Christians with no creed simply do not exist
I DON’T NEED NO MANMADE CREED
How many times have you heard (or said yourself) that denominational Christians depend excessively on their synthetic creeds and fabricated confessions? Instead their faith should rest exclusively on the truths found in the pure unadulterated Bible text. Creeds are manmade, it is argued, and the Bible is God’s Word. It is therefore contended that creeds are superfluous at best; they are at their worst a Revelation 22-cursed appendage of Holy Scripture.
The creeds, confessions, and catechisms of historic Christianity are thus misunderstood by non-creedal Evangelical confessional-fault-finders. Reformed Christians have been clear from the start that they affirm that the Bible itself is the only infallible rule of our faith and the practice of it. Creeds, confessions, and catechisms are merely secondary standards. They are professions. They are commentaries. They are summaries. They are teaching tools. No statement of faith ever written by uninspired authors is to be taken as having supreme authority over the believer; this honor is reserved for the Bible, and the Bible alone. All this falls on deaf Evangelical ears.
Both camps would agree that it is necessary for Christians to clarify its beliefs against constant attacks and distortions of the Bible. The Apostle Peter said “… false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves …” Hence, we are warned in advance that there will exist false teachers who will make every attempt possible to corrupt the teaching of the Bible.
How often have you encountered some bizarre doctrine only to be stunned to hear a Bible verse quoted to support it? With religious cults springing up almost every day and old ones growing more rapidly we find corruption of the Bible’s teaching more and more common. How are these aberrant sects able to twist Scripture to mean something orthodox Christians have never believed it to mean in two thousand years? It is clear from the Bible’s teaching that Jesus is no ordinary man. He is part god and part man? Did He achieve the status of God? Is He God come in the flesh? Creeds are intended to summarize the Bible’s teaching in regard to the Nature of Christ. Without creeds and confessions Christians could not distinguish their teachings about Christ and the way of salvation from false ones.
I confess that I was once guilty of creed-bashing. I openly ridiculed those who followed these “manmade doctrines.” Like Charles Finney, who called the Westminster Confession a “paper pope,” I mocked the theological systems developed by the learned doctors of the church. Ironically it was Finney himself who in 1851 went on to write his own systematic theology. Finney also penned many tracts and monographs containing doctrines he expected his converts to follow. Finney hated creeds, confessions, and systematic theologies, too – unless they were of his own making.
Critics of the historic Christian creeds and confessions are more often than not the same patriotic citizens who condemn politicians for not understanding the value of the Federalist Papers. We ask why the Federalist Papers are necessary when you have the U.S. Constitution? After all, does it not count that politicians mean well and are sincere about serving their country? Isn’t everyone entitled to have their own opinion as to what is the proper interpretation of the Bill of Rights?
TODAY’S INDEPENDENT “BIBLE CHURCHES” ARE NOT BIBLE CHURCHES AT ALL
Finney’s departure from the confessions and creeds is not uncommon among churches in our own day. Look around and see for yourself that Evangelical pastors form “Bible Churches,” where it is implied that only the Bible is preached, not creeds and confessions. In reality these men are not preachers of the Bible text. Instead the sermonizing is more a thematic oration on any range of topics such as happiness, grace, marriage, finance, End Times through newspaper headlines, or relationships. Rather than exegete the text of Scripture itself, “theme preachers” try to teach people how to live their everyday lives. Certainly the sermon will begin with a verse or two, but within minutes the presenter is moving on to stories, aphorisms, news headlines, celebrity quotes, sports analogies, or personal experiences. Yet they insist they declaring the Word of God.
We might as well admit it: these Bible church preachers are themselves unknowingly declaring extrabiblical creeds, confessions, and by doing so building a systematic theology as they go along.
