I have a confession to make.
A while back, I was applying for an editing job with a fairly prominent Christian media company, and in the application process, I was asked to sign a statement of faith. For those unfamiliar, this is a list of things that the organization in question claims to believe, and they ask all who are interested in being a part of it to sign their name, claiming their personal agreement with and belief in the exact same things.
Truth be told, I needed the job. So even though I didn’t actually agree with several points in the statement of faith, I signed it. Turns out I didn’t get the job anyway, so I compromised myself for pretty much nothing.
I had another organization approach me recently about publishing some of my work. They’ve followed my writing for some time and thought that my content would add something valuable to their community. In most cases, when I give permission to folks to “repost” my stuff, it involves little more than a verbal agreement about what they plan to do with my articles. But this one came with two separate agreements I was asked to sign before moving forward.
There, in the middle of both agreements, were the same statements of faith, nearly mirroring word-for-word the one I had disingenuously signed the first time when the job was at stake. But this time, I thought twice about it. I wrote them and explained that, although I’d be happy to work with them, I couldn’t sign their faith doctrine agreement in good conscience.
I appreciate that some folks want to be very explicit and clear about what they believe. I also understand why those in charge of an organization would try to teach or persuade those involved with them to believe likewise.
But personally, I think the whole “sign the statement of faith” thing is more or less pointless.
For evidence of this, we don’t have to look any further than the Catholic Church, the first major institutional body of the Christian faith. A recent poll found that, despite the teachings and public positions of church leaders, a majority of Catholics not only support contraception, but also support Obama’s mandate to require employers to pay for it. Then there’s the troublemaking American nuns, getting into hot water with the male Catholic gentry for not toeing the ideological church line, particularly with regard to matters of sex and sexuality.
So if over half of the faithful openly differ with the Church, and if the hands and feet of the missional arm of the church vocally oppose the Vatican, what’s the point of the institutional doctrine to begin with?
When it comes down to it, what seems to me to be at the heart of such traditions is not so much faithfulness, but rather control. If your inclusion in a system is contingent on you conforming to the beliefs of the leadership, then that institution has the power either to coerce you into compliance or to exile you for disobedience.
But the problem is that it sets up a dynamic that actually encourages people to lie. The fact is, no institution, no matter how powerful, can indelibly change the hearts and minds of its members. They may outwardly claim uniformity, but the inner sanctuary of a human being ultimately is off limits to anyone other than God and that individual. We can use fear, punishment or even positive incentives to get people to fall into place, but there’s never any guarantee that they actually believe what we’re trying to force them to believe.
Some people proclaim the inevitable decline and death of the Emerging Christian movement. Yes, it has its flaws, and yes, in some ways it’s already started to reflect some of the dynamics it sought to subvert in existing faith institutions. But there is no statement of faith to be found, namely because there is no specific body in charge to claim such authority and control.
The day that someone tries to do that, the movement ossifies and crosses over to “institution” status.
The denomination I’m a part of, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has a new slogan, if you wil,l that some people criticize for being soft or touchy-feely. They claim is that we are “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Kinda mushy, I agree. But the word “movement” is, for me, the most important of all. We are unified by our common faith in Jesus and in our common call to justice and service in the ways that Jesus called us to serve.
But when it comes to exactly what that looks like and means for each individual, the administrative heads of the denomination are thankfully silent.
Some call that flaccid leadership, or even un-Christian. How, after all, can we be sure that the people who claim to be Disciples of Christ are, indeed, doing it right?
From what I can tell, Jesus never made his disciples sign a statement of faith. In fact, when his followers pressed him for more specifics on what to believe and how to act, he would tell them a story rather than nail it all down in clear terms for them.
If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.