I’ve just submitted my testimony, doctrinal statement, and personal philosophy of ministry overview to the leadership of the IFCA International, formerly the independent Fundamental Churches of America (IFCA).The IFCA allows you to join as either a ministry or as an individual. While the congregation I pastor will remain independent of official group membership for now, I am joining as an individual minister of the gospel.
I’m excited about my new membership in an association of leaders and ministries that is hardly new. The IFCA has a fantastic heritage. Several friends, family members and ministries I have great respect for are, or have been, associated with the IFCA. Not too long ago our friends at Clearwater Christian College near Tampa joined the IFCA. This is a decision I’ve been working through for several years and I wanted to share a few thoughts on the move in hopes that it can help others who are working through similar types of decisions.
I want to say that first of all, in a sense, I view joining a group like the IFCA as not being a direct response to any Scriptural imperatives for leaders or ministries. Rather, it is similar to the reasons for having Sunday School. Sunday School is nowhere commanded in the New Testament, yet teaching and leading God’s children in grace and truth is certainly an imperative found within the Scriptures. In a similar way, leaders and congregations certainly coordinated ministry and worked together throughout the early NT church. So the question is not really “should we cooperate?” but rather “with whom should we cooperate?”
What is most clear is our participation in, and primary loyalty to, a local assembly. Having said, that there have historically been good arguments made for not only a commitment to independence in ministry, but a kind of inter-dependence. I have enjoyed this immensely in my capacity as Western Regional Coordinator with IBL West (Institute of Biblical Leadership). At IBL we minister with a wide range of ministries, some of whom would self-identify as a “balanced fundamentalist” and others who would call themselves “conservative evangelical.” (Some years ago I suggested a taxonomy that identifies militant conservative evangelicals as “type C” fundamentalists. I consider myself a “type B” fundamentalist. About the only real difference between the B and C approach is that those from a B perspective still think of themselves as a certain kind of fundamentalist where those with the C approach typically self-identify as a conservative evangelical. I’ve argued in the past that Type C’s carry on in ministry within the tradition of historic fundamentalism. Those who are most aggressive at flying the flag of fundamentalism and believe in an aggressive separation between themselves and the John MacArthur’s of the Type C world I have classified as “Type A fundamentalists.”)
I’ve actually been without an official ecclesiastical association for some time. I’m reminded of the short story “The Man without a Country” published by Edward Everett Hale in 1863. It tells the story of a young army Lieutenant (Philip Nolan) who was banished from US soil by a judge and sentenced to live out the rest of his life working on US war ships and never being allowed to set foot on US soil. As a young child I played small role in a theatrical version directed by a friend of my father (Dr. Nicky Chavers, Academy of Arts). For the last eight years I’ve been keeping my eyes open, looking for the right group to join. In a sense I’ve been on my own ship enjoying the fellowship of leaders from other ships but not really having an ecclesiastical port to call “home.” Early on I had intended to form my own group, but I’ve discovered how exhausting and time consuming that is. I will continue to develop koinonia relationships with ministry leaders from various associational backgrounds. However, it’s helpful to have a group to receive encouragement from and have regular joint ministry with something of a “home port.”
Many years ago I belonged to a national fellowship of ministry leaders. The group would claim they are merely a fellowship but to me they acted like a denomination. While I appreciated much about that particular group (and still do), eventually I sensed that we were headed in different directions. At the time of my decision to look for a different group, I believed it would be best to simply and quietly leave. So that’s what I tried to do. I have tried to continue to occasionally attend the local, regional and other meetings. Many of the men in this group are dear to me and I count them as friends and close brothers in the Lord. The fact that I can no longer in good conscience officially belong to this group does not mean I must burn all the bridges to these dear men. In some sense it’s not entirely the fault of this group that I didn’t easily “fit.”
For the majority of my twenty-three years of pastoral ministry, I have never really felt like I “fit” easily into any group. Most of the time I’ve felt like the guy who was having to try too hard to feel at home. Early on, the fact that I believed in an approach to ministry that was more Calvinistic than most with my background, coupled with a deep appreciation for a careful, grace-based and text-based pulpit ministry, resulted in a rather uncomfortable “fit.”
