Should Our Teachers Be Required to Sign the Articles of Faith?
February 2, 1992 | Ray Pritchard
Tonight we are beginning a brand-new series of Sunday night messages. As you know, I usually take books of the Bible on a chapter-by-chapter basis on Sunday night. This series is a major departure from that pattern.
But I decided to make the change after considering three factors: 1. The rapid growth of our congregation in recent years. Although I do not have exact figures, I know that we had about 1150 people on our list when I came as pastor in August, 1989. According to our most recent survey, we have 1618 people in our congregation. That represents a very rapid expansion of our congregation in a very short period of time. 2. The fact that we haven’t studied our Articles of Faith as a congregation in many years. 3. The deep concern I feel over the appalling lack of biblical knowledge in our congregation. This is a relatively new insight for me, one that I have come to only in the last year or so. As I have occasion to chat with many people, I have continually been surprised at how little our people know about the teachings of the Bible. That goes even for some of our key leaders. Far too many people are unclear about doctrine we regard as settled, such as the security of the believer, the premillennial return of Christ, the depravity of man, salvation by faith, and even such a fundamental doctrine as the inerrancy of Scripture. Too many people either are uninstructed or wrongly instructed. And far too many people have come to a kind of “Doctrinal Neutralism” where they say, “It doesn’t really matter what you believe so long as you know Jesus.”
To Sign or Not to Sign?
With that as introduction, we come now to the issue at hand: “Should Our Teachers Be Required to Sign the Articles of Faith?” A little history will help us understand. In our archives, we have copies of three or four previous constitutions that stretch back to the earliest days of the church. In all of them (with one exception) there are very strong statements to the effect that A. All teachers should be members of the church and B. All teachers should be required to sign the Articles of Faith each year. In addition, other requirements were listed, including a pledge not to use tobacco or alcohol, a pledge not to join “oath-bound secret societies” (like the Masons), and a statement barring divorced persons (or those who had married divorced persons) from teaching in the church. If you compare the different statements, you can trace a fascinating evolution taking place across the years. In the earliest days the requirements for teachers were very strict indeed. In later constitutions some of those lifestyle requirements were modified or dropped entirely. But the requirement to sign the Articles of Faith yearly was never dropped. Although the church progressively grew more “open” on certain lifestyle issues, it never lost sight of the importance of adhering to the basic teachings in the Articles of Faith. It was always considered important that our teachers truly believe what the church believes and that they make a yearly commitment to uphold the Articles of Faith in their teaching.
But that’s not the whole story. When our constitution was revised in 1976-77, even that requirement was dropped. While I cannot account for that fact, the thinking may have been that since we already require new members to sign the Articles of Faith, why ask our teachers to re-sign what they already signed when they joined the church? While I understand that reasoning, it strikes me as a step backward. (During the 1980s we continued to require that our teachers sign the Articles of Faith–even though the constitutional requirement was dropped.) Our concern ought to be more than simply, “Did you believe this when you joined the church?” Many new members sign the Articles of Faith by faith–that is, without a full understanding of what it means. Since the office of teaching is a high and holy position, and since it carries great possibilities for good or for evil, we ought to also ask a second question before we allow anyone to teach in our congregation: Do you still believe what we believe and to you promise to uphold the Articles of Faith in your teaching and to teach nothing contrary to it? It seems to me that the church has a right–and even a sacred obligation–to ask that question of every person who occupies any regular teaching position in our congregation.
Let us then go one final step. Over the past decade our practice has been somewhat inconsistent. Sometimes we have asked our teachers to sign the Articles of Faith; sometimes we have not. To make matters worse the form we have used is at least 20 years old. It contains the Articles of Faith, along with a very-strongly worded Preamble:
In consideration of the privilege of serving in a teaching position or in an elected office, and in accordance with our Constitutional requirements, I joyfully affirm my complete agreement with and heartily subscribe without mental reservation to our Articles of Faith as a pledge of loyalty to Jesus Christ and this church. (italics added)
In many ways this is an excellent statement. It clearly says that teaching is a privilege, not a right. It furthermore says that signing the Articles of Faith is a pledge of loyalty first to Jesus Christ, and then to this particular church. Both those statements are absolutely correct. But there are some problems. As I have already noted, there is no current “constitutional requirement” regarding teachers signing the Articles of Faith–that’s how we know this form is at least 20 years old. More importantly, the statement sets a very high standard of agreement for those who would be teachers or leaders in the church:
1. They must joyfully affirm their agreement.
2. They must be in complete agreement.
3. They must heartily subscribe to the Articles of Faith.
4. They must agree without mental reservation.
There are no loopholes in that statement, and none are possible if it is taken literally. The statement is useful as showing how serious the former leaders of our church were concerning the Articles of Faith. They didn’t want someone teaching who did not believe what we believe. Nor did they want someone teaching who said, “My disagreement is in a minor area.” Nor did they want a teacher to say, “The church believes this, but let me tell you what my personal position is.” The upshot is this: Before we go too far in discussing diversity and openness, it must be clearly seen that our heritage is not in that direction–at least not as far as the Articles of Faith are concerned. As we will see, our heritage is to allow diversity in areas not addressed by the Articles of Faith, but to allow none at all in the areas covered by the Articles.
