What Does Your Church’s Statement of Faith Protect?
This past Saturday night, the elders of FBC had the privilege of meeting with a number of potential elders and deacons for another night of fellowship and discussion. Over the past couple of monthly meetings we’ve been discussing our church’s statement of faith and its use in the life of the church. As we discussed the statement Saturday, the conversation turned to the importance of the statement of faith in protecting various aspects of the church and its ministry. As I’ve noodled on that conversation, it seems to me that a local church’s statement of faith should protect five important things:
1. The Teaching Authority of the Elders. What keeps the elders and members from descending into theological deadlocks, each proclaiming, “Well, I think it means this” or “To me it means that”? A health statement of faith summarizes the church’s position on key doctrinal subjects. That standard helps to raise theological conversation and teaching above the subjective preferences of individuals and anchors the teaching of the the church in the Scripture itself. One could say, “The Bible alone is our authority,” and that would be correct, but it wouldn’t really resolve the problem of subjective interpretation of key biblical issues. I mean, what are we arguing about? Isn’t it “What does the Bible teach?” So appeals to “The Bible says” can become inadequate for resolving theological conflicts. Statements of faith are not perfect and certainly do not possess any authority greater than the Bible, but they can go a long way in helping to the church to say “If the elders teach the word of God, and if their teaching squares with our doctrinal standards, then they teach with authority what we hold to be true and it’s our duty then to submit to what the elders teach.”
2. The Gospel. Our statements of faith can also protect the gospel message itself. The statement protects the gospel when it properly defines the Good News. But it also protects the gospel when it properly defines doctrinal positions touching the gospel. For example, a good statement of faith takes care to state that baptism does not cause regeneration. An effective creed helps people to see that a doctrine like the Trinity matters immensely for our understanding of the Good News and the role each Person in the Trinity plays in redemption. The protection of the gospel requires we define other key doctrinal positions that bear upon the gospel but are not themselves the gospel.
3. The Language of the Church. Contemporary Christians inherit centuries old language, sometimes technical language, to define and promote the faith. The terms we use, like Trinity, has a definite history and function in theological discourse. Our statements can be useful for preserving such technical terms. And our statements can be important for protecting pretty ordinary words with extraordinary consequence. For example, we are not “justified by faith” but “justified by faith alone.” What’s the difference? A Roman Catholic can affirm the former but only a true Protestant can affirm the latter. The ordinary word “alone” has important consequences for the entire doctrine. Good statements protect the language of the church.
4. The Unity and Peace of the Church Family. We are to do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Statements of faith help us do that by defining the core articles of faith a local church requires for church unity. That unity promotes the peace of the church. Where the essentials are not defined, room may be left for constant skirmishes over belief and practice. But confessing our faith together preserves harmony.
5. The Freedom of the Church. Sometimes creeds are important because of what they omit. A good statement doesn’t take a position on everything possible. Weird indeed would be the statement that attempts a required position on head coverings. Some things are indifferent, others secondary and unnecessary to congregational unity. Christians may sincerely disagree over some of these issues and fruitfully worship together in the same congregation. When the creed avoids taking a position on such secondary matters, it actually preserves the congregation’s freedom of conscience. Members are not bound where the Scripture does not bind. In charity we extend opportunity for godly fellow believers to hold positions according to the light they have received from the word and the Spirit. If it’s not a practical secondary matter on which we must agree (for example, we’ll either baptize children of professing believers or not), then we serve ourselves best by not enshrining disputable secondary matters in the church’s doctrinal standards.
6. The Future of the Church. Finally, an effective statement of faith helps to protect the future. To be sure, it doesn’t guarantee a certain future. Many congregations have departed from their doctrinal history or simply allowed the statement to vanish into the oblivion of church records. But, a statement of faith actively used in the catechism of families and the worship of the gathered church works to pass along the faith to those coming behind us. In this way, it makes a deposit in succeeding generations who know the ancient paths and safely trod there. Without creedal guard rails subsequent worshipers more easily veer onto the soft shoulders of theological error. Good statements actively used help protect the future of the church.
What am I missing? What else might be protected by an effective doctrinal standard?