In a previous post, Emerging Enigma, I reacted to the statement by Emergent-US against the use of creeds. Carl Holmes, who writes the blog Thoughts of a Gyrovague, left a comment in which he asked some good questions. I felt my response was too much for the comment section, and so I'm making a separate post of them here. Thanks, Carl, for joining in the discussion.
I think that one reason we wish to pass on making a specific statement is that in the growth of the church creeds have been used to divide, not grow, the church.
I have heard similar claims in the past from people opposed to using creeds, and the Emergent-US statement hints at this as well. I have never seen the statement supported with examples, however, so it is not clear to me what kind of division is being condemned. Are we talking about dividing heretics from the church? If so, that's a good thing, isn't it? Especially when one looks at a basic, broad statement of faith such as the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, I see no other possible division. Are we talking about keeping error and corruption from the church? If so, that's an important responsibility of the church's leadership, isn't it?
The basis of unity is agreement. People are united around an idea, a desired course of action, an understanding of truth.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11 - 16)
This passage from Ephesians links Christian unity with sound doctrine. It also clearly lays upon the leadership of the church the responsibility to teach the saints to equip them for good works by protecting them from "every wind of doctrine". The necessary prerequisite for Christian work is said to be "unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God."
Unity of doctrine, then, promotes unity of action. Unity of action is not accomplished by ignoring our differences and just deciding we should all get along. That sort of unity is a false one, in which every person sees the mission differently, and as they act on their own ideas, the body moves forward more like an amoeba than an army.
The statement of faith my denomination uses, the Westminster Confession of Faith, was crafted in an attempt to unify the various reformational churches of Britain. The result was a statement on which Presbyterians, Puritans, and Separatists could all agree. It avoided speaking to those doctrines upon which they did not agree. What was so divisive about that? English Baptists could not agree with the doctrine on infant baptism, but adopted an almost identical confession except for the chapter on baptism. Was this divisive? While it points out a difference of conscience in regards to baptism, it also set out many more similarities and allowed the Presbyterian and Baptist Christians to work together where they agreed. Even today, you will find many Presbyterian fans of the Baptist preacher C.H.Spurgeon, even though we differ with him on baptism.
Three confessions which came out of European Reformed churches are known as the "Three Forms of Unity." They delineated a consistent system of doctrine among the Dutch, Belgic, and German Reformed Churches. Again, this was unifying because they all knew where they stood with one another.
Did these creeds also divide? The Canons of Dordrecht, one of the Three Forms of Unity, for example, was written to refute a system of doctrine espoused by the followers of Jacob Arminius, today known as Arminianism. Arminianism, of course, is still a dividing issue in the church today. I would submit, however, that it was not the creeds and position papers on either side of the controversy that divided the church. The creeds merely reflected a division that already existed. What divided the church were human limitations in understanding and interpreting the Word of God, limitations that resulted in different people reading the same Word and coming away with different understandings of what it said.
I see creeds and confessions not as promoting division, but as promoting openness and honesty. Whether I am choosing a church for my family, deciding whether or not to volunteer for a para-church ministry, or deciding in which school to enroll my child, creeds, confessions, and statements of faith help me to make those decisions. They help me to work together with Christians with whom I don't agree on everything, because I know where we do agree. Would I enroll my child in a school that disagreed with my convictions on Arminian vs. Reformed theology? Probably not. Would I volunteer at a Crisis Pregnancy Center with people with the same differences? Yes, I would.
How can a group expect other Christians to work alongside them or join their movement if they won't tell us what they believe? How can we even know if they are genuinely Christian unless they will state at least their basic understanding of the Gospel? How can we be sure that they are free of serious errors that could harm the flock or our children? Carl said,
"YES use the gospel to decide who is going to be in the church and who is not. WHY add more to it. Plain and simple the bible is the lectio divina and if we believe it GREAT, if we do not, you are not the church."
Fine, but are you willing to state what the Gospel is and state that only those who believe it are in the Church? So far, I see no willingness to do even that. Many people say they believe the "Gospel." Mormons say they believe it, but clearly their understanding of it is different than mine. Of course, if such a statement was made, it would be a creed. It would be a simple creed, but a creed nonetheless.
Refusing to make a statement of belief only raises suspicions. It allows detractors to characterize your beliefs rather than stating it yourself. It promotes confusion. It causes people to take the statements of one person identifying himself with your group and applying it to all, because they have no other information to go on. If your group is unified on the Gospel alone and allows all variations of doctrine as long as the Gospel, as you define it, is agreed upon, then simply say so. That way when folks interact with your movement, its people and its literature, they know what they are getting.