The many denominations of Christianity have a number of creeds passed down from early church fathers. The creeds are multifunctional. They unify. They express core beliefs. State theological beliefs. Defend positions. They can be clung to rather tightly. However, creeds, like car manuals, rarely reflect what people believe, say, and do.
When reading religious creeds, or listening to someone justify their faith with them, I always get the suspicion that someone is trying to protect something. Kind of like when we’re in a bathroom stall and we just have to assert “I’m in here,” or at least cough or shuffle our feet.
When we lead with, or cling to creed as the final word, the spirit of the creed, and the subsequent outward action and freedom, is lost. It’s like when a young start-up company, that is full of hope, energy, and spirit, takes off. Everyone’s pulling together. It’s idealistic. Then they’re bought by a major corporation and the spirit is quenched. Something critical, something truly creedal, has been lost.
I would love to see how folks live out their creeds. For example, how does the father, son, and holy ghost actually work in somebody’s life? What does it mean to put God first? Why is a suffering servant so powerful? These questions, and the experience-based answers, lead to connections with other people – regardless of their faith.
When John Adams decided to defend the British soldiers regarding the Boston Massacre, he was threatened, insulted, and mocked by the Colonists. But Adams lived out his faith. He believed in the right to a fair trial, no matter what. He showed how powerful a creed was in action. Six of the eight British soldiers were found innocent and acquitted.
There are several fundamental challenges with creeds, but two stand out. The first is maintaining the spirit of the Good News. As we see with start-up companies, it can easily be lost. Or it can thrive and be lived out, like John Adams. The second challenge is overcoming the boundaries that thwart people from understanding Jesus and a relationship with God.
Creeds, by their nature, set up boundaries. They say we need to believe X,Y, and Z to be in the club. While there is merit in distinguishing one’s beliefs for clarification, it does not resonate with Jesus’ message of invitation into the kingdom of the heavens.
Moreover, the creeds are highly contested – both the major points and the minor ones. In fact, one could argue that the discontent is growing both inside and outside the church. The reality is that churches split over this creedal stuff. Even similar Christian denominations can be at odds, denouncing one another as heretical. Arguing over what makes a person a true Christian, or what is considered orthodox, rather than living and spreading the Good News, seems a bit off message. If Christians can’t be civil with their brethren over creedal differences, how can they be trusted to spread the gospel?
That said, creeds can work to affirm a truth, especially when someone has taken core beliefs and gone off the deep end with them. I’m thinking of Marcion (2nd century bishop), who threw out the old testament (the one Jesus often referred to, often), calling God a tyrant. The early Christians needed to respond with what they believed to be the truth. They had to pull out (or perhaps write) the car manual from the glove box and say whoa, hang on there cowboy.
Something that can’t be said enough is that Christians do not own Jesus or his message. The kingdom that Jesus invited folks to participate in is not a church or a religion. It’s a spiritual empire of people that are truly seeking God. It’s not bound by creed, but by spirit. Christianity is certainly welcome to hold itself together with a creed. God will go on working out his plan as always.
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. ~ Jesus (talking with the 5-husband Samaritan woman at the well)
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson