Many churches and denominations have a statement of faith outlining their beliefs. These statements of faith are an important way to affirm essential beliefs and provide appropriate boundaries and accountability for churches and denominations.
An important and challenging question for every church and denomination is, “How do we determine what statement of faith to affirm?”
The process can be a complex and challenging one for churches and denominations. What follows is a framework and a principle I have found helpful when determining a statement of faith.
Framework for determining a statement of faith
A good first step is to determine guidelines for a statement of faith. The Bible is the ultimate guideline for a statement of faith. While this needs to be assumed, how this assumption is used in developing a statement of faith still needs a framework.
Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides some helpful guidelines in “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” He distinguishes between first-, second- and third-order issues.
First-order theological issues are “those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.”
Second-order theological issues are “distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. When Christians organize themselves into congregations and denominational forms, these boundaries become evident.”
Third-order theological issues “are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.”
Beyond these three distinctions, a determination is necessary for which doctrines should be first-, second- or third-order and what should be included in a statement of faith.
Guidance for working out the framework
Mohler and others have noted two potential errors on either end of the theological spectrum. Some may want to make first-order theological commitments into third-order commitments (liberalism). Others may want to make third-order commitments into first-order commitments (fundamentalism).
The good news is these commitments have been discerned throughout Christian history. For example, first-order theological issues were clarified in such statements of faith as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in the first centuries of the church. According to Roger Olson in The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform, these two creeds “form the twin unifying authoritative statements of apostolic faith for much of Christendom.”
Also, most denominations have discerned a cluster of second-order theological commitments that make their denomination unique. For example, Baptist Christians’ unique cluster of second-order theological commitments include (1) shared commitments with many Protestant Christians—such as Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria—and (2) our own shared theological emphases—such as the authority of the Bible (the Reformation commitment to Sola Scriptura), the need for personal conversion, believer’s baptism by immersion, regenerate church membership, soul freedom or competency, religious liberty for all people, and congregational governance.
Therefore, the best confessions of faith will affirm first-order Christian commitments and second-order theological commitments unique to each church and/or denomination.
Despite seemingly simple guidelines, the process of forming first- and second-order theological commitments into a statement of faith is not simple.
The challenge of agreeing on theological commitments
Within any church or denomination, there will be a plethora of voices disagreeing with what makes a first-, second- or third-order theological commitments. Along with differing theological commitments, various power-dynamics, personalities and other challenges will exist within the congregation or denominational system.
A great example of the complexity of this process can be seen in reading a side-by-side comparison of the Baptist Faith and Message of 1925, 1963 and 2000. Reading this comparison provides an opportunity to see how doctrines were clarified, added or removed, especially as they relate to second-order theological commitments. I found myself appreciating different aspects of all three statements of faith, as well as agreeing and disagreeing with aspects of all three.
A guiding principle
The following three-part principle can help guide churches and denominations in determining a statement of faith: A statement of faith should (1) focus solely and uncompromisingly on first-order (shared by all orthodox Christians) and second-order (unique cluster of church/denominational beliefs) theological commitments, (2) be as unifying as possible, and (3) provide other means to clarify issues not addressed in the statement of faith.
This principle is important for three reasons.
First, statements of faith cannot do everything nor address every issue. Therefore, the focus must be on first- and second-order theological commitments.
Statements of faith are like the foundation of a house. They are not everything, but their strength and stability determine everything else. While statements of faith are foundational, it is impossible to address or anticipate every issue or challenge a church or denomination may face.
Timothy George notes in “Is Jesus a Baptist” in Building Bridges, “If the Baptist Faith and Message becomes a grab bag for every problem or issue that comes on to the horizon, then it will cease to be a consensual statement of Baptist convictions.”
Second, statements of faith should seek—as much as possible—to be consensus and unifying documents.
I agree with David Dockery in “A Call for Renewal, Consensus, and Cooperation: Reflections on the SBC since 1979” in Building Bridges: “It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology and work together toward a common good to extend the work of Southern Baptists around the world and advance the Kingdom of God. We need a like-mindedness on first order issues—particularly on the exclusivity and uniqueness of the Gospel that is found only in Jesus Christ and in Him alone (John 14:6).”
Third, churches and denominations need different ways to address issues as they arise.
For example, when Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) was passed by the U.S. Supreme Court, many churches clarified their belief about marriage in their bylaws in order to protect themselves from potential legal action.
Further, Baptist associations and conventions have the means to determine which churches are in “harmonious cooperation,” whether or not to seat messengers, and/or clarifying beliefs through resolutions. Having the means to address different issues allows statements of faith to function as foundational theological beliefs and provides a means to address issues as needed.
In the second part, I will explain how this principle can work in practice.
Ross Shelton is the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.