But the question we should be asking is why? Why so many different doctrinal statements? Why the differences? And why do organizations need them? After recently finishing my part in shaping the new doctrinal statement at Risen Life Church, I have been thinking about these questions.
As we examine why, we should remember a couple things. First, there have been disagreements for a very long time and as a result different creeds or doctrinal statements have developed. In his letters Paul often lays out a confession statement so there is no confusion where he stands. He must do this because there are others preaching and teaching different beliefs and even different gospels. There is an entire party of believers who hold to the idea that gentile Christians must keep the Law and be circumcised (see Acts 15 and Titus 1:10-11, for examples) . To resolve this problem a counsel was convened in Jerusalem and a letter was written outlining the outcome (see Acts 15:19-30). This letter serves as an early New Testament doctrinal statement. Moving forward in the Church, we see a number of different creeds and confessions. Entire schools of monks developed because of different views. The reformers had differing ideas and many evangelicals have differences with the reformers today, although they may be unaware. Most denominations identify themselves by their doctrinal statements and confessions, which unifies them within the organization and differentiates them from other groups. Differences are certainly not new.
Second, it is important to remember that not all doctrinal statements are equal. Some organizations set themselves to stand only on those things they believe are of the utmost importance and essential to salvation, leaving room for differences in the lesser things; while other organizations feel they must include all matters of their beliefs as well as methods of their practice. Some groups hold very strongly to their doctrinal statements while others see them as soft guidelines. For example, I know of schools who ask their students to "generally" agree with the school's doctrinal statement, while others are very strict that their students firmly agree with every word. Pastors are often expected to sign a doctrinal statement or write one, although the degree of seriousness to these statements vary among organizations and pastors. Individuals of organizations may know their creeds well or have no idea that their organization even has a statement of beliefs. Some churches require parishioners to memorize creeds, confessions, or a catechism as a requirement for membership. We can read the statements, but sometimes it is best to examine how the group functions within their doctrinal statements and creeds.
A doctrinal statement, article of faith, creed, or a confession of faith is (or should be) a statement or list of things believed that must be shared by the others among the organization if they are to be unified in purpose and practice. However, these statements normally stick to the most important items and are usually associated with those beliefs which are essential to salvation, but not always.
So, this brings us back to our initial questions. Why?
Ultimately, differences arise due to different interpretations of the Bible, reactions to various beliefs, or differencing practices. In regard to different interpretations of the Bible, these surface when believers hold to different understandings of hermetical principles, place a higher focus on different passages and doctrines than others, or simply have a poor interpretation. In other cases, the Bible may not be as clear in a specific area, and in these instances it is best of we do not hold them with such a strictness.
When it comes to reactions to various beliefs, we find particular statements that stand in support of the hot issues of the day, or against them. This is often the result of different interpretations, but not always. This became rather serious when believers called for believer's baptism, Luther challenged the pope, others challenged the Eucharist, the charismatic movement shifted into high gear, people started calling the Bible a book of error, women entered the pulpit, and so-on. There are often code words contained within a doctrinal statement that help us identify where the organization stands but to understand the code words, we have to understand our history and the arguments. We've got to see the luggage each code work is carrying and we need to understand the history of the baggage. We even see this with the revisions to the A.D. 325 Nicene Creed at Constantinople in A.D. 381.
Finally, like the reactions to various beliefs we find statements that stand against differing practices. Church government is sometimes listed in a doctrinal statement although with the exception of a plurality of elders, the Bible is fairly vague on this topic. Sometimes the method of how worship is conducted or which translation of the Bible the church prefers appears in a doctrinal statement. Sometimes when churches or organizations hold strongly to preferences they begin to believe that their way is the only correct way and we see this bleed into their doctrinal statements. Not all church do this, but it does happen. Another instance is when a single doctrine is elevated above all others and then influences all practices of faith eventually being written into creeds and confessions. This is most common within the charismatic debates as well as the arguments regarding the role of the different sexes or the end-times understandings. Often the debates start in the realm of belief but on occasions belief exits the conversation and pride drives the statement.
Despite the reasons for differences, doctrinal statements are good. If you are a part of a church or maybe a para-church organization, there is great benefit in knowing the doctrinal statement. As you examine the statements of your organizations, it may be fruitful to start developing your own statement. What is most important? What is not? What is essential? What's not? These are good questions to ask yourself as you become more and more grounded in what you believe. And of course, be sure that your beliefs are shaped by what God's Word teaches rather than your preferences.
*Photo by Karen Tan is registered under a creative commons license and is used with permission.