Unity in Diversity
As I have tried to understand the reasons for our current discussions concerning the proper role of the Articles of Faith, it seems to me that there are at least two factors to be considered: 1. We are a very diverse church in terms of our various personal backgrounds. That has been true since the beginning, and it is even more true today. I offer as evidence our most recent New Members Seminar. We had almost 30 people there, making it our largest class in years. When I asked them to share their religious backgrounds, the results were fascinating: 12 Baptist, 4 Methodist, 7 Catholic, 4 Presbyterian, 3 Lutheran, 1 Orthodox, 1 Mennonite, 7 Bible/Independent, 1 Christian Church, 1 Free Church, 1 Christian and Missionary Alliance, 1 Plymouth Brethren, 2 Congregational. But that’s not unusual at all. When we took the Worship Survey last October, we asked the congregation to tell us what church they grew up in. The responses were as follows: 36 Bible church, 104 Baptist, 64 non-denominational, 10 Assemblies of God, 37 Lutheran, 34 Methodist, 25 Presbyterian, 7 United Church of Christ, 74 Catholic, 3 Episcopal, 45 “Other”, and 32 said they did not attend church while they were growing up. Look at that list carefully. Think about all the different doctrinal backgrounds that are represented. We are a very diverse congregation, at least in terms of our backgrounds. No wonder we hear so many opinions expressed, no wonder there is so much discussion, no wonder some people feel confused about what this church really believes.
2. We have a very strong doctrinal base. This is true despite our diversity, and has been true from the very beginning. In 1987 we invited Church Data Systems from Denver to come in and take a very comprehensive survey of our people. When the results were tabulated, they came back to us in two huge notebooks crammed with information. They also sent back a smaller “Executive Report.” Page 7 of the Executive Report is entitled “Church Effectiveness and Ineffectiveness.” It lists 29 reasons why people choose to attend a particular church. The reasons range all the way from “Prayer” to “Pastoral Warmth” to “Family Growth” to “Denominational Attraction.” What reason do you suppose was listed by more people than any other reason? The answer surprised me. The number one reason people choose our church is “Doctrinal Agreement.” That was listed by 97% of the people. “Preaching” was in second place–listed by 89% of the people.
Think about that. What makes us unique? What makes Calvary stand out among all the churches of Oak Park? Believe it or not, it’s not our building or our staff or our many fine programs. It’s our doctrine. People come here because they like what we believe. Or to put it more strongly, people come here because we know what we believe and aren’t ashamed of saying so.
It’s true that we are a diverse congregation, but diversity is not what draws people (in spite of what some have said). We draw a diverse crowd not because we water down what we believe, but because we emphasize what we believe. In an age when most churches prefer not to stress doctrine, we have always stressed doctrine. That is one major reason why God has blessed this church so greatly.
With all of that as background, we turn now to discuss the matter from a broader perspective.
I. Observations From the Bible
At a recent meeting I attended the statement was made that Jesus never required his followers to sign anything, nor do we find anything in the New Testament about signing a doctrinal statement. The implication was obvious: If Jesus and the Apostles didn’t set such a requirement, why should we?
Such an argument is persuasive only as long as you don’t think about it very closely. The point may be readily granted that as far as we know no one was required to sign anything in the early church. But that hardly ends the discussion. The issue is not the act of signing. It’s what the act represents–a sacred commitment to uphold certain teachings of the church. When you sign the Articles of Faith as a teacher, you are saying, “I understand that these represent the agreed-upon teaching position of the church. I hereby commit myself to uphold these teachings and to teach nothing contrary to them.” I think you cannot also get away from the further implied position: “I also believe these things to be true.” If you’re not saying that, then why sign the document? Why be a teacher if you aren’t personally committed to the things you are teaching?
Very early in the life of the church there arose a need to clarify basic Christian beliefs: Acts 2:42 speaks of “the apostle’s doctrine.” Jude 3 speaks of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” II Thessalonians 2:13 speaks of “belief in the truth.” Romans 6:17 speaks of “the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.”
In Titus 1:9, Paul exhorts his young friend to appoint elders who “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” Paul’s reason is crucial: “So that he (the appointed elder) can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” That’s a crucial passage because it establishes several points:
1. There is such a thing as “the trustworthy message.”
2. That message is taught by other trustworthy teachers.
3. Sound doctrine is meant to encourage believers.
4. There are those who oppose the teaching of sound doctrine.
When these passages (and many others like them) are taken together, they establish that even in the earliest days of the church, the apostles found it necessary to stress the importance of believing sound doctrine. It must be “held,” “guarded,” and “kept” because it is “truth” which was “entrusted” to the saints of God. Think of it as a sacred deposit passed along from generation to generation. God first entrusted the truth to the apostles, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote it down so that future believers would have a reliable source from which to draw. That sacred truth must be guarded carefully because there are many people who will oppose the truth.
Beware of Wolves!
In fact, the New Testament contains many warnings against false teachers. They are called “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “savage wolves,” “false prophets,” “heretics,” and “those whose condemnation is sure.” Paul even says that “a time will come when they will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (II Timothy 4:3) Because that danger is ever with us, the church in general and each local church in particular, must continually restate its basic Christian beliefs. The churches that neglect this basic task will soon find people who want to chip away at the doctrinal heritage that has been handed down (or “entrusted”) to them.
According to many commentators, I Timothy 3:16 offers a very primitive Statement of Faith. Consider how many different doctrines are implied in this one verse: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He (Christ) appeared in a body (The Incarnation), was vindicated by the Spirit (The Resurrection, the Holy Spirit), was seen by angels (Doctrine of Angels), was preached among the nations (Evangelism), was believed on in the world (Doctrine of Salvation), was taken up in glory (Ascension of Christ).”
Hebrews 6:1-2 functions in much the same way when it lists the “elementary doctrines”: “Repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God (Doctrine of Salvation), instruction about baptisms (Water Baptism), the laying on of hands (Church Leadership, Spiritual Gifts), the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Eschatology, Heaven and Hell, the doctrine of Last Things, the Second Coming of Christ).”
