Tuesday, May 7, 2013


The quote below comes from a pamphlet written by Barton W. Stone sometime near 1832. Much of what he says still rings true nearly two centuries later in 2013.
There are two kinds of human authoritative creeds -- one is drawn up in articles, and written or printed in a book -- the other is a set of doctrines or opinions received but not committed to writing or printed in a book. Each of these kinds of creeds is used for the same purpose, which is to exclude from fellowship the man who dares to dissent from them. Of the two, we certainly give the preference to creeds written and published; because we can then read them, and form a more correct judgment of the doctrines contained in them.
There are some among us very clamorous against written or printed creeds who yet have a creed of their own of which they are as tenacious as any other sectarian is of his written creed; and they are equally intolerant against those who dissent from their doctrines or opinions.
Barton W. Stone - An Address to the Churches of Christ c. 1832
Brother Stone makes two great points in this passage. First, creeds do not have to be written to be real. When I defended an unwritten creed, I did not like to hear or think that I was defending an unwritten creed, but it didn't make it less true. And, what brother Stone says about creeds, whether written or not,  is exactly right. Creeds have as their purpose to exclude from fellowship anyone who dares to dissent from them.

Not long ago, I was having a private conversation with a friend during which he pointed out one of our (By "our," I am referring to my faith heritage.) unwritten rules. He then compared our behavior in this matter toward new converts to the behavior of the strict Jews in Acts 15. Wow. He was spot on.

The situation in Acts 15 is that there are some new Gentile converts in Antioch. Some Jews, claiming to have authority from Jerusalem, began teaching that the Gentiles had to be circumcised also. Faith in Jesus was good, they said, but it was just a start. Those Gentiles needed to become more like Jews.
The elders and apostles in Jerusalem, with much prayer, discussion, study, and guidance from the Holy Spirit wrote a letter (Acts 15:28-29) to distribute among the brethren at that time. I find that a fascinating glimpse at how inspiration might work. I had always thought that God's will would be made more directly clear to the inspired apostles. Apparently, however, there was sometimes more to it than a trance or vision or sudden clear revelation. This was an open discussion about the topic with input from several people, with the scripture being read, and all this in the Spirit's presence. That's an example we'd do well to follow.

Notice the gist of this whole meeting that produced the letter: "We are saved by the grace of Jesus. They are saved by the grace of Jesus. We shouldn't add to that. Therefore, they must give up idolatry, but they don't need to take on our rules." Wow! That's not very exclusive at all. The letter didn't even exclude the Jews who were insisting on circumcision. It did correct their teaching, but it did not exclude them. Later, because of their continued divisiveness in spite of the apostles and Holy Spirit making it clear that the Gentiles were included, those Jews who continued to exclude, were marked and excluded. But they were marked and excluded because they were trying to exclude!

The gospel invites and includes. Creeds, whether written or not, exclude. Huge difference. If my message is exclusive, should I not ask, "Is it the gospel, or is it a creed?"

Have you ever stopped to think, "Why did the Jews want to bind circumcision?" One possible reason is that they wanted access to God to be the same way they had received it. They wanted Christians to look like Jews, too. They didn't want wild pagans to have access to their God. There was definitely a culture clash between Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

Are we the same way? Do we want all Christians to look like us? Do we want to be sure that they dress a certain way (conservative, white, American, and please hide your tattoos), that they observe the Lord's Supper at a certain time and in a certain way (only every Sunday, and only a small pinch of pie crust and a teaspoon or so of Welch's, please, no singing or any noise at this time, and we'd prefer you to just pass the plate if you're not one of us), that they worship the same way we do (traditional songs, prayer, sermon, and offering, stand when we say stand, bow when we say bow, and sit when we say sit and don't make any unwelcome noise or ask any questions), basically that they do things the way we do them? Do we believe that to become a Christian (or at least to remain a Christian), you must do things like we do them? And if you don't do them that way, then do we say that you're not really a Christian?

If our attitude and practice is thus, how are we different from the Jews in Acts 15? How are we welcoming? How are we inclusive? How are we inviting the lost and troubled? Short answer, we're not. We're instead rehearsing and defending our comfortable creed while the world is suffering and dying.

Galatians 5:4 rings in my head loud and clear when I think of how I have treated new Christians and Christians outside of my own faith heritage. I have fallen from grace by binding rules and traditions that are contrary to grace. I've failed to be a conduit for God's grace to others by serving others sacrificially and proclaiming to them the resurrection Gospel. Instead of placing primary importance on the death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-4), I've placed primary importance on "follow the rules like I do".

Rather than proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom's victory over evil, I've been telling people of the many barriers to entry into God's kingdom. Rather than tell a deeply powerful resurrection story and living a life that pushes darkness away, I have labored to convince people to be more like me, instead of more like Him.

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