K Neill Foster


by K. Neill Foster

Historical drift?

What is it? What do we mean by it in an evangelical context?


Historical drift is the departure of a spiritual movement or body from beliefs and practices; that it has held in the past.

If, for example, a movement once believed that the heathen who never once heard of Jesus Christ were eternally lost, and has only in more recent times begun to embrace quasi-universalism and implicit faith ideas, historical drift has taken place.

Again, if the members of a certain denomination were once careful observers of the Lord's day as a Christian sabbath, but in more recent times, Sunday observance has fallen into disrepair, and on at least one Sunday night in January each year, North American church schedules are adjusted to fit the televising of the Superbowl, historical drift has taken place.

We must also hasten to observe that an aura of rightness and correctness is attached to the first conditions by which the later are compared. In fact, the term historical drift implies that departures from initial norms involve communal wrong and corporate sin.


The historical books of the Old Testament might properly be considered a collation of case studies demonstrating historical drift. Israel went through recurring periods of backsliding and apostasy. There were eras of revival and reform consistently followed by episodes in which every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6).

Historical drift seems to be an inevitable human condition.

The entire book of Hebrews in the New testament seems directed to those in danger of drifting and letting slip beliefs and convictions once firmly held (2:1-4). Other New Testament writers also issue strong warnings against drifting (2 Peter 1:3-10).


An overview of church history condensed to several paragraphs is ludicrous, if not naive, but Martin Luther obviously struggled with the corruption and historical drift in the Roman Church (Latourette 1975:703-744). Similarly, John Wesley did not seek to leave the Anglican Church, only to reform it (Latourette 1975;1023-1035). Both were struggling with what we are here calling historical drift.

In the case of Wesley's progeny, the Methodists, who once fasted twice in the week (Foster 1977:67-68) and had nothing to do but save souls (Coleman 1990) are shriveling in size and abandoning much of what they once believed and defended.

One could choose a thousand less celebrated Christian denominations and groups and immediately have a thousand case studies, all demonstrating historical drift. That is the premise of the use of the words, "historical drift." It is commonly believed to be ubiquitous and inevitable.


My belief is that the entire human situation finds its ultimate guidance and solutions within Scripture. Based on that assumption, in seeking to do a theology of historical drift impedance, I see three inherent dangers.

The first is anger and animosity. Not everyone is willing to believe that spiritual morés are deteriorating. There are some who feel that the present is always superior and better than the past. Talk about historical drift in such cases is always a threat, and the potential for animosity among one's peers is an ongoing occupational hazard for those Christians who warn against historical drift. (After all, Hebrews is unsigned, isn't it?)

Secondly, there is the possible through not certain danger of politicization. Luther's reformation and Wesley's revivalism both led to politicization.

Which leads us to the third danger which is very real and may mor may not follow politicization - division.

The danger of division, particularly, is not a small one. Animosity can well lead to rapid politicization, which in turn may lead to division. These are not small dangers. [The word for demon in the New Testament means divider and separator (Foerster 1985:150-1520)]. It does appear that a conservative tide among Southern Baptists has temporarily reversed historical drift without open division taking place

But the question remains: Is the impedance of historical drift possible apart from politicization and division? Is there anything a movement can do to save itself? Is painful acquiescence to the inevitable all that lies ahead? These sober questions lead us to another impinging issue.


Apart from revivals of the religious life, both biblical and church history lead us to believe that historical drift is inevitable.

Can we then manipulate revivals and force the sovereignty of God? The clear answer is "no." Those who write about religious revivals are unanimous that there always is an element of God's sovereignty in true revivals.

Agreement might easily be reached that revival is the single best of all possible impedances to historical drift. But what can be done, should be done, if anything, in the meantime, to impede historical drift while we wait for the footsteps of God in our generation (Psalm 77:19)?

The answer seems to be a three-fold cord, not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

First, we must continue in acts of obedience and prayers conducive to the coming of revival. Since revivals almost universally begin with confessions of sin to God and men, we ought to be diligent in the practice of earnest confession.

Secondly, while revivals are delayed, we need to be diligent in the practice of the means of grace Church attendance, the regular reading of Scripture, the pursuit of holiness, separation from worldliness, participation in the Lord's supper and the observance of baptism come to mind.

Third, we must pay diligent attendance to doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13). If doctrine is eroded, unbelief advances, morality slips and Christians finally become apostate and corrupt. Departure from God through doctrinal deviation may become so pervasive that revival as the impedance of historical drift becomes wholly impossible. Spiritual death by definition is incapable of revival. Resurrection, perhaps, but not revival.


If leadership in a church or movement buys into the inevitability of change, the unvarying need to be contemporary and up-to-date, it buys one of the foundational premises of the behavioural sciences (Conn 1984). And such leadership often allies itself with historical drift. Change is necessary, important and vital. But it must be measured by historical drift criteria - changes should be welcomed but not if it furthers historical drift.

Conversely, if leadership in the church or movement steadfastly refuses to remove the ancient landmarks (Proverbs 22:28), if it resolutely clings to the traditions long established, it is more likely to impede historical drift.

A. W. Tozer, in discussing these matters, put it bluntly:

When you adjust, you are dead. The same is true if a church adjusts (to these ideas). If you adjust you are done. but if you dare to stand, the world will adjust to you. I can promise you that. Not all will adjust to you, but some will (1991:107).

As modernism is the peril of the changists, legalism is the ditch into which the traditionalists fall.