In those two passages–which go back to the earliest days of the church–you already have the basic doctrines of the faith laid out in seed form. In fact, almost everything in our Articles of Faith can be seen in seed form in these two passages.
Let me summarize. Anyone who suggests that the first Christians weren’t concerned about correct doctrine simply hasn’t read the New Testament. Over and over again believers are commended for “keeping” the faith and for “guarding” the truth. The apostles repeatedly warn against false teachers who will “creep in unawares” to lead the saints astray. We furthermore see that the New Testament itself contains the earliest forms of a Statement of Faith.
II. Observations From Church History
But eventually the apostles died, and after a generation, all those who knew the apostles died. As the generations rolled on, there arose new challenges to the Christian faith–attacks on the Deity of Jesus, attacks on the canon of Scripture, attacks on the doctrine of the Trinity. From one point of view, the first 450 years of the church is a story of missionary expansion and continual doctrinal clarification. Over time, the church fathers began to write down their basic beliefs. These written statements were called “creeds,” from the Latin credo, which means “I believe.” Three of them have survived across the centuries and are still in use today: The Apostles’ Creed, the Nicean Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.
Such creeds were probably first used as baptismal formulas, where the candidate would be asked to publicly repeat the creed before being baptized. Later the creeds were used for the instruction of children and new converts. Finally, the creeds expressed the common Christian faith in answer to a bewildering variety of heresies that were rampant in the first centuries of the church.
When you come to the Reformation, you discover that all the major leaders felt it important to state their beliefs in a succinct fashion. They did this not only to help their followers, but also to distinguish their beliefs from those they opposed. Some examples would be the “Sixty-Seven Articles of Zurich” (1523), Martin Luther’s “Small Catechism” (1529), the “Augsburg Confession” (1530), the “Heidelburg Catechism” (1563), “Second Helvetic Confession” (1577), and several generations later, the “Westminster Confession of Faith” (1644). Mark Noll has a helpful word about the purpose of these Reformation confessions of faith:
The great outpouring of confessions in the first century and a half of Protestantism performed a multitude of functions. Authoritative statements of belief enshrined the new ideas of the theologians, but in forms that could also provide regular instruction for the common faithful. They lifted a standard around which a local community could rally and which could make plain the differences with opponents. They made possible a regathering of belief and practice in the interests of unity, even as they established a norm for disciplining the erring. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 263)
In the centuries since the Reformation, Protestants have never stopped writing confessions of faith. Every denomination has its own statement and so do most local churches. There is a straight line that starts in the New Testament, runs through the Apostles’ Creed, continues through the Reformation confessions, right on down to our Articles of Faith. We are standing in a great line of Christian tradition when we express in written form those things we truly believe.
While there are always dangers in writing down your doctrine, Christians across the centuries have felt that the advantages far outweighed the dangers. Geoffrey Bromiley summarizes the case for a written statement of faith:
The dangers of creed-making are obvious. Creeds can become formal, complex, and abstract. They can be almost illimitably expanded. They can be superimposed on Scripture. Properly handled, however, they facilitate public confession, form a succinct basis of teaching, safeguard pure doctrine, and constitute an appropriate focus for the church’s fellowship in faith. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 284)
Those words strike me as both wise and convincing. They express what our founders were getting at when they wrote our Articles of Faith.
III. Observations From Our Own History
That point brings our discussion much closer to home. From the New Testament to the early church to the Reformation, we have finally arrived at Calvary Memorial Church. But we’re not yet in 1992. Let’s roll back the clock 77 years, back to February 15, 1915. What do we learn from studying our own history? Our 75th Anniversary History tells us how the church began:
On Monday, February 15, 1915, a company of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ met at the home of Mr. Walter Bretall, 6348 W. Chicago Avenue, Oak Park, Ill. This company was composed of members of five local churches of different denominations, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Lutheran. The purpose for which this meeting was called was that a thorough discussion might take place concerning the feasibility of a new non-denominational church organization. (p. 5)
We glean many helpful things from this statement, especially that our congregation from the very first was made up of people from various denominational backgrounds. We also learn that they wanted a “non-denominational” church. In this context, those words mean that they wanted an independent church that would be free from all denominational control. Specifically, they wanted to establish a conservative, Bible-believing church to counteract the prevailing liberalism of the mainline churches here in Oak Park.
By the fourth meeting they began drawing up in the Articles of Faith. At the sixth meeting they adopted the “Declaration of Belief” of the Niagara Bible Conference. Skipping now to 1916, we find a further instructive statement:
The Oak Park Bible Conference sent information to a teacher named A.C. Gaebelein about some of the false teaching going forth in our community, and at the same time extending an invitation from the Elders to supply our pulpit any time he would be able to do so. When the letter was received from him stating that he might be able to give us a week, it was decided to make the meetings interdenominational. (p. 7)
Note two points: Even in our earliest days, this church was deeply concerned about “false teaching going forth in our community.” When we were still a toddler church, our founders felt a sacred obligation to not only proclaim what they believed but also to answer false doctrine being spread in the Oak Park area. Second, they wanted their meetings to be “interdenominational,” meaning that they welcomed believers from many churches to attend these special services.
Two Useful Words
Those two words are helpful in thinking about Calvary: By our history we are Non-denominational. We have remained independent all these years because we don’t want some denomination telling us what we have to believe. Specifically, we don’t want any association with liberalism on an organizational level. By our practice we are interdenominational. That means we have always welcomed people from many backgrounds to worship with us.
But … and this is a big But … we have never been willing to compromise or water down or lessen our Articles of Faith in order to allow more people to come to our church.
