Dare We Change?


Donald T. Kirkwood

ca. 1961

Dare we change? Before attempting to answer this, think for a moment of the following situation. If one of our former pastors, one who died about the year 1941, would be placed in your midst, worship and live with you for a month, enter into your weekly routine, follow your daily schedule, participate in your religious, social and recreational life, would he notice any differences between 1941 and 196l? If so, you and/or the Bible Fellowship Church have changed.

As a church we have changed: theologically, from Arminianism to modified Calvinism; eschatologically, from Dispensationalism to a more historic and traditional system of interpreting prophecy; ecclesiologically, from episcopal rule to rule by elder; ethically, from an Arminian holiness emphasis to a Keswick Victorious Life Testimony emphasis. There may be some among us who classify themselves as Arminian, Dispensational, episcopal and holiness; others would classify themselves as Calvinistic, non-dispensational and presbyterial. Most, however, would admit a shift toward the latter, even if they placed themselves somewhere between the two.

We have changed and ought to admit it, bearing in mind the following:

l) To change is not heretical, to remain static may be.

2) To change does not mean all that is old is not good.

3) Changes do not happen as isolated incidents; they rise out of the past and were influenced by the soil in which they germinated.

Even those who lament change have changed, far more that they realize. Theologically we have changed. We have in our new Faith and Order statements on perseverance and election, none on non-resistance or foot washing. Ecclesiologically we have changed. We have moved from an episcopal form of government toward the direction of rule by elder. Whereas on the conference level we formerly had fewer boards, staffed by ministers only and not always functioning as boards; we now have many boards, staffed by laymen as well as ministers, and in some cases functioning more as boards. On the local level we have rule by elder in the Official Board. Eschatologically we have changed. We at one time heard sermons advocating the partial rapture and a form of soul sleep. This was followed by Darby Dispensationalism. We now have several varieties of premillennialism. Ethically we have changed. The examples in this area are many. There is the dress of women, the stand on cosmetics, the use of the wedding ring. The role of men in sports and politics, in short, the whole area of adiaphora. The day when a pastor could walk down the aisle and remove a feather from a woman’s hat is long gone. The day when a boy had to give up his Sunday School office because he belonged to the Boy Scouts is past. We have changed on our position of what to permit and what to prohibit. Whether or not we are now right is beside the point at the moment. The point is this: We have changed. Would you want to return to the standards of the past? If so, which? If not, you have changed. Formerly we laid great stress on externals, perhaps at the expense of the more important heart attitudes. If we have gone too far in not mentioning negatives, changes are in order. In that case we have changed and ought to change again.

I. The Origin of Change

Were these changes forced upon Conference and the particular churches?

Were these changes conceived in the mind of a small group of alien dissidents?

Were these changes indicative of disloyalty to our heritage?

Before answering these questions, reflect upon the history of the changes within the last decade. The thrust for changing the name of our church may have originated in the minds of a few. The change, however, came as the result of a voluntary conversion of former opponents after studying the facts. Should we then criticize the originators of the name change for conceiving the idea, or the converted for changing their mind? In any case, a great majority ended up with a changed mind, and few want to return to the old name. The story is the same with reference to the present system of pulpit supply. It was conceived in the minds of a few. Over original opposition of many, it gradually gained support and was finally adopted. It has its faults and needs refinement, but would the churches and pastors want to return to the old system? If not, we have changed. If so, to what system would or should we return? The same story could be told with reference to the Official Board.

Each of the above came about only after overcoming strong opposition. In the course of overcoming opposition emotions were aroused, strong statements were made by proponents and opponents, nevertheless, the change was effected. Who is to be blamed for unsavory elements connected with effecting change? Is the onus to rest upon those with the foresight to see a need, formulate a plan and effect a change by the conversion of others, or is it to rest upon those who could or would not see and therefore opposed? To have opposed something which later one came to accept is not in itself blameworthy. However, to have consistently opposed what is now acceptable ought to make one pause and reconsider his opposition to future changes which are

the outgrowth of changes already accomplished.

