Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don't Judge a Church by its Website: "What We Believe"

I just did a quick survey of the web sites of 10 evangelical and pentecostal churches in Santa Cruz county, scanning their "What We Believe" pages for one factor: where did they put their statement on Scripture. Being honest, I was totally surprised. I expected to find it as the first item of belief, followed by the persons of the Trinity, and then usually something about sin and salvation, heaven and hell, the church, etc. The survey actually came out half and half; only about half of those churches put their statement on Scripture first, the other half putting something else, four of which had some kine of statement about God first (one of which was in the form of the Nicene Creed, which I think is rare and awesome for an evangelical Protestant church!) and one of which had something about the need for spiritual community.

Why is this important? Because there is something just totally wrong about a church putting its belief in the Bible above their belief in God/Jesus Christ. It borders on blasphemy. Yes, as evangelicals we are Christians committed to the Bible, yet we are not chiefly concerned with the Bible but with Jesus Christ; the Bible is not an end in itself, but the message about Jesus Christ.

So why are these churches putting the Bible first and what should they be putting first? It seems to me that they put it first because they believe that you have to deal with how we can know about God before you can deal with who God is and how he has saved us in Jesus Christ; that is, they believe you have to deal with theological epistemology before you can deal with divine ontology or soteriology. More important than that, putting the Bible first in a church's statement of beliefs reflects a belief that the question of how we can know about God isn't fully answered in Jesus Christ himself, the Word become flesh among us. For sure, the Bible needs to be in those statements, but I think it should below any and every statement about God himself, probably being somewhere in there with the church and sacraments/ordinances, which are just as integral to Christian faith as the Bible is (we could quibble on the sacraments, but I'll stand behind saying that the church is as important to the propagation and deepening of Christian knowledge as the Bible). This is my take on why the Bible is first for so many churches, but it might be partial or skewed. Anyone want to venture an alternative theory?

As for what should be first, I suggest following the historic creeds by going Father, Son, Holy Spirit and then proceeding with other matters (sin, salvation, Bible, church, baptism, communion, Christ's return). What do you think? Maybe I should craft a Draw Nigh "What We Believe" statement and offer to sell it to churches...


  1. I would argue that without the scriptures we wouldn't know enough about Christ to believe in him or to teach others about him, so scripture would be the foundation of a ministry. I know some people walk into a church and have this warm and fuzzy emotional experience, consider that to be God, and chase that feeling for the rest of their life. But for someone who wants some solid evidence to base their belief on, who need some convincing, what arguments or truths could you give to that person without using scripture at all? I think that diminishing the importance of scripture (the original works properly translated) leads to slowly departing from the truth, limits your ability to know God, and is ultimately why we have so many "Christians" who so adamantly disagree on what to believe and how to know God.

  2. Mr. NIgh:
    Are you saying that we should put God to our faith first and then Bible?

  3. Hi Cori,

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said here, especially about people mistaking their emotional experiences for God. As an evangelical, I'm committed to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. But it stands beneath God, not over him. Just as Christ has willed to be known in the Bible, and we thus cannot know him apart from them, they cannot be understood without Christ - they are a part of his plan of salvation for humanity. Our primary concern as Christians is with God as he is revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, so I think that ought to be reflected in our faith statements.

    Another way of putting it: as I said before, we can just as truthfully say that no one would know about Christ without the existence of the church. Without it, there would be no one printing, reading, interpreting, or preaching the message of the Bible. However, I think it would be just as bad to have the first item in a church's statement of faith be the importance of the church as it would to have the Bible first. God must be our Alpha and Omega...or at least our Alpha.

  4. Jason, I'm not sure what you mean by putting God to our faith. Secondly, our faith doesn't follow a certain temporal order, like we believe in God first, then the Bible, then salvation, then creation, then the Holy Spirit, or something like that. Of course, in believing the message of Christ, we are believing the message of the Bible and in believing the message of the Bible we are believing in Christ. But does that mean that Christ and the Bible are equal? Do we worship Scripture? Did the Bible die on the cross for you?

  5. It's an interesting take on scripture's role, and I can honestly say I haven't ever thought of it in quite that frame. I think it's an astute postulation on why churches place their belief in the divinely inspired nature of scripture first, but I think the assumption that being first on the list is inextricably linked to importance is faulty. I agree it can come across this way, but very often in essays (and I expect in your forthcoming book) you provide the orientation, briefly introduce your thesis, lay out your arguments, and conclude with a fleshed out version of your thesis. In the same way as an introductory section is important to setting up the approach to the crux of the idea, a statement of belief in scripture is important to setting up the nub of the Christian faith: a relationship with Christ.

    I guess what I'm rambling toward is related to the statement you made in your response to Jason, above: our faith doesn't follow a temporal order. Belief in Christ's saving work is paramount, but inseperably linked to our acceptance of that gift through a growing relationship in Christ. The salvation offered to us is worthless without acceptance. That acceptance can't happen without faith. Our faith can't be fulfilled without knowledge and trust. Contrary to what Cori implied above, the "warm fuzzy feeling" is very important, just as the physical attraction to your spouse is important; it's simply not deep. A shallow Christian is still saved, they just don't receive the full benefit of a relationship with God.

    Sorry for rambling; I just find this particular topic fascinating.

  6. I don't think the "what we believe" statement is an ordered list? My church lists the the infallibility of scripture first. As an active member I can guarantee you that the leadership does not worship the bible over God. Moreover, I've never heard a sermon on the infallibility of scripture but I've heard many (most) sermons about our relationship with Christ.

