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?