Whatever is said of the recent changes, it cannot be said that they were forced upon the church, nor that they came from alien dissidents, disloyal to our heritage.

Were not some of these changes long overdue? Had we not become overly traditional in some areas? Churches which are bound by tradition are not as strong as they appear on the surface. The monolithic front of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church– both churches strong on tradition – is only a veneer. Blind loyalty to tradition is a convenient cover which prevents constant self-reformation and paves the way for the introduction of truly alien ideas. Tradition and a solid front against change are not guarantees for the retention of orthodoxy anymore than change per se is a sign of the departure from orthodoxy. An illustration of this is seen in the Old Mennonite Church. By tradition they are strong on non-resistance. This has been elevated to the hallmark of Mennonitism. The result is that a neo-orthodox seminary professor who happen to believe in non-resistance is invited to speak at their Bible conference. Non-resistance is more important to them than the doctrine of inspiration. Tradition makes it so.

The orthodoxy of no minister in our conference is in any way suspect. The change over the last decade has not been in the direction away from orthodoxy. On the contrary, there has been a change in the direction of higher standards for church membership and a more biblically oriented theology and ecclesiology. These were not contrary to tradition. The Bible Fellowship Church originated as a result of change, it history is redolent with change, and it will have to continue to change to maintain its tradition and to serve its future generations well.

II. The Direction of Change

Lurking behind the reluctance to change is a latent fear of the direction and extent of proposed changes. This is evident, for example, in the areas of eschatology and ecclesiology. There is a conscious or unconscious fear that advocates of change will go too far, even though going in the right direction. Take, for example the area of eschatology. Much of the opposition to any view other than the Dispensational one arises out of fear of going too far. Much of this fear could be alleviated by proper communications, careful study and definitions of terms. Are the advocates of change blameworthy due to inaccurate or extreme statements, or are the proponents of Darby Dispensationalism blameworthy due to fear of what they deem an extreme? Many times during the course of casual conversation, re the time of the rapture, it has become obvious that the proponent of Dispensationalism has failed to distinguish between postmillennialism and posttribulationism. There is, a difference. When this difference is made clear many find their grounds for opposing removed. The same is true in the realm of ecclesiology. When some who advocate change in this area make clear their position on church government and the relation of the particular church to the denomination, the ground for opposition is greatly altered. What-

ever one may say about changes proposed in the areas of eschatology and ecclesiology, he cannot say they were heretical, unbiblical or inimical of the Bible Fellowship Church. On the contrary, they are in keeping with our heritage and the present direction of our movement. The right to told a variety of views within the ambit of premillennialism made possible the adoption of the pretribulation view which is now widely held in our midst. Toleration is therefore not against tradition.

If the direction in which we are going has as its terminus heresy, then one ought to be alarmed. If, on the other hand, it has a position one does not himself advocate but which is not heterodox, he ought not consider suspect one who goes farther than he in the direction of change. Specifically, a post or partial rapture theory is not heterodox, neither is rule by elder. When one is willing to say this, his fears of change and opposition will be different, even though he may not himself advocate these views. Reverse, for a moment, the direction of change. If the direction of change were toward Dispensationalism and the episcopacy, one could not call them heretical. But this is not the direction of changes within the last decade. Therefore, to try to reverse the direction of the movement within this decade is to change. This, too, might go too far. It might lead to extremes. For example, in the realm of ecclesiology, one can oppose rule by elder, defend the status quo, and by so doing he may aid the movement toward congregationalism, the very thing he feared. In any case there has been consistency in the direction of change within the last decade. If there is a desire to reverse the direction of this change, it ought to be clearly stated. If there is a desire to cease changing, it too ought to be stated. We ought to bear in mind, however, that to cease a movement when it is half complete will hardly satisfy anyone, and will leave the church with blatant theological and ecclesiological contradictions.

