Creeds developed early in the history of the church. “Jesus is Lord” may well have been the earliest one. The Apostle’s Creed came later, followed by a number of creeds developed and approved by church councils. Most early Protestants continued to generate creeds.
Creeds sought to accomplish several goals. They gave formal expression to the beliefs of those in power in the church. Most creeds also refined language with regard to some matter disputed at the time, whether the relationship of the Son to the Father or the nature of the church. All creeds, to the best of my knowledge, were used to discipline clergy (and sometimes laity).
Baptists, for the most part, rejected creeds. They preferred to take their chances on individual interpretation of the scriptures, coupled with reliance on Holy Spirit’s guidance, ongoing conversation with fellow Christians and common sense. Baptists feared the loss of their God-given freedom and responsibility to interpret the scriptures more than the occasional eccentric spin a given Baptist might impart to the scriptures.
Something more was in play as well. Creeds quickly become sterile documents, suitable for study by historians yet separated from the living present. To borrow a concept from Paul, creeds at best turn out to be “the letter of the law,” but there is no life in them. They may inform the intellectual formation of our faith by raising matters worthy of serious study and reflection. Creeds, though, can not breathe life into the individual Christian or the church.
So, where are we to look for help in conforming our lives and the life of the church to Christ?
Try covenants. Baptists have fashioned church covenants throughout the course of our history. Church covenants address the ongoing life of the church–what we do together and for one another as ongoing acts of worship. Covenants focus on practice: gathering for worship, sticking with one another through all kinds of circumstances, devoting a significant portion of our income to God’s work, praying for one another, serious bible study and the like.
Covenants assume all of us are Christians, that we share a desire to be formed in the image of Christ, and that we wish to build genuine community. They, therefore, address behavior by calling us to develop healthy spiritual habits. Covenants tend to unite the Body of Christ, whereas creeds tend to splinter the church.
Perhaps we ought to lay aside our preoccupation with intellectual agreement (creeds) in favor of making commitments about how we shall live together in community (covenants).
Mike Smith is pastor at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn. This column appeared previously as his personal blog.