by Cecil Hook
Throughout my career as a preacher, I have denounced denominational creeds. I could always explain happily, “We have no creed but Christ; when Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, he confessed the only creed upon which the church is built. That is the one foundation of the church. We ask a penitent sinner no question other than that which was asked of the Ethiopian treasurer.”
That is good and true and right. Christ is the foundation of our relationship with God and His people. The church is built upon the rock/fact that Jesus is the Christ. However, let that convert come out of the water of baptism and the creed that I would impose upon him was suddenly expanded to include all my interpretations and convictions about the teachings in the New Testament scriptures. By giving him some time to mature to my doctrinal positions, I could tolerate his disagreement on some things, but if he continued to go against my real doctrinal hang-ups, my coolness toward him might discourage him to the point that he would leave the fellowship. Then I would be off the hook and could use him as an example of apostasy because of error, concluding that he was never really converted to the Church of Christ anyway. But in reality he was simply refusing to accept my sectarian creed and stance.
Does not the preceding speak of us generally?
A person’s fellowship and salvation in Christ is accomplished through his becoming “obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). One must believe the message about Christ (Mark 16:15f). Jesus is the Christ becomes his confessed creed (Acts 8:37). That belief in Jesus must cause one to determine to abandon sin and do His will (Acts 2:38). In response to his faith and in compliance with his repentance, one must be baptized. At this point one is saved, free from guilt, in Christ, a newborn creature, and added to the one body which is the church.
That person is now in fellowship with Christ and with every other person who has followed that procedure and has not forfeited his fellowship later. This is the unity which is accomplished by the Spirit: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13).
In reaching this state that person was asked no question except, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God?” No inquiry was made of his convictions or practices relating to eating meats, the use of God’s name as a by-word, present-day demon possession and exorcism, praying for healing, killing in self-defense, midweek communion, or any other of the many issues listed in Chapter One which may relate to his faithful practice of the Christian life. Do the convictions and practices of such issues matter? Some, like days and meats (Romans 14) and circumcision (Gal. 5:6), do not. Some may be sinful, though their status is debated by sincere and studious disciples. Different convictions on debatable issues can be held without disrupting fellowship.
Such issues were not the basis on which the convert was saved or brought into fellowship.
Not the Creed
In the cases of conversion narrated in Acts, none of the prospects was given a course of indoctrination previous to baptism into Christ. So far as we know, none of the people were told before baptism that they would be made part of the church with whom they would be expected to assemble, give, commune, and sing. In fact, though baptism was required of each, no lesson on the need and meaning of baptism was explained to them. The only explanation of the meaning of baptism was made much later to disciples, not to prospects (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:11-14). Beliefs about these things were not a part of the creed.
From the time of being initiated into the one body through baptism forward, the converts will differ in knowledge, understanding, and convictions. Although they will continue to grow toward maturity, none will ever know and understand all. The most mature will still disagree on various issues such as those listed in Chapter One.
Such differences are no serious problem except for the legalist, who must think he is right in all points in order to live up to his own creed. There was great difference of conviction over circumcision in the early church; however, circumcision was neither a plus nor a minus unless it hindered their faithful, loving work (Gal. 5:6).
Many times I have stressed that, when two people disagree on something, one may be right and the other wrong, or they may both be wrong, but both certainly cannot be right. But how wrong I was! Legally, both could not be right. I was a legalist. Paul said that believers may disagree on meats and days and both be right for God welcomes and upholds both and makes both to stand (Rom. 14:1-4).
Paul calls upon disagreeing parties to accept and respect each other. The meat eater must not despise, disdain, or look with contempt on the scrupulous vegetarian and the vegetarian must not condemn the meat eater. We have not learned that lesson yet, for the conservative brother condemns the more liberal brother and, although the liberal does not condemn the conservative, he looks condescendingly and impatiently upon him. If this spirit prevails, then both are wrong, not because of differing convictions, but for lack of love and respect for each other as brothers.
Paul tantalizes the legalist by not telling which side was right on the matter of eating foods and keeping days. Instead, he shames us, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” On both sides of the issues, people were serving and honoring the Lord sincerely. Let the Lord accept or reject. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:10f). Fellowship must not be endangered by efforts to decide or bind scruples (Rom. 14:1).
This plea is continued into Romans 15 with Paul exhorting prayerfully, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5f). His following plea should have long since drained our pride and exclusiveness out of us: “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). How did he welcome me? When I was ugly, unloving, ignorant, misunderstanding, immature, and a sinner! He accepted me on my faith in Him who is my righteousness when I obeyed the gospel, not because I was such a nice, loving, righteous, correct, and knowledgeable person. As He accepted and continues to accept me, so I am to accept you. Being accepted, who am I to reject others? Yea, how dare I reject others?
Some have been heard to say, “The New Testament is our only creed.” Many, though not saying it, accept the epistles as an extension of the creed, making knowledge, belief, and understanding of each part necessary. This makes doctrinal correctness the basis of unity, and by doctrinal correctness, we mean, “Conform to my interpretation, my creed, and we will all be united!” But that is unreal. It makes unity an illusive phantom. “Be like us!” Which group of us? We will ever be divided by a doctrinal approach to unity, for it allows for no diversity.
If the above is true, why are we warned against false teachers? Good question! But please hold it for the next chapter.
Jesus is the Creed
Our belief is not in efficacious tenets of faith which we call the gospel — belief in the Sonship, atonement, resurrection, and ascension. These have no saving power though it is declared that the gospel is God’s power to save (Rom. 1:16). The power is in Christ who is the Good News of salvation. But deny any of these facts and you destroy the creed because you have taken away the basis of hope in Christ. He that believes not shall be damned.
