Saturday, June 06, 2015

Creeds, Church, the Individual and American Christianity

Americans worship the individual. We hold the individual to be sacrosanct, so that community comes second. That often includes family.  There is value in the principle of individual freedom. I'm glad I live in a country where I'm free to worship as I please and decide, within limits, my destiny. I'm free to choose the communities that I wish to be engaged with, from church to family. I even get to participate in choosing who will govern me, though my choices may not reach a majority. 

My own denomination, which was rooted in this American context has always prized the individual's right to interpret the Bible and affirm those aspects of faith that lie beyond the essentials, and the essentials are few -- mainly confessing Jesus to be the Christ (Matthew 16:16).  Beyond that I'm free to choose whether, for instance, I will affirm the Trinity and other elements of faith that appear in many statements of faith. So, there is in most of our congregations quite a bit of diversity of opinion on matters theological.

I'm okay with this way of doing things, otherwise I wouldn't be a Disciple. I've always prized the principle of unity in diversity. Our unity being found in Christ, so that we might be free to express our faith as we deem appropriate.  That being said, when we gather for corporate worship, we come not just as individuals doing our own thing. We come as a community in Christ, committing ourselves to living in communion with God in Christ as sisters and brothers.  


So, I'm wondering -- while we pride ourselves on being non-creedal, so that we rarely if ever recite even the Apostles Creed, let alone the Nicene Creed, in part because not everyone will comfortable affirming aspects of this creed, could we be missing out on something?
Ronald Byars, a Presbyterian and former  professor of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA suggests that our unease with reciting the creed is rooted in an underdeveloped ecclesiology:  He writes:

The liturgical use of the Creed is an uncomfortable moment for many North American Christians because most of us live with an underdeveloped ecclesiology -- that is, an insufficient doctrine of the church. Some people have the mistaken idea that the Creed is meant to articulate the faith of individual persons. They think that if they say the Creed aloud, they must know what it fully means and they must fully agree with it. Anything short of this constitutes personal perjury. But this idea betrays a mistaken understanding of the Church. ["Creeds and Prayers -- Ecclesiology" in A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies),  p. 86].

He writes that in the US we willingly form and join groups, but just as quickly leave them, for the ultimate authority is the individual. While this freedom to join as we please has actually strengthened the church in some ways, it has also made it "easy to construe the church as just another civic or social organization, not unlike the service clubs that meet weekly for lunch, open with prayer and singing, provide a stimulating speaker, and take up a collection for a community project. When the church is conceived simply as a voluntary organization, an affiliation one makes for the sake of a companionship in faith, or mutual reinforcement, or finding allies in the service of a common cause, one wears the relationship lightly." (Byars, p. 88). 

So, is the church merely something that I join because it reflects my own whims, or do I join a community that can form me into the likeness of God?  Could it be that by reciting a creed, even if I don't understand it all or affirm all of it, that I'm placing myself into a community that has a long history, so that I'm part of something bigger than myself? 

6 comments:

RichJ said...

Martin Luther King called the Declaration of Independence a "promissory note" that would be cashed when legalized discrimination was banished. So, he thought the same way as the Christian Right on that one point. Maybe you got it wrong.

RichJ said...

He did not say that they were clergymen, he said they are "trained as ministers." I think that the actual count was 29 not 27 seminary graduates.

John McCauslin said...

It seems that in this analysis creeds are understood primarily as a ritual link with the historic Christian community. I have understood creeds to be a statement of shared beliefs, actual or aspirational, within the present community, which by sharing in the recitation and reflection, serve to draw the reciting community together and provide a shared foundation. As community members who share in the recitation, even if one doesn't claim belief in every concept, or even if we don't understand every word, we commit to the credal statement as a shared foundation which will not be challenged, but accepted with deference and honor. All good.

But the genius of the DOC resists the use of creeds in building and maintaining conformity. And in fact the community claims to vests its confidence in the intentional discouragement of conformity. The DOC see communal non-conformity as a source of strength, lifting up the sovereignty of the individual in claiming and nurturing the individual's own relationship with the divine. The DOC see the community being strengthened by the very intentionality of the individual faith journeys of its adherents and in the decision to do so in unity with fellow travelers.

I can see that this is not the historic traditional Christian way, notwithstanding the DOC claim to be restorationists. Perhaps this is because in our modern, literate, world we take our Scriptures close to heart, following in the footsteps of the writers, Paul and the other Apostles, and not in the footsteps of those whom the Apostles shepherded. We take our mantle as a priesthood of all believers very literally. The Apostles had agency, they acted in the world, and so we, as first-hand readers of Scriptures, we claim the same agency as the Apostles. I don't know if this is what 'God had in mind' for us, but it feels very right to me so I am a happily ensconced member of the DOC.

In the traditional church, the churches of the creeds, the Scriptures were filtered through those who carried the mantle of the priesthood. The message they delivered and the message such denominations deliver today is delivered by a professional priesthood to a passive flock, passive in that they are content that the religious agency remain vested in the ordained priesthood and content with the teaching of the professional priests, and content with their place in the sheepfold.

No criticism meant here, but such is not for me. I guess I am too American? Maybe even too 'selfish' for this to work for me. But I acknowledge that Christianity is supposed to be communal - so I need to think more about this whole thing. And pray about it.

Robert Cornwall said...

John, I don't think it's a matter of being selfish, but rather our predilection toward the individual. It is built into the American psyche, which continually pushed us as a nation West. If your neighbor got to close you moved.


What is interesting is that churches like the Episcopal Church have always recited the creed, but has also contained within it a wide diversity of theologies. It's not that everyone agreed with every part of the creed, but that it carried a heritage.


Campbell and Stone resisted creeds because in their context they had come to be used as tests of fellowship. While I have no problem reciting the Creeds as symbols of a common faith, I have no interest in using them as tests of fellowship.


You note the restorationist element in our history. One of the foundation points of the Disciples history is that Scripture provided the creed. The problem today is that we have not only jettisoned the creeds, but biblical illiteracy means we don't have access to the creed that Campbell and Stone embraced.

Starla Anne Lowry said...

I was instrumental in starting a Baptist church (I am a member of the Disciples now), and we were the only church that really did not have a creed. We did not adopt the Baptist Articles of faith or anything but the Bible and stated that we patterned ourselves after the New Testament Church. We wrote a Constitution only to make the church official. We let ministers of different denominations preach and never made an issue out of what they may have said that most of us may not share. We were open to what I believe was the kind of church Jesus would have wanted. However, that church did not grow. Evidently people expect some kind of creed, written or agreed. I love our local Disciples church. There is only one thing of which I do not agree. The Disciples seem to have a jealous pulpit. Only a Disciples minister can preach and they must be trained by the Disciples. It does not matter if another minister have the same beliefs and are identical to the Disciples in practice. I love the pastor. I have remarked often that she is the best preacher I have ever heard and I was not raised to believe in female ministers. From what I wrote above, there are very few things that I adopted from the churches of my youth. If I can ever be involved in organizing another church, I will continue to stand for religious freedom -- no creed except the Bible -- the New Testament and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Robert Cornwall said...

Starla, what you shared is interesting. Not knowing about your church or pastor, I do need to say that there is no Disciples position on who can preach.


I have often reached out beyond Disciples clergy to preach. In fact, since being here in Michigan I have invited someone from Church of Christ related Rochester College to preach most every year. I should add that I was not trained in a Disciples schools, except for undergraduate Northwest Christian College (University), but I didn't join a Disciples church until the last few months of my four years there!


It might simply be that there are a preponderance of quality Disciples supply preachers that she needn't go beyond.


My major qualification is that I want to make sure that the preachers are high quality!