Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Doctrinal Statements

It is common (and necessary, I think) for a church to have a doctrinal statement. But such doctrinal statements, creeds, or confessions, have not always been well received. And many disagree on what a doctrinal statement is and what it should contain.

As an example, Mark Dever made the comment that it is sin to have a statement of faith that requires a particular millennial view. This statement fired up the blogosphere for a few days a while back. I don’t know if anyone was converted or not. To borrow from an old political quip about friends, I know a lot of people agreed with Dever and a lot of people did not agree with Dever, and I am one of them.

So what is a doctrinal statement? I want to answer this from my view in a bullet-pointed fashion.

What a doctrinal statement is not:

  1. A doctrinal statement is not a statement about who is a true Christian—who is saved. In other words, it is not a list of things that must be believed to go to heaven, though it will certainly contain the gospel which must believed for salvation.
  2. A doctrinal statement is not a statement about who is a good Christian, a good preacher or teacher, somebody worth the time to listen to. Many people whose beliefs diverge from a particular church’s are still great tools of God for spiritual growth and maturity.
  3. A doctrinal statement is not a statement of contemporary orthodox theology.In other words, it is not a statement about the possible options that believers may legitimately embrace as scriptural doctrine.
  4. A doctrinal statement is not a statement of historical theology. In other words, it is not a statement about what someone somewhere in the church has believed in times past.
  5. A doctrinal statement is not a replacement for the Bible, or an addendum to it. Many (particularly in the Baptist tradition) have rejected creeds and confessions in favor of saying, “The Bible is our creed.” But that’s really insufficient and a misunderstanding of the use of creeds and confessions.
  6. A doctrinal statement is not a requirement for church membership or ministry. A person may join a church being untaught, and not knowing enough to agree or disagree. A person may join a church agreeing to disagree. In such cases, the church can rightly expect that the member will not attempt to divide the congregation over the issues.

What a doctrinal statement is:

  1. A doctrinal statement is a statement of what a church’s official position is on doctrinal matters.
  2. A doctrinal statement is a statement of what a church will teach, and therefore, what the congregation may expect to hear.

Some Practical Ramifications:

  1. It is not a sin to have a statement of faith that includes a position on eschatology. In fact, it should be expected, not discouraged. I don’t know what Dever means by “requires” so I do not know if I disagree with him or not. For instance, I would not tell someone not to join because they are amillennial or arminian or continuationist or “local church only,” though I think all four positions listed for sake of discussion are biblically refuted.
  2. A person with beliefs that diverse from the church’s doctrinal statement should seek unity in the body, and therefore should not seek to divide the body over it, and should not seek to “evangelize” for his position, thus creating dissension and division.
  3. A person with beliefs that diverge from the church’s doctrinal statement should expect the regular preaching and teaching of the church to engage his or her beliefs and to attempt to persuade him or her to change.
  4. A person with beliefs that diverge from the church’s doctrinal statement should expect that his ministry will be somewhat limited. For instance, I would not have an arminian-leaning brother teach a class on soteriology, though I might allow him to teach a series on something else, or to lead worship, or something similar. I would not allow an amillennialist to teach a class on eschatology, though I certainly would allow him to participate in discussions about the matter if it were being taught. This would not necessarily prevent him from leading a ministry team of some sort or from being a deacon for instance.


Jon from Bucksport said...

On #6 of what it is not you say that it is not what you have to believe to join the church. Isn't this exactly how most constitutions written? In my experience the creed or articles of faith or whatever you choose to call it is written as a covenant of this is what we all agree on here as the basis for unity and ministry.

I think that is what Dever had in mind when he made his statement and therefore I agree with him. I agree with you that we should not limit our membership and fellowship to strictly. I would not want my church articles to take one orthodox position over another when we can all agree on a more general orthodox position (i.e. Christ's atonement is sufficient for all and efficient for believers.) I also agree with you that while we should not give up being baptist (a la Piper) we should also be willing to listen and learn from other orthodox traditions.

Andy R said...

How about doctrinal statements as a summary of the church's understanding of disputed doctrines?