Some practical value can be found in the “Bible church” preachers take-home points, mind you, but sermons of this kind do not interest me because I’m more of a verse-by-verse, grammatical-historical, word-study learner. But others who are not interested in dogma and doctrine may be blessed in some meaningful way. Maybe they’ll find uplifted spirits in troubled times or learn to manage their money so they can give more. What bugs me the most is when these motivational speakers, now turned expert Biblicists, criticize ordained and thus highly-trained ministers of the creedal-confessional churches. Claiming to be “Bible-only” teachers and condemners of manmade doctrines, they clearly are, like Finney, systematic theologians themselves, albeit they are amateurs or, worse, charlatans as Finney clearly was.
“Bible churches” are the most unlikely places to hear the Bible preached. Instead they preach the very manmade doctrines they purport to despise. Bethany Bible Church, for example – once the exegetical standard bearer in Arizona’s loose affiliation of “Bible churches” has become a place where thematic sermonizing is now tolerated. It was not always this way. A few years back I made my yearly Good Friday pilgrimage to the church where I had become a Christian. Perusing the sermon CD rack in the lobby revealed that the pastor was teaching marriage intimacy, finance, and other self-helps. Chatting with long-lost friends revealed that these brothers were unaware that they had been slowly weaned from the vibrant expository teaching that previously honored them as the Valley’s much-admired Christ-centered institution only decades before. The members’ understanding of Scripture and theology has devolved to second-rate status and their understanding of the Bible is childish. It is rumored that their new pastor is restoring the church to proper preaching and its original greatness. We should pray that God accomplishes this through the new minister. If enough people who recall the church as it once was will come forward and demand better preaching perhaps the leaders will be convinced that the people are ready for something that takes them beyond pep talks and self-helps.
American Evangelicals dare not call statement of faith or vision statement or distinctives “confessions” or beliefs “creeds.” This would sound too institutional or denominational. Adherence to such antiquated documents would be perceived as anathema, contrary to the independent American-frontier spirit which we are told “made our country great.”
The preferred method of affirming the Nicene Creed in today’s “My Way” church is not to teach it faithfully to the Sheep, nor recite it as a congregation during the worship service, but to re-write it on the church website using the nomenclature of the day, subdividing it with bold headings, and rearranging the order here and there. Pictures and moving graphics are tools required to make the Nicene Creed “more attractive” and “relevant” and “exciting.” Gone are the words “Nicene” and “Creed” and “Confession.” Instead we have vague statements of faith, not confessions.
Children are no longer catechized – it would be too much to ask them to spend a few hours on Sunday afternoon memorizing the Shorter Catechism. It’s considered cruel should we demand an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of God before they enter graduate school. Maybe they need to find God their own way, through participation in a praise band or theatrical production. What could possibly go wrong?
I will tell you what will go wrong: it’s heartbreaking that the catechized ten-year-old is theologically more advanced than the thirty-something Evangelical. The Evangelical may have spent his entire life in church but could not tell you what the Bible declares his chief end in life should be. The young reformed Christian knows this truth before he enters grade school.
There is a story about D. L. Moody making a visit to Scotland in the 1800’s and opening one of his talks at a local grade school with the rhetorical question, What is prayer? To his amazement, hundreds of children’s hands went up. So D.L. Moody decided to call on a lad near the front, who promptly stood up and said, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” The answer the child gave was the answer to question 98 in the Westminster Catechism. To this Moody responded, “Be thankful, son, that you were born in Scotland.”
Today’s American Evangelicals seem to view creeds and confessions as barriers to the development of the contemporary Christian mind. Not too long ago a co-worker, Steve, told me he had visited a Lutheran church. He marveled that “They recite the Apostle’s Creed there” as though it was the filming location for the remote, backward puritanical “village” as depicted in M. Night Shyamalan’s fantasy-thriller film. In case you do not know the story “Village” occupants are prevented from experiencing the modern world. Steve shook his head in disbelief when I informed him that the Apostle’s Creed is recited each Sunday by millions of Christians in churches across the world and that to denounce the Creed was an indication he was not a Christian.
