The Fallacy of Statements of Faith

The Fallacy of Statements of Faith June 14, 2012

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?

We can’t.

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.

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  • So many typos….. 

    • Christian Piatt

      And yet time to criticize while missing the point.

    • Rev. Stephen Toller

       you made the ellipsis wrong. 

  • Todd Kirk

    Right on! Excellent points all.

  • Christian, we Disciples used to be even cheesier than the “a movement for wholeness” mentality–remember “No creed but Christ?” =)

    • aaron

      I grew up in a conservative independent christian church (the conservative break off of DOC). Ours was even cheesier “No creed but the bible”.

      • Aaron, sorry man, but I think the DOC’s still wins, because we have the power of alliteration on our side!  (Which churches NEVER overuse…)

  • Rev. Stephen Toller

     As long as I can define what genre I’m agreeing to the words in, I can agree to pretty much any statement of faith. Lyrical poetry? Farcical prose? Sarcastic pronouncement? Never have a I agreed to even the earliest statements of faith as a logical statement of fact.

    • Aaron Minix

       What about the Apostle’s, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds? Are those not statements of faith? Sure we don’t sign them, but they sure are statements of what Christians believe.

  • Andrew

    I understand your attitude about the Catholic Church. Indeed, if I just watched the media, I would feel the same way. However, your understanding of what the Church is is flawed.
    Correct me if I am wrong, but you believe that everyone is correct. There are no absolute truths outside of Christ. So, if a member of your movement started preaching that murdering people was morally ok, would you object? Despite your relativistic belief, I am quite sure you would reprimand that person and not allow him to preach such lies.
    The Catholic Church follows the Natural Moral Laws. There are absolute truths. An act can be either good or bad. You are completely correct in saying that many Catholic women use contraception. However, the Church does not teach based upon popular opinion. The Church believes that one of the natural results of sex is children, and that the possibility of conception should always be a part of sex. Contraception removes (or attempts to, as it is not always 100% effective) life from sex. Thus it is disordered.
    Also, if I was running for a political office, and one of my top advisers went on the media and said that he supported my opponents take on a topic and disagreed with mine, I am quite sure that I would fire him. The LCWR has begun to propose ideas that are counter to what the beliefs of the Church are. The job of the Church is to guide people in their relationship with Christ and to help them do their best to avoid sin. If members of the Church begin to say that a sin is ok, it is absolutely necessary for the Church to step in and correct them, for the good of the whole flock.
    Tolerance is a very good virtue, and you appear to have it an abundance. But to have too much can actually be a bad thing. You have stripped yourself of any moral authority. If someone is engaging in a life of sin, you must help them. You must explain to them why their actions are inappropriate. You must not simply say “well, as long as it makes you happy.” For the sake of the souls of those you are sheperding, I hope you that you do so.

    • guest

       Andrew, I think you are replying to a different article.  Or maybe you missed the point of this one. 

    • aaronpxian

      “but you believe that everyone is correct”.
      I use to think that either everyone believed in ‘absolute truth’ or else they believed that “all truth was relative”. Then I took an ethics class, learned about how ethics is formulated, and lo and behold it is a lot more complicated than that slippery slope fallacy.

      So, if a member of your movement started preaching that murdering people was morally ok, would you object?

      Would you? Inquisitions, Crusades, etc?

      One can simply google “meta-ethics” to start to understand how we formulate what is right and wrong. 

      Appeal to authority doesn’t really work for meta-ethics. Speaking of which, for an interesting problem with the idea that God divinely commands absolute moral truths, google the Euthyphro dilemma.

      • “google the Euthyphro dilemma.” That’s the problem with some people who think they know about meta-ethics. Googling for a dilemma that has been responded to umpteen times, but never having read the literature, they think they’ve debunked something.

    • The_L1985

      Error in your reasoning: According to Thomas Aquinas, masturbation is “intrinsically disordered.” This phraseology implies that it is just as deeply unusual and harmful as murder, arson, or grand theft. Yet everybody over the age of 15 has done it, with no discernible ill-effects.

      In fact, Aquinas’s statement about sex, taught to me as incontrovertible fact, did me far more harm than masturbating ever did.

  • As soon as you have somethign written down, it is controllable and looses a bit the possibility to be influenced by God. You can always come down to the text, rather than coming to God, if you claim that a certain text holds “the truth”. This is the danger I do see in statements of faith and other forms of texts, that reduce God to some letters and gets us out of responsibility to decide what’s to do in certain situations. With a text, we can have the text make the decision. Finally, we won’t do anything wrong, if anything goes wrong. It was the text… (somehow reminds me of Adam’s it was the woman you gave me that gave me the fruit to eat…)

  • “There’s never any guarantee that they actually believe what we’re trying to force them to believe.”  The irony is that Christianity itself is a type of “forced” religion. It compels people with an enormous carrot and equally enormous stick. Eternal happiness, or eternal punishment!  Believe certain things or die!  Endless punishment awaits those who find it difficult to believe in the Christian story of God’s love.  It almost makes Christianity a haven for manic-depressives. 

    • Christian Piatt

      i’d say that more the fundamentalist approach. For me, it’s about nurturing people through al ife practice of living a more Christ-like life. No ephemeral reward better than anyone else; no fear of the hands of an angry God. Just a compulsion to love, to be loved, to belong, and to welcome others into deeper community.

