Of Church Organization, Part 2

Read Part 1.

Articles of Faith

In The Nick of Time
A free church is formed by the covenant of its members. The covenant expresses the purpose to be a church. It further stipulates the most basic beliefs and obligations for which the members agree to hold one another accountable.

The covenant, however, does not articulate the church’s entire system of faith. The church’s doctrine is elaborated in a supplementary document known as a confession of faith or a creed. While the covenant is typically a page or less in length, a confession may take several pages or even more.

Some have quibbled over the difference between a confession and a creed. They have argued that confessions are merely descriptive while creeds are prescriptive. In other words, creeds specify what a church’s members must believe while confessions merely articulate the consensus of what most members actually do believe.

People who distinguish creeds from confessions usually go on to insist that churches should never have creeds. What they mean is that church members must be allowed to affirm whatever they please. According to this theory, the church has no authority to expel any member on merely doctrinal grounds. To disfellowship members because of their beliefs would be violation of the priesthood and soul liberty of the believer.

It is no accident that people who dislike creeds are usually the same people who deny crucial teachings of the Christian faith. The popular motto among such folk is “No Creed but the Bible.” This slogan sounds pious, but it leads to disastrous consequences. It leaves a church completely unable to regulate its own teaching. Consistently applied, this slogan means that the church may repudiate tomorrow what it holds dear today—and, in fact, instances of such radical alteration could be multiplied.

“No Creed but the Bible” implies that when a church adopts a creed, it is somehow making the creed more authoritative than the Bible. That implication, however, is as phony as a three-dollar bill. A creed does not take the place of the Bible. Rather, it articulates what that church understands the Bible to teach. The creed is always corrigible to the Bible itself.

The distinction between a creed and a confession in reality is false. Any confession worth having must act as a doctrinal gateway. No one who denies the doctrines of the confession should be granted membership in the church (or other organization) that adopts it. Confessions of faith are meant to regulate both admission into and retention in the membership of churches.

For that reason, confessions should never include merely optional statements of position. Occasionally, a church will wish to position itself with respect to some issue while not making that position a test of fellowship. In such cases, the church should issue a position paper rather than incorporating the issue into its doctrinal statement.

Churches must decide which doctrines to articulate in their confessions. A number of churches have kept their confessions very simple, including only a bare statement of some Christian fundamentals. Other churches have become extremely specific in articulating complicated doctrinal nuances. Certainly a church should include the fundamentals in its confession, for any organization that permits the denial of the fundamentals loses its claim to be Christian. On the other hand, extreme detail is neither necessary nor wise in most cases.

The balanced approach is for each church to articulate the pivotal doctrines that define its system of faith. This system will always include more than the fundamentals. Typically, the statement of faith will express a commitment to some specific pattern of church order. It will also position the church on issues that affect mutual church life. For example, a church must make definite decisions about who it will baptize and how, about the nature of church offices, and about the flow of ecclesiastical authority under Christ. A premillennial church will have a different agenda than a postmillennial one: convinced adherents of both views might love each other, but they would find it difficult or impossible to support the same church program. Therefore, distinctively premillennial and postmillennial churches are usually healthier and accomplish more for Christ than a single body in which one or both groups are forced to surrender the full proclamation of and obedience to the truth as they understand it. Each church must make its own decisions about where to limit its message or where to limit its fellowship, because each church must do one or the other on a whole range of doctrinal and practical issues.

Confessions function as tests of fellowship, but this should never mean that the unlearned are unwelcome. Some believers have difficulty understanding many areas of the faith; all believers have difficulty understanding some. Churches must allow room for the uninstructed to grow in their understanding. They should also recognize the difference between people who are honestly wrestling with doctrines and people who have decided to deny them. No church should leave room for the settled rejection of its doctrinal standards, but it should normally grant leeway to members who are struggling to understand.

The officers of a congregation, however, are morally bound to support its doctrines. Decency leaves no room for the man who accepts a church office while secretly hoping to alter its doctrinal position. A person who cannot support a church’s confession of faith must not accept an office in that church. To do so is simply immoral. If an officer’s convictions change so that he no longer believes the church’s doctrines, then integrity requires that he should resign. A pastor or deacon is never right to subvert a church.

A church that is already questioning its doctrines or that is open to alternatives is a different matter. If a church officer has plainly declared his differences ahead of time, and the church agrees to reexamine those differences, then the man may honestly hold the office. By the same token, a church might choose to reject an officer’s resignation even though he has professed a doctrinal change. An officer who remains under those circumstances is not usually doing anything unethical.

Some churches have attempted to protect their doctrinal positions by making their confessions unalterable. Certain church constitutions even require discipline for any member who attempts to change the confession. An unchangeable confession, however, quickly ceases to be helpful. Sometimes new issues arise that require doctrinal definition. Other times, ambiguities must be corrected. Changing a church’s confession should not be too easy, but it should not be impossible, either.

If some form of covenant is essential to a church’s being, some form of confession is crucial to its identity. Churches are identified by their ideas, and the most important of those ideas must be articulated in the confession of faith. By establishing its doctrinal position, each church attracts those who agree while repelling those who disagree.

Psalm VI

John Milton (Aug. 13, 1653)

Lord in thine anger do not reprehend me
Nor in thy hot displeasure me correct;
Pity me Lord for I am much deject
Am very weak and faint; heal and amend me,
For all my bones, that even with anguish ake,
Are troubled, yea my soul is troubled sore;
And thou O Lord how long? turn Lord, restore
My soul, O save me for thy goodness sake
For in death no remembrance is of thee;
Who in the grave can celebrate thy praise?
Wearied I am with sighing out my dayes,
Nightly my Couch I make a kind of Sea;
My Bed I water with my tears; mine Eie
Through grief consumes is waxen old and dark
Ith’ mid’st of all mine enemies that mark.
Depart all ye that work iniquitie.
Depart from me, for the voice of my weeping
The Lord hath heard, the Lord hath heard my prai’r
My supplication with acceptance fair
The Lord will own, and have me in his keeping.
Mine enemies shall all be blank and dash’t
With much confusion; then grow red with shame,
They shall return in hast the way they came
And in a moment shall be quite abash’t.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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