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?

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Comments:


20 thoughts on “What Does Your Church’s Statement of Faith Protect?”

  1. Michelle says:

    Dear Pastor Anyabwile,
    I heartily affirm the need for careful orthodoxy in the form of a statement of faith. You lay out some excellent guidelines here and I disagree with nothing. My question is how do a group of elders ensure that the orthodoxy translates into a vibrant loving culture of gospel proclamation that is lived out and palpable in the community? This may be what you intend in number 6 with “actively used in the catechism of families.” I worshipped for a year in a church that was thoroughly orthodox in its statement of faith, actively used its doctrinal statements in catechism and proclamation, and would have completely agreed with everything you stated here, but the church was an oppressive and toxic place culturally. I no longer attend this church, but the whole experience proved to be instructive for me in understanding the complexity of true orthodoxy. It seems to me that statements of orthodoxy, which I agree are enormously important, are only as effective in preserving the church as the structures which help the statements to filter down into how we live. Is there not a danger of resting on solid (intellectual) statements of orthodoxy as if they alone were sufficient for preserving the Church? And if so, how does a church protect itself from those statements getting lost in translation?
    Michelle

  2. Thabiti says:

    Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for the great comment and question. I completely agree with you that simply having an orthodox doctrinal statement doesn’t translate into joyful liberty and love in the congregation. Let’s admit it: Too often the “orthodox” are the “frozen chosen,” can be judgmental and contentious. So, contrary to what’s sometimes assumed, our theological positions don’t make us certain kinds of people.

    So, a church shouldn’t have less than a solid doctrinal statement. But they’re going to need more. They’re going to need love, joy, and liberty in the Holy Spirit if they’re going to be the kinds of congregations that avoid the stifling experience you describe. It takes head, hearts, and hands, doesn’t it?

    We often see this kind of thing with “Reformed” folks. We hear it said that Reformed types are unkind, judgmental, and so on. And it’s true. Then we hear something like, “Calvinists should be the most humble people in the world because of their doctrine.” Now the fact that people feel compelled to say something like that is tacitly concedes the point: Doctrine doesn’t necessarily produce delight. The truth is Calvinism doesn’t produce joy or humility or a lot of other virtues we desire. Jesus does. The Holy Spirit does. A living, consistent, and humble walk with the Savior produces the character we desire. So, we have to keep that in mind when it comes to our teaching, our shepherding, our disciple-making, our public gatherings, and so on. That requires more–much more–than simply getting the statement of faith correct, though we don’t want to get the statement incorrect.

    T-

  3. Dan says:

    That was a great question and a humbling answer!

    Next question: If a church’s mantra is “Loving God and Loving People”, and if the ethos is more about loving one another than perhaps proclaiming and defending the truth of Christianity, how can it move in a direction where propositional truth can be established, embraced and taught in a loving way? I would like to encourage some reformation at my church, but in a gentler and more winsome way (angry hasn’t worked!).

    Aside: per your comments about Calvinism, do you see those as essentials that an SOF ought to include? More generally, how specific does a church get, and where does it draw the line?

    This topic is very interesting to me; just the other day I actually bought Burk Parsons’ short book, “Why Do We Have Creeds?”. So it’s something I’ve been thinking about over a longer period of time.

    1. Tom says:

      Dan,

      I’m reading through Jonathan Leeman’s book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. In it he describes true love as God-centered and therefore holy love. You cannot “love God and love people” if your love excludes the ideas of truth and holiness.

      Tom

      1. Dan says:

        Tom, I wholeheartedly agree! Our SOF is a bit sparse with respect to the points Thabiti originally blogged about. So I do believe we get caught in some slippery slopes sometime, and care more about appealing music than we do truth. Of course I wasn’t aware of such matters when I joined my church 15 years back. We have an SOF but we don’t do a whole lot with it except require members/leaders to assent to it.

    2. Thabiti says:

      Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the great question, brother. You know, it seems to me that we often fall into the trap of dividing truth and love when we should be joining them. I often wonder if it would not be wise to include a section in our statements on love. We need to define what it is, demonstrate that it is the mark of genuine discipleship (John 13:34-35), that it makes other service effective (1 Cor. 13), and that it’s manifested in a variety of ways, including discipline. Perhaps were we to “marry” other doctrinal truths with this ethical counterpart in the statements of faith we’d be kept from so often falling off the horse on one side or another.

      As for Calvinism, if you mean our soteriology, “yes,” a church should spell out their position in their statement of faith. Without it, we’re not teaching and protecting a very central issue–How are people in fact saved from God’s wrath and saved for God’s love. I would include it.

      T-

      1. Michelle says:

        Pastor Anyabwile,
        Thank you for your edifying answer to my question above. And you were correct about “Reformed” also. Although my own personal understanding of the scriptures tends to more or less line up with the traditional reformed position, it will be a long time before I worship again in a self-consciously reformed church, as much as I long for reformation in the Church. Your comment above to Dan, “I often wonder if it would not be wise to include a section in our statements on love” brought joy when I read it. It seems to me that love, a complex and astonishingly beautiful characteristic of the Triune God, is at the same time one of the most badly misunderstood and skewed words in our cultural language, and by our not including it in a statement of faith, we may by omission be proclaiming that it is less important than other aspects of our belief/practice, (which according to 1 Cor 13 it is not) or that it can be assumed, which seems unwise in our cultural context, where it is as likely as not to be misunderstood as a groundless fuzzy sentimental value that ought to make us all feel better, and avoid confronting sin, etc. So to your pondering the inclusion of love in a formal statement of faith, I say Amen! Love is too important to be assumed or to allow ourselves to get wrong. It truly brought joy to think of elders thinking together about what we believe about love, how we hold those beliefs, and why it’s crucial to Christian orthodoxy! That’s a reformation worth hoping and praying for!
        Michelle

      2. Dan says:

        Thabiti, thank you for your responses. That really does help, because perhaps sometimes SOFs include the “kerygma” but leave out the ethics, so to speak, regarding a biblical definition of love and how we are to express it. Perhaps at least as a stated doctrine of what the church is to be and how we are to interrelate with one another.

