Recently, I visited over coffee with a pastor I had never met. I had anticipated the meeting eagerly. He was, after all, a recent arrival in the community, and I believed we might have a good, collegial relationship. I still hope for this.
He asked a lot of questions about cultural, political and doctrinal matters. I responded cautiously. He was of a different religious tradition, and although this posed no barrier to fellowship for me, I wasn’t sure he was as theologically generous as I, to use McLaren’s expression. And I was somewhat irritated that at our first meeting, topics surfaced that had the potential to divide, not unite. I thought that on our first date, we’d simply share our respective religious backgrounds, find some common ground, but not get too personal!
Thing is, I’ve been wondering why we need doctrinal statements (DS) at all. There must be a reason. But what is it?
Maybe they’re like DNA tests. They help us know who we are! They identify our basic theological DNA, but they’re not meant to be exclusionary, just informative. I get that.
For many churches, however, a DS is not much more than a menu. It’s there so that patrons and new customers will know what we’re serving.
Some churches are big on servings of God, but light on Jesus fare, and offer little of the Holy Spirit. These churches, to engage in riotous generalizations for a moment, might be the high steeple churches that, through their music and art, are able to bring us into the ineffable mystery of the Being we call God.
For others, it’s all about Jesus, who is lifted up as the example par excellence of how we, too, must live. These churches might not be so high on Jesus as the Christ, however. They are motivated by Jesus’ life, offering patrons opportunities for political and social activism. This is what’s on the menu at Jesus churches.
Still others focus on the Holy Spirit. These churches are often loud, rollicking affairs and a lot of fun.
So a DS for these churches reflects the fare they offer: lots of God in all of God’s transcendent glory; lots of Jesus — with a focus on his teachings and life; and lots of the Holy Spirit with emphasis on the Spirit’s sanctifying power to enable us to live righteously in a world going to hell.
And speaking of menus — people love a menu with a big a la carte selection. A little bit of this; a little bit of that. And the cookbook! The Bible is the classic resource, of course, and some patrons will be concerned about how the cookbook is interpreted. When the pastor’s in the kitchen, does she follow the recipe literally, or does she just rely on her own experience, throwing in a pinch of this and a spoonful of that? Is he better with a spoon, or better with a knife?
Perhaps some look at a DS as a map. It’s there to show us the way. Or, it could be that a DS is like the bumper rails in a bowling alley. Often, little kids who can hardly lift the ball need side rails to keep the ball from going in the gutter. With rails, the ball careens down the lane until it hits a pin or two. A DS functions the same way. It keeps us on the straight and narrow, and someday, we will lurch onward and upward to meet the Big Pin in the sky.
More often than not, a DS is a wall that divides and excludes. It defines boundaries, identifying who is in the sheepfold and who is not.
The enemies of Jesus were very big on doctrinal orthodoxy. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes to the emperor, his accusers were the Pharisees and Herodians — that is, a conservative religious party in bed with a political party. Of course, the liberal religious party of the day — the Sadducees — also were suspicious of Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t big on doctrinal statements. He wasn’t about to denounce the Law of Moses, but his credo sort of transcended it. So when a lawyer craftily asked him which was the greatest commandment, Jesus in one compound sentence reduced the Law to two imperatives: Love God and love your neighbor.
But the church has never been comfortable with just two articles in its Statements of Faith. Soon, the church was reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This baptismal creed established in about 75 words (Latin) what Christians believe about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But this was not enough. So the Nicene Creed emerged to affirm the coexistence of the Son with the Father. More creeds followed.
Check out the doctrinal statements of some churches and denominations and you’ll find that they’re more complex than the Constitution of the United States.
Why do we need these documents? Because they act as a barrier or boundary, to ensure that wolves don’t get into the sheepfold.
Check out Paul Hiebert’s idea of “bounded set” and “centered set.” Hiebert, a missiologist at Fuller Theological Seminary, wondered how missionaries could be sure a new, illiterate convert was really a Christian. He developed two models. The “bounded set” model insists on parameters that identify who is in and who is out. A “centered set” model poses only the question of the direction one is moving relative to the center, that is, Jesus Christ. Is the person moving toward or away from Jesus? Hiebert’s work is worth further consideration.
Here’s another thought: Perhaps we need a doctrinal statement for a more practical reason. We want to worship with people who are “like us,” and a strong DS ensures this.
We are most comfortable when worshiping with people who share our theological point of view.
So, if someone asks me if “we” (my church, my denomination) have a doctrinal statement, the first thing I want to know is, “Why do you ask?” Is a DS a game-changer, a deal breaker?
As for me (you may feel differently), I don’t ask.