Tuesday, July 21, 2015

“My Church Believes …”

What does your church believe?

“Oh, you mean like a creed, or a statement of faith?”

Not really. I’m thinking more generally. A statement of faith usually attempts to be concise, whether it’s eleven paragraphs or seven pages. It may cover only basic theology or it may go into detail about home life and personal conduct. But it cannot possibly include everything the New Testament teaches. It cannot tell you all that a church really believes, though it may set off spiritual alarm bells by what it does or does not contain.

Still, ask that question and you’ll usually get a piece of paper or a booklet by way of response. That’s fine, so long as we are simply gathering information in order to decide whether their church is a place we’d be interested in attending.

Doctrine and Practice

In one sense, a church does not believe anything at all. Since the church is a corporate entity, we are ill equipped to take stock of it apart from its constituent elements, by which I mean … us.

For instance, a church may document in its statement of faith a commitment to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, while every Sunday several hundred of its congregants sit in pews as passive non-priestly observers (unless we count patient endurance as a spiritual sacrifice) listening to the same man exercise his priestly responsibilities week after week.

Or a church may document a commitment to the practice of the Lord’s Supper that resembles nothing found in the New Testament. Some of its congregants may find what goes on weekly or monthly perfectly satisfactory. Others may grind their teeth. But presumably by continuing to attend such a church, all have more or less agreed to whatever is written in the church’s statement of faith. At very least they have agreed that such differences are not worth fighting over.

Or a church may document a commitment to the scriptural principle that the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church. But the litmus test of that church’s collective conviction is not the words it posts on the internet but the quality of the husband/wife relationships of those who gather there. If it is anything like many churches I have attended, these will run the gamut from balanced and biblical through to grudgingly traditional all the way to modernized and dysfunctional.

What matters is not what a church says they believe or what sort of a well-written synopsis they can produce. What matters is what its people actually do.

Creeds, Origins and Evolution

At best, a creed or statement of faith represents what some subset of the church at a particular point in time said they believed. It may have been the pastor or a board of elders in your local church. It may have been handed down from the head office of your denomination. More rarely, it may have been arrived at through consultation or some sort of quasi-democratic process. But at no point in time does any written statement fully and completely represent the beliefs of more than a few.

Even in churches that hold to the inspiration of scripture, beliefs are rarely carved in stone. Instead they evolve, in the sense that things once generally accepted give way to new interpretations, often in the face of social pressures or trends. Occasionally these are more accurate and well-considered readings of scripture. But if the internet is any indication, many modern churches view the Bible the way the present configuration of the Supreme Court regards the U.S. constitution: as a set of words and concepts to be manoeuvred around when what you really want is not to be found there at all.

The Bible and Statements of Faith

Interestingly, we have no direction from the writers of the New Testament to formulate statements of faith. There are no template creeds and no checklists provided by the apostles. Instead we read about the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”, “the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us” and “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses”.

To some Christians, I suspect the latter formulations sound like way too much work.

Five Point Failures

In the business world, we love a program that is easily explained on an overhead with four or five pithy points. In the church, such an approach will not work. The Bible is not laid out like a reference manual. Its structure is organic. Some of its most fundamental principles are intuited with time and experience. A glance at a Table of Contents or Executive Summary will do you no good at all.

Statements of faith and creeds are our desperate, flawed attempts to impose a natural order on that which is supernatural in both scope and essence. To the extent that such declarations allow others to quickly size up what sorts of answers they would find to their biggest religious questions in our churches, they are moderately useful. But as a comprehensive expression of the dearly-held beliefs of an entire congregation, they fall short.

Taking Ownership

Even if it were possible to easily express some sort of local belief consensus, the real question, of course, is not what my church believes. Unless I am an elder, I do not anticipate giving an account for what my church does. I will be giving an account for what I have done. Neither will I receive credit for choosing to fellowship with Christians who agreed over a particularly trenchant or accurate statement of faith. I will receive credit for living out its implications in my own walk with the Lord and in my fellowship with other believers. Nor will my responsibility before the Lord be limited by what my church practices or teaches. I am responsible to obey whatever I have heard and understood of the word of God, regardless of where it came from.

If I cannot hide behind a creed or a statement of faith at the Judgment Seat of Christ, then what my church believes is irrelevant to my spiritual condition.

What it puts on paper about those beliefs is even less relevant.

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