Take a survey in your church sometime: “What is the Nicene Creed?” you might ask. Those who are familiar with the Creed may affirm it, yet they may be unable to recite the first three lines should their eternal life depend on it, and it does. Others you interview may not have heard of the Nicene Creed. Yet if you ask is there more than One God? Is the Father God? Is Jesus God? Is the Holy Spirit God? Did Jesus rise from the dead and, if so, how many days passed when this resurrection occurred? Under which historical figure did Jesus suffer? You may get right answers on all of these, but who knows what to expect in this age? With considerable effort and scrupulous research one might find the church website to avow the components of the Nicene Creed, while neglecting to call it by its historic name and in its historic form. Sadly, there was a time in the not so distant past that the Apostle’s, Nicene, Athanasian Creeds were taken as a fundamental test of orthodoxy. Now these texts are mentioned in passing as mere supporting or historic documents instead of foundational building blocks of true saving faith.
But who needs these archaic, complicated doctrines? Can’t we just love Jesus? To which I affirm that we should love Jesus, but which Jesus? There are many jesuses in our day.
EVANGELICALS SHOULD USE THE HISTORIC CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS AS THE FOUNDATION FOR THEIR DISCIPLESHIP CLASSES
As a new believer I, too, assumed all that was needed in this postmodern era was a Bible. Me and Jesus and my Bible against a world without Christ. I affirmed as a new Christian that the Bible contains timeless truths whether others recognized it or not, and it was I who would convince unbelievers of their need. I wanted to share my new faith. The world is lost and Christ is the Savior. Possessing the zeal of a new convert, I embarked on many missionary projects of my own making. Looking back on my trips I should have had supervision from a veteran evangelist. I should have had better training. As a minimum requirement a simple understanding of the Westminster Confession would have been a better start.
Along with the Bible’s teachings I brought my understanding of it and ensuing life application. I quickly learned that some of my understandings were completely wrong; other times my simple interpretations were thoroughly correct but my inexperience made them indefensible against cultists. As I learned along the way I met experienced men of the faith. They were gentle, cautious, wise souls who had been studying God’s Word much longer and more thoroughly than I. They graciously took me aside and provided instruction regarding biblical interpretation. They were instructing me in the beliefs of the Church. I was told that our meetings were an exercise in discipleship and that all new Christians needed “anchoring in the historic faith.”
Evangelicals are promoters of discipleship training classes. Is this not the very purpose of the historic Christian Creeds? When looking back on past events I own up that I wasted a lot of time and may have caused damage by not knowing the Westminster Confession or the Nicene Creed prior to embarking on my missionary endeavors.
I indeed learned much from these disciple-makers, but I also gleaned here and there, picking up what I could, and by makeshift means some guidelines of Bible interpretation (such as considering the context or identifying literary forms) was sufficient to get by. I read whatever I could get my hands on, and for reasons I cannot explain I was always able to tell the difference between good theologians (the Hodges, Berkhof, Erickson, Gerstner, Grudem, etc.) from bad ones (Finney, Tillich, clownish Trinity Broadcasting, etc.). This groundwork enabled me to combat the cultists I met in everyday life. I grew in the grace, by His grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Had I known the Westminster Confession contained everything I needed to know about such things or grasp the truths in the historic creeds of the church I would have progressed at a better pace and on firmer ground.
Time passed and I encountered more sophisticated heretics. Muslims, who emigrated to our country en mass during the early 1990s, were very difficult to refute. The reason for this is quite simple: they’ve had more practice creating error and infusing havoc than anyone else. Sensing that I required further training, off to Bible school I went. Actually I attended two of these Bible schools. Both were thoroughly Evangelical and had graduated students who had become famous preachers. Once I completed these studies, I reckoned, I’d know everything.
