Strict Adherance to Creeds May Foster (not Prevent) Doctrinal Impurity

PRESSSURE TO CONFORM DESTROYS THE PURITY OF THE CHURCH

Over the last couple of years I have come to see how denomination’s rigid adherence to peripheral doctrines in their selection of leadership has proven detrimental to the church’s overall doctrinal purity.  The divisions between Christian groups are openly manifest in the plethora of creeds and confessions that exist.  One purpose of creeds is to exclude.[1]

When church’s select their leadership, many of them require their leaders only sign off on the various creeds and confessions that particular Christian body ascribes to.  The documents are often littered with many secondary and peripheral doctrines.  One easy and common example is baptism.

The problem with this practice is that it forces leaders and teachers to feel extra pressure to conform and continue to hang on to certain theological presuppositions, whether true or false, once they are hired.  In my mind this is impractical and even dangerous for several reasons.

WHY DOCTRINAL HOMOGENAITY IS IMPRACTIAL AND DANGEROUS

(1) A minister has usually chosen his or her path long before they are fully developed doctrinally.  Very few men or women are able to seriously and thoroughly review all the major and minor doctrines of the faith and take a confident stance on them before being ordained into ministry.  Colin Brown, in his book Miracles and the Critical Mind honestly points out the unlikeliness of anyone having all their major convictions settled early: “[People who speak as though all their ideas are settled early on] are apt to give the impression that people go through a phase in life during which they work out their world views.  Once this has been achieved, all that remains is to clear up details.  No doubt people do go through such phases.  But only those who thoughts remain petrified do not modify and amplify their world views as they grow in experience and insight.”  Yet, most men and women going into ministry will have to sign off on these doctrines when they take a job.  Many of their beliefs going into ministry will likely be unformed and unsettled (if they are honest).[2]  This means they have two options: First, they can go into a denomination that is more “open” to doctrinal diversity or second, they can go into a more theologically precise denomination and go along with the status quo hoping to come to see things like their colleagues (or, worst case, blindly agreeing with their colleagues).

(2) Practically, what this means for those who choose the second option (above) is that they, in some cases, don’t feel the freedom to be doctrinally honest.  This is quite ironic and sad because it is in the name of doctrinal purity that many churches do not feel that they can hire ministers of a different persuasion on various doctrines.  This plays out on the level of our systematic theologies as well.  Wells points out that up until the present century, most of the systematic theologies were written by theologians who were members or theologians of a confessional church.  There would be no way for him to keep his credentials as a minister or his post as a theological professor if he varied noticeably from the confession of the church.[3]  The irony is that in the end this phenomenon undermines other aspects of truth sharing that are necessary components of pure and effective gospel ministry—most obviously, accountability.  Without the freedom to question creeds, confessions, and the teachings of those in power in any particular denomination or church, what keeps men accountable to serious error?

(3) Such practices imply that what makes us mature in Christ is more than Jesus.  “In Paul’s view, no one needed more than knowledge of the Lord Jesus to be saved, and no one needed more than the Lord Jesus to arrive at maturity in the Christian life.”[4]  There is a subtle implication in all of this doctrinal pettiness that what makes a Christian mature is more than Jesus.[5]  Is it not love for Christ that makes us mature as summed up in the greatest commandment? (Lk. 10:27).  Is it not love that fulfills the law? (Gal. 6:2; Jas 2:8).  The demons know a lot about Jesus but do not know him (Jas. 2:18-19).  It could be argued that much of this mentality comes from a lack of attention to personal holiness and over-attention to politics, controversy, and party spirit.[6]  Many of us seem to be more preoccupied with doctrines and principles more than knowing Christ himself.  As Ryle says: “They are all matters pertaining to the King.  But it is far better to be familiar with the King Himself; to see the King’s own face, and to behold his beauty.”[7]

AN EXAMPLE

Maybe an example will help to illustrate my point.  Let’s say a guy grows up in a Baptist family and attends a Baptist church most of his life.  He eventually discerns a call to ministry and decides to go to the local Baptist seminary and is later ordained as a Southern Baptist preacher.  Because of classes, family, work, job searching, etc. he has little time to do a lot of rigorous study into the credobaptistic view of baptism, but just goes along with it (subconsciously) because that’s what he grew up believing and because that’s what everyone else around him believes.  In time he gets a job as an associate pastor a few states over and settles in.  His family is finally experiencing stability and financial health for the first time in years.  He begins, however, in some of his leisure time to look over some books that he never got to during his seminary years and begins to have doubts about the Baptist view of baptism.  He realizes, however, that if he goes to his boss and says so he will most likely be out of a job.  Now he is faced with a serious dilemma… Every event that has happened in the last 6 or 7 years has been oriented around his being a Baptist pastor.  He went to a Baptist seminary, was ordained as a Baptist, moved 1,500 miles to be a pastor at this particular Baptist church.  Moreover, the financial responsibilities he has incurred.  He has bought a house and his family is not living paycheck to paycheck for the first time since he and his wife were married…

Now, he has to risk all of that over a doctrine that is less than central.