The Gnostics in apostolic times denied that Jesus came in the flesh. To deny the incarnation was to fail to abide in the doctrine of Christ on which the gospel rested. “Anyone who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9). This was said of “men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” (v.7). That was not referring to instrumental music or kitchens in church buildings, or any such scruple, opinion, or conviction, but to our creed, Jesus Christ.
That which destroys the faith as the Gnostic teaching was doing destroys the basis of salvation. Teachers of such were not to be welcomed or encouraged (2 John 10) but were to be delivered to Satan (1 Tim. 1:19f; 2 Tim. 2:18f).
A person turning to Jesus must repent, dedicating himself to moral living. Some may willfully abandon this purity of life while still holding to the faith. That is an incompatible situation. The flagrantly immoral must be delivered to Satan also (1 Cor. 5). The sincerely ignorant, weak, or stumbling disciple is not in that category, however.
Since we are all baptized into one body, a divisive person cannot be tolerated. So Paul instructs, “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self condemned” (Titus 3:10f). Not all who disagree or teach some error are factional. Persons could disagree on circumcision, meats, and days and still be in harmony in the one body. A factious person solicits adherents, builds a party, and causes division. He can do this without teaching. Most factions are over personalities and power struggles, but they usually chose some issue as a white horse to ride out on as a way of saving face.
Agreement on all teachings is not the basis of unity for we could never have practical unity in even one small congregation. No one should be subjected to the credal pronouncements of the preacher or elders. A sincere belief which differs from that of the “powers that be” in the congregation is no just cause for rejection. If a person becomes factional, however, by forcing his scruple on others, that would be another matter, and it should be dealt with.
About forty years ago I heard of a man who wished to become a Baptist preacher. Upon completion of his training, he sought to be ordained. In the ordination procedure, he was asked if he would agree to preach Baptist doctrine. He replied that he would just preach the Bible. They pressed the question, and he stood by his answer. Consequently, he was not ordained!
For many years I took delight in relating that story to contrast our lack of a church creed. We just preach the Bible. But I use that story no more since becoming honest enough with myself to admit that I cannot always just preach the Bible and be permitted to remain in the pulpit. I must conform to the party line, the unwritten creed of the church, or I will be dismissed and my family will be without income. If I teach the wrong truths from the Bible, I am branded as a troublemaker and even other churches are warned of me. I know! One must conform to the creed!
Also, elders began to require that prospective teachers fill out and sign a questionnaire — not a creed, mind you, just a questionnaire! These questionnaires usually do not require much of a positive spiritual nature; rather they are expressions of the credal hang-ups of the elders, such as divorce, smoking, drinking, and dancing — especially dancing! Wonder why they don’t include speeding on the highway? For each dancer we have a caravan of speeders. But the elders have no hang-ups about speeding because they speed. That’s not in their creed — oops, questionnaire!
When given this questionnaire, suppose that the prospective teacher should simply write, “I will just teach the Bible,” and return it. Would that person be assigned a class? That’s another reason why I don’t talk much about Baptist creeds anymore.
If a person holds a belief in conflict with mine, it is appropriate that I discuss it and study with him about it. It becomes impelling to do so if I consider it to be soul-threatening. All the time, however, I must love and respect him and refrain from judging him. “Who are you to judge the servant of another?” Because I am his brother in fellowship with Christ does not mean that I sanction or approve all he teaches or does, but it should, yes must, mean that I do not judge him or force him to conform to my scruples. “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Rom. 14:22). Although I disapprove of his actions, he cannot violate my conscience. Only I can do that.
When a person asks to be a part of the congregation in which I am a part, neither I, nor the elders, nor the congregation has any right to ask him more than, “Have you been baptized into Christ; do you strive to live a life of holiness, and do you seek to live in harmony with God’s people?” That will cover the basis of original initiation into the body and its continuing fellowship and unity. To ask if he has been a member of the Church of Christ elsewhere, or to write his previous congregation to get the low-down on him, is both judgmental and sectarian.
How would we know the applicant was not formerly associated with the Christian Church or the Assembly of God? We wouldn’t. Would it contaminate us to serve with someone in Christ who wore some sectarian name other than ours? We have no alternative other than to accept him. It is not our prerogative to judge him. He answers to God just as we do. Why should it be harder to accept him than all the others in the congregation who disagree on the hundred issues in Chapter One? And why can’t I accept him as a brother while he is still serving in the Christian Church or the Assembly of God with no thought of joining our congregation?
Why do we feel so much more comfortable in rejecting others than in receiving them? I would prefer to stand before God in judgment having received someone whom God had rejected than to have to give account for rejecting one whom God had accepted. It is a deadly spiritual disease of sectarian spirit that motivates one to reject one whom God has received, condemning brothers whom God forbade us to judge.
Why do I make such a point of this? Have I just developed a rebellious spirit? It is because I can no longer stand to see the church sectarianized. When an individual judges others and binds his scruples, he becomes factious. When a group binds its scruples and measures others by them, it becomes sectarian. Even though it may be unwritten, a creed creates and protects and exclusive sect. It excludes others who will not conform, though they be brothers. That makes the group a sect. To name is to denominate. When the group gives itself a distinguishing name, it then becomes a sectarian denomination. Can you deny that the Church of Christ has reached that state?
Those who are free in Christ stand free from the creeds and judgments of men.