Report of the
Study Committee: The Millennium
I. Our basic recommendation - Eschatological liberty:
After having spent four years in intensive study concerning the issue of the bodily return of Christ and related aspects of His future kingdom, the committee recommends that eschatological liberty be granted those holding an evangelical/orthodox understanding of the millennium. We do not believe a particular evangelical millennial view to be a test of evangelical authenticity. We understand that there is an “already / not yet” dimension to the Kingdom of God. We further believe that our recommended articles will allow for proper evangelical eschatological liberty. Also, our proposal will allow us collectively as a denomination and individually as pastors and elders, to proclaim truth by holding confidently and unapologetically to a firm Biblical understanding of the primary events associated with Christ’s return without causing harmful and unnecessary division within the body of Christ.
II. Potential New Articles (to replace current Articles 24 through 28)
Article 24 - The Kingdom of God
24-1. The kingdom of God is His sovereign rule over all things (1Chr. 29:10-11; Psa.103:19; 145:11-13). It is dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ and is a present reality experienced by believers through their being united with Him and His resurrection in the New Birth (John 3:3,5; Eph.2:6; Col.1:13; 3:1). The kingdom of God is also a longed for and confident hope that awaits its fullness with the return of Jesus Christ, (Mat.6:10; 25:31-46; Rev.20-22). While believers live in this present evil age (Gal.1:4), through their Spirit-wrought union with Christ they also experience a foretaste of the powers of the age to come (Heb.6:5). The moment a believer is regenerated he possesses eternal life (John 6:47) and having been made alive spiritually he is a new creation (2Cor. 5:17). However, he is still in a mortal body, living in a fallen world, awaiting the resurrection of the body (John 6:39,40) and Christ’s final victory. Thus, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences the tension between already sharing in the glories of the Kingdom of God while yet awaiting its final and consummate realization (Rom.8:17-25 ; 2Thes.1:3-10; Heb.2:5-9).
Article 25 - The Return of Jesus Christ
25-1. The return of Jesus Christ is the blessed hope of the believer, who waits for it with patience, endurance and anticipation (Titus 2:13). Jesus Christ will return to this earth - personally (Acts 1:9-11), visibly (Mark 14:61,62), physically (Phil.3:20,21; Luke 24:29-43), and suddenly (1Thes.5:2-3) in power and great glory (Luke 21:27); and in conjunction with His return He will gather His elect (Mat.24:31), raise the dead (1Thes.4:15-17; John 5:28-29), judge the nations (Mat.25:31-46; Rev.9:15-21), remove the curse (Rom.8:20-21), bring to consummation His kingdom (1Cor.15:22-28) and recreate a new heaven and earth (2Pe.3:10).
[NOTICE that we have made one change since our last report: in Article 25-1, the last sentence, we have changed consummate His kingdom” to now read “bring to consummation His kingdom.”]
25-2. The bodily resurrection of Christ is the basis for the bodily resurrection of all mankind, both the righteous and the unrighteous (John 5:28,29; 11:25). At the return of the Lord the bodies of the righteous dead will be raised, and the living believers will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air (1Thes.4:14-17). Believers will, at His return, receive spiritual and immortal bodies like Christ's own glorious body (Phil. 3:20,21; Job 19:25-27).
25-3. The return of Jesus Christ is the believer's source of encouragement and comfort inspiring him to active service for Christ, and is a motive for purification and holy living (2Pe.3:1-14; 1Jo.3:3)
Article 26 - The Eternal State
There are two final, eternal destinies for man: heaven for the righteous and penitent and hell for the unrighteous and impenitent (Mat.25:46). The judgment that brings this about will vindicate believers and condemn all of the enemies of God to eternal punishment. The righteous will enter into the everlasting joy of their Master (Mat.25:23; Eph.2:7; Rev.21:3-4); the wicked who suppressed the truth in unrighteousness will be consigned to everlasting conscious torment in hell from which there is no escape (Rev.20:11-15). The new heavens and the new earth shall be created as the final state in which the righteous shall dwell forever in the presence of God.
III. Why approval of this proposal is good for the Bible Fellowship Church:
A. Christ’s return is our “blessed hope,” not the time lines associated with it. Too much time and energy is being spent in evangelical/fundamental churches – including the BFC – on possible time lines and the sequence of events related to Christ’s second coming rather than on his actual coming and its significance. Different sequences or time lines thus become focal points of attention and discussion rather than the return of Christ. We believe that approval of this proposal will actually allow time lines and sequences to have less importance, and thereby encourage the focus to be Christ’s personal return, which truly is our “blessed hope.”