SHOULD CHURCH BE LIKE THIS?

Is this really the way church should be?  I don’t think the Bible places this kind of priority on such doctrines.  I don’t know that I have the answers to these problems, but I do believe these kinds of scenarios are a result of our sinful way of doing church.  It seems to me that many churches behave as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day pointing out every little “mistake” they noticed in the way Christ and his disciples lived—even when what he was doing was clearly good!

Paul believed a measure of theological and practical diversity to be healthy for the church (see Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 12, 14; 2 Cor. 8).  There is no assumption in Paul that churches should divide on theological or practical grounds.  Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17).  I take this to mean that for Paul, the preaching of the gospel is of higher importance than the practice of baptism.  Moreover, he implies that baptism is not a part of the gospel.  The two are distinct.  One can have a solid grasp on the gospel and be totally amiss on baptism.

He says as much in other epistles too, constantly urging the churches to be of “the same mind” (Rom. 12:16; 15:5; 1 Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2).  Philippians 2:2 says: “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (NAS).

I don’t know.  These are some thoughts that are still in process.  Continuing to chew on it all.  Hope you are with me…

 


[1]Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, and Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002), 259. For all the good and bad that creeds foster, Willem VanGemeren and Joel Green have pointed out that whatever the motivation may be, our efforts to systematize is an “extrabiblical pursuit.” Joel B. Green, How to Read Prophecy (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1984), 23-32, as quoted in Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 71.

[2] One example: I spoke to a fellow student at RTS going into his third year hoping to graduate in the spring. We began speaking about the Sabbath day. I shared with him that I am becoming more persuaded that it is “fulfilled” and need not be observed by Christians. He acted as though he had never even heard such a position. This is a great example of how so many seminarians preparing for ministry do not honestly examine their beliefs but simply accept confessional statements. So many are immersed in books and classes and conversations that only mirror their own views that they are not aware of differing opinions. That is not to say that we should try and study up on every nuance, idea, and view out there. But it is to say that many, many, seminarians and Bible students put their stamp of approval on a host of various doctrines in their church confessions that they have not honestly studied in any detail.

[3] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 265.

[4] Wells and Zaspel, New Covenant Theology, 240.

[5]I received a comment from a friend about this point here. I thought I might clarify some of my meaning here. Without going into a million nuances and details, here’s a rough sketch of what I mean: Bible-based theology always leads us to Christ. Biblical ethics always leads us back to Jesus. There are really no categories or subjects in the Bible that one can deal with which will not inevitably lead back to Christ in one way or another. All things in the Bible somehow point to (Rom. 11:33-36), are fulfilled in (Matt. 5:17) or are summed in Christ (Eph 1:10). Paul summarized his teaching as “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). All morality and good works only find meaning in Christ for Paul (Phil. 3:7-11). In that sense, there is really nothing to add to Christ. As my friend pointed out, all of the various things we encounter in Scripture (like baptism) are God’s self-communication. So in that way it is ALL of Christ in a sense and therefore all important. I pointed out that order and priority are also a part of God’s self-communication and we do well to emphasize the things that God does in Scripture… It was a very helpful discussion. When we begin to emphasize or insist on certain things that the Bible does not we distort God and miss the core—Jesus. On the surface, this was the problem with the church in Galatia. They started with just Jesus but began to believe that they needed more. Paul says this belief put everything in jeopardy. I am definitely not saying that there is no more data than Jesus involved in Christian maturity. There obviously is, all I am saying is that there is no other principle which is so fundamental to all others ideas, propositions, developments, etc in the Bible than Jesus. When we begin to talk about Jesus plus anything we have stepped into the realm of certain kinds of knowledge which puff up. I think this is probably a part of the reason why Paul says this explicitly when talking about Christian liberty in 1 Cor. 8.

[6] In 1879 Ryle wrote of this sad trend already taking place: “I have had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness, have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us.” See J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010), xvii.

[7] Ryle, Holiness, 191.

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