For the past year my students have evaluated their churches’ doctrinal statements, and I have learned valuable insights that might help pastors and boards improve their church’s confession of faith. Such statements are increasingly important, but they are not always treated as such, even in churches that value sound doctrine.
Here are ten questions for improving your church’s statement of faith, in descending order of importance. I’ll list five now and the other five in my next post.
1. Can you find it?
Is your doctrinal statement easily accessible on your church’s website? Do your members and visitors know it is there? Do you mention it in church, at least once per year?
Every church believes something about something, but in some cases it is well hidden. One student had to ask several people before he found the church’s official confession of faith, concealed in a file in the church office.
Your church’s confession is what you believe about the most important topics in life. Make sure it’s good, then make it available. If you don’t, you are implicitly telling your congregation that what you believe doesn’t really matter.
2. Is it true?
Is your confession of faith entirely orthodox? Does it actually say what you mean? Words are everything in theology, and we must use them with clarity and precision. Here are some mistakes from confessions I read this semester.
a. God is one being who reveals himself as three persons. This is the textbook definition of modalism. Easy fix: replace “who reveals himself as” with the word “and.” This still could be written better, but at least it isn’t heresy.
b. God will not abandon His commitment to save us. This church thinks it is asserting the perseverance of the saints when it actually isn’t. Those who believe a person could lose his salvation would still insist that God remains committed to save us.
c. We believe the souls of unbelievers remain after death in conscious misery until the final judgment, when soul and body shall be united and cast into the lake of fire to be separated from God and punished forever along with Satan and his angels.
This church would be surprised to learn that its statement leaves the door open to annihilationism. Notice that the “conscious misery” occurs before the final judgment. We don’t know what happens after. Annihilationists agree that those in hell are “punished forever.” Their punishment is the termination of their existence.
3. Is it true to you?
Does your confession accurately reflect who you are? I have read confessions from churches that would never hire a pastor who is an Arminian, amillennialist, open theist, or an annihilationist, yet their confession contains no hint of this.
I understand why a church might impose a tighter doctrinal compass on its leaders than its rank and file members. One church actually has two confessions, a detailed Calvinistic one for its leaders and a more generic, inclusive confession for its members.
This makes a certain amount of sense, though it does suggest a lack of transparency. Imagine the surprise of a theologically astute person who learns after coming to your church for awhile that there is an unwritten or secret confession that differs from your public statement and from what they believe. Wouldn’t they feel misled, and regret wasting months visiting a church where they don’t quite fit?
We must have no hidden agendas. If your church requires a narrower set of beliefs from its leaders, make sure to put it in writing and on the web. If your beliefs are too embarrassing to be made public, then you shouldn’t hold them anyway.
4. Are you true?
Can your leaders sign your confession and mean it? Do you annually ask them to do so? Do you annually review the confession with your congregation and remind them of its importance?
If you want to allow members and/or leaders a certain measure of freedom, then insert a box where they can list their reservations. But if you announce to the world that your leaders believe your confession without reservation, it had better be true. If you make secret arrangements with special people, if you have reason to think they don’t believe what they sign and you let it slide, then you have forfeited your integrity. And that is about the worst thing that can happen to a church.
A confession is only as good as the gatekeepers who guard it. If some of your people don’t believe what your confession says, you must either confront the people, change the confession, or insert room for reservations. What you must not do is say one thing and do another. God hates that.
5. Is it consistent?
Does your confession make good theological sense? If it’s Arminian, is it Arminian all the way through? If it’s Calvinist, is it consistently so?
Some church confessions are Arminian when it comes to predestination and Calvinist on the question of perseverance. This seems to be a uniquely modern, self-serving stance. We want the freedom to come to Jesus on our own, but when we come he had better keep us!
Also check for consistency of detail. Is your confession winsomely broad on most doctrines and fairly exhaustive on the details of eschatology? Does it say more about the antichrist than about the real Christ? Does it say more about hell than about the final destiny of believers? Does it know a suspiciously high amount about the rapture and ensuing tribulation?
Confessions are not written in a vacuum. If you took out a sheet of paper and began to write down what you believe, you would immediately think of people and errors you want to distance yourself from. Our confessions say as much about what we don’t believe as they say about what we do. Fair enough. But we must not allow the current controversies to throw our confessions off balance. Our confessions are a product of our time. But if done well, they will guide future generations.
Photo by Keren Tan. Via Flickr. Used by permission.