The Scripture declares loudly and repeatedly: we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). These words teach us that Mennonite Brethren in Christ/Bible Fellowship Church people were taking Scripture seriously in emphasizing throughout our history the anticipation of Christ’s return for his people. However that emphasis has faded in the last generation. Our people continue to speak of the joy of Christ’s return, but in the last generation little in-depth teaching has been given. The different opinions concerning time lines and sequences of events too often create fear of personal rejection of the teacher, or, perhaps worse yet, of splitting a church if one does not adhere to the right sequence of eschatological events.
The relationship of the rapture to the tribulation was at one time the dividing issue in our Bible Fellowship Churches concerning eschatology. The writing of Article 24 created considerable tension in the 1950’s and 60’s, but was approved without requiring a specific view of the relationship of the rapture and the tribulation. That liberty has come to be accepted. Today the issue is whether (1) there is a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth following his second coming (premillennialism) later followed by the “new heavens and new earth,” or whether (2) the literal millennial kingdom will be capped by Christ’s return (postmillennialism) followed by “the new heavens and the new earth,” or whether (3) Christ’s reign over the world is now administered from His heavenly session at the right hand of God, waiting to be revealed at His appearing, followed by “the new heavens and the new earth” in which He will visibly rule over the earth (amillennialism). Adopting the material proposed here will allow us to teach different convictions about Christ’s return, while encouraging us to focus more fully on our “blessed hope”—meeting Christ our Savior and being fully transformed into his likeness—and the age to come.
B. The ways in which Scripture speaks about the end times make it difficult to interpret with finality. The return of Christ is the one issue on which Christ himself confessed less than full knowledge (Mat.24:36). He also instructed His followers to be more concerned about dependence on the Holy Spirit than concerned about the time of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:4-8).
In Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 11, the prophet begins with the anticipated coming of Christ (v. 1), Christ’s ministry on earth (vv.2 ff.) with transition to Christ’s return and judgment and restoration. Serious interpreters differ over where in the passage transition from Jesus’ earthly ministry to his return ministry takes place. Jesus says in Luke 4:18,19 that Isaiah 61 speaks of His coming. Interpreters differ over why He stopped reading just before “the day of vengeance of our God.” By stopping where He did, was Jesus making a distinction between His time of grace and His time of judgment? Or did He just stop there, having identified Himself as the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy? Such claims come because just after speaking of “vengeance” Isaiah speaks of what sounds like grace– “comfort” and of giving “the oil of gladness for mourning.” This is simply to say that interpreting Scripture regarding its eschatology is not always simple. The whole book of Revelation is so full of Old Testament imagery and apocalyptic kinds of speech that it is not easy to resolve differences of interpretation. Teaching that focuses on Christ’s personal return without being hung up on time lines and sequences will engender an attitude toward serious study of Scripture that will benefit God’s people. Adopting this proposal will allow for more open discussion of these difficult passages of Scripture without fear.
C. There has been a premillennialism in the church since the early church fathers, but a different type of premillennialism arose in the mid-nineteenth century. That kind of premillennialism is part of the Dispensationalism that developed through J. N. Darby and was then popularized through the Scofield Bible. This Dispensationalism is so prevalent in evangelical/ fundamental churches that most people are not aware of its pervasiveness. Coming to be conscious of different perspectives held throughout church history and the depth of influence of this Dispensational perspective on the understanding of Scripture will help people to realize that other views of Christ’s personal return (Acts 1:9-11) are not heretical and that the Dispensational perspective is relatively new. The impact of historical and exegetical discussion has precipitated significant change of convictions even among those who call themselves Dispensationalists. The BFC can benefit in similar ways. Adopting this proposal will allow greater openness to the impact of the history of the interpretation of Scripture.
Evangelicalism’s present comparative silence on eschatology would seem to leave one of two impressions. Both are inadequate. One impression that may be left is that Christ’s return is primarily a matter of our deliverance from problems such as evil culture, tests and threats from unbelievers. This is not being careful enough with Scripture. Christ’s return is more than that. Another impression that may be left is that “this life is all there is.” But the Scripture clearly says that there is “the age to come.” To say too little about it is also not being careful enough with Scripture. Adopting this proposal does not automatically make us more careful with Scripture, but it should greatly enable and encourage us toward that end. Thus, we believe it is good for the BFC because it allows more room for that desired greater carefulness.