Isn't it true that most of the items in a typical doctrinal statement are there because they have been a matter of some dispute at some point in history?

If so, it may be wrong NOT to have an eschatological position in your doctrinal statement if that is the very issue being disputed.

Ben said...


Jon's observation is important. No church's SoF addresses *every* theological issue. The question then becomes, why do we address some issues and not others?

Historically, Baptist churches have concluded that a SoF is a summary of what one *must* believe in order to join a church. It's a statement of what members must hold in common to function together as a church. Admittedly, this conclusion has not been unanimous, and it seems to have diminished in prevalence over time. My suspicion is that the trajectory has more to do with widespread theological dilution and marginalization, and does not mark a step toward broader church health.

Frankly, this is a matter essential to congregationalism. Admitting people to church membership who do not agree with the SoF immediately minimizes the SoF and plants the seeds for eventual alteration of it.

Incidentally, the more a congregational church trends toward elder rule, the easier it is for that church to admit members who disagree with the statement. That partially explains why MacArthur and Piper prefer to tolerate more diversity, while Dever wants all members to affirm the SoF.

More and more people seem to be agreeing that churches can function quite healthily even though members may disagree over the nature of the Millennium or the timing of the Rapture. Others find this impossible. I suspect this is the unfortunate fruit of pushing things to the center that ought to be on the periphery, and marginalizing other things that ought to be at the center.

Larry said...

A quick response. It is a bit random so forgive me.

On what is included (per Andy), I imagine disputed issues and core issues are probably what's included in most. I have never really thought about it though. I would imagine all doctrinal statements include more than what it takes to become a believer and less than what it takes be right about every single issue. So somewhere in between those two, a doctrinal statement rests.

On church membership and doctrinal statements, I don't know what most churches require. Our constitution says, Membership in this Church is open to anyone who has received by faith the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, been baptized by immersion after salvation, desires to share in the fellowship and ministry of this Church, and agrees to be governed as a member by her constitution. The covenant includes the phrase "sustain her doctrines," which I take to be supporting the teaching of them and not teaching against them. I am much more concerned that people agree to live by the covenant and constitution because that is what will maintain peace and harmony, and lead to biblical fellowship in the body. Over time, the doctrinal statement will be taught, and people will become convinced I think. Or leave if they feel uncomfortable enough that they can no longer support the church. While admitting people that don't agree with the doctrinal statement entirely may sow the seeds of eventual alteration, that may be a testament to weak teaching.

To require complete agreement with the doctrinal statement means essentially that no new believer could join the church since the doctrine is a matter of discipleship and growth. The church doctrinal statement is what members should expect to be taught and what they agree to support. But would Dever really deny me membership at CHBC because I do not believe that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath? I have actually biblical warrant to regard every day alike. I don't recall any such biblical latitude on millennial positions, no matter who is right. IOW, I don't think the Bible says that what you think about the millennium is a matter of conscience, does it?

I think to minimize a doctrinal statement to enlarge the membership is a bad idea. It doesn't strengthen the church in anyway that I can see. Ben seems to be suggesting that (though he would probably use different words). I don't want to misunderstand Ben, so please clarify for me.

But saying that certain things shouldn't be in the doctrinal statement is exactly that, isn't it? It seems to be "Don't include things in your doctrinal statement that Christians differ on such as millennialism because that would exclude them from membership." I have heard of people removing pretrib because they don't want to divide people over it. My answer is just don’t divide people over itt. But we start down the road towards "mere Christianity" which is not healthy, in my view.

I cannot understand any biblical warrant to say it is sin to have a millennial statement in the doctrinal statement. That is inconceivable to me. And I don't recall Dever trying to give any biblical warrant for it, but admittedly it has been a while.

I think requiring complete adherence to the doctrinal statement also minimizes church membership, or leaves some people outside the church body because they agree in the main with the doctrinal statement, but not completely. So what do they do? Just attend and not be a member? I think that would be disobedience.

I do think a church can function healthily if members disagree on something such as the Millennium or Rapture timing, but I think a church's position should be made known. That will keep the issue from becoming divisive.

