Tuesday, September 14, 2004

My creed...and mine alone

I think the restoration movement slogan "no creed but the New Testament" may need further discussion of the word "creed."

    Creed: n. - A formal statement of religious belief; a confession of faith; a system of belief, principles, or opinions.
    [As defined by Dictionary.com]

If that is all that is meant by the term "creed," then we all, as individuals at least, have a creed to the extent that we hold a set of opinions and religious beliefs which we personally deem to be correct. Even restoration movement churches, while decrying the sectarian tendencies of congregational creeds, generally have them (albeit informal and unwritten). Communities of these believers have agreed to a certain body of "orthodox" opinions on various subjects, ranging from instrumental music to church support for institutions. Many of these opinions about proper congregational practices I hold as well.

In the discussion of creeds, it is not the fact that one has a set of beliefs and deductions about God's Word - conservative, liberal, or otherwise - that is the problem. The problem lies in the establishment of those beliefs to form boundaries of association (either on an inter- or intra-congregational basis) with other believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider the definition of "creed" as used in religious literature today:

    Creeds - Authoritative summaries of the principal articles of faith of various churches or bodies of believers. Since doctrines are subject to elaboration and interpretation that cause differences of opinion detailed creeds become necessary to emphasize the differences between the tenets of schismatic branches. They also serve as formulations of belief when liturgical usage, as in the administration of baptism, requires a profession of faith.
    [As defined by Crosswalk.com]

In popular usage, creeds have become authoritative and synonymous with "tests of fellowship." But the bizarre historical legacy of the restoration movement in the 20th century is that we put away written creeds but formulated new tests of fellowship. Shouldn't one have been tossed with the other?

Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome that it was possible for two believers to differ on what was to them a very important doctrinal issue of the time, yet still walk as unified brothers:

    Romans 14:22-23 - So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. NIV

The creeds of these believers were to be their own private creed. Moving beyond the most basic principle of Christianity, that all who are obedient to the gospel call are citizens of the kingdom, the real question is "Which citizens do we associate with?" The answer may be shocking to some of us, but it is nonetheless axiomatic to Jesus' prayer and Paul's pleas for unity: All of them. Even if they are mistaken on many things that seem clear to us. That is why Paul so repeatedly urges Christians to be patient and longsuffering with our brothers. To do otherwise is to ask Jesus to be patient with us for our misunderstandings while we demand a higher standard of our brother.

(For clarity, it behooves me to make note of the exceptions. Paul clearly teaches us to avoid those who move away from the truth of the gospel - in other words, those who deny the saving power of the good news and obedience to it. He also teaches us to avoid associating with brothers who continue in moral depravity, and those who cause division in the Lord's body.)

The pure gospel message, as proclaimed in full on Pentecost and obeyed by thousands that day, requires all saved individuals to work together and share in the common life and cause that is Christ Jesus. To deny a brother fellowship is to deny him brothership, something we have neither right nor power to grant or withhold. That is above our pay grade. When a list of opinions, whether written or unwritten, formal or informal, is used to deny a person his rightful place as a brother and fellow traveler in the Way, it is a creed in the worst sense of the word, and has become useful only for creating sects out of believers.