Most people probably don’t realize that we have had three different Articles of Faith in our history. In 1915 we adopted the Niagara Bible Conference “Declaration of Belief.” In 1919 we revised the Articles of Faith to bring them into line with the Articles of Faith of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago. Sometime in the 1950s we revised them again. That revision has lasted until the present day.
The 1975 Clarification
In 1975 the church added a clarification to Point C–The Holy Spirit. The clarification was added by vote of the congregation as a means of resolving a fierce controversy over the speaking in tongues. Certain people had come into the church who advocated speaking in tongues as the basic mark of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That teaching eventually became so devisive that the church, under the leadership of Dr. Lloyd Perry, adopted a four paragraph statement of clarification on April 21, 1975. That statement essentially ended the controversy, with the result that a small group of people who preferred to openly practice speaking in tongues eventually left the church.
Without going into further details, I would like to quote paragraph three of that clarification because it clearly demonstrates how this church has historically understood the Articles of Faith:
It has become more and more apparent that we need to clarify our position on what we believe the Bible teaches regarding the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues. This is particularly important for clarification as our church leaders and teachers are expected to commit themselves to the beliefs of our church and support our church’s basis for fellowship. (Underlining mine)
This helps us see clearly what role the Articles of Faith should play in our church life. They tell us what we believe and therefore by implication what we don’t believe. They serve as a guide for our leaders and teachers to follow. We have always expected our teachers and leaders to be committed to what we believe. And finally, the Articles of Faith form the church’s basis of fellowship.
That’s why the Articles of Faith are so crucial. They tell us who we are and what we believe. They form the core around which we have agreed to fellowship together. They set a direction for us to follow. They set the standard by which all our teaching will be judged. And when a new teaching gains a foothold in the congregation, the Articles of Faith may be clarified so that the church will not remain mired in controversy forever.
A glance at the Articles of Faith is very revealing. Consider the following:
Words/Phrases that Describe the Articles of Faith
5. Strong in 3 Key Areas–Holy Spirit,
Jesus Christ, Salvation
It seems to me that our Articles of Faith are not really compatible with the notion that we are an interdenominational church. I say that even though the founders of the church felt comfortable using that word. When they used it, they simply meant that they welcomed people from many churches to attend Calvary. Today interdenominational (to some people, at least) has come to mean something very different. A chart will help summarize the difference:
Is Calvary an Interdenominational Church?
Yes! = If you mean, “We welcome people from many different backgrounds.”
No! = If you mean “Doctrine doesn’t matter” or “We won’t teach controversial doctrines.”
My point here is not to haggle over words. I don’t mind calling Calvary an interdenominational church so long as that is not taken to mean that we dispense with our doctrinal distinctives in order to reach more people or in order not to offend people who come from some other church background. The founders of this church were never willing to do that. In point of fact, our Statement of Faith contains at least two doctrines that are not interdenominational:
1. Eternal Security
2. The Premillennial Return of Christ
Since these doctrines have been present in our Articles of Faith from the beginning, I presume they were considered fundamental, foundational, and therefore non-negotiable.
Here is a better way of looking at things:
Calvary is a Bible Church
1. We were once called Madison Street Bible Church
2. We have a detailed statement of faith like most
Bible churches have.
3. Like most Bible churches, we have our roots in the
That point is useful because it positions us among all the other churches of our area. Although we are not part of any formal organization, our closest heritage is with the thousands of independent Bible churches both here in Chicago and in many places around the country. We are a Bible church by history, by doctrine and by practice. The fact that we don’t have the word “Bible” in our title doesn’t change that fact.
IV. Problems in Our Current System
By the phrase “our current system,” I refer to the problem of having people sign the Articles of Faith, especially with the very stringent Preamble I quoted earlier. Let me be plain. There are no problems with our Articles of Faith. They are excellent just the way they stand. Any clarification we do in the new constitution is only that–wording changes to make the meaning crystal-clear. If we didn’t make those wording changes, the Articles would be perfectly sufficient as they stand to take us into the next century.
But there are some difficulties with our system of having new members and prospective teachers sign the Articles of Faith:
1. Some have signed with no understanding. That happens a lot with new members. Unfortunately, we have been using the same form (with the same Preamble) for New Members that we use for Teachers. That means we’ve been asking new members to affirm everything our statement says without mental reservation. That, of course, is pure fiction. Most of our people have signed without having a clear idea of what the statement really means. As my friend Art DeKruyter told me when I talked to him about this in St. Petersburg: “Ray, you can’t turn laypeople into mini-theologians and you shouldn’t try.” In order to affirm without mental reservation, you have to first clearly understand every part of the Articles of Faith. Few people will have the time or interest to go into the statement in such great detail. And in my opinion, we shouldn’t expect them to do so.
2. Some have signed and circled disagreements. While I can certainly appreciate the integrity of those who know their convictions well enough to know where they disagree and are honest enough to point those disagreements out, to sign without mental reservation while circling areas of disagreement defeats the whole purpose of signing in the first place. That clearly is not what the framers of the Preamble had in mind.
3. Some have signed while privately disagreeing but not saying so. While not wishing to impugn anyone’s motives, if you sign with a mental asterisk by certain statements, you have not really signed the Articles of Faith of Calvary Memorial Church. You have signed your own personally edited version while appearing to sign the real thing. That obviously creates enormous confusion and endangers the integrity of our doctrinal statement.