I know my position is probably in the minority, and may in fact be missing some needed perspectives. I am open to learning more so feel free to teach away.

And thanks for reading and interacting.

Ben said...


We could chase several threads from your last comment, but I suspect we'll talk past each other until I understand your rationale for what you include in and exclude from your SoF.

I'm proposing that a SoF ought to represent what members must hold in common to function as a church. Correct me if I'm missing your argument, but I don't see you proposing an alternative. In lieu of that, your decision to include or exclude the timing of the rapture, or women as deacons, or embryo adoption, or a host of other issues, seems arbitrary.

I certainly reject your suggestion that I want to minimize a SoF to expand membership. Quite the contrary. I want to discern what doctrine we must have in common to function as a church. I might counter that you want to minimize the significance of the SoF to expand membership.

By the way, I don't think that restricting membership to people who can affirm the SoF is an uncommon idea. All sorts of confessional educational institutions do it with faculty. Church associations do it. Didn't the IFBAM have a bit of a tussle over that very issue a few years back?

Larry said...

There is undoubtedly several threads that could be chased. I wrote a response last night and lost it in posting. It was probably better than this one :). It certainly was longer.

As for what’s included, I think an SoF generally includes the major doctrines of systematic theology. We use the NHC with the Premill revision (1953, I think), and it runs right through the major categories. It declares what a church, as a body, believes and teaches, and what members can expect to be taught. It is doubtful, to me, that a church will accumulate a lot of members with serious disagreements, but someone may live in a community where they like a particular church for a complex of reasons, and no other church satisfies their conscience, yet they disagree with a point here or there. Should we deny them the obedience of church membership over that? I don't think so.

But if a person has to agree fully before joining, how do new believers join? I think the pattern is salvation, baptism, church membership, and teaching. The doctrinal statement is what they will be taught. I think doctrine is a discipleship issue (at least part of discipleship). If a person must affirm it prior to joining, then is a church really “making” disciples? Or are they merely assimilating disciples who are already taught? Again, I don’t want to mischaracterize in anyway, but I think it is a major part of the discussion.

I don’t think I am minimizing the SoF by my position. I would minimizing it if I didn’t teach certain sections of it in order to not offend or run people off. But we are clear that we are premills, for instance, and I teach that.

With respect to expanding membership, my understanding came from your position that including something like millennialism excludes people from membership over a non-essential … that if you don’t have millennialism in your SoF, more people can join. So it seemed that you, in order to include more people, were in favor of removing premillennialism. My apologies if I misunderstood that or misrepresented it.

I am not in favor of unnecessary division, which is why I don’t think the SoF must be fully affirmed by members. They should support the SoF, and not teach against it. And hopefully over time, with the consistent unfolding of the Scriptures, they will come to believe it. But again, that is a matter of discipling people.

I think your example with a school is an excellent one. The faculty are required to affirm the SoF because they are teachers; the students generally are not. Even at DBTS, which no one has ever accused of minimizing doctrine, a student has to affirm the creed, not the full SoF. The SoF tells students what the school’s position is and what they can expect to be taught on certain major issues of theology. Church associations are associations of churches (duh, I know). But this is a conversation about individuals. IFBAM did have a tussle over it. We left the IFBAM around that time for several reasons; the doctrinal statement was one of them. But that is a different issue, I think.

Jon from Bucksport said...

As to new believers surely they will not know enough to agree or disagree and so they should join and be taught. I think the problem that I have seen is where churches are overly aggressive with their SoF and thereby make it difficult for mature believers with orthodox positions to join. In eschatology I think the pre-eminent issue is immediacy. That should be emphasized in the SoF. If someone is amil that can agree and join with you. Admittedly, you would not want them to teach a class on Revelation but that would be true of all kinds of positions. Soteriologically I think the SoF should be broad enough that people with different positions would not be scared off.
It is interesting that you brought up NHC. I have always wondered why churches write out a whole SoF instead of just pointing to things like NHC etc which do a lot better job of stating the heads of doctrine than do most SoF.