On Statements of Faith

December 7th, 2008

At my local church, we’re looking at revising our statement of faith. We want to clarify some of what’s there, and maybe address some additional issues & practices. So I’ve been having a few conversations with people about the general subject of statements of faith, and have some thoughts, as well as a question:

Do you know of any additional ways to handle these concerns? Do you know any churches that handle these concerns particularly well?

What Does It Mean? What Does It Do?

A statement of faith is something around which the church unites. It says, “This is what we believe”–but how does that work out?

In churches with member rolls, becoming a member typically includes agreeing to the statement of faith. But my church doesn’t have member rolls. So what are we saying? Are we still saying, “We expect that if you make Hope your church, then you agree with this doctrine”? Are we saying, “We expect that you will not try to lead people away from these beliefs, even if you disagree”?

Should someone be put out from the church if they reject the statement of faith? If they disagree on the nature of the gospel? If they disagree on the authority of Scripture? If they disagree on the role of spiritual gifts? If they disagree on the destiny of the unevangelized? If they disagree with the church’s stance on the Rapture? Which of these should be included, and what should be the nature of our commitment to it?

Essentials?

Which doctrines should be included?

Suppose that we focus the statement of faith on “essentials”–things like who God is, the authority of Scripture, and everything that goes into defining the Gospel (including the problem of sin, the work of Christ, and how we are saved). Well…Defining “essential” can be tricky.

For example: My first inclination would be to put believer’s baptism in the statement of faith. Hope Chapel does practice believer’s baptism. But is it an essential? What message do we want to send to those who disagree? That they’re not welcome unless they are baptized as believers? What if they were baptized as adult believers, but they believe in infant baptism–should we say that they’re not welcome unless they agree? Or that they’re welcome, but the teaching of the church will try to convince them otherwise? Or do we want to leave believer’s vs. infant baptism entirely out?

We could try to limit ourselves to doctrines that must be believed for salvation. But the health of the church depends on more than that.

The church should & will have convictions on more than the essentials. And maybe on more than we want to require agreement for membership. How do we communicate those things–especially where they impact the practice of the church?

Multiple Documents?

In addition to the statement of faith, you might have other documents:

  1. Statement of practice
  2. Views on non-essentials of the faith

1.) Statement of practice.

This could explain the practices of the church–things on which we don’t require agreement, exactly, but we do want people to know what to expect. It might also discuss the Biblical basis for our convictions.

Examples:

  1. Believer’s baptism.
  2. Charismatic practice or non-practice.
  3. Church government style.

Let’s take #2. Hope Chapel is charismatic. A statement of practice can explain how the church deals with the practice of prophecy & tongues. What can people expect on Sunday morning? Do we allow either during the Sunday service? If someone believes they have a word to share, what should they do? How will the church judge/discern prophecy? Do we view modern prophecy as fallible, or as infallible? What is the place of tongues on Sunday morning? What about tongues with interpretation? Are things different in other meetings, like leaders meetings or congregational meetings or mid-week prayer meetings?

So, a cessationist or paedobaptist could be part of Hope, but they would have to accept that our practice is different from what they want.

2.) Views on non-essentials.

In addition to matters of practice, there are matters of doctrine that don’t directly involve practice. And again, if the statement of faith means “we expect members to agree with this”–well, the church might have a definite stance on something, without requiring members to agree before joining. (A church might have a definite stance on Calvinism & Arminianism, or on whether a Christian can be demon-possessed, or on dispensationalism & covenant theology, or on end-times theology, or on healing & the Atonement–without requiring members to agree.)

If people can expect something from the teaching of the church–especially on controversial subjects–then it would be good to say so. Also, a church might want to say, “You can be a member without agreeing on these, but you can’t be an elder or teacher.” Or, “You can teach classes, but you should not contradict this teaching in your classes.”

The Language

There are three concerns with the language that you use:

  1. The document that already exists. If you’re at an established church, it seems best to have solid reasons before you change things–if it’s not perfect, but acceptable, why tweak it? Should we preserve as much of the existing language as we can?
  2. Don’t come up with something new. Use old confessions or statements of faith–things that are tried-and-true. Essentials of the faith won’t be novel–they’ll be familiar and historic. Christians have put a lot of thought into expressing theology carefully–we should draw on that.
  3. We want meaningful communication. Suppose that we use historic language like “one God and three Persons” or “co-equal and co-eternal” or “propitiatory, substitutionary atonement”. We should explain that language–unpack it in language that people will understand. We should clarify, where it would help.

