Selling Your Soul to the Creeds: When The Church Makes You Sign on the Dotted Line

Selling Your Soul to the Creeds: When The Church Makes You Sign on the Dotted Line June 4, 2022

Since when did Christianity require people to sign on the dotted line?

Image by Phill Sacre from Pixabay

It must be in one of the lost Chapters of the Gospels that Jesus, calling his new disciples, pulled out a scroll and made them sign their adherence to the creeds. Or maybe a forgotten passage in the book of Revelation says the names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life are actually the signatures of the Saints, pledging allegiance to the heavenly statement of faith. If not, I’m confused why the church makes people sign on the dotted line if they want to join the club.

 

Clergy

Ordination boards require candidates to submit to lengthy examinations about their doctrines. When the board finds the ordinand’s theology to conform to their denomination’s statement of faith, they are approved and get the rubber stamp of ordination. But it doesn’t stop with the board. If they want to serve a church, teach in a seminary, or become a missionary, again they’re required to sign on the dotted line, affirming that their beliefs have not changed since the day of their ordination. If they toe the line, they’re hired.

Students

Many Christian schools and universities hold their doctrinal statements up as a standard for their students’ faith and practice. Some require the parents of students to sign agreement to their doctrines. Others mandate that their students conform to lifestyle expectations based on their particular biblical interpretation. For example, Liberty University’s Honor Code requires obedience, even when away from school:

 

Liberty University policies are always in effect, including summer break and school breaks (e.g. weekends, holidays, fall break, Christmas break, spring break, etc.). All students, whether residing on- or off-campus, are expected to abide by the guidelines and standards of conduct outlined in the Student Honor Code until the student graduates, or is no longer a student at the university.

 

Liberty is not alone among Christian schools when it dictates its students’ dress, jewelry, and entertainment—on and off campus. But Liberty is a good example of schools that enforce their beliefs with the strength of creeds. Here’s another example, from Liberty’s Honor Code:

 

Sexual relations outside of a biblically-ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible at Liberty University. While mental thoughts, temptations and states of mind are not regulated by The Liberty Way, statements and behaviors that are associated with LGBT states of mind are prohibited. For example, romantic displays of affection with a member of the same sex (e.g., hand-holding, kissing, dating, etc.) and actions confirming denial of biological birth sex (e.g., asking to be referred to by pronouns inconsistent with one’s birth sex, using restrooms and changing facilities reserved for persons other than one’s birth sex, etc.) are prohibited.

 

Employees

Religious institutions often employ others besides clergy. Administrative staff, groundskeepers, custodians, financial workers, coordinators, and a host of others are required to keep the machine afloat. Many require adherence to their statement of faith. Outside of religious institutions, corporations like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby claim to be “Christian” businesses. Even if these do not require their secular employees to believe their doctrines, they often dictate conformity of appearance. Besides physical characteristics like uniform, hairstyle, tattoos, and piercings, some of these “Christian” employers penalize employees who don’t live up to their standards. So even if they’re not required to sign on the dotted line in a literal sense, employees are required to subject themselves to doctrines with which they might disagree.

 

Church Members

Many churches require parishioners to attend membership or baptism classes in which they are schooled on the doctrines of the church. Membership comes with the applicant’s agreement with creedal statements, whether there is a literal dotted line or not. Of course, serving on committees, teaching classes, and other service in the church are generally reserved for those who are members. So full participation in church life is for those who have signed on the line.

 

Attendees

Beyond membership, even nonmembers are often asked to recite a creed in the worship service—an oral “dotted line.” My childhood church even had a covenant pasted inside the cover of every hymnal. From time to time we would open the flyleaf and together recite the code of conduct. This included, among other things, refraining from alcohol and tobacco products and avoiding fellowship with those who partake. Even visitors who happened to attend on the particular Sundays when we recited this covenant were peer-pressured to participate.

