The last post looked at who the inspired apostolic writers saw as “false teachers.” Next, let’s look at where things went after that in the early church and then spend a few minutes on Churches of Christ. This post is longer than usual but I hope by the end it has made sense out of some of the divisiveness you may sense from people (even ministers) within the Churches of Christ at the moment. Let’s examine it and discuss a better way.
We have already seen that even while the New Testament was being written false teachers had infiltrated the church. Here are a few examples to give you an idea:
Arianism – denied the divinity of Jesus. He was only a man.
Docetism – denied the humanity of Jesus. He was only God (he only appeared to be a man…he didn’t really die)
Gnosticism – Dualism – spirit = good/flesh = bad…each with its own god…the spiritual is to destroy the physical in order to free humanity from the physical.
Marcinoism – Rejected the Old Testament as being part and parcel of a lesser god…not the God of the New Testament.
There were dozens more but these are some of the main ones. In short, Creeds were formalized statements of the Christian faith that were formulated out of necessity in order to have a baseline agreement on what constituted the core Christian faith (orthodox) and what did not (heresy).
Heresy in the church brought need for agreement. What must one believe in order to be “orthodox” (a genuine Christian believing/practicing the core doctrines of the Christian faith)? In answering that question, a few theological affirmations or beliefs rose to the top, many of which were in direct response to particular false teachings of their day.
“Creeds have not be written in the quiet periods of history but in those moments of historical intensity when the Church has been engaged by foes from without, or when its mission or life has been endangered from within. This is not to suggest that creeds are merely the products of external forces pressing upon the Church from without or of conflicts within. The church would have had creeds even if there had been no threatening heresy such as Gnosticism…even if there had been no internal disagreements as to the content of the faith at Nicaea in the fourth century.” John Leith, Creeds of the Church, 2.
In other words, there came times in the life of the early church that they had to define what was most important…the core essence of the Christian faith. Sometimes this was to combat a particular heresy. Other times it was to address internal doctrinal disagreements such as the nature of the essence of the Father and Son (as at Nicaea). Here are some examples,
First Council of Nicaea (325) – Met to settle an issue inside the church on the nature of the relationship/essence of the Father and the Son (whether or not they were of the same substance).
First Council of Ephesus (431) – Met to settle the Nestorian controversy/heresy
Council of Chalcedon (451) – Met to decide on the nature of Christ (human/divine) which addresses numerous heresies in the early church.
Creeds are by nature selective. Creeds are selective because not every single verse in the New Testament is of equal importance nor were we ever intended to decide who is in/out based on any and every potential doctrine derived from the New Testament (and even a few hundred from silence!). For instance, genealogies are not on par with the Great commission.
It is perfectly biblical to say some things are of “first importance” because Paul taught exactly that in 1 Cor 15:3-4,
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
This verse is the foundation of the Christian faith. What you believe on this matters. Every single issue is not an “in” or “out” issue but these statements are…if you don’t believe Jesus Christ was God in the flesh and that he died for the sins of the world and was raised again to new life you aren’t a Christian. You must believe those things to have Christian faith. That is not the same with issues like who can pray or if we pass communion from the front or the back or whether or not God is angry with people who clap or whether or not we can do more than one “act of worship” at the same time or whether it is actually ok to give money to people who take care of orphans because those issues are not identifying faith markers of Christianity. Your opinion on those matters does not make you orthodox or unorthodox, in or out.
Restoration Movement/Churches of Christ and Creeds
As creeds developed, so did their diversity. Particular groups emphasized particular things and giving their particular slant on things. The Restoration Movement hoped to bring into unity into all of this by saying all we really need is the Bible or that we have “no creed but the Bible.” Because creeds had become divisive and the ideal is unity, the Restoration idea was that creeds are rejected in principle (not that what the creeds taught was objectionable in and of itself…try reading those early creeds and see if you disagree with them) and in their place is the Bible, particularly the New Testament. We can all just read the same thing and believe/do what we find there. Simple enough…in theory!
Here is the hitch. Once you say the only creed we have is the Bible or the New Testament, what you end up doing is saying that every single jot and tittle is an important as every other jot and tittle because the whole New Testament is our creed…that in theory, that is all we go on and agree on. One must believe all this book contains just right in order to be “in.”
The move to “no creed but the Bible” which was done as a move to unity actually turned into something divisive. Creeds were meant to simplify things…creeds were meant to give agreement in core areas and room for some disagreement in other areas. If the whole NT is our creed then every verse is core and if every verse is core (not to be left out or misunderstood) then right interpretation and understanding must be had on every verse in order to be “orthodox” or “in”.
I believe that explains a lot of the divisiveness and division we see in Churches of Christ today. We have not had solid teaching on learning to discern issues of first importance.This is why we have people making salvation issues out of every conceivable doctrine.
Before I go further, there is a real human temptation to pick what we don’t like and say “Well that isn’t of first importance anyway…so who cares. I will do whatever I want since it is non-essential.”That is not acceptable either.
Instead of learning what is of first importance (when was the last time you heard a sermon on Romans 14?) we have spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to be just the right church as opposed to all of the others. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek what is right, to do what is right and to believe what is right…it must be done in humility. That isn’t a suggestion, that is in the Bible (if you take it seriously, anyway). We developed a brand out of our rightness because our creed couldn’t be boiled down to a few dozen words like the “denominations”…no, our creed was the entire New Testament, all 138,020 words. Well, that is how many words are in the Greek New Testament and that depends on which manuscripts you use…then there is the issue of translation and that takes scholars to pull that off to give it to us straight and simple in English we can read. You get my point…there is more to our position than we often like to think about.
So how do we move forward?
I don’t think that means we need to have a council and implement some new creed. I am not for that. I do think we need to be MATURE. We need to be mature enough to recognize that there will be a diversity of opinions on a matter of issues and people can still be Christians as long as we agree on what is core to the Christian faith. That is a biblical concept…not just something liberals believe (unless Paul was a liberal – Romans 14 – and if that is the case call me liberal). Now, how we define what is core is up for grabs (in practice) but defined in the New Testament itself as those things mentioned as being most important/core to faith in Christ. Last, we all must agree that diversity doesn’t mean lost. Diversity doesn’t mean denomination. Diversity is to be expected in areas where diversity is understandable as long as the core elements of the Christian faith are not compromised and the diversity comes out of an honest and zealous pursuit of God and truth through the Bible.
For further reading, see Scot McKnight’s article on “No Creed but the Bible?” where he reviews Trueman’s book “The Creedal Imperative”