IV. The Hermeneutical Issue:
What is the controversy?
A “Dispensational Pre-millennialist”, an “Historic Pre-millennialist” and an “Amillennialist” all take the scripture to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God. They all seek to take great pains to properly and accurately interpret the Scriptures. No one from either of these positions seeks to interpret Scripture subjectively. None wish to make Scripture say whatever they want it to say. All of them seek to put into place safeguards that protect the integrity of the Word of God. What then shapes our understanding of hermeneutics, causing us to arrive at different eschatological conclusions? Not wanting to be simplistic, but for the sake of brevity the following seems to be the basic hermeneutical issue.
A dispensational pre-millennialist believes that one must interpret the Scriptures “literally”. Of course they understand that at times scripture needs to be interpreted figuratively. However, they feel that their basic overall approach to the hermeneutical task is to interpret the text “literally”. They feel that this is the safest way to interpret Scripture. It allows God to mean what He says. It prevents someone from arbitrarily making the Scripture say whatever suits the interpreter. Therefore, prophetic promises made to “Israel” must be fulfilled by “Israel”.
An historic pre-millennialist and an amillennialist share basically the same hermeneutic. And this fact can hardly be overemphasized! They do not abandon a literal hermeneutic, but neither do they subscribe to the same species of “literal interpretation” that dispensationalism uses and demands. So then, what is the point of departure from their dispensational premillennialist brethren? Simply this: they both feel that the New Testament is the interpretive authority of the Old Testament. When the New Testament “spiritualizes”, or interprets the Old Testament in a non-literal manner, when it indicates that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church, they bow to its authority and surrender their right to insist on a so-called “literal interpretation” of the Old Testament. They feel that this is the most humble way to approach the Scripture (i.e., because Scripture has but one Author, they therefore allow that Author to interpret what He earlier revealed) and that the best safe-guard against errant and fanciful interpretations of Scripture is to allow the New Testament to be both the interpreter of the Old Testament and the final revelation for God’s covenant community. Even with this same basic hermeneutical approach, there will be significant variations among the historic pre-millennialist and amillennialist brethren who embrace it. We are looking more at a spectrum or continuum of opinions and exegetical conclusions rather than ‘hard and fast’ categories. What we as a committee desire to see in the BFC is a natural and humble interpretation of the text which leaves room for a healthy and stimulating discussion of differences because we understand that although the text came from the infinite, holy mind of God the LORD, we read it with finite, sin-warped human minds.
Perhaps the most obvious (and annoying and unsettling?) difference between an historic pre-millennialist and an amillennialist is over the interpretation of Rev.20. If George Ladd is an appropriate spokesperson for the Historic Pre-millennial position, and many would acknowledge that he is, he freely admits that “only one passage of Scripture – Rev.20” speaks clearly and unarguably of a millennium. He states that he “can find no trace of the idea of either an interim earthly kingdom or of a millennium in the Gospels.” It is because of these declared statements that Dr. Walvoord labeled Dr. Ladd an “amillennialist” [an inaccurate and unfair label, to be sure!] Dr. Ladd further states that “the New Testament nowhere expounds the theology of the millennium, that is, its purpose in God’s redemptive plan.” Others in Ladd’s camp, and probably Dr. Ladd himself, would hasten to add, however, that although Rev. 20 is the only place which tells us exactly how long this period will be, there are other passages in the OT prophets (e.g. Isa.11:10-16; Jer.33:14-26; Eze.37:24-28; Zech.14:1-21) that speak repeatedly of a future period in history of great and glorious blessing and rule of God. But basically, other than that, the underlying hermeneutic for these two groups is generally acknowledged to be the same. So again, it would appear that the basic difference between the historic pre-millennial and amillennial views is not one of hermeneutical approach or exegetical methodology per se, but more simply and precisely over the interpretation of Rev. 20, and similarly over what weight and understanding to give to the numerous restoration promises of the OT prophets . . . and whether the New Testament clearly and fully interprets them for us or remains relatively silent on this particular prophetic genre.
What implications does this have for us as a denomination?
