This post will primarily deal with something I’ve not thought to do until today: I’m going to examine church belief statements, and how my views on these beliefs have evolved. I’ll be going through the current statements of beliefs of churches I have attended regularly throughout my life, though I will not use their names to protect the innocent/guilty parties. Also, these very well may have changed since I attended these churches—one church, in particular, has undergone a complete rebranding, but what I see it seems to maintain many of the things I remember. While the statements themselves could be used to identify the churches, I’ll be summarizing and combining them—noting differences as I find them, of course—to get a general sense of the world I grew up in.
I’ve attended 10 churches regularly in my 34+ years, which makes this a rather larger task than I thought when I started this post a few minutes ago, but something I’d still like to do. These churches have been from a variety of traditions/denominations: Evangelical Covenant, “Independent”, “Baptist” (meaning, I’m not sure what flavor), Southern Baptist, Nazarene, and Evangelical Free (not necessarily in that order). Some of these are more “legal” in structure than others; I’m not sure this is a requirement, but as I dug into the overview of a few I found the more legal language behind the overviews. Anyway, let’s get started:
There of course exists more than one interpretation of the Bible or its role in the church throughout the statements I’ve collected. “The Bible is the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct,” states the Covenant churches, and that is about as far as they go. Most of the others have some version of the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God—without error. Some say it was “verbally inspired”, some specify that it is inerrant “in the original writings”, and others say it was written by human authors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Nazarenes specify 66 books. Regardless, every church I attended has pushed some version of Biblical inerrancy.
The creation of the Protestant Canon is an interesting story. I’ll focus on the New Testament here (though the development of the Old is far more fascinating). One reason given for the idea that there are four gospels is because “there are four quarters of the earth…four universal winds…the church…should have four pillars…the gospel is quadriform.” Most people I know would likely consider this idea ludicrous. While the 27 books used today by most traditions were generally agreed on by 367 CE, this was far from a settled matter. Some churches rejected the Pauline epistles (a few also eliminated Acts); many eliminated Hebrews; the Armenians added a third letter to the Corinthians; Martin Luther wanted to remove Jude, James, Hebrews, and Revelation entirely from the Bible (after some pushback he simply relegated them to the end of his Bible). Mark 16:9-20, Luke 22:19b-20, Luke 22:43-44, John 7:53-8:11 did not appear in the Bible prior to 24 April 1870. A significant portion of 1 John 5:7-8 did not appear until 2 June 1927. So the Bible that we use today was modified even in the 20th Century, yet “God has promised to preserve every jot and tittle of what He inspired (Matt 5:18).
The Covenant church doesn’t use the word, but speaks of “new birth” using the same terms as the other churches: commitment to Christ, receiving forgiveness, and eternal life. All the other statements specify its dependence on the death on a cross and subsequent resurrection of Jesus. The SBC goes to some length to detail each step of a process: regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. But the Nazarene church goes several steps further, speaking additionally of atonement, prevenient grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, adoption, holiness, and sanctification. Unlike the other churches I’ve attended, the statement of faith here specifically says (though not in these words) that salvation can be lost in apostasy. This comes from the Armenian tradition, while other churches I’ve been a part of have been generally in the Calvinist tradition.
Despite the majority of my upbringing in Calvinist churches, I always read the Bible seeming to support “conditional preservation.” This led to a great deal of guilt over every stray thought, the tiniest alteration of the truth, etc. I remember one instance of being in tears because, after returning from the grocery store, we discovered a candy bar that we hadn’t paid for in one of the sacks, and I was afraid that by participating in eating it (mom divided it between us) I was stealing, and thus sinning. I was very young at the time and such things eventually didn’t weigh on me as much—it was an honest mistake by the bagger or cashier or a previous customer. But lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride, even in the smallest degrees, haunted me for nearly 30 years. Salvation by faith, not works, saith all these statements of faith. While that’s what’s preached, that’s not what’s taught between the lines. Guilt was the rule, not the exception, and fear of hell was ever present, despite assurances to the contrary.
The statements all agree that the church is to be defined simply as a group of believers, and that this group should be self-governing and fully engaged in the work of evangelism, discipleship and missions. Some add additional duties such as education, worship, observance of sacraments, etc. Only one, the Southern Baptist, as far as I can tell, specifically excludes women from any office (that of pastor), though most of the churches I’ve been to would have the same opinion.
While given its history the Baptists maintain a strong statement of faith about avoiding the use of civil power for the pursuit of its ends, and promotion of the free exercise of religion within a state, I find the political/religious entanglements promoted by Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Mike Huckabee to be hypocritical (which, considering the people mentioned, is hardly surprising). Other than this notation about the SBC statement of faith (which pertains more to politicians than to the church itself), I find little objectionable here.
Three statements of faith out of those I collected do not mention the “end times” at all. Those that do, some specify pre-millennial, or pre-tribulation, or “in his own time”, but agree that Jesus will return personally, visibly, and bodily to the Earth, that the dead will be raised, and all will be judged (the Sorting Hat will consign us to Heaven or Hell for the rest of eternity). Three of the churches specify the existence of a being called Satan as a supernatural evil counterpoint to God’s goodness.
I did have three pastors at two different churches disagree with their respective church’s statements of faith on this issue, explaining that they believed in at least a post-tribulation return of Christ. The placement of this event in time has created and destroyed many churches over the course of time. Even placing the return of Jesus at some point in a futuristic 1007 year span causes division (the most common interpretations in Western churches whose traditions I’ve been exposed to seem to be at the beginning, 3.5 years in, or 7 years in). Ignoring the question of “when”, even the churches silent on the return specify some sort of judgement, where the emphasis on Satan and Hell or God’s wrath is often striking. Only a few seem balanced: one says “everlasting bliss” versus “everlasting suffering” in a single statement where others spend entire paragraphs talking about Hell and barely mention Heaven beyond its existence.
The structure of the statements given from here on are so divergent as to defy easy comparison, but I’ll probably construct a post or two focusing on the SBC statement—it’s by far the most comprehensive of all. I personally like their sections regarding Peace and War and Religious Liberty (though I disagree on minor points), but their sections on Education and Family I might consider outright dangerous.