I am thankful for the quality teachers at the Bible colleges I attended. They were dedicated men who demanded hard work from students. Some of coursework did not seem important at the time but later proved to be essential in the prevention of theological error later in life. For instance, during a recent Westminster Confession of Faith study at we examined the section which presents the federal headship of Adam (7.2). When one of the class participants asked if Evangelicals believed in the federal representation of Adam I could jump into the conversation and assure her that this important doctrine was covered in all of my theology classes and that the federal headship was taught to us precisely as it is described in the Westminster Confession. It is sad, however, that Evangelicals reserve this doctrine for Bible college students. It should be boldly taught in more explicate terms in Sunday School and to lay people, young and old. In Reformed Churches the covenant of works, the doctrine of justification, and the federal headship of Adam is taught at a very early age by way of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms.
ONWARD AND FORWARD
Bible college equipped me with a basic Christian education and a broader vocabulary. The curriculum created a sense of readiness to combat latter-day heretics. Courses in hermeneutics, systematic theology, and church history provided adequate means to converse with the subchristian cults at a deeper level. From that point on I was winning arguments with sheiks and silencing any sorcerers and simony that came my way. An added benefit of this formal training was that I had a foundation to hobnob with theologians and pastors. Bible teachers and students are always on the hunt for others with whom they can chew the theological rag. This brought about excellent companionship among kindred spirits and a warm, lasting fellowship for years to come. In such a setting a man can learn a lot and find answers to questions such as “Where was Adam when Satan was busy deceiving his wife?” I recently learned the answer to this question from our pastor during our Westminster Confession class. This kind of inquiry may appear on the surface to be one of those how-many-angels-can-fit-on-a-pin conjecturing. But I can assure you that the resolution one chooses to adopt carries profound implications in regard to one’s soteriology and anthropology.
It’s sad, really, to think that I could have known this sooner had I belonged to a confessional creed-touting church. Answers to other thorny questions similar to this one are found in the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms, and is there for anyone’s asking. These answers have been around for 500 years, but American Evangelicals are still poking around trying to find the answers on their own. When they happen upon the doctrines of grace it’s as though they’ve discovered a hidden treasure of gold. Sadly the treasure trove was there all along – yet they ignore it, assuming it’s really old treasure and not worth anything.
Possessing a basic theological education led to a new set of friends. In some Evangelical circles I became the teacher. This came about not because I was smarter than others, but because I took an interest in learning. Church leaders supposed that because I liked learning, I’d should be the teacher. This resulted in more fellowship and new opportunities to make friends.
In some Evangelical Bible churches my basic training was considered advanced by their standards, even among those who were in their middle ages and had attended church for decades. When I started attending confessional churches my so-called “advanced” theological training was, to my surprise, being taught to teenagers. I once met a three-year-old whose father was a seminary professor. He taught this young one to discern between right and wrong interpretations of the Trinity. If dad asked, “Are there three gods?” The child would answer “no.” Is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit God? The boy would affirm. Did the Father become Jesus? He would shake his head left to right, back and forth. The boldness in which this toddler gave his answers amazed me. I was allowed to ask the boy some questions and I tried my best to trip him up, but to no avail. The professor spent considerable time training his son in the way he should go. It’s sad that this little Christian had better training than most Evangelicals who had grown up in Evangelical churches all their life.
CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS … OR THEOLOGY BOOKS?
In time past my “go-to” resources when faced with questions about the Bible was any number of systematic theologies and commentaries popularized for laymen like me. Most of them are dumb-down seminary books. These are excellent resources for beginners. But why wade through this reading when one only needs to turn to the Westminster Confession or the Catechisms? Citing these documents carry much greater weight and authority than any other single author or theologian. They are concise and neatly organized. Who needs Grudem or Ryrie when you have the Westminster Confession of Faith?
GOD GAVE US TEACHERS
New Christian. Old Christian. We all need instruction. Generally speaking, God does not want us to learn about Him exclusively through our own personal Bible Study (though that is an important part of Christian life). His desire is that we learn among other sheep in His Church. Lone men behind monastic walls of self-learning are destined for trouble and error. The Shepherd does not tend to His sheep in individual pens (unless they are sick or unruly) but generally He looks after them as a group in open fields. In the Church they feed together, usually heading in the same direction. Furthermore, the Body of Christ consists of ordained elders and pastors and teachers and evangelists whose job it is to keep watch over the flock and feed the sheep, alerting them to savage wolves who will try to infiltrate the Church of the Lord.