Our committee would like to make one point and then to ask one question of Annual Conference:
First, it needs to be admitted that there already exists a significant hermeneutical division within our denomination. We all share a common conviction as to “a 1000 year pre-millennial reign of Christ,” but what goes on during that time is shaped by contrary hermeneutics. While dispensational premillennialists among us may see the literal fulfillment of certain O.T. promises, such as the rebuilding of Ezekiel’s temple, the reinstitution of the Law of Moses and the cultic sacrificial system, our articles leave out those specifics, and the historic pre-millennialists among us may see those prophecies fulfilled in the person and reign of Christ. Our point is simply this: substantive hermeneutical differences already exist within our denomination without dividing us or causing us harm.
Our question to Annual Conference, then, is simply this: With our present eschatological posture, is it possible that we may be guilty of unnecessarily dividing the larger body of Christ by rejecting brothers who otherwise would rejoice to serve among us? Are we unwittingly doing harm, and grieving the Spirit of Christ Who dwells in and among us? For example, should one’s understanding of Rev. 20 be a cause for censure or division within the body of Christ? In his book, The Kingdom of Christ, Russell Moore claims that “(Dr. Carl F.) Henry and his fellow post-war evangelical leaders were correct to argue that the interpretation of Rev.20 is a second-order issue, and therefore not a test of Christian orthodoxy or even of evangelical authenticity” [emphasis added]. And so we would add that if amillennialists are “orthodox” and if they are “authentically” evangelical, then there is no biblical reason to separate from them or to allow this issue to be a cause of division or to exclude someone with this conviction from serving among us, especially when this type of hermeneutic is already well represented among us!
V. What is to be gained by granting greater Eschatological liberty?
A. It will cause us to keep our focus on the Lord’s return.
The great hope of the church, and that which purifies those who embrace it, is the coming of the Lord Jesus. The emphasis in the Scriptures is on the fact of His coming and the accompanying blessings for the redeemed and judgments on the rebellious. While details are important and should be studied, the hope doesn’t lie in having the correct chronology, but in living in light of the fact of the Lord’s return in triumph and judgment.
Allowing greater liberty will result in a renewed and rightful placement of our passions on the centrality of the Lord’s return and will encourage us to preach and teach these truths with passion and conviction.
B. It will cause us to honor, in greater ways, our Lord’s prayer for unity in His Church.
No one, at least not in our denomination, wants to establish unity at the cost of truth. Certainly, none of us on the millennial study committee are at all interested in unity at any cost, or unity for unity’s sake.
There are two very important concerns that are in tension with each other when considering the issue of unity. One is not more important than the other. They are both equally Biblical commands and injunctions. They are unity and truth.
And so the first question we face is: How do we maintain unity? For the sin of being schismatic is great – it hinders the viability of the Gospel (John 13:34,35), it is one of the things that the LORD hates (Prov.6:16-19). The second question is: How do I uphold truth? For the sin of heresy is equally damning to one’s soul and the life of the church! These are huge issues that deserve very serious consideration in the fact that there are over 30,000 Protestant denominations!
In the reading of John 17, one must be gripped with the Lord’s prayer for unity among His people. The great fear in looking at this passage is the domestication of this prayer of Jesus. He is not praying for unity within particular congregations or denominations (however important and desirable that might be). He is praying for unity within the one true, visible church. He is praying for unity among those who call themselves His disciples.
But what type of unity is this? There are some helpful indicators in the text.
If I told you to paint the barn red, you might ask me, “What shade?” If I took a sample of paint and said, “Paint it the same shade of red as this color,” then you would have a tangible measurement to guide you in the selection of your shade.
Observe what the Lord does. Jesus prays that His people “may be one as we are one” and then the Lord prays that they would be “brought to complete unity”. What unity is Jesus expressing here? Is He praying that His followers will have the same kind of unity that exists between Himself and the Father? We think so and the tenor of Scripture seems to support this.
When considering the unity that exists within the Godhead, we know that it extends to every area of their being:
* They are one in “essence” - and the same Spirit also indwells us.
* They are of one “mind”. God isn’t an Arminian, but Jesus a Calvinist! It isn’t as though the Father is Amill, the Son Pre-mill and the Spirit Post-mill.
* They are of one “love”. God doesn’t just love Hispanics, but Jesus the handicapped, and the Spirit, Jews. It isn’t that the Father loves to worship, the Son to evangelize, and the Spirit to heal.
