I have appreciated the good discussion and questions that followed my last post; to my discredit, I have not followed up on the feedback as I ought to have, so I’m going to use a new post to do so.
In order to provide a framework for this discussion, I first want to re-establish the analogy that drove my argument. In that first post, I said this:
Suppose that you’re visiting in a church service, and as part of their liturgy, they recite a creed (which is helpfully printed for you in their bulletin). Suppose further that this creed is not one of the standard ecumenical creeds, but one which has been drawn up specifically for use in their assembly. And suppose finally that one line in their creed is as follows: “I believe that God equally intends all people to be saved, and that only their own free will keeps them from salvation.”
Do you recite this line of the creed?
My point is this: I disagree with this line of the creed, and thus I could not in pure conscience say credo. My refraining from joining them in this portion of their liturgy raises a number of good questions, which I will begin here, and then continue in a few followup posts.
Is a church permitted to make such a statement part of their liturgy?
The question (clarified) is something like this: can a church have, as part of its liturgy, components that are not “mere Christianity”? I am convinced, for a variety of reasons, that churches can indeed have distinctive doctrines which they covenant together to uphold, but which they recognize are not essential to the faith itself. In other words, my church’s doctrinal statement is not the boundary of the gospel; I fully affirm that a person can reject (for instance) believer’s baptism or a particular millennial position without raising even the slightest question about his justification in Christ. And yet I have no problem with a church professing its confidence that the Bible, rightly understood, does teach believer’s baptism.
The root of our problem is, of course, that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). This truth, it seems to me, is exactly to the point of the question asked by Scott Cline: “How certain are you that any given song is unfit enough to demand the destruction of Christian unity?”
Let’s ask this same question about our doctrinal analogy; in time, I’ll suggest how I shift it back to the music discussion. Thus, “How certain are you that any given doctrinal position is errant enough to demand the destruction of Christian unity?”
My profoundly unsatisfying answer: I think it depends. One relevant factor, it seems to me, is the existence of a number of orthodox churches in a given area. So, for instance, if my church is the only one holding to the gospel within 50 miles, I am less likely to emphasize my secondary-level doctrinal distinctives. However, if our town has both a gospel-faithful Baptist and Presbyterian church, I would be more comfortable making commitment to believer’s baptism a condition of membership.
Perhaps this is sloppy; I’m open to discussion along those lines. But it seems a very practical reality.
Furthermore, doctrinal differences cannot be measured solely by degree of clarity; they must also be measured by degree of importance. So, consider again the two examples I mentioned before: believer’s baptism and premillennialism. Let us say, for sake of argument, that both positions are about equally clear in Scripture; which of the two, if denied, has greater impact on one’s understanding of the gospel and the life of the church? I would be inclined to say that the credo-/paedo-baptism debate is of greater moment.
This discussion of clarity and importance is relevant to our creed-reciting example: the Arminian line from our hypothetical creed is one that I find problematic on both accounts. That is, I think it expresses doctrine against what is clear in Scripture, and that it makes a statement that is significantly wrong. Thus, I cannot affirm it with that congregation. This is, perhaps, not a problem if I am merely a visitor. It is a big problem if that is my church.