4. Some non-members–who have never signed the Articles of Faith–are allowed to hold regular teaching positions. In my opinion, this is a major mistake which must be corrected. Non-members (i.e. Regular Attenders) may serve in many ways at Calvary–ushers, choir members, helping in the nursery, helping with Crossroads, serving in the Food Pantry, helping with Project Angel Tree, driving the bus, helping with International Friends, and so on. But non-members should not be allowed in regular teaching positions. If you value your Articles of Faith, it makes no sense to allow non-members to teach. Although we love and respect our brothers and sisters who (for various good reasons) have not yet joined the church, we must say the truth. Non-members have not committed themselves to be a part of our congregation; they have not said they believe what we believe; they have not promised to teach what we teach; they have not bound themselves to our Church Covenant; they are not answerable to the leaders of the church. To quote Art DeKruyter again: “You can’t discipline non-members.” Why? Because you can’t hold people accountable to keep a commitment they never made in the first place. Having non-members teach on a regular, on-going basis is a major mistake which must be corrected immediately. (This does not prevent inviting non-members and guest speakers to teach on a limited, occasional or special-event basis such as a retreat or one-day seminar. A. C. Gaebelein was not a member when he spoke here in 1916. But he was only speaking for a one-week event. That’s quite different from a long-term, on-going teaching assignment in which the doctrinal views of the teacher will eventually be revealed in great detail.)
5. Some leaders have said, “This is not important.” That is quite simply wrong. What you believe is very important. What the church believes is important. And of paramount importance is what our teachers believe. Specifically, do they believe the Articles of Faith? The church has a vital interest in knowing the answer to that question. Everything we know about our own history suggests that what we believe–and especially what our teachers believe–has always been a critical issue.
Because of these problems we now face at least a serious issue in the life of the church: A tendency toward doctrinal neutralism. Once you start saying doctrine doesn’t matter, you soon become neutral about the things you once believed fervently. I have heard it put this way concerning our belief in Eternal Security. “Pastor Ray, I know what our Articles of Faith say. But many good scholars disagree. How can we be so sure if other good Christians disagree with us?” It’s even been said this way: “We have people here at Calvary who don’t believe in Eternal Security. If we start emphasizing that, they will probably leave.”
Let me say frankly that I am not deeply moved by that type of argument. Do the people who say such things think that nobody disagreed with Eternal Security when this church was founded? There were scholars who disagreed 77 years ago. There are scholars who disagree today. So what? Either you believe in Eternal Security or you don’t. This church believes in it notwithstanding the fact that some good Christians see the matter differently.
I am greatly disturbed by a modern tendency to whittle all the controversial edges off our Articles of Faith. So what if some Christians disagree? Would you go to a Baptist church and ask them not to baptize by immersion because the Methodists disagree? Would you ask the Presbyterians not to teach Calvinism because the Nazarenes disagree? Would you ask the Charismatics not to speak in tongues because the Lutherans disagree? Would you ask the Episcopalians not to use a liturgy because the Plymouth Brethren disagree? Of course not.
The principle I am enunciating here is true for any Christian group. Whatever you believe, go ahead and say so. Hold on to it. Proclaim it, teach it, live it, believe it. If some people disagree, that’s their problem. Giving up doctrinal distinctives is no way to promote Christian unity.
Let me clarify. Our history at Calvary has always been that we are very willing to support the wider cause of Christ in the world. For many years we have been a member of the National Association of Evangelicals–a multi-denominational organization representing many of the groups I mentioned above. Over the years we have thrown our support behind many interdenominational efforts–including the Billy Graham Crusade at McCormick Place. We have gladly cooperated with a very broad range of evangelical efforts–including many good brothers and sisters who for doctrinal reasons could not sign our Articles of Faith. That has not stopped us from cooperating with them. Nor will it stop us in the future.
But that does not mean we will give up our own doctrinal distinctives. Within this local assembly there are certain doctrines we hold as precious–one being Eternal Security, another being the Premillennial Return of Christ. These doctrines are not “up for grabs.” We intend to believe them, to teach them, to stand up for them.
But what about the argument that people will leave if we stress our distinctives? That’s already happened in our past, and it was a good thing when it did. If people feel so passionately about some disagreement in doctrine, the solution is not to ask us to water down the Articles of Faith. The solution is for those who disagree passionately to find a church more in agreement with their own beliefs. Or to remain at Calvary while forfeiting the privilege of teaching or hold an elected office.
A Purely Personal Word
Perhaps I should add a word about my own personal experience. In all my years I never attended a church where I was asked to sign anything. Not during my growing up years. Not during my college days or my seminary days. Not in the two churches I pastored before this one. Signing a Statement of Faith is a new idea to me. As a matter of fact, when the Pulpit Committee met with me, they didn’t’ quiz me very much about the Articles of Faith. No doubt, they knew from my background that I would be in essential agreement with it. As a matter of fact, it occurred to me a few days ago that I probably have never signed it myself. According to our practice, the Senior Pastor and his wife become members by virtue of their call to the church. So I never formally went through the process of actually signing anything.
I say that so you will know that the idea of signing the Articles of Faith did not come from me. It comes from the long history and tradition of this church–not from me personally. And as a matter of fact, I don’t have any strong feeling about the “act” of signing anything because it’s possible to physically sign something you don’t believe it. But the principle behind the requirement makes perfect sense: Each local church has a right to insure that whatever it believes is actually being taught by its teachers. Signing, therefore, is a good way to demonstrate a commitment to the doctrinal position of the church.
V. Positive Uses of the Articles of Faith
Although I have alluded to this earlier, let me list three positive uses of the Articles of Faith.