* They are one in “purpose”. It isn’t as though God the Father prefers foreign missions, and the Spirit church extension and Jesus a thriving nursery ministry! It’s not as though the Father loves hymns, the Son contemporary worship and the Spirit Gregorian chants!
In every way the God-head is perfectly united. They are united theologically, missionally, organizationally, corporately, affectionately and ontologically. This becomes the high pattern for the church as well. Paul specifically prays for the believers at Philippi that they would be “like-minded”, that they should have “the same love” and be “one in spirit and purpose.” Paul admonishes the Ephesians to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3).
This being the case, one must ask how seriously are we to take Jesus’ prayer? What barriers or walls (theologically and practically) ought to come down to honor this request for unity “as we are one”, or conversely what barriers or walls should be erected to safeguard the sanctifying need for truth?
The “church” doesn’t belong to us. And so the question arises, where does one draw the line theologically and practically? What are legitimate reasons for division – where is that line to be drawn? Must it be drawn over the use or non-use of the KJV? We certainly can do it – in the sense of passing the appropriate motion as some denominations and churches have done – but is it legitimate? Knowing that the church belongs to the Lord, do I have a right to establish my own barriers and boundaries? Must it be drawn over the use of alcohol, polka dancing and Blue-ray digital televisions? What are the legitimate, as in Biblical, reasons for withholding membership or ministry among us?
Our distinctives as a denomination should always lie in the area of truth…and that at times needs to be held under a wide umbrella. We already grant eschatological liberty among two systems of theology that share a very different hermeneutic, and a very different eschatology. Dispensational Premillennialism and Historic Premillennialism agree on the core concept of a millennium and on some other items, but there are also significant differences between them that go beyond the confines of our Articles of Faith. Has that caused confusion among us? Or has it strengthened our pursuit of truth and holy living? We believe it has been the latter. The hermeneutic of an Historic Premillennialist is much closer to that of an Amillennialist than to that of a Dispensational Premillennialist. Therefore, we believe that granting eschatological liberty in this case would further strengthen our pursuit of truth and holy living, and would be in keeping with our Lord’s prayer for unity in His church.
C. It will strengthen our grasp on Scripture.
We believe that our proposed changes will create a biblical openness to this great subject of eschatology, which will allow for greater study by granting men the opportunity to investigate honestly, to examine without prejudice, to evaluate without fear, to admit of misgivings without feeling threatened and to listen without having to be defensive. This will only strengthen our knowledge of scripture and cause us to study it more deeply and more carefully.
The claim of both Amillennialists and Historic Premillennialists is that the New Testament is the authoritative interpretation of the Old. By granting greater eschatological liberty it will encourage pastors, teachers and people alike to examine carefully how the writers of the New Testament interact with and interpret the Old and how they understand the Old Testament prophecies. This is very good.
D. It will enable and encourage us to demonstrate to our congregations how differences of opinion should be properly handled.
We believe that our proposed changes will provide a healthy climate and a positive venue through which we as leaders can teach our people how to interact within the body of Christ regarding areas of Biblical differences. We do this already in certain aspects of eschatology. Working properly through this issue will better equip our congregations to deal with other matters of disagreement, helping to bring spiritual maturity which would minimize splits and divisions that have already occurred throughout church history over issues of lesser importance.
Those words of Rupert Meldenius spoken to a council on Moderation in Frankfort, 1627, speak powerfully to us in our current situation: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials flexibility, in all things charity.”
Again – please note: our recommendations do not prohibit, nor would they exclude, anyone from being premillennial – either historical or dispensational. It would not preclude one from preaching premillennialism – however passionately, or teaching premillennialism - however clearly, or interpreting Scripture with a premillennial grid. It would only cease to require these things for unfettered and whole-hearted membership and credentials.
Our proposed changes would not require anyone to change their doctrinal stance.
E. It would allow other men, from a variety of reformed backgrounds, to joyfully serve among us.
Our concern here is that some very good men, who otherwise would rejoice to labor among us, have not been able to serve officially among us. There are such men who agree with us on many – indeed, often all - of our doctrinal statements, except that of our eschatology.
For all of the above reasons, we the committee put forth our doctrinal amendments for approval.
Study Committee: The Millennium: Jacob J. Susek, Jr., Chairman; Kevin W.. Kirkpatrick, Secretary; Albert J. Dommel; Robert C. Kaatz; John C. Studenroth.
Advisor to the committee, Carl C. Cassel.