 

The History of Creeds

The earliest forms of Christianity had no creeds and focused more on orthopraxy (correct practice) than on orthodoxy (correct teaching). “Jesus is Lord” was the closest the first generations of Christians came to a creed. If you tried to live like Jesus, you were a Christian.

As viewpoints diversified, the church adopted creeds to separate true believers from heretics. The Apostle’s Creed (150-250 CE), the Athanasian Creed (293-373 AD), the Creed of Nicaea (325 CE), the Nicaea-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 CE), and the Chalcedonian Creed (451 CE) are early examples. Creeds became litmus tests that determined who was in and who was out.

When the Church separated into denominations, each group had to develop its own statement of faith to distinguish itself from its opponents. Examples of later creeds are the Augsburg Confession of Faith (1530 CE), the Canons of Dort (1618-1619 CE), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648 CE), the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689 CE), the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978 CE), and the Nashville Statement (2017 CE). If you want to be in the “in-crowd” of any particular group, you’ve got to sign on the dotted line.

 

Non-Creedal People

Many Evangelicals come from pietistic traditions that consider themselves non-creedal. In other words, they recognize that a healthy faith will evolve and grow. Sometimes that means deconstructing what you were always taught and growing in new directions. Non-creedal people understand that the moment you sign on the dotted line, you put God into a theological box. That line can be a dangerous thing, stifling spiritual development.

The problem is that many denominations that started out as non-creedal have sold their souls to their faith statements. This results in such things as the Southern Baptist International Mission Board firing missionaries who practiced and taught charismatic gifts such as tongues, because it doesn’t fit Baptist theology. Or Southern Baptists defunding the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because the latter reversed their anti-LGBTQIA+ position. I use these examples because I spent so much time in that denomination, but examples from other faith groups abound.

 

If your church, denomination, or employer expects you to sign your faith on the dotted line, what options do you have?

 

  1. Fudge it

Once I knew a formerly Baptist minister who transferred his ordination to the Pentecostal Holiness denomination. The board asked him if he believed their denominational statement that the initial evidence for the baptism of the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues. He told me that he fudged the answer, saying that he believed all Christians can speak in tongues if God wants them to. I asked another liberal pastor serving a conservative church if he actually believed the Earth was created in 6 days. He replied that God could have done it any way that God wanted to.

These two pastors found a way to fudge their answers and fooled their congregants into believing that they agreed with the denominational faith statement. Maybe it was also a way to fool themselves into feeling comfortable serving a church that was more conservative than they were. Many leaders do this to maintain their employment in a setting that would penalize them for free thought.

Church members whose employment doesn’t depend on signing on the dotted line still find themselves fudging their answers. When I was a member of the church with the covenant on the flyleaf, I conveniently developed a cough every time we were all expected to say that we would refrain from drinking or fellowship with drinkers. By fudging it, I allowed myself to maintain fellowship with people I loved, while refusing to say words with which I disagreed.

  1. Forget It

Some people are able to fudge it. Others are forced to say “forget it!” Unable to pretend any longer, they give up and separate themselves from that group. This is especially difficult if you have spent a lot of time in community with people you love. It’s particularly difficult if you draw a paycheck from that group, and resigning makes it hard for you to support your family. That’s too high a price to pay for many who remain closeted objectors to their churches’ creed. Nonetheless, many are fired when their true doctrinal perspectives become known.

 

  1. Fix It

Wouldn’t it be better if our focus were on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy? If we fixed our standards for Christian fellowship so they weren’t based on adherence to the creeds or other doctrinal statements? What if we defined a Christian not as someone who understands the four spiritual laws or recites the Apostles Creed, but as someone who tries to live like Jesus? If Jesus is your hero, you are in! No more judging each other by fine points of theology that can never be proven anyway. No more using creeds as a litmus test to determine who is in and who is out. What if we actually believed Jesus who said, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How would that change the Church, Christian institutions, and even the world?


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