A Credentialing Annoyance Leading to a Christmas Greeting

I am a little annoyed by a classic question that is asked of licensing and ordination candidates in the EFCA.  2013--8The question springs from a passage that can easily be seen as a “Christmas text.”  In Philippians 2 Paul refers to

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (ESV).

The classic theological question from this passage is, What did Christ empty himself of?  It’s a question about his incarnation, so it’s fitting to think about it in this Christmas season.

The question is not a bad one.  It’s legitimate and important.  In interviews and councils I ask it myself if someone doesn’t beat me to it.  The issue harks back to a theological controversy years ago in which some folks were saying that Christ emptied himself of his divinity: he became something less than God, or at least something less than what he was before.  That view was (and is) an affront to who our Lord is.  EFCA examination councils want to be sure that our pastors and leaders know Christ rightly and fully, not in some sub-Biblical way.

But in our movement the question rarely (if ever) reveals that the candidate believes Christ became something less than fully God.  The discussion usually turns on a finer sub-point of the matter: how can you say (as all candidates do) that Christ remained fully God and also say (as some do) that he gave up his omnipresence or omniscience? The issue thus becomes one of theological consistency: God cannot become less than God.  You can’t affirm that Christ was God and that he no longer possessed his divine attributes.  (I am aware that this is only one facet of the issue.)

So in our credentialing culture, of which I am a card-carrying member, we want to make sure that candidates realize the theological inconsistency of affirming Christ’s deity and denying his divine attributes.  That’s a good thing insofar as teachers of God’s word should think clearly and consistently.  It’s worth examining them on that point.

But here’s where my annoyance comes in.  We emphasize that finer point of doctrine while usually neglecting to examine the candidate on his or her practice of what this passage is teaching, namely, humble servanthood like Christ’s (he emptied himself of heavenly glory to willingly take on earthly servanthood).  I’m annoyed at the imbalance.  I confess I contribute to it.

Does this imbalance have consequences?  Consider: have EFCA churches over the years been more damaged by pastors who are unaware of a theological inconsistency in their affirmations, or by pastors who are unaware of a lifestyle inconsistency in their attitudes?  I think I myself can get the theological formulation of this passage right; it’s my pride and self-will that I have trouble with.

So who is orthodox, the leader who understands the finer points of theology in this passage but conducts his or her ministry conceitedly, self-centeredly, and contentiously, or the leader who is ignorant of the finer points but exhibits obvious likeness to Christ’s humility and servanthood?  The question is worth asking.  But let’s not leave it as an either-or.  Let’s go for both-and.  I get annoyed when it’s out of balance.

May this Christmas season be rich for you in appreciating the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation and the astonishing humility of his life.  May the new year be rich for you in following him more fully in his humility.


Holiday greetings from all of us in the NCD district staff family!

Staff & spouses 12-2013

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

   Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!