatedly as provoking a conversion experience.” Many successful altar calls followed screenings of the film.

And let’s not forget the movie score, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” written and performed by Christian rock legend Larry Norman: