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.

In Praise of Southern Baptists, Part One (Bet Some of You Never Thought I’d Use THAT Headline)

Cemetery and Church

Photo by Keichwa, Creative Commons

I grew up Southern Baptist, and am currently an active member in good standing of a Southern Baptist Church. And I criticize the denomination from time to time. But today I want to praise them for something they do well:

Funerals

I bet I know what you’re thinking:

  1. This is a morbid topic for the day after Christmas
  2. Aren’t Baptists the ones who always feel the need to have an invitation and altar call at funerals?
  3. Don’t liturgical denominations have more meaningful, beautiful rituals?

Maybe it is a little morbid, but it’s what I’m writing about today. 🙂

As for the altar calls, as crass as it seems sometimes, it makes sense given the strong belief in the need for a conversion experience. On the one hand, it can be offensive, but on the other hand many people grieve without hope, and may find hope and life transformation in an encounter with God.

It’s hard to fault a preacher for trying to provide an avenue to such an encounter. The methods are sometimes heavy-handed, and that’s worthy of criticism, but the motive and the action itself is good.

As for the service itself, I’m not sure. I haven’t been to that many liturgical funerals. But I’m really not talking about the “official funeral” where the preacher or other officiant says a few words and someone sings a song or two. I’m talking about the time before and after.

Baptists live by one maxim, if no other: nobody should have to cook and grieve at the same time.

Food pours in: casseroles, chicken, roasts, salads, vegetables, desserts, enough to last at least a week. And it keeps coming, so that when the first batch is eaten or gone stale, a second wave arrives.

The entire extended family is brought into the church and fed by the church members either before or after the funeral.  This gives them a collective time to grieve and visit.

Too often in our globalized, far-flung society, funerals are the only times we get the whole family together. That time needs to be spent together, not making arrangements for food.

This sounds trivial. But as someone who’s been on both sides of it, I can tell you it is not. It is a powerful part of the healing process, and one that I’ve taken for granted for a long time.

I used to think it was universal, but it has recently come to my attention that it is not. And that blew my mind. You mean other groups, other churches don’t do this? It seems so basic.

Don’t get me wrong: we’re certainly not the only ones that do this. The Jewish tradition of Shiva is similar, though perhaps less informal. Lots of other churches and groups do the same, with varying degrees of formality.

But not everyone. Not every church member in every church in the world or even America gets this kind of treatment. Not every church community pulls together and spends not only its money but its time to aid the grieving process.

And so I want to praise the denomination that takes care of its grieving so well and so consistently that I assumed everyone did it.