If the direction in which one is traveling has an extreme which is to be avoided, it does not follow that any movement in that direction is undesirable. For example, justification by faith is opposed by Romanism. Antinomianism is said to be the result of the doctrine of justification by faith. Yet we Protestants believe in justification by faith and admit that one may misunderstand and pervert it. One may even go to an extreme and advocate antinomianism. This, however, is a perversion of justification by faith, a perversion against which scripture provides ample safe guards. In spite of the possibility of going to extremes, we still believe in justification by faith. We have no right to believe otherwise. Neither have we any right in the name of “protecting” the doctrine to erect a “hedge” about it. The same is true in the areas of eschatology and ecclesiology.

III. Opposition to Change

Other than for the reason of outright disagreement with a proposed change, opposition may arise from any of the following:

l) Lack of understanding of a position.

2) Lack of communication between positions.

3) Lack of confidence in the proponents of change.

4) Lack of a desire to go through with all that is involved in change.

5) A desire to maintain the status quo.

6) A fear of what change may lead to.

Each of these could be elaborated upon and concrete examples cited for each. This, however, will not be done. Instead, a few questions will be asked. Are we aware of the extent of the changes in the Bible Fellowship Church within the last decade? Would we want to reverse the action in each of the changes made during the last decade? When are changes to be finalized?

It is often easy and convenient to have a blurred memory, especially when to recall certain things is embarrassing. But if one can remember his original stand on each of the following, let him compare it with his stand today. The use of the wedding ring, the right of the pastor to hold communion, the presence of laymen on church boards, the new system of pulpit supply, the introduction of the Official Board, the proposal to change the church name, the doctrine of assurance or any similar doctrine or practice. If one opposed the introduction of these doctrines or practices and has now come to accept them, not desiring to return to the former position, he ought to be reluctant in opposing additional changes, or in thinking that all need for change has ceased. If one is unaware that these were opposed, either actively or passively, it is probably due to his lack of acquaintance with the history of the recent development within the Bible Fellowship Church. It is easy to accept gains that were acquired at the expense of others. It is easy to forget what one opposed vocally or by tacit indifference. It is easy to think disfavoringly

of the agitation involved in effecting a change. But was the agitation necessarily the fault of the originators of change? Could it not have been due to a wall of opposition which either crumbled or retreated?

After one lives for a while with the thing he opposed, he often realizes its value and would not want to revert to the old position. Few, however, admit this. A concrete example is found, in the United States Post Office Department. When the Post Office went from two to one delivery a day, many postmen violently opposed it. Later on many of them were privately admitting that they liked it better than the one-a- day delivery. Often one is unaware of or forgets the shift in his own thinking, a shift so gradual that it is almost imperceptible. When, however, one is confronted with the implications or logical deductions necessarily involved in this shift, he becomes suddenly aware of the drift in his own thinking. In this situation he can again oppose the additional changes on the ground of “going too far,” “becoming like____,” or he can suddenly desire to revert to the original position. But, in any case, he cannot consistently stay where he is.

During the course of the last decade of change, the individuals involved in making the changes have changed, that is, new ones have come in at various stages of change. Depending upon impressions received, individual initiative, historical perspective, background, and the like, the appraisal of the changing situation varied greatly with these men. The generation “that knew not the original situation” may react strongly against changes. Adequate communications and a careful study of the history of change could prevent or greatly alter these reactions. An event in connection with the election of the members of the Home Board at the last conference provides a recent example of what has produced in many a desire for change. Lack of knowledge of this produces opposition to change.

Furthermore, by means of adequate communications one would know what was proposed as well as what was opposed. If one opposes rule by elder, what does he advocate? Congregationalism? An episcopacy? If one opposes Calvinism, what does he propose? Arminianism? If one opposes historic premillennialism, what does he propose? Darby Dispensationalism?

One has a right to be against something just as one has a right to be for something. Those against something have a right to speak out against change, but it is not asking too much to request a clear, frank communication between proponents and opponents. Would not both learn from the dialogue? It is easy to be an “againer” without ever offering an articulate presentation of a positive position. A carefully articulated presentation of the position the opposite of that represented by the changes of the last decade would be beneficial to the welfare of the Bible Fellowship Church. Silence will not help. Opposition for the reasons mentioned in the beginning of number III above will not solve the problem. Only a discussion of the problems after adequate communications, together with a coherent and articulated presentation of every position will resolve the problems confronting us.