    I propose that the order of the list has more to do with communicating to a culture that tends to hang on statements like, "whatever makes you happy is OK". If you believe that the scripture is infallible then clearly believing a doctrine simply because it feels good is not OK.

    In addition, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God." The Bible is the primary source of the word of God. When someone tells us the word of God we can confirm if it is truly His word by cross referencing it with the Bible. Thus the infallibility of the Bible is quite important.

    Just my $0.02

  7. Dave, thanks for rambling. Its fun to read. Now I'll ramble some more. I would say that if I were laying out the Christian faith in an essay, my opening orientation theologically cannot be the Bible, it must be Christ himself. Let me define the Bible this way: it is the authoritative prophetic (OT) and apostolic (NT) witness to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word and Son of God. Defined in this way there is too much that needs explaining, principally the doctrine of God, Incarnation, Trinity, revelation, and reconciliation, before we can move on to speak of the Bible as a servant and testimony to this God. Christ is our orientation. It is not just that we believe in him above all; any intelligible account of Christian belief must begin and end with him, though several other essential factors, including Scripture will have to be explained along the way.

    Daniel, your last paragraph touches on something I think current evangelical Christianity has slightly misunderstood. What is more important, the infallibility of the Bible, or the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Yes, the way Christ has willed it, we cannot know him apart from Scripture's testimony to him. But did he have to do it this way? Does Jesus need the Bible? Could he not have established his church and our faith in other ways? Does the validity of Christian faith hang ultimately on the infallibility of the Bible or on Jesus Christ? Don't let any of these questions make it sound like I think its not totally important to hold to the full authority of the Bible over the heart and mind of the believer, I'm just saying that we need to understand that authority as a function of Jesus Christ's authority. He is Lord over the church and the church's Bible. That is why, in my opinion, he ought to be #1 on any church statement of faith, though the Bible ought to be on their too.

    Another thought: does anyone find it strange that no book of the Bible opens with an argument for its own infallibility? They seem to think its fine to just start testifying to Jesus Christ, that Christ can justify and validate himself and doesn't need to be protected and proved by formal arguments for or even simple statements of biblical infallibility. What is different about statements of faith that ought to keep them from doing the same thing?

  8. That's a good point about the way the bible talks about itself, although I wonder how well the writers understood what we consider to be their divine inspiration?

    I think the hardest thing about this whole discussion is we're essentially talking about how Christ reveals himself. Both Daniel and Cori presuppose that the Bible is where that revelation occurs for everyone, which is certainly not the case, but the Bible is most definitely where that revelation anchors and matures.

    Another possible reason for listing the infallibility of the Bible first is the difficulty of discerning a church with sound doctrine from a posing church. While I'll admit that starting with a statement of belief in who Christ is would be equally revealing, our search for a church in seattle has turned up some very deceptive sites (my favorite is one that we were looking at that looked solid, and then we were reading a blurb on the pastor, and her last line was "she lives in a tree with her life partner."

    It'd be interesting to email all the churches that you found and ask them why they chose the order of their statements of belief, rather than theorize the reasons and what it indicates.

  9. I doubt any of the biblical writers had any idea that their writing would be collected with others to form anything like what the Bible is for us, but whatever it is we mean when we say their books are inspired, I think they knew they were. When Paul opens his letters with, "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ", that is a statement of the commission and authority Christ has placed in him to preach his gospel as an apostolic witness in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). This raises an important point.

    The authority of the Bible is the authority God has placed in the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament. (I know there are those who would challenge that statement - they are called fundamentalists - but they are wrong). Can anyone imagine opening our doctrinal statements with something about the prophets and/or apostles? Moses and Paul would both turn in their graves. Their authority comes from Christ, who is above all.

    If putting the Bible at the top of a statement of faith IS meant to communicate something about that church's doctrine, that is an indication to me that it has unsound doctrine in the fundamentalist direction, which may not be AS worrisome as unsoundness in the liberal direction, but its still something to worry about.

    That is a good suggestion about emailing those churches. Now I have to think of a plausible explanation for why I'm not going to do that.

  10. I emailed Rene at tlc to see what he had to say; no word yet.

    I guess that's been my feeling about the whole thing. I don't think these churches are, as a rule, trying to communicate a hierarchy or anything else with their statements; some of it may be contextual, some of it may be as a reaction against posing cults, all of it may be misguided, but I don't think it's logical or fair to jump to a conclusion about the fundamentalist nature based on a list on a web page.

    All that being said, another exercise might be to rewrite a statement of faith as you would have it, and show it to a few people and see what their reactions are. Everything a church does is (thoughtfully or not) gauged at how others will respond, so it'd be interesting to see how non-christians and christians respond to different orders.

  11. I don't think its fair to say that I'm jumping to the conclusion based on a single factor. The danger of fundamentalist thought in evangelical churches is evident in multiple ways; I just find putting the Bible at the top of a statement of faith to be a particularly revealing one.

    Let me ask you this: what is a legitimate reason for putting the Bible before God or Jesus in a statement of faith? Every reason I've seen put forth so far works just as well if the Bible comes after God, as long as it is clear and affirms the full authority and inspiration of the Bible (and so make a clear separation from liberal churches).

    I think it would be worth doing a few posts defining the words "fundamentalist" and "liberal" and drawing out how both are ways of dodging God.