While God has given every born-again believer the ability and the knowledge to comprehend his or her need for salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ, He has not awarded us a Doctor of Theology degree upon conversion. Therefore God gave us teachers of the Bible.
There are exceptions to the rule. Though it is not the preferred, customary method it is a fact that the Holy Spirit can, and will, personally and without the aid of others protect His Elect from error. A case in point: shortly after my conversion a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door. I never met a Jehovah’s Witness before. I assumed the man was a Christian because he wanted to talk about God and he was carrying a Bible. When I passionately announced that I was glad he came because I, too, was a born-again Christian he promptly corrected me. He insisted that I was not born-again whatsoever. This classification, he said, is for a select group of 144,000 witnesses. He went on to confuse me in other areas, too. New to the faith, I had no ability to defend myself. I knew the man was wrong but I did not know why he was wrong. The situation ironically turned out to be a blessing sent by God, though Satan intended it for evil. That very day I dug into my Bible to better understand it, searching passages that the so-called Witness twisted to mean something they were never intended to say. A day later I purchased my first theology book. The more I read the more I knew that I needed the help of qualified theology teachers. That first trip to the Christian bookstore set in motion a series of purchases that now occupy nearly every wall of my home. The bookshelves keep expanding with each passing year. I’ve considered donating the food in my pantry to make room for more books. Just can’t get enough theology, it seems.
A copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Athanasian Creed are probably the two best theological resources a new Christian can own. The teachings will establish new believers in the faith and save them from sorting through stacks of books which are going to reference the historic documents nonetheless. Why not start out with the oldest, most respected Bible commentaries ever written?
PUBLIC DEBATES ARE ACTUALLY STAGED CREEDAL AFFIRMATIONS
Evangelicals are leaders in staging large, high-profile public debates.
Those who mock the creeds and confessions of Christianity see no contradiction when they affirm the need for public debates against their non-christian enemies. Primarily, the debates are necessary to distinguish teachings of heretics from orthodox beliefs. Secondary, Christians are naturally curious when their enemies attack their beliefs – if an atheist claims there is no God, the Christian is certain that He is. The Christian wants to know what the Bible says about the atheist’s accusations.
Public debates between Christian apologists and subchristian cultists are really exchanges of creeds and confessions. Scripture is cited and, if the interpretation on either side is questioned, historical sources are used to support the argument put forth.
The historic creeds and confessions are works that can prepare Christians for debates. They are reliable documents that have stood the test of time. For hundreds of years many have attempted to refute the truths of the Westminster Confession and the Athanasian Creed but without success.
CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS ARE COMMENTARIES ON THE BIBLE
Creeds and confessions are concise teachings of the Bible. They are supported by numerous passages in the Bible.
When the Apostle’s Creed says that Jesus says “…who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …” it is really retelling the entire Christmas story found in the early pages of Matthew and Luke. Furthermore the statement affirms the union of God and man, the sinlessness of Christ, and other Christian doctrines found elsewhere in the Holy Scripture but are too numerous to list here.
The Nicene Creed states that “…we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life … who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified …” This affirmation sums more than ninety verses found in the Bible that teach us that the Holy Spirit is God just as much as Jesus and the Father are God.
“…the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God …” is a citation from the Athanasian Creed. It combines twenty-one verses found throughout Scripture into a single statement. What the Bible is telling us is that there is but One God, but Three divine Persons who is this One God. This statement prevents and identifies numerous heresies at once: tritheism, Arianism, modalism, and others.
In a few words the Westminster Confession of Faith states succinctly the rich teaching found in Philippians 1:6; 2 Peter 1:10; Romans 8:29-30; John 10:28-29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 5:18; and 1 Peter 1:5,9: “…They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved …”
Evangelicals may be surprised and pleased to know that the Westminster Confession of Faith is supported by an abundance of proofs texts. The nearby illustration is just one example of many to prove that this time-honored document is based on Holy Scripture, not on manmade doctrines as critics portend. Each page has a doctrinal statement with footnotes of Scripture whence this doctrine came. Note that the doctrinal statement fills only 25% of the page and what follows is 75% of the page is Holy Scripture. In order to fit the overabundance of Scriptural support, the publishers had to reduce the type size!