Multiple Levels

It’s nice to have multiple versions of the statement of faith:

  1. A summary version.
  2. A more detailed version.

The summary version could go in the visitors’ brochures. The more detailed version would be available on the website, for anyone who wants more depth & explanation. It can have more explanation for each point, and references to important Bible passages. It could even have links to articles from well-known scholars & pastors, for people who really want to delve into it. (This also would help show that we’re not off in the woods somewhere on our own–that we’re part of historic Christianity.)

I like the multi-level approach at a church called Austin Stone: Identity and Beliefs (see the Affirmation of Faith, and the “More About” link). They do it in three levels: For each topic, (1) a brief sentence, (2) a fleshed-out sentence or two, and (3) in-depth paragraphs & Scripture references.

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9 Responses to “On Statements of Faith”

  1. Tim says:

    Hill Country Bible Church sort of does the multiple documents, though not the multiple levels of detail.

    In What We Believe, they have two items at the end on dispensationalism and Future Things. Those two items have an asterisk with a footnote:

    Strict agreement with these doctrines is not required for membership at HCBC; however, we affirm these beliefs as taught in Scripture and have established them as the official positions of our Church.

    They also have a Principles and Practices document with operating guidelines for church government, membership, voting, etc.

  2. bethyada says:

    I have a strong belief in the importance of correct doctrine, yet I attend a church with no statement of belief for the church or for members that I am aware of.

    It allows for many beliefs, even among the leaders and teachers.

    And I have defended this.

    It is accepted that Jesus is God, and we may read the Nicene creed on occasion, but the focus is on practice. We desire that people follow Jesus and therefore everyone who begins this path will be at a different place in their belief structure. Some things will change quickly but others take a long time. So our focus is on people becoming disciples. For those who follow Jesus we expect over time for their behaviour and belief to become more Christlike.

    However there is very good and strong teaching on truth.

    This allows incorrect beliefs to change over time yet encourages people in their following of Jesus. It also means that the teachers may not always agree on specific doctrine. As long as that particular doctrine is not the main focus of all the teaching this is not really a problem.

    It is likely that our church has members that are Calvinist, Arminian, young earth creationists, evolutionists, millenialists, amillenialists, soul sleepers, possibly annihilationists, lefties, conservatives, libertarians, egalitarians, complementarians (I realise a decision needs to be made here how the church will run), etc. Some even within leadership.

    It is not that all these positions are correct or can be adequately defended with Scripture, rather that the heart is what is identified; the heart’s inclination and its humility.

    A statement of faith can be a barrier in 2 ways.

    1. New Christians struggle to believe everything on it, and may be put off with feeling like they are required to hold on to something they struggle with.

    2. There may be error and the issue may not be preached about in a way that affirms or refutes the error adequately.

  3. Tim says:

    bethyada,

    Hmm… Thanks for your input. I’d like to respond a bit more, but for now, a question:

    What are the Good Things people intend to accomplish using a statement of faith? Do you think that your church manages to accomplish the same things just as well?

  4. Tim says:

    P.S. I’m not intending those questions as a rhetorical flourish–like, “Oh yeah? Well what do you do with this?”

    There’s no biblical command for a local congregation to have a statement of faith. It’s a matter of wisdom, not a matter of command. Or, if you prefer, it’s ostensibly a matter of wisdom.

    I like your church’s focus on discipleship. That may be more foundational for a new believer–or maybe for any believer–than being able to recite a good statement of faith. At least, if discipleship means the foundations of prayer, Bible study, humility, seeking God, & following God, then those will lead to doctrinal discernment. Including the doctrinal discernment that lets us know when to disagree with a church’s statement of faith.

    You raise some fair questions & issues about the pitfalls of a statement of faith. I had some similar things in mind when I wrote this entry–I think that some of them can be addressed by this kind of multi-level, multi-document approach. Particularly if the church is wise about choosing what to include. (I should clarify: I didn’t mean that a church necessarily ought to take stances on all the non-essentials that I listed. I think it’s entirely appropriate to have some of the spectrum of beliefs that you mentioned.) In other words, we can work to avoid the pitfalls.

