Good Idea

Good Idea October 9, 2012

What would happen if we operated this way?

From Roger Olson:

People ask me what I think about written statements of faith. Well, I’ve written one! (I’m not going to cite it here, but some years ago I was asked by the dean of a seminary to write one for his seminary and I did. He published it as that seminary’s semi-official statement of faith without revision. But I wrote it with the agreement that he would never require anyone to sign it.) But here’s what I think about statements of faith:

Churches and other Christian organizations should not rely on written statements of faith but should ask potential employees and community members to offer their own faith statements (by which I mean doctrinal statements). In other words, rather than putting a written statement in front of them and asking them to sign it or swear allegiance to it, they should ask them to produce their own statements of belief about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. And then they should examine them and determine whether the person belongs among them. I hope that would be done generously….

Now, I do think it’s fine for a Christian organization (church, college, seminary, mission agency, etc.) to have a written statement of faith as a CONSENSUS STATEMENT only. “This is what our community generally believes to be true.” But I’m opposed to requiring individuals to sign them. In place of that, I suggest individuals wishing to join (be hired, become members, whatever) be given the opportunity to write out their own doctrines. Then there should be a trusted group (deacons, elders, pastoral staff, committee, whatever) who looks at it and decides if the person’s beliefs are sufficiently consistent with the organization’s ethos.

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  • Very interesting. I like it. It would result in less surprises later.

  • Shall we apply this to ordination too? This is one of the reasons I chose not to be ordained. The statements of faith often leave out room for growth. I prefer the Quaker approach of noting God’s calling upon a soul. But when I approached the Quakers in my area who calidated such a calling they insisted that ordination would also require starting a Quaker church or Quaker organization. Back to square one.

  • Is this not what some Churches/Denominations do when they require ordination papers to be written? This is a real question, as I did not do this. Friends from seminary, however, had to write long papers about their positions on doctrine. Is that kind of similar to this suggestion?

    Olson’s idea is not without merit. I am left wondering why he is so against signing a document. Was he burned by that sort of thing before?

  • scotmcknight

    Steve, yes, that is a similar approach. The candidate speaks first.

  • Rick


    “The statements of faith often leave out room for growth.”

    Where someone may consider it “growth” (potentially something positive), an organization/denomination may consider it “out of bounds” (potentially something negative).

  • John Morris

    just a thought: my denom (Churches of Christ) have traditionally said that we don’t believe in any creeds at all. My understanding of history is that, at one time, we wanted to be a unified group of Christians from multiple backgrounds who put aside various differing creeds for the sake of unity in Christ.

    In practice today, however, esp. in more conservative congregations, is that, without realizing it, we have unspoken, unwritten creeds, or statements of faith. The logic sort of becomes “I know what I think, and everyone else in the group seems to agree.” When people don’t agree, the problem arises. So, I think this suggestion of writing a statement of faith by the candidate, rather than the organization, could really help in hiring processes, etc.

  • Kenton

    I think that’s awesome! (or “would be” awesome???)

    My own church’s statement of faith has enough complementarianism and dispensationalism to make me more than a little uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it be great if people who love Jesus were accepted in and didn’t have to dot those tees and cross those eyes?

  • Larry S

    I like this and have a question.

    What happens when, after writing my statement, at some date later in the future my views change?

    I suppose the organization can ask for annual statements submitted – asking to be alerted to nuances / changes from the original statement

  • BradK

    Speaking from a Southern Baptist perspective, this would likely result in either a major staff shortage in Baptist churches or a cause for sin among prospective candidates as they would be tempted to lie. While SBC folks won’t have anything to do with creeds and profess the priesthood of all believers and the competency of the soul in religion, in many churches there is little tolerance for much deviation from the party line. And often the party line at a given church doesn’t match up with either scripture (e.g. Christians drinking alcohol even in moderation is taboo) or the Baptist Faith and Message. If most seminaries put such a policy into practice and candidates answered honestly, the variation in beliefs professed by prospective faculty would be shocking and considered all but heretical by many of the laymen in the pews of their respective denominations.

  • I really appreciate this view, although it might have cost me a job or two if the leaders knew exactly what I believed.

  • I think it is a helpful guide and should almost be required. I believe in inerrancy and infallability. However, I might not believe it in the same way “Church A” does. A paper would allow me to explain my views on that specific topic and they’d easily be able to decide, from my own words, whether I’d be a good candidate or not.

  • Kenton

    BradK (#9)-

    I don’t how it works now, but is that temptation not there now? Is there not a one question test for candidates to ministry akin to “do you agree with the SBC Faith & Message?”

  • Norman

    I like what Larry S #8 and BradK #9 mention. Are we reverting back to the Pharisaical practice of trying to dot every I and cross every t and end up with over 600 do’s and don’ts? I think Christ simplified the matter by boiling it down to the basics. It’s called the Great commandment which if I remember correctly were 2 commandments. Love God and love your neighbor and something about all the law and the prophets were built upon those two. I can sink my teeth into that idea.

    People who study simply change their views and I’m not about to abandon or stir up my family, friends, and church by submitting to them a new updated version every year or so of where I’m presently residing on the theological spectrum. Church leaders are a mixed bag of knowledge and the congregation is even more diverse. There is simply no good reason to wash our linens out in front of everyone on a constant basis. That’s not biblical wisdom.