I could go on with further examples but time and space will fail me.
THE DISPENSATIONAL “SYSTEM” OF THEOLOGY
Many evangelical Christians, especially our brothers of dispensational stripe, are instinctively suspicious of the whole idea of creeds and confessions. In their view set forms of words that orthodox churches have used throughout the ages to give concise expression of the Christian faith are merely manmade systems. For such Christians, the very idea of such extra-scriptural authoritative statements of faith seems to strike at the very heart of their belief that the Bible is the unique revelation of God, the all-sufficient basis for knowledge of Him, and its supreme authority in matters of religion. It’s not as though historic creeds and confessions hinder the development of their eschatological convictions, but the creeds and confessions should be ignored because they are associated with mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Who would have thought that an incredible irony was born! In the past one hundred and fifty years dispensationalists have constructed the most elaborate manmade theological system ever devised in Christian history.
The most scholarly dispensational defense so far may be Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come. The first third of the book is a hermeneutical textbook but moves from there to define terms and conditions of biblical covenants. The eschatological position promoted in the book is supported with an abundance of Scripture. Pentecost is cited by Lorraine Boettner as an “outstanding dispensational writer.”
Dispensationalists are primarily known for their proliferation of an End-Time event known as the rapture. Though all Christians believe in the rapture, a disagreement occurs with other theologians over the timing of it and the dispensational belief that Christ’s Second Coming will occur in two stages. To be sure Dr. Pentecost has defended the dispensational rapture view in a convincing, scholarly way, and he is honorable and gracious when refuting opposing positions. He provides abundant Scriptures (both explicit and implicit). Though non-dispensational theologians may disagree with the conclusion, most would affirm that Pentecost’s position should be respected as scholarly treatise and treated equally among the other learned positions. Over the years Pentecost’s work created a vocabulary and belief statements among dispensationalists: “Israel is not the church” or “We believe the Bible should be interpreted literally.” These are confession and creedal statements, though dispensationalists would not think of them as such. Nonetheless these words fell from dispensational lips as freely the Nicene Creed is proclaimed by a Presbyterian on Sunday.
An unfortunate cultural phenomenon occurred in the late 1990s, however, which undermined any advances Dr. Pentecost made in gaining scholastic acceptance. Christian fiction books were used to further the teachings of Dispensationalism. The rapture was turned into an action movie. Dispensationalism was ultimately rejected by scholarly Christians. The advent of poorly-written Left Behind books and subsequent B-movie film release popularized the rapture “system.” Whatever academic acceptance it had gained through scholarly publication and peer review was now lost. The books and movies overreached and overstated classical Dispensationalism. The Left Behind authors had filled in too many blanks, read between too many lines, and Dispensationalism’s theological system from this time forward was considered a joke.
No doubt about it: these were manmade doctrines, a “system” of eschatology – the very things dispensationalists claimed they distrusted.
I recall attending evening worship at Palmcroft Baptist Church during the earlier releases of Left Behind book series. The pastor marveled at the theology the young people were learning through these fiction novels. “We are teaching our children theology through fiction!” What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, the Left Behind generation could not defend the doctrine of the Trinity properly, but if you asked whence the Antichrist would come they would not only tell you that, but every detail about his career, his nationality, and every strategic move he would make to acquire power. They know the Antichrist but know not God.
Fiction deals with things which are the product of a writer’s imagination and are not literally true. But Christian fiction writers believe their work is “basically” truthful because it is based on true events and thus illustrates the “essential truth” about spiritual things.
