Question from Anonymous, from here: Are creeds NECESSARY to be a faithful church?
A church, in order to be a faithful church, must hold to sound doctrine. It must teach and preserve that doctrine. It must counter the teachings of false teachers. A church needs some kind of creed to do this.
Jesus instituted the church in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19- “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” We see from this that teaching lies right at the heart of what the church is called to be. A disciple is one who is learning to be like the master, and the master is Christ. In Revelation 2-3, in His letters to the churches, Jesus repeatedly criticizes the churches for failing to defend sound doctrine and counter false teachings, or commends churches for doing so.
How do we defend sound doctrine? Many will say, “We have the Bible for that. We don’t need creeds.” Certainly, if the creeds are separate from the Bible or add to the Bible, we reject them. But this is not the purpose of creeds and confessions. Creeds define for our church what the Bible says. The problem is that the Bible is a big book, and Christians have a lot of different ideas about what it means. This doesn’t mean the Bible is unclear, or can be made to say anything you want. It’s clear and it means what it means. But in this sinful world there will be lots of disagreements. Some of those disagreements are well-intentioned disputes between brothers. But some are more than that. Jesus and the apostles warn us constantly about people who will come in to the church with evil intentions and attempt to rob the church of sound doctrine. Jude 1:4 is just one example of such a warning. As a result, the church needs to have not only a commitment to the Bible, but also a common understanding about what it is the Bible teaches. False teachers always come as angels of light, and attempt to present their teachings as the “true” teaching of the Bible. The church cannot simply say, “we believe the Bible”, because the false teacher will say that he agrees, and then you have no mechanism to prevent him from leading the people astray, which is what Christ has commanded us to do.
This is where creeds and confessions come in. Creeds are really just a mutual agreement, a covenant, within the church which states what it is we believe the Bible teaches and doesn’t teach. A good creed does not attempt to define belief on every possible issue. A creed is a consensus document, defining which doctrines are non-negotiable. It erects a fence, if you will, around faithful doctrine. Within that fence, we accept disagreement and debate. But outside the fence, we do not. On many issues (mode of church government or infant baptism, for example), many churches will define a position and state that disagreement with this position does not mean a person is not regarded as a believer, but means that a person ought to find a different body to be part of for the sake of peace. Different people have very different ideas about how the church should function, and it’s often for the best that we work separately, as Paul and Barnabas did at a certain point. On other issues, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation, disagreement puts one outside the historic Christian faith.
Without a creed there is no way to define one’s faith. This is widely recognized, given that almost any church you join yourself to, that’s been around for more than a few months, will have some sort of statement of faith. Many churches prefer a short, relatively general statement that they themselves have written. A Reformed church is defined by the fact that it chooses to adhere to one of the historic Reformed creeds such as the Westminster or Belgic Confessions, giving us a much greater level of unity and continuity with the historic church, as opposed to a short, ad-hoc confession which a church writes from scratch.
However one chooses to do it, there have to be standards about which beliefs and practices are acceptable and which are not, or a church will not be around very long. In practice, churches without creeds will be governed by the unwritten and unacknowledged standards of the most powerful person or group within the church- sometimes the pastor, sometimes the wealthiest, sometimes just the loudest and most contentious. Standards like that have a way of changing rapidly and without notice. But there is always a standard. We in the Reformed Faith believe it far preferable to have that standard be in a written form, so that it is clear and easily accessible to all, and that such a standard be in the form of a mutual commitment or promise that we make to each other, for the purpose of accountability. Also it is best that such a standard be the same one that many other churches use, since we are to seek as much unity with other believers as we can without compromising the truth. Signing on to a historic confession of the church is a wonderful way of pursing all of these goals- unity, accountability, good order and defense and preservation of the right doctrine of Scripture.
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