Are brief, general statements of faith harmful or helpful?
By Shawn Wright
In a local church, brief statements of faith are not helpful. A statement of faith must be complete enough to mark out the doctrinal parameters of the church, without being so precise that it excludes persons unnecessarily. But it should not be brief or general.
New Testament Background. The New Testament is full of doctrinal statements of varying lengths (e.g., Matt. 16:16; 1 Cor. 15:3-8; 1 Tim. 3:16). Paul's exhortation that his teaching be followed in the local church (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-16; 2 Tim. 2:2) as well as the New Testament's concern that doctrinal error must be excluded from a local church (e.g., Gal. 1:8; 1 Jn. 2:18-27; Jude 3-4) prove the necessity of local churches having statements of faith that mark off their doctrinal beliefs.
Non Local Church Statements of Faith. Statements of faith, or confessions, need to be crafted for their particular situations. A variety of organizations use such statements both to announce publicly what they believe and also to erect a hedge that will keep out those who disagree with them (assuming that adherence to the confession is necessary for membership in the group).
All sorts of interdenominational entities from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship to the Evangelical Theological Society to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals have particular doctrinal standards. Some are tighter than others (and, indeed, we would argue about the wisdom of some of these statements, especially what is excluded). But generally they serve their purpose - namely, to be umbrellas under which all sorts of professing evangelical Protestants can gather.
A Local Church's Statement of Faith. There's a tremendous difference between an interdenominational entity and a local church. A local church, if it is going to identify itself clearly enough on primary doctrinal matters and if it is going to mark itself off clearly from other evangelicals, needs a more specific statement of faith.
Only those in the free church tradition need to worry about this issue. Thus Baptists and all varieties of independent churches are forced to adopt a statement geared to that church. Most other Protestants - such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians - will adopt the confessional statement of their denomination.
The question remains, though: How specific should a church's statement of faith be?
In a manner parallel to the New Testament's emphasis on sound doctrine, a church confession should serve two purposes. First, it should edify the members by being a faithful summary of basic Bible doctrine that will guide their growth in biblical knowledge. Second, it needs to be specific enough to protect the church from heretical "wolves" who might try to infiltrate her. These two biblical aims should determine the content of a confession. For these reasons, it is dangerous to adopt too short a confession for a local church.
Four Essential Aspects of a Local Church Statement of Faith. A statement of faith needs to be specific enough that it spells out the church's doctrine in four areas: the church's orthodoxy, its Protestant character, its basic ecclesiology, and its position on significant theological issues of our day.
In the first place, a statement of faith needs to place a church firmly in the historic orthodox stream of Christianity as the church's doctrine was defined at the first four Councils of the early church. Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) answered the Arian heresy by stating that Jesus is fully divine. Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) answered the Apollinarian and Nestorian challenges by defining Jesus Christ as one Person with two natures - divine and human. Thus, a church confession must make it clear that the church is orthodox regarding the Trinity and the Person of Christ. This will clarify that the church is Christian.
But the Orthodox and Catholic traditions also affirm these truths. So, in the second place, the confession must place the church squarely in the Protestant tradition on the extremely important Reformation issues of our source of authority in doctrine and the nature of salvation. The confession should clearly articulate that the church adheres to sola scriptura. The Bible alone is our authority in matters of doctrine and the sole authoritative judge of our beliefs and our living. In some contexts it may be important for the church to state specifically that it believes that Scripture is inerrant. Concerning the nature of salvation, the statement should articulate in some way the belief that salvation comes by God's grace alone, only through faith in Christ, because of the completed work of Christ alone. The church should here identify itself-preferably without using the doctrinal labels-on the Calvinism-Arminianism divide. In this way, the church will mark itself as specifically Protestant.
In the third place, the statement of faith must place the church on the spectrum of Protestant denominations, specifically regarding the nature of the church. How are church members related to the pastoral leadership? Is there only one pastor? Are baptism and the Lord's Supper important? Who is to be baptized? The confession must show readers what distinguishes this local church in its structure from others.
Finally, the confession should provide the church with guidance on the important and debated doctrinal issues of our day. The church's stance on the inerrancy question should be manifest, as should its judgment of the validity of open theism and its stance on the exclusivity of Christ and the necessity of conscious faith in Him for salvation. Perhaps others should also be addressed. Whether by adding a new article to a received historic confession or simply inserting a new adjective, the statement of faith should provide guidance on the church's view of significant theological debates of our day.
Given, then, these four requirements for a useful church confession, a short summary of the Christian faith will not suffice. It might meet the requirement of showing that the church is orthodox, but it will probably fail in the other three. The confession needs to be extensive enough to summarize Christian faith so that it might provide an edifying outline for Christian growth. And it needs to protect the church from the inroads of heresy.