I heard an argument recently that is telling of the state of much of the church. I was told, with much pride in the tolerance promoted, of a pastor who placed before his new members’ class a shoe box. He put the shoe box up on a stool in the middle of the room. He encouraged the participants to look at the box carefully from various vantage points. He then explained that the box was much like Christianity. The contents represented the sum of Christian belief. The way in which one viewed the box, the differing perspectives from alternative places around the room, explained the differences between the denominations. It’s all just a matter of perspective.
The pastor was arguing that all Christian faith groups believe the same core doctrines. They just happen to look at them differently. Thus, a Lutheran might look at the box from the long side, admire the crispness of the folds, and argue that Christianity is about rigidity and structure. The Presbyterian in the room looks at the box from the narrow end. He sees all of Christianity in light of the width of his view. The beliefs aren’t really different; they’re just emphasized according to one’s unique perspective.
I couldn’t decide if I thought the illustration that was explained to me with such thorough pleasure was theologically naive or doctrinally dangerous. Would a Catholic agree that he and a Baptist really adhere to the same theology of baptism viewed from a different perspective? Would a Methodist and a Dutch Reformer say that they really agree on election? Are Mormon beliefs in this box? What about the B’hai? Are the contents of the box really the same after all?
I’m afraid many in our churches would accept the shoe box illustration with glee. “Finally,” they would say, “I can accept my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically.” Such an idea certainly is keeping with the tenor of the modern church where so many Christians float in and out of churches, crossing denominational lines as the mood strikes them. Like the box, so wonderfully packaged and frighteningly shallow, many Christians hold their faith loosely precisely because they really don’t know what their faith is. The theological ignorance represented by the shoe box stands as a detriment to our churches and our people. It is not an enlightened acceptance of the breadth of Christian differences but a woeful ignoring of vital Christian beliefs.
That’s where confessions of faith come in. They’re like theological gold mines. The deeper you dig, the richer you get. Even confessions from Christian bodies with whom I disagree are fascinating reading. They tell us about the church that wrote it. They tell us something about the people who hold it. And, all too often, they tell us much about the people who ignore it.
Much to our dismay, too many of our own people disregard their congregation’s confession of faith. Next time you’re in church, ask around. Find out who’s read the church’s confession of faith. See if any can even name the church’s confession of faith. My hunch is that you’ll find a few of the former and even less of the latter. That is a shame and leads to theological poverty among our congregations.
Today’s church needs to rediscover its confession of faith. Let me give you three reasons why Christians have written and used confessions of faith and why we should today (in modern language):
1 - In-reach. A confession of faith is a defining tool. It outlines the parameters of the truths that particular body holds dear. It, as a summary of the faith once for all delivered to the saints as understood by the local believers, puts before the church those things the church sto be the minimal doctrinal standards upon which the unity of that local church is built. Confessions promote unity.
2 - Out-reach. A confession of faith is an explaining tool. Before someone joins your church they (should) want to know what your church believes, what separates you from the church down the street. Doctrinal differences can be very important. A Greek Orthodox Christian isn’t going to be very happy in the long run in a Holiness Pentecostal church, no matter how engaging the worship music might be. Since we don’t make it clear in our church names what we believe anymore, we need to make sure we do with our confessions of faith. Confessions encourage compatability.
3 - Apologetics. A confession of faith is a defending tool. Christians have used their confessions of faith to present and defend their beliefs before a watching world. Initially, the confession was used to prove the church, or new movement, was in line with orthodoxy on the key tenets of faith. The confession was also used, however, to explain and defend the church’s differences with other Christians. It explains why we believe what we believe. Confessions establish continuity and explain discontinuity.Every church has a confession of faith be it an old, dusty relic from the past long-overlooked or a living testimony to the faith of the members. Let me encourage you today to dig out your church’s confession of faith. Blow the dust off that valuable document. Find out what’s really there. Discover what it really means to be a Baptist or a Methodist or whatever. If you’re a pastor or teacher, teach it to your people. Show them why it’s important. If not, go ahead, put your confession of faith in that shoe box and bury it out back behind the church. It’s dead already.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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