An old slogan of the Restoration Movement says, "No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible". In Campbell and Stone's day, creeds were statements of doctrinal belief by which the clergy defined who was in the church and who was not! If you wanted to belong to a certain denomination, you had to pledge allegiance to the tenets of that particular group. One of the foundational principles of the Restoration Movement was the abandonment of all creeds and confessions on the grounds that they are divisive and promote sectarianism. The early leaders of the movement believed that the unity of all Christians could only be achieved in the absence of creeds.
What is a creed?
A creed is a system of beliefs which makes one group different and distinct from all others. The word creed comes from the Latin word credo which simply means, "I believe". The formal definition from the dictionary is:
creed [kreed], n, 1. any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination. 2. any system or codification of belief or of opinion. 3. an authoritative, formulated statement of the chief articles of Christian belief, as the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed. 4. the creed. Apostles' Creed.
Formal or informal, written or unwritten, the bottom line is that a creed is simply what I (or we) believe.
Are creeds bad? Since a creed is merely a set of beliefs, in the strictest sense of the word they aren't bad. After all, we all believe something and that means individually we all have a creed. It is only natural that we would tend to gravitate toward like minded Christians forming a group of people who share a similar creed. The problem with creeds is what we do with them. When we use them as a test of orthodoxy to determine which Christians we will and won't fellowship we have become sectarian and this violates New Testament principles which command peace, patience and unity among believers.
Do the Churches of Christ have a creed?
In order for a group have a creed, all that is necessary is a general consensus of beliefs. So, yes the Churches of Christ have a creed because we undeniably have a shared system of beliefs. This isn't a problem unless we start drawing lines in the sand by declaring who is or is not a fellow Christian based on our system of doctrine (i.e. our creed).
The Churches of Christ have long had an aversion to written creeds for a good reason; written creeds historically have been extremely divisive! In spite of this, while in the process of persuading others to give up their written creeds, I'm afraid we have merely substituted a written creed for an unwritten one. There is nothing in the definition of a creed which requires a system of doctrines to be in writing for them to qualify as a creed. For decades the Churches of Christ have criticized the man-made written creeds of others while at the same time being in denial about our own man-made unwritten creeds! Our claim is that our only creed is the New Testament itself, but does this statement hold up to scrutiny?
Is the New Testament our only creed?
Each "branch" of the Churches of Christ all make the claim that the New Testament is their only creed. The following is a quote from Jay Guin's blog which really gets to the heart of this saying of ours:
"Some have said we have no creed but the Bible, meaning by this that we have no creed except our interpretation of the Bible—as though there were some profound difference between a written creed and an unwritten creed. Obviously, there is none. Rather, Campbell taught that we should replace creeds with faith in Jesus, not faith in our understanding of divorce and remarriage or our understanding of the role of women in the church."
It really is our interpretation that we are talking about isn't it? If the New Testament were really our only creed, there should be no way to tell one Church of Christ from another. Sadly, the Churches of Christ are one of the most splintered and fractured religious groups in existence. We even go so far as to question one another's motives, honesty and love of the truth when we can't agree on some doctrinal issue.
Why do we have such bitter division? Is all this division to be blamed on the rare wolf in sheep's clothing who really is a false teacher? If so, does this mean the rest of us are such dullards that we can't spot impostors and deal appropriately with them? Is it because the New Testament is a horribly flawed collection of writings? Not if we believe in their inspiration! Could it be that we have such a high opinion of our own beliefs (creeds) that we have turned them into a means of determining orthodoxy which results in drawing lines of fellowship. Hmmm, I wonder which of these it could be?
Is the New Testament our only creed? Not a chance! One only has to thumb through the listing of Churches of Christ in the United States to be bewildered by the various "alignments" of congregations. There are footnotes galore denoting all the various and sundry "kinds" of congregations of the Churches of Christ. We claim to have no creed but Christ and no book but the Bible, yet we have dozens of unwritten beliefs (creeds) to which one must subscribe in order to have fellowship with that particular wing of the church with which one chooses to become affiliated. Our actions reveal that we don't object to all creeds, it's just the written ones we oppose.
If we have no creed except for the New Testament...
- Why are the smallest matters, which were so incidental in the New Testament that neither Christ nor the Apostles elaborated on them, turned into a test of fellowship?
- Why are there "heresy hunters" among our ranks searching out any hint of non-conformity no matter how small?
- Why do we get uncomfortable when certain topics or questions are brought up in a Bible class that in and of themselves shouldn't give rise to awkwardness?
- Why do many disagree with the doctrinal status quo in our congregations but are literally afraid to even hint at alternative interpretations?
- Why are there so many splinter groups of the Churches of Christ each embracing a slightly different formula of belief while rejecting fellowship with other Churches of Christ?
- Why do we have "politically correct" speech? We mustn't call a gospel meeting a revival nor refer to Bible class as Sunday School, and so on.
You know, not much has changed since the days of Stone and Campbell. Creeds are still alive and well and we use them to decide who is in and who is out. The irony is that the very movement which was started to purge all creeds has ended up embracing them to the uttermost. It is a greater irony that even the Righteous Judge will not condemn anyone until the last day (John 12:48). If God is reserving judgment for the future, who are we to pass judgment on fellow Christians in the present?
Although ours is an unwritten creed, it is as effective and forceful as any Catholic Catechism, Methodist Discipline, Baptist Manual or any other confession that dictates the terms of fellowship for a particular religious sect.
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 1 Cor 3:1-3