Friday, September 09, 2005

Restoring the Ancient Practices -- Creeds

Alexander Campbell's "A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things" appeared at a time when denominations emphasized their distinctives with written creeds. To join the typical denominational church of the early 1800s, one had to demonstrate a call from God (an experience) and agree to the creed. Some of the credal statements required were:

  • The Westminster Confession of Faith -- Presbyterians
  • The Common Book of Prayer -- Anglicans
  • The Book of Discipline -- Methodists
  • The Augsburg Confession of Faith -- Lutherans
  • The Philadelphia Confession of Faith -- Baptists
When Barton Stone tested for his ministerial license he agreed to the tenets of The Westminster Confession of Faith "so far as it is faithful to the Word of God." Granted a license to preach, Stone ended up as one of the contenders for freedom of belief when six Presbyterian ministers withdrew from the Synod of Kentucky. As the important "Apology for Renouncing the Jurisdiction of the Synod of Kentucky" reveals, these men objected to the confession's definition of faith and its Calvinist insistence that a direct operation of the Holy Spirit precede faith.

Thomas Campbell had his own arguments with the Presbyterians leading to his withdrawal after coming to the United States in 1807. Alexander, his son, protested the restrictions of The Westminister Confession of Faith while in Scotland and by the time he joined his father in the new world, he too objected to creeds.

Both Stone and Campbell were not opposed to creeds as such. In fact, Campbell said that creeds were useful and the more complete the better. Campbell, in particular, however objected to creeds as a test of fellowship. He recognized that any creed that said more than what the Bible taught was beyond the pale and any creed that said less than the Bible said was incomplete. Therefore, Campbell argued, the Bible is all we really need.

In his series calling for restoration, Campbell pointed out that in the first century there were no creeds except Peter's simple statement of belief: "I believe you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Other statements began appearing in the second century and they multiplied when dissension arose over the nature of Christ. Campbell's point was that any attempt to restore the ancient practices must go to the first century. Stopping short of the first century is stopping too soon!

Robert Webber in his book, Ancient Future Evangelism, describes the interest in the current postmodern generation with the ancient faith. When he spoke at the 2005 North American Christian Convention, Webber emphasized a need to go back to the ancient practices. In spite of a rousing exposition of Acts 2, the practices he describes are second and third century practices and beliefs. Campbell asserts, and I agree, that all that is needed is the same standard of belief held by the first century church -- the teachings of Christ and the pedagogy of the apostles.

Today few denominations, save some of the most radical Calvinist groups, emphasize their creeds. The Methodists still have their Book of Discipline, the Presbyterians their Westminster Confession of Faith but rarely do they use them to determine whether or not an individual should be considered for membership in a local congregation. Once used as tests of orthodoxy for the ministry of these denominations, the creeds are hardly used at all indicating a wide variety of belief even among the clergy. Some denominations and congregations still emphasize the historic creeds: Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed and so on. The Apostles' Creed, in particular, often makes its way into the liturgy.

Only two things are required for entrance into the Kingdom of God. (1) An individual must recognize that their sinful behavior has separated them from the Father. (2) That Christ is the only way to reconciliation with a just God.

When a person comes to those realizations, they turn to Christ and ask, "What must I do to be saved?" The answer given must be the same as that given to the hearers on Pentecost: "Repent and be baptized (immersed) every one of you ... for the forgiveness of sins ... and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). The efficacy of this repentance and baptism is rooted in the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, those who come to Christ need not respond to any query but, "What do you believe about Jesus? Whose Son is he?" There is no need to relate an experience, give a testimony, or require the approval of a congregation.

In our contemporary litigious society, many congregations ask members to commit to a membership covenant. Such a covenant is not required for becoming a Christian, but it may be for being a member of a local congregation. A covenant will usually stipulate that the individual recognizes that becoming a member of a given congregation means they accept the oversight, authority, and discipline of the church's leaders. Should church discipline be required, church leaders and the congregation may be spared the threat of lawsuit.

Years ago in Oklahoma, an acapella church of Christ disciplined a church member for immorality. A female member of the congregation was involved in an illicit affair with the mayor of a nearby town. The affair was rather public and brought disrepute to the cause of Christ. Following the example of Matthew 18:15 f., the church's leaders pleaded with her to repent and break off the relationship. When she refused, the church followed the last step in Christ's instructions and brought her immoral behavior before the congregation formally withdrawing fellowship. The woman then brought suit for invasion of privacy and won. The church was saddled with a debt of over $100 thousand. Had the congregation a membership commitment, they could have been spared the public disgrace of a trial and the monetary punishment.

When a person becomes a Christian, Christ adds them to his body, the church. Participation in a local congregation, however, is reserved for those whose character and confession warrant it. Even Thomas Campbell in his "Declaration and Address" stated that:
"All that is necessary to the highest state of perfection and purity of the Church upon earth is, first, that none be received as members but such as having that due measure of Scriptural self-knowledge described above, do profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures; nor, secondly, that any be retained in her communion longer than they continue to manifest the reality of their profession by their temper and conduct." (Proposition 12)