Monday, September 06, 2010

A Really Dull Post on Statements of Faith for the Other Polity Nerds

I think Baptists are losing sight of the purpose of a statement of faith (SoF).

You can do lots of things with a SoF. You can not have one. Some no-creed-but-the-Bible Baptists think this is the way to go. You can also have one and ignore it—or at least ignore any semblance of historic continuity in the meaning of words. That'd make you a theological liberal, or maybe a contemporary, a-theological quasi-evangelical, cultural Baptist. And I suspect there may be lots of highly conservative Baptist churches in those two categories that are careless or simply don't think much about ecclesiology.

Those categories don't particularly interest me. Not today, anyway. Two other categories do:

1. Some Baptists use SoFs as a standard for leadership and public teaching but not membership. This approach is also common among elder-rule Bible churches and MacArthur-circle churches.

2. Some Baptists use SoFs as a summary of the minimum all members must affirm in order for them to function together as a church. I say "some." I'm tempted to say "most" SoF-users, if we were to count Baptists throughout church history, but I'll leave that to the bona fide historians.

My argument is that the latter option best represents biblical congregationalism. Why? Because the NT teaches that the congregation is responsible for the discipline and doctrine of the church. Not everyone agrees:
A doctrinal statement is not a requirement for church membership or ministry. A person may join a church being untaught, and not knowing enough to agree or disagree. A person may join a church agreeing to disagree. In such cases, the church can rightly expect that the member will not attempt to divide the congregation over the issues.
Just one problem with that. Well, at least one problem. Who can join a church? Any professing believer? But a believer in what? The gospel? What's the gospel? Doesn't the gospel consist of things we believe—matters of faith? Can a convictional Presbyterian join a Baptist church? An open theist? An anti-inerrantist? Someone who believes Jesus was an ordinary man adopted by God and infused with the divine nature? Frankly, I suspect that all of these churches really do have a functional minimum common affirmation for membership, though they may not realize it. They just haven't faced a sticky situation yet.

Now, this approach might work in a baptistic, but minimally congregational elder-rule church, in which the congregation exercises no meaningful oversight in matters of doctrine. At least it might work for a while. But it's not at all difficult to see why an authentically Baptist, congregational church would be ill-suited to sustain its doctrine, regardless of what the present leadership is committed to teach. Church history is littered with examples of confessional churches and institutions that tragically abandoned their confessions. Are we to assume that a non-confessional church will be more stable?

A SoF in a Baptist church ought to be a minimum summary of what its members must commonly believe in order to function as a church. There's a worthwhile discussion over what needs to appear in that minimum summary. We should neither demand too much nor too little. But to diminish the significance of that SoF, whatever it does or does not include, is to undermine the very principles the SoF affirms.


d4v34x said...

Dude. This is how you spend Labor Day? You are a nerd.

Ben said...

Maybe so, but you clicked on the link.

What's worse is that I've been chipping away at that one for like three weeks.

Anonymous said...

Well, I know you disagree with me on this Ben, but this is one reason why Elder-rule is the better option.

What happened on pentecost? Those who repented, believed, and were baptized were added to the church. They then continued in the apostle's doctrine. They didn't have voting rights over doctrine.

I am in favor of the leadership affirming a pretty lengthly doctrinal statement. It is their responsibility to teach the people.

Larry said...


I wonder what you make of this:

"Baptist generally tolerated members who judged creeds unlawful as long as they did not agitate persistently against them" (Polity, p. 30).

And, "If an individual adopts view of doctrine radically different, ... he ought not to be admitted to the church." (Polity, p. 30).

It seems that both of these statements support my position, at least in principle. In the first, those who think no church should have a creed other than the Bible (and therefore seemingly that church membership is not based on adherence to a creed) were tolerated. That's not my position, but the phrase "persistently agitate" seems similar to my position that a person must not work against the doctrinal statement.

In the second statement, I am not sure what they mean by "radically different," but it does seem to allow for divergence to some degree from the creed of the church, which is what I think should be allowed.

I continue to wonder how you would handle admitting a new believer. (Perhaps you addressed this and I overlooked it.) But if you ask a new believer, "Do you agree with our doctrinal statement?" he or she would probably have to say, "I don't know." Would you decline them membership until they have learned it all?

If you say, "Will you agree to learn and not to work against it?" you would be agreeing with me, I think.

FWIW, I am somewhat taken aback by the reference to elder rule. I have never been accused of that before. IT's a new one for me :D ...


Anonymous said...

Larry, if you are talking about my reference to elder-rule, I wasn't talking about your position or your church. If you weren't talking about my post then just ignore this.

Ben said...

Larry, if you can believe this, I left my copy of "Polity" in the office over the long weekend, so I can't check right now. Is that quote from Greg Wills chapter? He'd be the guy who would know the data.

My argument is grounded on Scripture and reason, not history, though the history would obviously set some parameters for historic Baptist practice. I'm not sure that either of the quotes you cite really offer anything more than historical data points. Those aren't irrelevant, but neither are they decisive.