In the area of ecclesiology there is a strong opposition to what some call Presbyterianism.” Some pastors are termed “Presbyterian.” Because of the background and training of these men the label seems apropos. By branding these men and the position they advocate as “Presbyterian” an impression is created. Without endeavoring to comment on the appropriateness of this term or attempting to defend those who bear it, would it be out of order to ask a few questions? What is meant by the term “Presbyterian”? Precisely what must one believe or advocate to warrant it? Precisely what is wrong with the beliefs and practices synonymous with the term? What is proposed in the place of the beliefs and practices advocated by those bearing this term? Is there a desire to return to the position of the Bible Fellowship Church in 1941. If the answer is in the positive, one ought to note the following? We should then be called “Methodists.” This is so because our terminology and beliefs had their roots in Methodism. Or, if we reject this, do we want to adopt the practices, and beliefs of the independent churches? Are the terminology and ecclesiology inherited from the Methodist Church to be perpetuated in the Bible Fellowship Church in order to exclude some biblical concepts which happen to be held by Presbyterians?

If it is an aversion to infant baptism, one ought to remember that each of these churches practices infant baptism. He ought also to remember that we have had Presbyterians at our Camp Meeting, Bible School and local churches. Seldom if ever has this been true of Methodists. Many who fear the influences of “Presbyterianism” are themselves subjects of influences of which they are unaware. Because a man studied in a certain school does not mean he has adopted all that that school teaches. To look upon that man as parroting the line of the school is to do him grave injustice. Just because one has not gone to certain schools or any school DOES NOT MEAN THAT HE HAS NOT BEEN INFLUENCED BY SOMETHING OR SOMEONE. Therefore, when one opposes something on the ground of it being “Presbyterian,” he owes it to himself and the Bible Fellowship Church to far more specific and more self reflective. He ought to be aware, for instance, of the fact that in all probability he is guilty of the very thing he suspects in others, viz,, parroting the party line. This is especially true in eschatology and ecclesiology.

There are among us some who are strongly opposed to Westminster Theological Seminary. Some of this opposition, no doubt, stems from an incident involving a member of one of our churches some twenty years ago, some stems from other sources. Some of the objections to Westminster may be legitimate. No school is perfect, and no one contends that Westminster is perfect. In particular, there is opposition to Westminster’s stand on Christian Liberty, No one in the Bible Fellowship Church would defend the Westminster position on Christian Liberty. But before leaving the subject of liberty, allow this question to be asked. Do the objectors to Westminster’s position on Liberty know what that position really is? If not, they owe it to themselves and others to find out. Turning from Christian Liberty to other and more important areas of investigation in evaluating a seminary, one will find that Westminster, in all probability, has as much in common with the Bible Fellowship Church as any seminary in the country. Where else does one find so strong an emphasis on the authority of God’s Word, a biblical conception of the church, ecclesiastical separation, devotion to a cause, and the like. Are we unaware of the fact that two of the most influential and widely circulated pamphlets against neo-evangelicalism were written by Westminster professors? (I purchased a copy of one in Bethel Church, Allentown.) Are we against seminary training? If not, where should our men go? Fuller? Dallas? The former encourages their men to go back into the ecumenical movement, the latter favors the independent churches.

Is there in our midst a fear of and opposition to rule by elder? If so, on what grounds? Would not a candid sharing of opinions by proponents and opponents help both? In thinking about this recently the following thought came to me. Why, in spite of the fact that perhaps the great majority of missionaries serving with independent faith-missions come from independent or congregational churches, do most missionaries when speaking of the government of the African church speak of rule by elder? This was not the form of government with which they were familiar at home. Why then introduce this form to the Africans? Is this the answer? They were driven to the Bible in setting up a government in virgin territory. They were starting from nothing, without a tradition, precedent, conditioning, prejudices, or the like. When they turned to the Bible they apparently found something, for there is a great deal of unanimity and uniformity in principle and practice when men from different boards and backgrounds speak of the government of the African church. Invariably they speak of rule by elder, and invariably they got it from the Bible. Can we afford, therefore, to oppose it?