    Anyway, I asked you those two questions, because I think they’re a good way to exercise discernment. Except… Perhaps we should add the flip-side question.

    1.) What are the Good Things people intend to accomplish using a statement of faith? Is it possible to accomplish them without a statement of faith? Will it be more difficult?
    2.) What are the pitfalls of having a statement of faith? Can we avoid those pitfalls? How difficult will it be?

    Between those concerns, where does the balance of wisdom lie?

  5. bethyada says:

    I think statements of faith are useful for individuals to summarise their position, I can get a useful overview of where someone is coming from on say a blogsite, especially if it is not one I frequent. It can make me aware of underlying assumptions in posts I read. There is the negative that I can prejudge their arguments or dismiss the site, but it can be a good and useful thing for a statement of faith. It may be useful to have a short and long version, the long version explaining the subtleties of one’s view.

    It is also a useful thing for a parachurch organisation. I think it useful to have a more generic statement on the basics and a more in depth statement on the issue the organisation is focused on. Take the egalatarian/ complementarian debate. It is beneficial for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to have a detailed statement of faith on what they hold as complementarians, or to the level they allow membership. Conversely, Christians for Biblical Equity will have their own and different statement of faith.

    Of course they can’t both be correct on this issue as they hold (at least somewhat) contradictory opinions, which what I alluded to above, the error may not be exposed. However if people on both sides read both sides then resolution may come, at least to individuals if not the group.

    A statement of faith here allows a focus on the issue. It is theoretically harder to set up strawmen when arguing against them (at least if people are honest and wish to address the issues). Items of difference can be seen and discussed. It means that membership can be restricted to those who affirm the position and those who deny it can be asked to stand down. This is appropriate for a parachurch organisation as it is focusing on an issue, whereas this may be inappropriate for a church which is more relational. I don’t think you should remove someone from church because they deny inerrancy, but it is inappropriate for that person to belong to “Inerrancy Apologists” (especially if they do so to undermine it).

    The statement of faith in these situations should still be at the level of the ministry and related issues. Creation science ministries may not have any item in their statement of faith on eschatology, and rightly so as persons with different views can equally defend creationism. But they may have one on the Bible to distinguish themselves for overt heresy (such a Jehovah’s Witnesses) or on inerrancy as that is closely related to their view of Bible interpretation from whence they derive creationism.

    From above you can see that individuals have a set of beliefs which we may choose to summarise, and ministries may have a focus which they need to define; but churches are a blend of people that seek to follow Christ and impact the world. Insisting on a set of beliefs may mean they never study them and therefore never truly identify with them, or they find it hard to agree with early, and so find joining the church difficult.

    I guess one is open to having an increasing number of people in the church that reject the truth, but a Christ follower should become more and more like him. If they focus their life on a particular area and are submitting themselves to his rule, it is possible that Jesus will either guide their mind to the truth or steer them away from that ministry. This may not always happen but I think it is the preferable path.

    A church may be faced with splitting over something, but I am not certain that having a rigid statement makes this less likely, nor makes the church less prone to error.

  6. Tim says:

    It means that membership can be restricted to those who affirm the position and those who deny it can be asked to stand down. This is appropriate for a parachurch organisation as it is focusing on an issue, whereas this may be inappropriate for a church which is more relational. I don’t think you should remove someone from church because they deny inerrancy, but it is inappropriate for that person to belong to “Inerrancy Apologists” (especially if they do so to undermine it).

    I agree that various parachurch groups might have very precise positions on some subject. More than most churches will. Maybe more than a church should. (I’m still figuring that out, myself.)

    But let’s look at why those parachurch organizations want to restrict membership at all.

    You mentioned things like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), and their counterpart Christians for Biblical Equity. You mentioned creation science ministries, and a hypothetical group “Inerrancy Apologists”. As you said, if a member of the group–or especially a leader!–began to differ on or deny the group’s central beliefs, then the group will want to ask them to leave. As you put it, they “can be asked to stand down.” Why? Because these groups have distinctive beliefs–beliefs that are central to their identity. Joining the group means adherence to those beliefs.

    So you’re saying that’s not true of a church? That a church doesn’t have distinctive beliefs, central to their identity?