As for a new member, my ideal scenario would be to teach through the statement with all prospective members and ask them to affirm it at some point in the membership process. If they had questions, I'd try to help them understand and reach a conclusion. If they couldn't affirm the statement, I'd not recommend them for membership and help them find an evangelical church that believes what they believe.

I guess I've seen that process happen a few hundred times, and maybe a dozen times there's been a real obstacle in the SoF. So be it. Of course, that sort of thing surely happens much more often in churches that include in their SoFs more detail on issues that are peripheral to the gospel and the life of a church. But you can guess where I'm going with that.

In any case, I'd guess you really do have some sort of minimum core of beliefs you'd require members to affirm, even if you haven't thought about what they are. Maybe it's like a called strike in baseball—you'll know it when you see it. Do you ask people anything at all of what they believe?

And I don't know your church's polity, but I'm certainly not suggesting that you're necessarily elder rule. I'm simply arguing that the approach to membership that you affirm is best suited to elder rule. I assume you'd consider your church Baptist and congregational, and if you do I'm not saying your position is untenable. I'm saying it's inherently unstable. Like "evangelical feminism" (not at all to suggest you're the exegetical equivalent), something's eventually going to give.

Ben said...


Elder rule has provided an ineffective defense against doctrinal deterioration throughout church history. Well, not that confessionalism is untarnished either. But confessionalism and congregationalism in tandem seems like a useful synthesis.

In any case, the NT holds congregations responsible for the doctrine and discipline of the church. Maybe I need to walk through the various texts. Summary: in no way is this obligation applied to the elders in a way that's essentially distinct from how it's applied to the congregation.

As for the church in Acts, I think I can make a pretty decent case for the involvement of the congregation in the resolution of a foundational doctrinal matter in chapter 15. Clearly, the apostles and elders are leading, but the congregation is present and affirming. And that was with apostles present. It seems unthinkable that the congregation would have less responsibility over doctrine in the absence of the apostles. If anything, more. We could go on.

Andy R said...

As I noted in my post on that other blog you referenced, the SoF outlines what we believe, in the context of disputed points.

So for new believers, or believers who are not sure about what they believe, they can join in good conscience provided they do not dispute our SoF.

For believers coming from other backgrounds, our SoF lets them know where we put the fences-the contours of our body, if you will. Don't join if you will find yourself at odds with our assembly.

Ben said...

I think I understand what you guys are doing. Your approach is not unclear. I cited some familiar examples in the elder rule circles. Rather, I'm arguing that 1) it's not a wise approach in a church that affirms robust, biblical congregationalism, and 2) you either really do have some minimum affirmation or you're not assessing whether people who profess faith and want to join really understand the gospel. Even PCA churches do something along those lines.

Anonymous said...

Ben, just like you told Larry though, history might help us understand some things, but our position needs to be rooted in scripture and reason.

The issue with the apostles is unique. I think we both grant that.

Acts 15:6
The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.

Unless you see otherwise (I only did a quick scan), the church isn't even mentioned until it is time to send out missionaries.

Verse 22
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren

Ben said...

The whole church was gathered in vs 4 to welcome and hear the report from the delegation when it arrived in Jerusalem. In fact, it was in that context that the disagreement arose.

I actually take that to support my point, even though the segment of the congregation that raised opposition was in the wrong. The response to them wasn't, "Back off, the apostles and elders will deal with this." Rather, the apostles and elders took the arguments seriously, engaged in much debate, and involved the congregation in affirming their conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Ben, it isn't until verse 6 that the discussion as to the doctrine actually begins. At that point, there is no mention of the church. So while the church was there to receive them, the church was not there to approve the decision.

This has nothing to do with the elder rule issue, just that the church in that passage was informed of the decision.

Ben said...

James, the doctrinal discussion begins in vs 5 when the party of the Pharisees in the congregation argue that the Gentiles needed to keep the Law. The text is not clear from vss 6-21 whether the whole congregation is present or not. ("Assembly" in vs 12 is not ekklesia.) But the fact that it seemed good to the whole congregation (22ff) to send men with the letter explaining the conclusion strongly suggests congregational affirmation of that conclusion. It takes an anti-congregational hermeneutic to deny congregational involvement here.

Anonymous said...

Ben, like I said, I can recognize that the presence of apostles made this a unique event. However, verse 5 gives the complaint. The sequence makes it clear that the apostles and elders THEN met to discuss the problem.

It is more likely that the congregation brought the issue up and the apostle and elders settled it.

The whole church being glad to send people out with this message obviously implies their affirmation. However, was that affirmation necessary? I don't see it.

This is not an argument for elder rule on my part. I think it is a real strain to use this text to teach a churches involvement in settling doctrine.

d4v34x said...

So James, are you advocating for something more or less than the following"

"The Scriptures shall be interpreted according to their normal grammatical-historical meaning, and all issues of interpretation and meaning shall be determined by the pastor."

(Taken from the SoF of a Baptist Church [not mine] in my area.)

Anonymous said...

No. I am saying that Acts 15 does not say anything about the church's involvement in approving the doctrinal disputes. It is the responsibility of the elders to oversee the well being of the church. If there is a doctrinal dispute, the elders need to approve how it is handled.

I am not an elder in my church, so this isn't some kind of power grab I am advocating.