About this same time Frank Peretti released a series of Christian horror novels; likewise an entirely new system of demonology developed. It gave American Evangelicals a vastly different perspective on the doctrine of angels from what the church had ever taught in the past. Again, a new language of stated belief was created around a system of manmade doctrines. American Evangelicals had been slowly taught to acquire their creeds and confessions and theology from fiction novels instead of the historic creeds and confessions. It’s been a disaster ever since.
THE JESUS MOVEMENT
The 1960s and 1970s culture revolution gave us the Jesus Movement and the Underground Church. The Jesus people thought of themselves as a conscious alternative to the established, traditional church which they viewed as a corruption of the true faith. The Jesus people believed they were the pure, authentic invisible church, the only Christians without restrictive creeds and confessions. They loved Jesus!
Chuck Smith was a leader in the Jesus Movement. He established the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa which went on to produce many other Calvary Chapels around the world. Pastor Smith did not like to consider the Calvary Chapels as a denomination but that is what they have become. I have written on the denomination that does not want to be called a denomination here. The reason Calvary Chapel prefers to not think of itself as a denomination is that it would undermine the anti-establishment culture it seeks to promote. At the same time Calvary Chapel tries to remain a loose, non-creedal, non-confessional network of churches it recognizes the need to organize and establish consistent teaching.
A similar movement, Open Door Fellowship, took off in Phoenix, Arizona. It began with Bill Thrall, an accountant who held Bible studies in his home. This outreach grew to become a church with nearly six hundred regular attendees (they do not like to be called “members”).
Thrall eventually passed the pulpit to John Lynch. John’s training as an actor, his outstanding stage presence, and humor created a entertaining environment. His informality and wit became a place of healing for those who felt they were abused by legalistic churches. Lynch is unquestionably a powerful communicator. Open Door Fellowship (hereafter ODF) was one of the early churches that accepted cut-off jeans, tee shirts, and flip-flops as acceptable worship attire. Young people flocked to ODF to hear John’s uplifting messages on grace and acceptance. The audience would howl as he mocked the established clergy from the stage. John’s appointed successors continue the mocking of the “establishment” church and mimic his presentation techniques to the extent that they will impersonate John’s imitation of the Irish accent (an impersonation of an impersonation). John’s protégés can switch on cue to impersonate lofty, high-church preaching style of the Anglicans to add emphasis when ridiculing churches other than their own.
Lynch’s teaching has created a generation of Christians who believe they have discovered the true meaning of biblical grace. ODF prides itself on being a grace-based church. What kind of grace is taught there can be debated at another time, but I can assure you that it is not the same grace that has been passed down from the Reformers.
Youth pastors without theological training …
What could go wrong?
Occasionally ODF will assure the congregation that their interpretation of grace is no different than the other churches. This caveat is an afterthought, muttered in passing and thus ignored by the masses and the leaders of small groups. For instance, I attended a mid-week Men’s Group for a while. Clearly it is my fault for not investigating the intention of the get-together prior to signing up; shame on me for assuming we were gathering to study the Scriptures. The purpose of the meeting is to provide “a safe place” for men to open up and be “True-faced.” “Safe Place” and “True-faced” are extrabiblical code words at ODF to rightly define grace as they understand it (Read: ODF has confessions and creeds of their own). The Men’s Group was a place where men are able (and expected) to cry. Here you can complain about your wife or share that you hate your dead-end job. Expressing one’s desire to refrain from worshipping God or attending church services is a sign that a man is making a colossal breakthrough in spirituality, being “True-faced” they call it.
How the group kicked off the evening was similar to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. We would go around the circle and express in a word or two the feelings we were experiencing thus far into the week. The feelings espoused by most True-facers were always negative. My turn would come and I would not have anything negative to say. This kind of negative bonding has a way of pulling a man into the despondency of the masses. After a few weeks of not having anything to complain about I found myself inventing sadness, rejection, and despair – just to fit in!
One pity-party brother brought in copies of a mood chart with cartoon expressions. He thought he would share it with other bitter brothers in case there were some in the downcast band of bitter brothers unable to accurately describe their feelings. Under each cartoon was a single word to describe the picture. My mathematical instinct kicked. Looking for a pattern I calculated that 85% of the cartoons depicted negative feelings. No good can come out of this I thought.