Along with the theological difference, I felt that ecclesiastical separation too often took place for bogus reasons. I was often grieved by the unrighteous cutting off of other men and ministries over reasons that were less than exegetically clear. I was convinced that the Scriptures said as much (or more) about unity as they do about separation and convinced as well that the Scriptures emphasize a team-approach and decentralized pattern of NT church leadership and decision-making. So the association or denomination I belong to will need to have a balanced approach that pursues equally truth (doctrine), holiness, unity (love), and liberty. I believe that the IFCA more than any other historic fundamentalist group does the best job of balancing these (and other) priorities. Often groups emphasize one spiritual discipline but then ignore others. This can result in “theological legalism” or other extremes. Consider the following chart:
For eight years I’ve been praying and thinking carefully through this decision. Settling on a group has been hard. Ideally a denomination or fellowship would think just like me, right? Well, that’s not possible. When you belong to a denomination or a group of other believers there ought to be agreement on a set of large principles. I am and continue to be a fundamentalist in the historic sense. Since Type A and especially Type A+ fundamentalism have so thoroughly hijacked the term “fundamentalist,” it’s nearly impossible to use without disclaimers (“historic fundamentalist not hysteric fundamentalist” is a personal favorite). Furthermore, I want to be part of a group that actually accomplishes tasks, especially in leadership training, church planting, and missions. And a denomination or fellowship should repudiate ecumenism while at the same time allowing a certain amount of diversity within its membership. Included in that matrix is a spirit that corresponds with one’s view of polity, music, worship style, approaches to discipleship, a commitment to a vibrant theology, etc. Because I prefer the mix of Type B and Type C ministries, I have essentially had to choose between four fellowships/associations. In the end, I chose the IFCA.
So after too many years of wandering in my own associational Negev, I have finally found my ecclesiastical juniper tree! I will probably be one of the more conservative and even a bit “traditional” guys, compared to some. What’s funny about that is most of my associational experience in the past I’ve been viewed as one of the mavericks. However, I also know that my IFCA brothers are also good with where I’m at. Since only 20% of the IFCA is Baptist, I’ll be rubbing shoulders with a number of Bible Church and Community Church men. I’m good with that. If I had wanted verbosity about “militancy” to dominate my ecclesiastical tag I would not have left the group I left years ago. If I allowed my Calvinism to dictate my associational choice I would end up in one of two associations that aggressively welcome Calvinistic brothers. The problem with those groups is (1) they are so Calvinistic they have a problem working with good brothers that don’t define election exactly as they do; (2) Most of them struggle with dispensationalists. If I had allowed my Baptist affiliation to be the largest factor, I would have ended up in a group that has a fantastic heritage of Baptist doctrine and practice. The problem with this group is that too many of their ministries will not allow a brother to minister with them if he does not come from a church with the name “Baptist” in the title. (But what about the many churches that have Baptist in the title and poison in the pulpit? That brother is OK but the careful, godly and biblical pastor at the Bible church cannot teach on our Baptist faculty?)
We Baptists say we believe in local church autonomy, yet most Bible churches have more respect for the Baptist church than many Baptist churches do for the Bible church—not in the IFCA. In the end, I go with the group that balances out a number of factors. Yes, it will result in a few changes. I find I have a lot in common with Bible church and Community church leaders who associate with the IFCA. What’s even more startling is as I have chatted with IFCA leaders, I’ve seen an extraordinary transparency and grace and honesty. That resonated deeply within me. It’s nice to be home! I would encourage other Type B and Type C fundamentalists to consider membership in the IFCA. You will find kindred spirits.
Joel Tetreau has over twenty years of pastoral ministry experience and presently serves as senior pastor at Southeast Valley Baptist Church in Gilbert, AZ. He is married to Toni, has three sons and serves on the boards of several ministries. He earned his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and his DMin at Central Seminary.