“I believe I can flyyyyyyyyyyy! I believe I can touch the skyyyyyyyyyyyy …”
Sometimes it seems as though the church uses the idea of a Statement of Faith a bit like R Kelly’s lyric above. If we shout it loud enough, it just might be true … or it’ll sound as though we actually believe it even if we’re not sure.
Part of what we’re doing in my home church is looking at what it means to be a member (or in our case a ‘partner’ or ‘friend’) of a church. Inevitably, part of this process contained the church’s ‘Statement of Faith’ which I suppose could be construed as the ‘fine print’ of what we say we believe and practise.
Funnily enough, looking at our ‘Statement of Faith’ got me thinking …
You see, it’s fairly easy to look at a Statement of Faith – for example let’s use the Evangelical Alliance’s one – and nit-pick your way through it, focussing on points we find contentious. For example: “We believe in the divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures …”
Now, this can be a right bag of worms, depending on how you word it – some people/churches use the phrase that the Bible is “inerrant” and/or “infallible,” that it is “the Word of God” and, yes, “Supreme authority” – and it can be a real source of concern for people.
For what it’s worth, I’ll nail my colours to the theological mast and say that I think that the Bible says that Jesus is the Word of God (John 1) and uses the phrase “the word of God” to refer to numerous prophecies given but it stops short of saying “this book is the Word, the embodiment of the totality of God’s communication with us” – even the oft quoted 2 Tim 3:16 (All Scripture is God-breathed …) doesn’t give the written word the same status as Christ or the Holy Spirit.
I’ve been in churches where it seems as though we’re supposed to be Biblical scholars first and Christ followers second; churches that indulge in what one person I know called “Biblolatry” – great word – and put such a high premium on a particular interpretation of the Scriptures that it makes you wonder how they’d react to someone saying, “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you” (e.g. Matt 5:38).
Now, please don’t get me wrong here, I am not in any way trying to imply that such respect for the Scriptures is wrong, or that the people I’m referring to are not real, heartfelt, committed and caring followers of Christ, it’s just the language that gets used seems to imply that unless you share the exact same insistence upon ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ then you’re not just wrong but you’re also on the way towards heresy.
(Just as a side issue, and a bit of fun, look at who killed Goliath … take 1 Samuel 17 and 2 Samuel 21:19 and work out exactly what’s going on there! Now, personally, I don’t see any weakening of Scripture by pointing out such things; as well as being “God-breathed” we’ve surely got to allow for the fact that the Bible is also an intensely human book too …)
Here’s another Statement of Faith classic, what about “eternal condemnation of the lost” or “eternal punishment?” Pretty extreme language there, don’t you think – regardless of whatever side of the ‘Love Wins’ debate you might come down on. For me, it seems incongruous that a lot of churches seem to emphasise some variation of this; on the one hand we tell people that Jesus loves them, and then on the other we say something akin to “but if you don’t accept Him then He’ll damn you to Hell for all eternity!!!”
Genuinely, I’m not sure where I am on this – initially, twenty-odd years ago when I was new to this Christianity lark it all seemed very ‘black and white’ – you’re in, you’re not kind of thing. Now, with twenty-odd (literally!) years of faith and experience, I think I’m more aware of the shades of grey (and there’s a lot more that fifty!!!!) than ever. I’m just not comfortable making that particular call … I think, scripturally speaking, that that’s up to Jesus (e.g. Acts 10:42).
Anyway, my point isn’t to expound my own interpretation(s) of such things, merely to point out how it’s possible to trawl through any creed or statement or set of beliefs and pick holes in them or find points of disagreement rather than common ground. And that’s my biggest problem with ‘Statements of Faith’ as a concept. Now, whilst it’s important to know what you believe, too much emphasis can be given to such quasi-legal sounding statements that are often shrouded in technical theological language, words like justification, redemption, atonement etc – how many people outside the church really know what they mean in a Christian context? Good grief, how many people in the church know what they mean?
My experience suggests a couple of things. One, people ‘skim read’ such things anyway – preferring to not think about the potentially tricky or difficult stuff – and just look for the theological equivalent of “Jesus is nice and He likes you!” and; Two, most people just don’t read them.
Frankly, I’d be amazed if anyone could tell me that someone came to – and stuck at – a church, or even better came to faith – and stuck at that! – by reading a Statement of Faith on a church website. Yes, people might look for a church where they feel theological comfortable, but if the place is full of angry, unwelcoming, judgemental hypocrites it isn’t going to matter how technically sound their theology is – people aren’t going to stay.
What you say, whether it’s theologically liberal or conservative, better be backed up by what you do. Walking the walk matters a lot more than talking the talk.
I used to work quite closely with a Police Officer in a former job, and his experience of ‘statements’ is more akin to what I think we should be focussing on. When he took a statement from someone it wasn’t about asking them what they believed in an abstract sense; it wasn’t about asking them to agree with a certain set of principles before he could talk with them; it wasn’t about saying “I’m one of you!”
When my friend took a statement from someone, he listened to what they’d experienced, what they recalled about a situation, what they had seen, done, and witnessed.
I’d like to start a “Statement of Faith” from that point sometimes.
Yes, I know you could argue that people would build relativistic “it’s true for me” kid of statements, and that people might have all kinds of wacky experiences that just don’t add up. You’d be rightly uncomfortable about people building a theology solely upon their personal experience.
If a statement of faith says something like “We believe in the love, grace and sovereignty of God …” then it’d be quite nice to have some examples of where and how people might have experienced that! Or, if you say you believe in “the dignity of all people, made male and female in God’s image to love, be holy and care for creation …” then it’d be nice of you could maybe show me a couple of people like that.
By including the ‘witness’ element in our statements of faith perhaps we can engage with people on more than an intellectual level. After all, Jesus did say that people would know we were really His followers not by what we thought and affirmed in our “Statement of Faith” but by seeing whether or not we really loved one another, whether we engaged with each other regardless of our differing opinions or our conservative or liberal leanings.
Showing what we believe – by loving the unlovely, by serving the lowly and by challenging the proud and the pious – maybe that would be a good ‘Statement of Faith.’
At any rate, it’d be better than, “I believe I can flyyyyyyyyyyy!”