    You defined church as “a blend of people that seek to follow Christ and impact the world.” But what does “following Christ” mean? What if someone is truly preaching another gospel? You defined Jehovah’s Witnesses as an overt heresy. Suppose one of the leaders of your church began to accept the beliefs of the Watchtower Society or the Mormon church–but wanted to stay part of your church, teaching people how to follow Jesus. At that point, wouldn’t you want to ask them to step down?

    Wouldn’t you want to do so, because the Church has boundaries? Defining beliefs?

    (Now, I was talking about leaders in the church. Another question would be, “What do we do with a member of the church who begins to accept JW or Mormon teaching?” The answer might be different there.)

    If you agree, then it seems like you have a functional, unwritten statement of faith. Isn’t it wise to be clear & up-front about what you would consider “crossing the line”?

    You said,

    I don’t think you should remove someone from church because they deny inerrancy

    I think I agree. At least, I wouldn’t want to ask someone to stop coming to the church service because of it. (“Should they be allowed to teach classes at the church?” is another question…)

    In a nutshell, I think your concerns argue for a minimal statement of faith–limited to the defining beliefs of Christianity. And having different consequences for leaders & other members of the church.

    But if parachurch groups are concerned to maintain their complementarian or egalitarian or creationist identities, how much more should the Body of Christ be concerned to maintain our Christian identity? To maintain the integrity of the gospel, and the core distinctives of Christianity?

    P.S. We can err both ways in our statements of faith–being too minimalist, and being too “maximalist”. Being too inclusive, and being too exclusive. But doctrine does seem to be grounds for inclusion & exclusion from the church. Check out Paul talking about Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus (1 Tim. 1:19-20, 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Though 2 Tim. 2:23-26 is also pretty interesting.

  7. bethyada says:

    So you’re saying that’s not true of a church? That a church doesn’t have distinctive beliefs, central to their identity?

    In a way. It is not that there are not true beliefs, there are many; rather that there is relationship. We are to focus on who we love and because of that we grow in knowledge of the truth.

    Perhaps one could have a minimalist statement: “salvation is in Christ alone” and perhaps “the Bible is God’s guide for us” I am not saying that this will prevent heresy, but I am not certain that more extensive quotes will do that, and they may be counter productive.

    My theology does allow a Mormon to be saved, not because they have the truth, they are grossly in error and not part of the Christian church. But through their church they can still come to know and love Jesus, and over time have their false beliefs corrected. But I think the same about more mainline churches. There are people in Catholic and Protestant churches who are saved and some who are not. I think a focus on discipleship may counteract this better than a focus on doctrine.

    In such a church we are trying to get people to commit themselves to Jesus.

    In a parachurch/ministry we are trying to do this for a group (eg. campus groups) or defend a doctrine. However for those who are defending a doctrine some of the groups are not set up by God. How can they be? they are arguing mutually exclusive propositions. A young earth creationist ministry and a God uses (macro)evolution ministry cannot both be correct. The only use for one of these 2 groups is to help focus the correct group on the truth. The false group ceasing to exist is a good thing. An individual who changes his mind about this issue leaves that group (and perhaps joins the alternative).

    However in a church I find it hard to see how a person can go from the truth to error (if they truly held on to the truth) while following God. They may nuance their belief—fine. Or go from true belief without conviction to false belief with some conviction which isn’t really a change as they had not really held the first one. But to go from true conviction to an ever increasing degree of error speaks of not following Christ. Perhaps at the beginning it is just a temptation to leave the path, but repeated (wrong) choices mean the person is not on the narrow road. In summary not having a statement of faith matters less as the person, while having wrong belief, is also no longer a disciple. False teachers also have bad fruit.

    And how much identity do we need? The Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox churches are so fragmented, and for what? Granted the reformation needed to happen, but why cannot pre- and post-millenialists worship together? Why cannot Calvinists and Arminians worship together and allow both on the leadership structure? Granted a church may have this as a focus and it would be difficult for that church, but not all.

    (Note I am a strong believer in correct doctrine. I believe orthopraxy is much more likely with orthodoxy and orthodoxy should be defended; but the latter is a means to the former which is what Christ desires, or rather what he desires is relationship, out of which follows orthopraxy)

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