Sometimes you may have found that you have had to move to a new location, perhaps as part of your job, and you may have found yourself looking on the web to see what churches are situated close to your new home. One of the things that has struck me when I engaged in this activity was the ‘Statement of faith’ or ‘Doctrinal Basis’ or similar sounding theme that fellowships tend to include on their website.
Some churches put very little in this section of their websites whilst others present virtually a two-page document of concise and detailed systematic theology that can actually seem quite intimidating – even when you agree with it! The plain fact is of course that there are a terrific number of varied beliefs and practices out there all placed under the umbrella term of ‘Christianity’. Church doctrinal statements are in many ways:
- 1) An attempt to define the particular church concerned and
- 2) An attempt to maintain and uphold Biblical and Apostolic teaching against errors and mistakes.
Sometimes, new members who are joining a church are required to agree with the church’s doctrinal basis of faith as part of their qualifications for membership. But there is a balance to be maintained here. New members cannot be expected to embrace some of the more ‘meaty’ doctrines that the Bible presents. New members may not be mature enough to receive such teaching. Perhaps in part, the balance is determined by the role that members are required to fulfil in the fellowship. The more influence that they have in church decisions – through voting at meetings and so on – in other words, the more democratic a church is, then the greater the need for members to be mature and informed. Actually I do not think that the Bible presents a view of the local church as being a democratic institution. Rather, Elders or Overseers govern the church. The very name, Elder, suggests someone who is mature in the faith, someone who has had life experience and who has learned wisdom. This means that Christians who are not Elders (or Deacons) have less say in leading the fellowship and making decisions.
This seems consistent with what Scripture declares. When someone believed in the Lord Jesus on hearing the gospel, they were almost immediately baptised. There was no period of basic teaching, no ‘alpha course’ that they had to engage in before they were accepted as members. There was no waiting or ‘cooling off’ period. There was no interim period of waiting until the new believer could be instructed in and accept a ‘doctrinal basis of faith’. On the contrary, there seemed to be a degree of urgency for them to be baptised so that the new believer could receive the Spirit. ‘Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved’ (Mark 16 v 16); ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2 v 38).
But of course, as a Christian matures, as they grow in understanding and knowledge, they may aspire to serve as Elders or Deacons – taking on a formally recognised public role of leadership or service within the fellowship. Early church Creeds are a form of ‘Statement of faith’ around which agreement and unity can be consolidated especially amongst Elders, Overseers and Deacons, and to a lesser extent, fellowship members. ‘What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve’ (I Corinthians 15 v 3 – 5). By agreeing with these basic ideas all of the ruling Elders can ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’ as it were.
Even here though, it is interesting to note that when the qualifications for an Elder are listed in the Bible, it does not include a ‘Statement of faith’ that they are required to adhere to. In many ways, their beliefs and the nature of their teaching is already assumed to be in line with the teaching of the Apostles. But the qualifications are more to do with godliness and purity of character rather than a formal statement of belief:
‘Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an Overseer desires a noble task. Now the Overseer is to be:
faithful to his wife,
able to teach,
not given to drunkenness,
not violent but gentle,
not a lover of money.
manage his own family well and
see that his children obey him,
and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.
(If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.
He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap’ (I Timothy 3 v 1 – 7).
Being open to the Spirit teaching us the word of God through teachers and Elders is vitally important. Understanding the scriptures and the principles that they contain is one of the chief means by which a Christian grows in grace and into Christ. But I do have some reservations about overly long or overly thorough ‘Statements of faith’ – especially when new believers are required to subscribe to them before they can become members of the fellowship.