1. It clearly identifies what we believe.
2. It distinguishes us from other churches.
3. It sets forth the teaching position of the church. This point deserves some elaboration because I regard it as the key point. The phrase “teaching position” is very key. A “teaching position” means “We will teach these things and we will teach nothing contrary to these things.” It tells you what to expect when you come to church. It tells parents what their children will be taught. It guides the elders as they evaluate the pastor’s preaching. It makes clear to everyone what will be taught in Sunday School, in the youth ministry, in small groups, and in every other officially-sponsored church setting. The Articles of Faith set the basic parameters for the teachers of the church. They know what is expected of them as far as doctrinal fidelity is concerned.
Someone recently asked a very good question in this regard. “How would we respond if a teacher wanted to present the three major views of the Second Coming? Would it be all right to present all three views and have a time of vigorous discussion and debate?” Absolutely. But it would not be okay to teach all three views in such a way as to imply that the church had no view in this area. We have a view! We’re not agnostic about the Second Coming of Christ. Furthermore, the teacher has an obligation to teach the views of this church.
Let me be forthright on this point. If what we believe is true, then we have nothing to fear from a free and unfettered debate. If Eternal Security is true, then it can withstand the most withering cross-examination. But we do not want a teacher to present different views and then leave the class hanging in the air. That only confuses people.
Remember, there is a huge difference between teaching methods (such as debate, open forum, Q & A, etc,) and what is actually taught. There is no controversy over whether other contrary views should be brought into the classroom. In many cases (especially with young adults) a vigorous debate over doctrine is the best way to teach. No one objects to that. We want our people to think for themselves. But we do not want the teacher to be so “open” in his teaching that he leaves the impression that this congregation has no settled views of doctrine. That would be wrong and very misleading.
What About Spiritual Freedom?
But that raises another question, doesn’t it? What about the issue of spiritual freedom? Aren’t we stifling people by insisting on the Articles of Faith? No, not at all. The key thing to remember is that the Articles do not address every possible spiritual and biblical question. They basically touch 12 key areas. Many doctrines and beliefs are not addressed. In those areas, teachers have freedom to present their own views. Perhaps a chart will clarify the matter:
The Articles of Faith and Spiritual Freedom
Sample Doctrines Covered and Not Covered
Issues Covered by Articles Issues Not Covered
Deity of Christ Timing of Rapture
Salvation by Faith Age of Earth
Premillennialism War vs. Pacifism
Baptism Lordship Salvation
1. The Articles of Faith settle many issues.
2. The Articles of Faith leave other issues open for discussion.
The Articles of Faith were never meant to cover every possible area of controversy or Christian belief. No statement could do that. They are meant to settle some key issues so we won’t be forever discussing them over and over again. Other issues are left deliberately unaddressed, which means that teachers may feel free to present their own convictions in those areas.
A Cautionary Note
Having said that, we must make clear that the Articles of Faith do not equal the Bible. We must say with the Puritans that “God has yet more light to break forth from his Word.” We ought to hold our convictions with firmness without raising them to the level of Scripture itself. Again, a chart may help make this clear:
The Bible and the Articles of Faith
1. The Articles of Faith represent our best understanding of what the Bible teaches.
2. The Bible is inerrant; the Articles of Faith are not.
3. The Articles of Faith may be amended or revised as our understanding of the Bible grows or in response to new challenges facing the church.
4. Since the Articles of Faith represent our heritage, they
should be taken seriously as the Teaching Position of our church.
VII. A Way Out of the Current Morass
If you have read this far, I am sure you are ready for a conclusion! So am I. Whatever we do must meet four requirements:
1. It must recognize different levels of spiritual maturity.
2. It must allow for legitimate differences of opinion.
3. It must recognize increasing levels of obligation.
4. It must safeguard what Calvary regards as essential doctrine.
The place to begin is by stating what we want from our teachers:
What We Want From Our Teachers
Regarding the Articles of Faith
1. Teachers who will teach from the Articles of Faith
and not in opposition to it.
2. Teachers who will not stir up controversy in areas
we regard as settled.
I am almost embarrassed to put the matter that way because it seems so obvious and elementary to me. But I realize that some may think I am trying to stifle debate by saying that we don’t want teachers to stir up controversy in areas we regard as settled. Not true! No one loves a good hot theological debate more than I do. After all, that’s basically all I did during the four years of my seminary career. You argue about every doctrine from every possible point of view–your own, your opponent’s view, the view you used to hold, the view you never held, the view you’re going to hold tomorrow, ad infinitum. Theological argumentation has its place–and that place is usually in a seminary. In the local church we are so overwhelmed with hurting people, broken marriages, unhappy children, lonely adults, and dysfunctional families, that it doesn’t make much sense to spend time arguing about settled doctrine.
To matter my point clear, although I passionately believe in eternal security, if I were not a pastor and if I were attending a church (as a layman) that did not believe in eternal security, I would not talk about that subject. Why raise controversy over what they regard as a settled issue? If I got too uncomfortable, I might have to leave, but if not, I certainly wouldn’t be a devisive force. Time is short, people are hurting, Jesus is coming, we don’t have time to argue. I would rather see a church that believes you could possibly lose your salvation settle that issue and then get on about the task of winning people for Christ. After all, if what we believe is true, their people are eternally secure whether they believe it or not!
The Articles of Faith settle some key issues so that we don’t have to spend precious time re-settling issues over and over again–time that could be better spent helping people in Jesus’ name.
A Five-Tiered Approach
My ultimate solution is based on two biblical principles: First, The higher you go in leadership, the greater your personal responsibility. James 3:1 seems to say this directly: “ Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” That’s a very solemn statement. All believers will be judged, but teachers face a stricter judgment. Why? Because they occupy such a powerful position in the local church. They either lead people toward God or they lead them astray. Teachers literally hold the souls of their students in their own hands. What an awesome responsibility! What an incomparable privilege!