Coming back to the Bible Fellowship Church, it is felt by many that the recent changes which inaugurated the Official Board were a step in the direction of a more biblically oriented government. Assuming that this is true, it must then be looked upon as a step in the right direction. The question is not who advocated it, but is it biblical? Not which churches or denominations believe like that, but, is it scriptural? The question is not where will extremes lead us, but is it in keeping with the revealed will of God. We must then ask ourselves if our opposition to change is a jealous guarding of tradition or a defense of the revealed will of God. We must ask ourselves if we are defending what has been handed down and never critically analyzed or are we defending what we have gathered from studying what God the Spirit has revealed to the church in Scripture and to men throughout the history of the church.

A careful study of Scripture and the classical works on ecclesiology might effect some changes. Careful study effected changes in the matter of church name after initial and uninformed opposition reacted against it. We are coming to the place where we may change our stewardship procedures. In any case, we are open and agreeable to reconsidering something which formerly resulted in cannibalism. Can we not all learn from these experiences?

IV. The End of Change

By “end of change” is meant the goal and cessation of change,

The goal of all change within the area of the context of this paper should be

1) To conform more closely to God’s revealed will. Thus the question is not primarily, will this proposed change work better, produce more, and the like; but will it bring us more closely in line with God’s revealed will?

2) To more effectively serve the Lord. This is not contrary to #1, but is subordinate to it.

Change ought never cease. This side of glory we will never reach perfection. To think we have is to think unscripturally. Therefore there is always room for change in our striving for perfection. This is true due to our increased understanding of God’s revealed will as we yield to the light possessed, and to the fact that history does not stand still. We must seek the leading of the Lord if we are to serve our generation well, if we are to communicate to them the gospel of Christ. We know in part and prophesy in part; only in glory will perfection be attained.

The admission of imperfection in our church life is not meant to justify the presence of known error nor to be disloyal. Just because one sings “God mend thine every flaw” when he sings “America” does not mean he is un-American. Whenever error or imperfection is revealed, effort ought to be made to expunge them. Unless one is willing to face facts, admit error and be willing to change, changes will cease. To grow spiritually one must yield to the light, transform his life and conform to the revealed will of God. Furthermore, he must actively seek to ascertain that will. Unless he does he ceases to grow. The same is true in church life. This is not meant to imply that all proposed changes are guarantees of growth, neither can it be said that all proposed changes are retardants to growth. But if the proposed change is in accord with the revealed will of God and still rejected, it does mean that growth will be retarded. We ought, therefore, to be careful about developing in the minds of individual church members a suspicion to or antagonism of change, for to do so is to hinder conformity to the revealed will of God.

As a church we have changed. In all fairness, in all honesty and humility, in all propriety, we ought to admit it. To do so is not to be disloyal to or unappreciative of the past. The direction and drive for the effected changes came from the scripturally oriented heritage which was ours. The changes effected were but a continuation of the process inaugurated by the founders of our denomination; they too, were reformers. Furthermore, we desire that future generations receive from us a heritage of openness to the revealed will of God and a willingness to effect any change necessary thereto. If we fail to do this stagnation will set in while the course of history moves on and our church will find itself unable to serve its generation well.

Thus the question is not “Dare we change?” but rather “Dare we not change?”

What is behind this paper?

Several things:

1. A desire for better communications within the Bible Fellowship Church between men who differ. The result of better communications will be less disagreement, an awareness of the points wherein there is a disagreement, and the dissolving of fears and suspicions.

2. A desire to see prevented what seems to be in the making, vis., an antagonism to change stemming from the changes of the last decade. Better communications will help in this area also.

3. A desire to see dispelled the clouds of suspicion and fear which hover over us.

4. A desire to see something done in the area of ecclesiology. Among the things calling for attention in this area are the vestiges of our former government which are anomalous, contradictory or impeditive.

5. A desire to have a “Plymouth Brethren” meeting for the purpose of endeavoring to achieve some of the desires listed above and to clarify some of the issues confronting us.

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