By concocting a few mythical miseries of my own I realized that I was not being True-faced. My true impulse is to attempt to repair broken situations, offer constructive advice, and encourage rather than criticize; therefore before the next pity-party I memorized major declarations of Ephesians 1-2. Here we find descriptions of our Christian identity. I described myself in biblical terms “blessed … chosen … holy … blameless before God .. predestined … adopted … according to the kind intention of His will…” and so on. The strange looks I received from the group leaders clearly indicated that they were not pleased with the descriptors I used. The group leader was cold and distant from that day on.
One of the pity-party members described that he was discussing the topic of grace with a Christian friend who attended another church. He chuckled that “My friend does not understand grace like we do around here.” He continued with the story by saying he was trying to help his friend become True-faced by asking some personal questions that apparently caused the man to become embarrassed. “I went deep, man, reeeeaaaal deep and the guy couldn’t handle it,” he boasted (emphasis in original). The pity-party member gained tremendous satisfaction from making his Christian friend sweat in the midst of the interrogation.
A week later I resigned from the group knowing that I could never fit in.
The system of grace propounded by ODF is an unneccessary reinvention at best. This congregation is similar to many Evangelical churches who find no need for the historic creeds and confessions of the church. They would rather discover theology truths through trial and error. John Lynch is often heard calling ODF “an experiment of grace.” What’s sad is that no experimentation is necessary. The doctrines of grace were long ago discovered, thought out, and formalized by the historic church. They are outlined in the historic creeds and confessions of the church.
ODF are brothers in Christ. They mean well. They are sincere. But they make more mistakes than necessary. Due to their distrust of established Christianity they are ignorant of the church history and the doctrines that have been adopted by wider Christendom centuries ago. The historic creeds and confessions are used to prevent the very mistakes ODF frequently wanders into, but these brothers would rather walk into troubles and conflict and work out the problems on their own.
Churches such as ODF remind me of a quote Churchill said of our country: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.”
ODF, like Calvary Chapel, does not like to be considered a denominational institution. Yet they are clear that their goal is to publish books and videos, staging conferences “so they can teach other churches what ODF has learned along the way.” It is the mother of all ironies.
PROMINENT EVANGELICAL DISCOVERS WESTMINSTER’S DESCRIPTION OF PROVIDENCE BUT CALLS IT BY ANOTHER NAME
Dr. Henry Morris, a founder in the creationist movement, is a hero of mine. In the video (below) he shares a fascinating story about a pilot who is miraculously saved from a crash. Morris calls the phenomenon a “Grade B Miracle.” In Reformed Theology we would prefer the term special providence – God working through the ordinary means of nature, but in an extraordinary way. For example, when we pray for someone who is ill or injured, with little hope of recovery, and yet he recovers, it is extraordinary, but not necessarily a miracle in the narrow sense.
Evangelicals frequently bump into situations or encounter scenarios that are new to them. Little do they know all of these things have been experienced by their brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone before them. Reinventing wheels or finding creative solutions for problems that have long ago been resolved is a recipe for error.
In the case of Dr. Morris’s “Grade B” miracles he was not in error, but redundancy; the good doctor was unaware that theologians had long ago defined these phenomena. No harm was done, but other times Evangelical churches are not so fortunate. They “experiment with grace” or redefine theological terms and by doing so grope here and there as vagabonds. Instead of acting as nomads they ought to be be charting their theological journey using the Reformers’ creeds, confessions, and catechisms as a compass.
By design creeds and confessions are intended to divide goats from sheep.
The reality is that within all theological discussion a “creed” is found. Whenever a sentence begins with “I believe …” – he or she is stating a creed. Often theological statements commence with “The Bible says …” – this declaration is a confession of faith. Creeds and confessions are necessary to separate Christians from cults.
For Further Study:
Various TableTalk Articles on Creeds and Confessions