Discerning leadership in spiritual movements is obligated to resolutely cling to the principles and essentials of the past, while embracing necessary change at the same time. (It is much more easily written than done.)

A balance steadied by Christian love is essential (Philippians 1:9) since the pressures will be immense on all sides.


John Calvin asserted that true churches demonstrated three characteristics: they revered the Word of God, they celebrated the Lord's supper and they practised Church discipline (Latourette 1975:756).

The near total absence of church discipline in the North American scene would probably suggest to Calvin, were he a current observer, that the true Church exists hardly at all in North America.

There are pockets of obedience in this area, and there are some churches and religious bodies where church discipline does take place. (One view is that there are at least seven potential steps to church discipline, Appendix 1.)

If there are seven steps in church discipline, it is fair to observe that direct confrontation and accompanying peer pressure is the biblical pattern (M:atthew 18:15-16).

There are also the Pauline commands to exhort one another and to "reprove and rebuke with all long suffering and doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:2).

My belief is that historical drift can be impeded if we are willing to develop a practical theology of exhorting one another carefully and lovingly, if we are willing to initiate the principles of conflict resolution (ie, follow the steps of Matthew 18 in which we first speak privately, then with a witness, and finally, when necessary tell the church.)

While we anticipate the footsteps of God in our generation, while we pray for the revival we need, we will do what we can.


Historical drift has been given a good deal of attention in my own fellowship. Dr. Arnold Cook, formerly president of the C&MA in Canada, has lectured and written extensively on it. Dr. L.L. King, past president of our the Alliance in the United States, has written a document on the subject and Ernest G. Wilson has done a Ph. D. dissertation entitled "The Christian and Missionary Alliance: Developments and Modifications of its Original Objectives."

I am clear in my own mind that the Christian and Missionary Alliance is in the process of historical drift. As a pastor, and evangelist, and more recently as a publisher, I have been increasingly concerned as to "what to do," the practical theology of impeding historical drift.

As I see it, we have a multi-level fellowship in our Alliance in which with courage and love, historical drift can be impeded greatly. The hierarchical structure bequeathed to us by our fathers provides many forums for telling it to the church, if directly exhorting the persons concerned, and going with witnesses does not result in impedance decisions.

In the local churches, there are often elders boards, deacons boards, trustees, plus at least one pastor and sometimes several through whom approach can be made on specific issues. If an impedance decision fails to issue at one level, the final level would be the congregational meeting.

In our districts, we have committees on Ordination, Licence and Discipline. We have committees on Home Work, on Education, etc. At every district conference all delegates have access to make representations to every committee by petitioning the chairman. We have as well the district executive committee where issues can be raised. Then, there is always the conference floor, with all delegates having open access. Moreover, districts have the right of petitioning the Board of Managers, an exceptionally powerful and helpful procedure that could be helpful in denominational impedance decisions.

Overseas, our mission fields often have various committees in which issues can emerge. There is also an executive committee that cares for the business of the field between conferences. These forums are natural forums for historical drift debates and impedance decisions. Speaking in public at the field conferences is always proper and welcome.

In our colleges, the Boards always have district superintendents who can be approached in the districts, or personally. No college will want to treat lightly any representation from any district of its supporters. Even the announced intent to bring college issues before district committees would bring reactions and possibly impedance decisions from the college administration. As in the districts, colleges have executive committees where likewise issues can emerge.

With the Board of Managers, elected from various areas of the work, membership implies freedom to speak and make representation.

At Council historical drift issues will often hardly bear the searchlight of open floor debate, especially, if there are spokesmen willing to speak carefully and powerfully. Even before the open "telling it to the church" on Council floor, there are always various Council committees open to representation from delegates. Historical drift impedance is sometimes better argued in committee than on Council floor. Glen Tingley, R.R.Brown and A.W. Tozer among our fathers were famous for their furious debates on Council floor, sometimes being at odds with each other in the process.


Historical drift is with us. What is done about it is another matter. Godly disciplines, prayer and fasting must remain in the forefront. Politicization and division must remain unthinkable. But exhorting one another so much more as we see the day approaching is certainly within our grasp, going to people, going with witnesses, and finally telling the matter to the church in the appropriate forum and at the appropriate time is also correct and biblical procedure. To embrace these attitudes and actions is to do what we can (Mark 14:8).

Appendix 1

The seven steps of church discipline based upon Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 are as follows: 1) go to the person involved; 2) take a witness; 3) tell it to the church; 4) do not eat with that person; 5) do not associate with that person; 6) expel that person from the fellowship, and 7) deliver that person over to Satan (Foster 1998:173).


Coleman, Robert E. Nothing to Do but Save Souls
Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1990.

Conn, Howe A. 1984

Cook, Arnold L. Historical Drift Must my Church Die?
Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications Inc., 2000.

Foerster, W., II diabolos
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament
Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.

Foster, K. Neill The Happen Stance
Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977.

Foster, K. Neill with Paul L. King Binding and Loosing
Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications Inc., 1998.

King. Louis L. "An Overview of the Secular World, the Protestant Church, and the C&MA as I See Them beyond 1987" Unpublished private paper, 1987.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott A History of Christianity, Volume 2
San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1975.

Tozer, A. W. Rut, Rot or Revival
Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications Inc., 1991.

Wilson, Ernest "The Christian and Missionary Alliance: Developments and Modifications of its Original Objectives" Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, New York University, 1984.