  • brad russell

    Christian, while I deplore the hypocrisy and politics of creedalism as you do, I think confessionalism is a different approach altogether. Creeds coerce and exclude. Confessions invite and include. Creeds strain at gnats. Confessions are broad statements seeking points of agreement. Creeds and confessions differ in their intent, detail and application in relationships. Confessions build community among people who can agree on core beliefs. Certainly, “Christ is Lord” is the most basic Christian confession, and it is enough for relationship, but if we believe that what we believe actually matters and that there is indeed “a faith handed down to us” then confessions will always hold value for me.

    • Donalbain

      How is a 5000 word document that goes into details such as your opinion on sexuality, or the age of the universe MORE inviting and broader than a 200 word statement of very general principles?

  • I love this. I grew up Disciples, and still chafe under the historic creeds used in the UMC, which I married into. 

  • Paul Freeman

    Remember in Disciples tradition and history, Our founders started a “movement” for the very reason of adhering to a Credo that they could no longer agree to.  And in order for anyone to become part of this movement only had to make a their “confession of faith” as Peter had proclaimed after Jesus had asked his disciples why they were following him.  If my New Testament classes taught me anything, it was the closest of any credo the Apostles ever came close to adhering to.

  • Should the Catholic Church especially be so absolutely firm, about requiring total obedience to its doctrines against contraception and abortion?  When those doctrines were only recently clarified, c. 1968?  And when they have not yet stood the test of time?

    I fact there is very good reason to believe that these recent doctrines will not hold up to theological scrutiny.  As noted on my website on this subject.   Offering 200 Christian, Catholic, and Biblical arguments allowing abortion.

    • Aaron Minix

       The Catholic stand on abortion is almost as old as the Church itself. Look at the Didache, written about 100AD. It clearly says that you shall not abort a child.

  • Sara

    Thanks Christian – this is such a timely topic for me as I recently took a stand against the  Statement of Faith adopted by the county Ministerial Association. They are using it as a weapon of exclusion. Though there are items in the statement I strongly disagree with my stand has been to oppose the very idea of a statement – and have used my position as a minister in the DoC as the ground on which I base my opposition. I’m sharing your article with some of the other ministers in our community.  Again, thanks for the discussion.

  • michaelvalentine

    Matthew 5:34  (English Standard Version) But I say to you , do not take an oath at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God.  

    Word of God.

  • I wish more people were offended by “subscriptionalism” as I call it. I will say however that the disciples had a statement of faith; their own testimony – that is what made them so compelling Jesus doesn’t ask us to sign on the dotted line, but rather “who do you say that I am?”

  • Duncan Beach

    “Emerging Christian movement”, huh?  Where have THOSE guys been for 2000 years?  As to signing anything like a faith doctrine… Well, if you WANNA drink electric Kool-Aid, get me some rye bread, and I’ll mix it up right for you.  Those who want these faith-tests are megalomaniacal morons who just wanna grab power.  Go, Jesus.  Signed, Duncan Beach.

  • Craig

    Is it possible to reasonably oppose statements of faith while affirming that one’s salvation is faith-based? 

  • Pmpope68

    “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. ”

    I agree.  I left a church last year that for a time asked that people abstain from alcohol.  I knew for a fact that a number of members drank and when Facebook became prevalent, it wasn’t uncommon to see people post pictures of themselves at various functions drinking.  All I could do was think of the hypocrisy.  Basically, people said what they needed to in order to get through the membership process.  

    In another scenario, someone was denied membership because they could not affirm that homosexuality is a sin.  They could sign on the dotted line for everything else, but that one point got them denied membership altogether.  And this person drove a long distance to get to the church, very much enjoyed the preaching and was willing to join even though that was the church’s stance, but the church would have none of it.  

    Then there are those who were long-time attenders and very faithful in various parts of the ministry, but were not members because of some difference they held.  They would have made great members, but without membership, couldn’t hold an office–something we needed more of:  mature people to hold offices.  Hopefully, this church begins to re-evaluate their process.  At the time I was there, it was anathema to people that we even BEGIN to talk about changing the process.  There were some people of the mind that those who wanted to be a part of the church needed to change.  The church, in their mind, did not need to change its process or requirements. 

  • aj

    Sounds a lot like the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

    • The_L1985

      Which is especially pointless, as a piece of cloth that stands for a fictional nation (ours is currently divided, and isn’t too good at the liberty and justic parts) isn’t worth saying anything to in the first place.

  • JimC

    Doesnlt every Methodist pastor still ‘swear’ not to drink alcohol at their ordinatiuon?

    • JimC

      *Doesn’t and *ordination

  • Just another blog written with the intent to strong arm Christians into going against the president. The one thing you can be sure of is if Romney had been president your confession would not have been you compromising yourself for a Job; it would have been you compromising your God for a political party, by signing a statement of faith (vote) for one that does not even recognize your savior.

    Rather than try to legislate morality, the Bible says that we should raise up our children in the ways they should go and when they get older they will not depart.(proverbs 22:6) You see children taught the ways of God will follow God,

    Stop blamiing the president for ther imorality in your house and start blaming youself