Put simply: We can expect more from teachers than we can from others because of their greater potential for good or for evil. Our church will never be stronger than its teachers. When they are strong, our church will grow strong. When they are weak, the church will be weak. This principle is put another way in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” This applies to the highest level of leadership: To the elders of the church and to the pastors of the church, especially to the Senior Pastor. The top leaders of any church have a fearsome obligation: To someday answer for the souls of those under their care. They are even above the teachers in their obligation to God and to the congregation. There are levels of increasing responsibility even among the leaders of the church.
The second principle comes from Romans 14:1: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” In the local church we should strive to accept each other even though we will not always agree with each other. That’s just another way of saying God didn’t stamp his people out of a cookie cutter. Within every local church there will be many different points of view on many different issues. We are called by God to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ by accepting each other even when we don’t agree.
How does this apply to our discussion about the Articles of Faith? The higher you rise in leadership, the greater your obligation to uphold the Articles of Faith. Let’s picture the local church as a pyramid, with regular attenders at the bottom and the Senior Pastor at the top, with various levels of leadership in between. What responsibility does each level have? A chart may help make this clear:
The Higher You Go, The More You Must know
Romans 14:1; James 3:1
Level Five–The Senior Pastor
Level Four–Elders and Pastoral Staff
Level Three–Teachers and Deacons
Level One–Regular Attenders
While this chart is only a proposal (since we do not currently have elders or deacons), it does illustrate the general principle: The Higher You Go, the More You Must Know. Let’s take the pyramid from the bottom up with a view to answering the question, “What do we require of people on this level?”
Level One–Regular Attenders. The answer is simple. We require nothing. Nothing at all. You don’t have to believe anything at all to be a regular attender. You don’t have to sign anything and you don’t have to agree to anything. You can be a Buddhist, a Hindu, an atheist, a polygamist, or a follower of some bizarre religion invented by some guy named Claude over in France. It doesn’t matter. We welcome the whole world to our services. You can come, pray, sing, and join in as much as you like. And it doesn’t matter what you believe.
Level Two–Members. Here is where we make the first big jump in commitment levels. Regular attenders aren’t making any commitment; members are making a big commitment. As I see it, those who wish to become members must make four commitments: First, they must be born again. Is there clear evidence that this person is born again through faith in Jesus Christ? That’s non-negotiable. We want a regenerated church. We don’t want “social” Christians or “pretend” Christians. We want the real thing. So at this level we probe, we ask them to write out their testimony, we ask for clear and convincing evidence that they truly know Jesus Christ. Second, they must truly be committed to this church. Do they really want to join this church? That involves coming to a membership seminar, committing themselves to our form of government, to our constitution, to our church goals, and to our leadership. That involves a promise to get involved financially and personally in the work of the Lord at Calvary. Third, they must accept our Church Covenant. Are they willing to join us in living according to the Church Covenant? This involves a number of lifestyle issues.
Fourth, they must accept the Articles of Faith as the Teaching Position of the church. Are they willing to acknowledge the Articles of Faith as our common understanding of Scripture? This involves submitting themselves to the Articles of Faith as the standard by which all teaching–including any they themselves may do–will be judged.
It’s important that we be perfectly clear at this point. Very few new members will truly understand all that is contained in the Articles of Faith. Just yesterday a friend of mine (who is probably a bit obsessive) said he had personally counted 67 different theological teachings in the Articles of Faith. Almost nobody will fully comprehend all 67 teachings. Many will find themselves unsure about some and perhaps even disagreeing with the wording of others. Is it fair to ask new members to agree without mental reservation to doctrine they do not fully understand? No, it’s not.
My point of view is somewhat different. I think we ought to take in new members at “ground level zero” doctrinally. They don’t have to know anything except that Jesus Christ is their Savior. Nothing else. Zero. Zip. Nada. Nothing at all. They don’t need to be able to spell “Premillennial” or define “Justification” or explain the Trinity. To quote Art DeKruyter again, we shouldn’t try to turn laypeople into “mini-theologians.”
So exactly what do we want from new members regarding the Articles of Faith? An acknowledgement that they recognize that the Articles of Faith represent the agreed-upon Teaching Position of the church and that they will submit themselves to teaching based upon the Articles of Faith, and will themselves teach nothing contrary to it. That’s a strong statement, but it’s not as strong as asking for hearty agreement without mental reservation. As far as I’m concerned, new members can make whatever mental reservations they want as long as they openly submit themselves to the Articles of Faith as the non-negotiable Teaching Position of the Church. My point is, even a new believer at “ground level zero” can sign that statement. You don’t have to be a mini-theologian to agree to that. In effect, people would be saying, “While there are many parts of these Articles that I do not understand, and there may be some points where I disagree, I heartily agree that these Articles should be the Teaching Position of the church and I gladly submit myself to teaching based upon these Articles. And I furthermore promise not to knowingly teach anything contrary to them.”
This protects the Articles of Faith while it also protects the integrity of each individual member. It recognizes that some people will never have a strong grasp of the Articles of Faith, and it also allows members to have some differences of opinion while still remaining in the congregation. And from the church’s point of view, it also provides a legitimate ground for church discipline should any member begin to teach contrary to the Articles of Faith since they have already agreed not to do that.
Level Three–Teachers and Deacons. At this point James 3:1 comes into play. A higher standard must be applied. Those who teach (and those who would lead) must pass a stricter examination. I would suggest a three-part test: First, all regular teachers and leaders must be members of the church. Since I have already discussed this, I will not repeat those arguments, but will only add that this should be a non-negotiable point that needs to be added to the new constitution. Second, there must be major agreement with the major points of each individual Article of Faith. Remember, the Articles come in 12 parts, but then break down in 67 specific areas. We want our teachers to have a basic understanding of what we believe and why we believe it. We furthermore want basic agreement on the basic thrust of each Article.