        And our church does NOT say anything to hint toward a Calvinistic view of Scripture other than to say that once obtained by God’s grace apart from works, it cannot be lost. “Perseverance of the Saints” is not in there, in those precise terms, nor are the “ULI” of TULIP. If I recall correctly, I do believe we get pretty close to T. So it stands to reason that we’ve gone from Arminian/possible Open Theist, to Calvinist, to I-don’t-know-yet as our teaching pastor.

        ps., it’s cool to be called “brother”. Thank you for seeing me that way!
        pps., yes, I did mean Calvinist soteriology (which, yes, I admit is not Calvinism in anywhere near its fullness!)

  4. Joe Torres says:

    Thabiti, thanks for that word. Too often people fail to realize that putting together a statement of faith for a church is an act of love. As John Frame teaches, theology is about helping people: http://wp.me/p30a1-130

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “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?”

    I don’t know if you’re missing anything per se.

    I just want to offer an observation about one of the marks of a church which is, unfortunately, discipline. Discipline is sometimes necessary. Is it possible to have a sound Statement of Faith that’s subverted and undermined by a refusal to exercise loving discipline and accountability?

    A Statement of Faith protects. And a Statement of Faith needs Leaders who will discipline, when necessary, to uphold the protection promised in the Statement of Faith.

    Eg., Catholic Clergy pedophile abuse scandal and crisis. Their Catechism (which serves as a Statement of Faith of their Magisterium) did not protect as much as it should have due to lax enforcement.

    Liberal Protestantism may have sound creeds and Statements of Faith, but if the shepherds of a denomination or church refuse to exercise discipline or who are rogue themselves, then the sound Statement of Faith is just a useless paper document.

    Enforcement is part of the teaching office.

    Lack of enforcement undermines the Statement of Faith.

    1. Thabiti says:

      Hi TUAD,

      Someone (I should look up who) has said that when discipline leaves the church Christ leaves with it. It’s hyperbole, of course. But it does make the point: If we refuse this aspect of loving people who are unrepentant of profession-contradicting sin, then in what way can we say we are following or helping the sinning brother to follow Christ? We can’t honestly. So, at that point, yes, I think the failure to practice discipline undermines the faith we confess and probably also undermines the commitments we make in our church covenants.

      I agree that corrective love helps to protect the faith, the church and the individual taken in sin.

      T-

      1. Ian says:

        Thabiti, Thanks for being willing to interact with commentators.

        I was wondering exactly what you mean by “profession-contradicting sin”. Can you clarify or give some examples?

        1. Thabiti says:

          Hi Ian,

          I had in mind 1 John 1:6-10 where John points to three situations where people “claim” to walk in the light, know God, etc. but actually live in ways that contradict and falsify the profession or claim. I’m preaching through 1 John right now and it’s prompting me to write in odd phrases! ;-)

          T-

          1. Ian says:

            Thanks Thabiti,

            That makes perfect sense. It’s a bit like a situation I’ve just had to deal with where someone claimed to have become a christian yet then stole several hundred dollars. Talk about profession-contradicting!

  6. Dan Sudfeld says:

    Typical pastor. Promises “five important things,” delivers six.
    (Disclosure: This coming from a fellow pastor)

    Seriously, brother. This is extremely helpful. Thank you!

    1. Thabiti says:

      Hilarious! My wife says that pastors can’t count past three because that’s how many points their sermons always have ;-). I was just happy to get past three that I snuck in an extra one! :-)

      T-

  7. Sherwin says:

    Pastor T,

    You mentioned infant baptism as a “practical” secondary matter which, though not considered primary, is required for congregational unity. What are some others? And how do you treat these practical-secondary issues differently than normal primary and secondary issues?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Sherwin,

      I’d put spiritual gifts in this category. It’s a shame that gifts of God’s grace have divided God’s people when they were meant to unite and edify, but it’s a secondary matter (not to be confused with unimportant) that only admits of one practice. Either we’ll practice certain gifts in our gatherings or we won’t.

      Another might be women’s roles. I’m a convinced complimentarian, but there are godly Christians who are convinced egalitarians. I view a position on gender roles as important but secondary. But practically speaking, a congregation can only be one or the other. We can’t, for example, ordain women and not ordain women at the same time. We can’t leave that undefined and hope for continued unity when a few folks in either camp show up to our meetings.

      These are important issues though not cardinal issues. I wouldn’t treat them differently than primary issues when it comes to defining the church’s position. That is, we should arrive at our positions with Bible’s wide open and noses buried in the text. So, whether primary or secondary we want to be rigorously biblical. Yet, depending on the issue, I might give more time in public teaching to acknowledging rival views on secondary matters. With primary issues I’m saying, “This is correct and this is wrong.” With some secondary matters I’m saying, “I think this is the correct position that accounts for most of the biblical data, but here’s what godly folks in other traditions/camps think and say.” I don’t want to be wrongly dogmatic the further I move from cardinal Christian doctrine.

      I hope that helps. Thanks for raising a very good question.
      T-

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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