    Perhaps Rogers piece is OK for him and it’s a nice exercise to keep to oneself IMO but a lot of the time it’s going to be posturing to present it to others.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Considering that I’ve come to believe that Jesus neither chooses to not save some, nor fails to save any he chooses to save (Christian Universalism), I’ve had a challenging time finding a fellowship that would allow me to join. So though I love God, love people, have been born of and filled with the Spirit, am a devoted follower of Jesus, etc., most fellowships preclude me joining them in loving God and loving people because I do not understand scripture the same as they do. Well, thanks be to God, I recently started fellowshiping with a group that is truly interdenominational. I had lunch with the senior pastor a couple of weeks ago and shared with him my beliefs and asked if such precluded me from joining his fellowship. He said that he believed that the church should be like Jesus in that “He allowed people to belong long before they believed” – a truly profound statement I think. This much more organic, relational means of fellowship and discipleship is much better, imo. If all we allow in our fellowship are people who agree with us then where is the iron shapening iron; we’ll all stay dull.

  • EricW


    Be honest and open now and know each other according to the truth that is in Jesus and really experience what it means to be the body of Christ; or

    Pretend to be a happy agreeable family and find out later, when the Light exposes the truth, that they never really knew or were known by one another.

    Decisions, decisions.

  • RM

    I like it. I would even extend it to the lay level and encourage everyone to do some thinking on their own. They may get it wrong, but, then again, they may not.

  • Adam O

    I love this idea if only for the fun of seeing the reality of differing perspectives within what I think most in my SBC community would assume to be fairly monolithic. I also wonder if the primacy of unity expressed in the NT would be as equally valued both in the statements themselves and more importantly in error everyone’s reactions to brothers and sisters who may disagree on nearly every thing but the Lordship of Christ.

  • E.G.

    I suppose it’s a good exercise, with the proviso that most people who spend any time at all thinking are bound to see their views on various things change over time.

    Many denominations write up these things to allow a fair amount of wiggle room. E.g., the denomination of the baptist seminary that Olson studied at in the past has a statement of beliefs that’s very similar to this. But you’d be hard pressed to get it to say anything specific about eschatology, origins, eternal security, or specific theories of the atonement… etc.

    I bet that many baptist (and other) statements are much like that and much like what Olson wrote there. In other words, they provide wiggle room for varying opinion on details while holding the core solid.

    Ultimately it’s about how much you want to define. If you want to define each and every point to the smallest detail, you’re going to belong to a very small church, average weekly attendance = 1.

    But, if you are way too lose on the essentials, average weekly attendance will be 0.

    There’s a happy medium in there. And many denominations seem to have come close to the sweet spot.

    Oh, that statement of belief from the denomination that is associated with the seminary (Sioux Falls Seminary) that Olson attended? Here it is for sake of comparison:

  • Pat

    This is the only problem I see: “they should examine them and determine whether the person belongs among them. I hope that would be done generously….”

    Churches and other institutions would need to decide what they could and could not accept. They would possibly have to let go of a lot that is held dear and seen as fundamental to the faith.

  • Robin

    The biggest problem I see is the tendency to hide views. I’ll put it like this. I am a complementarian and a calvinist, but I would venture to say that if I were crafting my statement of faith I could present it in such a way that it would be acceptable to emergent churches. Highlight the areas of agreement, don’t address the areas of disagreement, etc.

    I have friends who are pastors in SBC churches and are intentionally downplaying their calvinism so that they can become integral parts of their arminian churches before they start introducing basic aspects of calvinism.

  • scotmcknight

    Robin, thanks for this because this is the major issue in “quizzing” candidates in theology. But if the host publishes a statement of faith, the candidate can repeat it. If the candidate produces his or her theology, there is less chance of hiding … at least it seems so to me, but I have not experienced this sort of process.

  • Jesse Reese

    Robin, in the Anglican churches we have similar problems, but along the lines of churchmanship and theological orientation (High, Low, Evangelical, Liberal, Anglo-Catholic, etc.). William G. Witt wrote an excellent post on his blog in response to this problem listing several questions whose answers will force pastoral candidates to lay their cards on the table. Perhaps a similar solution is necessary for the “discussion” part of the process proposed by Olson; that is, when a church discusses the confession with the candidate. If they see alarming holes in the candidates’ confession, they can ask such questions more directly.

  • Ghaleb

    I’ve gone through a process similar to this both with the organization I now work under and with the seminary where I teach in a small Middle Eastern country. Both times, I drew from a collection of statements that I had written for assignments during my own time in seminary and expanded, revised, and redrafted them to reflect my current beliefs. I found the process to be incredibly devotional, personally, as I was “forced” to systematize and put into writing my current thinking and belief (and sometimes acknowledging the difference between the two). And it was very confirming to me to explain and defend my beliefs with fellow faculty and colleagues and have them reflect back how they understood what I was saying and concerns they had with what I had to say. All of this, of course, has been in the context of parachurch organizations. I’ve never seen this process being used in a church.

  • Andrew

    Wycliffe Bible Translators used to do this very thing. They no longer do so; this part was cut out to streamline the application process.