Theory Thursday: Creed

No, I’m not going to talk about the amazing film directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan, although I could go on and on about how good it is, though not as well as Sally Jane Black did in her review. And thankfully, I’m not talking about the very earnest early 2000’s rock band, either. I’m talking about the most ancient of Christian statements of belief, one that may go as far back as the apostles themselves.

I’ve been worshiping in Methodist churches for the last several months, and every week we recite the Apostles’ Creed together. Every week, I affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and I mean every word:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

That’s something the Methodist churches have given me that the Baptist churches didn’t: a concise, communally-pronounced, statement of the fundamentals of belief. A creed.We all affirm that together, as one. It’s a given. It’s short, and basically lines out the very core minimum of Christianity.

Baptists don’t have a creed, and don’t want one. In theory, Baptists are characterized by their doctrinal freedom, but in my experience, there’s not much room for agreeing to disagree about anything theological. Some church communities can demand at least the appearance of assent to a wide range of doctrines up to and including which translation to use, extremely specific beliefs about the End Times, the form of baptism, requirements to take communion, and so on.

Challenging the often unspoken assumptions and narratives can lead to real pushback and hurt feelings, even though nobody is being rude or intentionally making personal attacks or trying to hurt anyone else. I’ve been in enough Sunday school classes in enough Baptist churches to know you either are in agreement, you go along to get along, or you create a lot of tension.

Why? Group unity requires some meaningful marker of identity. If we are Christians, we have to believe certain things. The Apostles’ Creed keeps that list short and lean and essential. It draws a hard line and says, “We believe this. Beyond this, we can agree to disagree.” But lacking such a clear line leads to ambiguity about how much unity of doctrine is really required to be a good (Baptist/Methodist/Evangelical/Christian/Whatever).

In my experience, the Apostle’s Creed takes a lot of the fire out of doctrinal disagreements. I’ve felt very free to speak my mind, and even when nobody else in the room agreed with me, there wasn’t the same tension and pressure felt. I honestly believe it’s at least partially because we recite that most ancient of Christian creeds together each week.

Why? Again, I think it’s because we could be sure that we shared the same core grounding, the same essential creed. We could say it, together, and all mean it, and share unity through it. And that took the anxiety out of our differences.

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