A Non-Creedal Voice in Favor of the Statement of Faith: Dave Ross shares his opinion with Corey McLaughlin
*These are excerpts from personal correspondence between Pastor Dave Ross and Pastor Corey McLaughlin shared with permission. Pastor Ross’s summary and evaluations on the background to the NAE are helpful to understanding the context for the upcoming Triennial vote. His comments have been edited to be read as a whole.
I do not believe that there is the remotest chance that this proposed [Statement of Faith] will fail to pass at the Triennial Convention. I personally know of no one, for sure, that is planning to vote against it.*
We successfully passed the resolution for ACGC to officially embrace the NAE Statement of Faith and become a full member of NAE at the 1987 ACGC Convention (in Charleston, WV, of all places; at the time a bastion of A.C. non-trinitarianism). We came back in 1993 (by this time I was working at ACGC, not just on the board) with a strong resolution encouraging our local churches to also embrace the NAE statement & join the organization. For that convention we attempted to create a dialogue with the non-trinitarians at workshops during the sessions, but found no one left who was ready to defend their point of view publicly. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, confirming a trend which had been in motion for years: The strong movement toward orthodoxy within A.C. ranks RE: the deity of Christ question. One hundred years ago, very nearly 50% of all Advent Christians were non-trinitarians. By 1996, according to a survey of A.C. pastors cited in Justin Nash's recent publication "The Need for a Creed", 96% of all A.C. pastors responding were orthodox Trinitarians (a number which would be significantly higher now, 20 years later).
So, how did this needed transition come about? By a determined redemptive and pastoral approach to our less than orthodox brethren on this issue, rather than attempting to make them feel uncomfortable or marginalized enough to leave. This has been based upon the belief that as long as the church has existed (certainly since NT times) there has been a need to correct false doctrine among genuine believers in Christ (i.e. - saved folks). There is a real danger in assuming that because someone cannot understand, explain, or believe in the Trinity as we do, they likely are not saved, when basic Scriptures such as John 3:16 or Rom. 10:9 (which Dr. Dean used to refer to as "the minimal creedal statement") would seem to clearly indicate otherwise. So many A.C. leaders over the years (among them Dr. E.K. Gedney, who helped to craft the NAE statement back in 1942, at the request of Dr. Ockenga, in a manner which would be inclusive for Advent Christians) and Dr. David A. Dean (author of "Resurrection Hope", an introduction to our A.C. Declaration of Principles) have determined that a patient, loving (but firm) redemptive and pastoral approach, involving "speaking the truth in love", was needed in order to correct the errors of the non-trinitarian segment of our denomination. Judging by any statistical measure, this approach has been spectacularly successful!
There seems to be a supposition that resistance for adopting the NAE statement will derive from a) non-trinitarians within our ranks, or those who don't want to risk "offending" them, or b) those who are non-creedal, and will always resist our holding to any creed but the Bible. I guess we're still dealing here with the first group. Let me say as one who has devoted a lifetime to trying to win them (often one by one) to orthodoxy, and one who lives within a region wherein the majority of the remaining A.C. non-trinitarians exist (understandably, since John Cargyle, a Miles Grant devotee, founded most of the A.C. Churches in this part of the country), that there are very, very few of them left (and especially in leadership positions).
Almost all of the younger generations (even in West Virginia) have abandoned their ancestors' strident position on this matter. West Virginia has historically been isolationist, because they really did not trust the rest of us Advent Christians (thinking that our Trinitarian beliefs were essentially polytheistic). But within the past couple of years we've seen a real break-through among the WV youth & their leaders, and they are now actively participating in most all of our regional youth retreats and camp events. A real factor in this has been our compassionate response to West Virginia's recent crises in practical, relational ways. I've been part of 2 work teams who've gone up to work at Camp Whitney (their Conference camp which was shut down by the state 4 years ago due to numerous code violations) to bring the camp back up to speed and usable once again. Just this week there are guys from our church on a team up in Clendenin, WV, working to help restore the A.C. church's flood-ravaged sanctuary (which they have been unable to use for nearly a year).
I'll wrap up this section by saying that I know of no A.C. non-trinitarian who does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who was raised from the dead, and is now their personal Savior and Lord. In light of the Scripture's simple definition of the qualifications for salvation, it is difficult to say to them that they cannot be saved because they do not know enough about Jesus yet, and they are therefore destined for hell. I have no problems discussing their dangerous heresies with them, but cannot posit that they cannot be Christians, or even Advent Christians.
As for the "no creed but the Bible question", let me say that I probably should be placed in that camp; but also that I believe in creeds and find them useful for codifying and synthesizing biblical beliefs in a logical, practical manner. I do embrace several, including the Apostles' Creed, the A.C. Declaration of Principles (to the extent which it may be called a creed), the NAE Statement of Faith, and the BICS Statement of Faith. However, I cannot in conscience place any of them in a higher place of authority than the Bible. The Bible must ultimately resolve all questions.
Although I endorse NAE's statement, I'll confess to having had problems with their implementation of it over the years. Also, while A.C.'s Declaration is certainly not strong enough RE: the deity of Christ, certainly NAE's statement, in not insisting upon the exclusive immortality of God (per I Tim. 6:16), places us at risk of considering ourselves also innately immortal, hence perhaps innately god-like. This is not a stretch, given that this assumption, while embraced by many evangelicals (i.e. natural immortality) has become the basis for most all Eastern and mystic religions. I would prefer for NAE's statement to be tighter at that important point, as I would prefer for our Declaration of Principles to be tighter on the deity of Christ issue.
At our annual meeting in early March the Piedmont Conference passed a resolution in support of the proposed ACGC business item RE: endorsing the NAE Statement of Faith, with the lone qualifier being that this Statement not be seen as "taking precedence over or superseding either the Bible or our own A.C. Declaration of Principles (i.e. thus becoming de facto a creed or a "Shibboleth" for Advent Christians)." When the cover letter concerning this proposed business item came out from ACGC on March 21 (under the signature of Paul Dean & Steve Lawson) it made it very clear that we should have no concern that it was intended to become a binding order for all A.C.'s (which, of course, would be pretty much unenforceable anyway under our system of governance). So I think those concerned folks around here are pretty much all in at this point to vote yes, as there is nothing within the Statement itself that they disagree with.
I understand your concern [Corey] that, as pastor of a church which has relatively recently joined the A.C. ranks, it's hard to say what might happen if this convention vote goes wrong. That is valid! Our conference has received 6 new churches within the past dozen years, 2 of which were functioning as fully independent churches (one for nearly 40 years) before uniting with us. These newer churches keep us on our toes (which is good), because they are understandably asking frequently, "So why are you doing this in this way?" We need to hear that question often enough to keep examining our traditions (many of which are fine and still meaningful) to see how they might be perceived by those who are more objective. I pray that we will not be a disappointment in this matter, either to your congregation or to you personally.
May God bless you for your invaluable service! - Dave Ross