But let’s be even more discriminating than that. All doctrine is not equal. We’re not saying that the Church starting on the Day of Pentecost is equal in importance to the Deity of Christ. Nor do we believe that the restoration of Israel is equal to justification by faith. Note carefully what I am saying. We believe all of it–every word, every line, every jot and tittle, and every Scripture. Every part is true–we do affirm that. But not every part is equally crucial in forming the doctrinal foundation of the church. Furthermore, all teaching positions are not equal. Some are more critical and strategic than others. An elective on marriage may not be as strategic as being the long-term teacher of the Friendship Class. Substituting in the second grade class may not be as critical as being a Force Group leader for the high school group. These are issues we will discuss in the coming months.
To go a step further, I suggest that being a coordinator or a department leader represents a higher level of responsibility. I think that the men and women who fill those crucial positions must have a very high level of understanding of and commitment to the Articles of Faith. Since they are directly involved in recruiting and placing teachers in key positions, they must be deeply committed to the Articles of Faith. If they are not, how can they insure that the Teaching Position of the church is being taken seriously in all our classes?
What about the question of signing the Articles of Faith on a yearly basis? It’s not a bad idea, but I think we can do something better. Why not ask all our teachers to sign a Teacher’s Covenant each year? This document would be much broader and would include other things beside believing the Articles of Faith. I suggest signing it each year, along with a public ceremony of commitment during a Sunday morning service. A basic outline of such a covenant is found in the following chart.
The Teacher’s Covenant
Recognizing my holy calling as a teacher of God’s Word, and in light of the solemn responsibility committed to me, I do hereby heartily agree and fully commit myself to the following things:
1. To grow in my walk with God through private times of prayer and Bible study.
2. To seek to live an exemplary life, knowing that many people will follow my example.
3. To faithfully prepare for each class session.
4. To pray for my students weekly.
5. To demonstrative a cooperative spirit toward the other teachers in my department.
6. To uphold the Articles of Faith of Calvary Memorial Church and teach nothing contrary to them.
Such an approach has an advantage over our present system in that it gives a wider focus to the character qualities good teachers should exhibit. After all, there are some teachers who truly believe our Articles of Faith, yet are very poor teachers because they don’t prepare or because they don’t display a cooperative spirit. We want teachers who will commit to upholding the Articles of Faith and who will also manifest other important qualities.
In some cases, a teacher may have a disagreement with one or more of the 67 points of the Articles of Faith. But if they sign this covenant, they are agreeing to uphold all 67 points. They can’t just say, “Well, I won’t teach that because I don’t believe it” and they certainly can’t say “The church believe this but I don’t.” By following this pattern, people with truly significant disagreements will not sign the Teacher’s Covenant. They won’t be able in good conscience to sign it. Nor should they.
Level Four–Elders and Pastoral Staff. At this level, the responsibility is profound. These are the people who serve as the top leaders of the church. For them, there can be no fudging whatsoever. After all, who else will guard the church’s doctrine if the elders and pastors don’t? Therefore, I recommend that the level of commitment to the Articles of Faith should be very high indeed for elders and members of the pastoral staff. They should sign the Articles of Faith in hearty agreement, joyfully affirming, without mental reservation, and they should do it at the beginning of each new church year. And the church should be informed that their elders and pastors have done so. I suggest that the signing be a public ceremony during a Sunday morning service in order to give our people confidence that their top leaders do indeed believe everything we say we believe.
(As a sidelight, although our church does not currently have elders and deacons, I am personally committed to leading our church in that direction. I believe we will be a much stronger congregation when we more closely follow the biblical pattern of leadership.)
Level Five–The Senior Pastor. Here we come to the top level of teaching authority in the local church. Whoever occupies this position must be a man of unquestioned integrity, deep knowledge of the Scriptures, and total commitment to the Articles of Faith. Since he is the chief teacher in the congregation, he must know exactly what the church believes and be able to defend it publicly and privately. Since he occupies the sacred pulpit week by week, his teaching will affect more people than anyone else. Therefore, the church must find a man who truly believes what the church believes. Let future Pulpit Committees take notice. This is no small task.
VIII. Answering the Question
Should our teachers be required to sign the Articles of Faith? My answer is Yes and No. No, because people can sign without understanding or without any commitment to uphold what we believe. Yes, because I think teachers should make a serious commitment to uphold what we truly believe. The act of signing is not crucial to me; what the signing represents is all -important. Nevertheless, signing the Articles does represent a serious commitment by our teachers which we should not abandon.
The Bottom Line
Because teaching is a vital ministry on which the health of the local church depends, we have an obligation to insure that our teachers truly believe the Articles of Faith and that they teach nothing contrary to it.
Seven Summary Statements Concerning the Articles of Faith
1. We truly believe that the Bible teaches these things.
2. We truly believe that the Articles of Faith should be the basis for our teaching.
3. We hold the Articles of Faith as our Teaching Position even while we recognize that sincere Christians may differ with us on some points.
4. In insisting on the Articles of Faith, we do not claim to have a perfect understanding of Scripture nor do we presume to pass judgment over other Christian who view some issues differently.
5. Nevertheless, we unashamedly say, “We believe these things are true and should be taught in this particular congregation.”
6. Therefore, we humbly submit ourselves to these Articles of Faith and we strongly resist any attempts to materially alter them, water them down or do anything that casts doubt on their truthfulness.
7. We believe these things are both true and important and therefore should remain the Teaching Position of this church.