A Creed of Creeds

Article 1Concerning the Symbolic Nature of Creeds

Creeds are significant both to Christian theology and history. Saint Thomas Aquinas identified the Nicene Creed as the object of faith.  The Apostles Creed is frequently presented in orthodox Christian catechisms. The significance of creeds, though, lies in what they symbolize, not the words themselves. The words are meant to represent the doctrinal beliefs of a collective body of believers; they do not possess mysterious powers. As Christ says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” And again, in 1 Corinthians, Saint Paul writes, “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.”

Article 2Concerning the Formulation of Creeds

Creeds were usually formed in response to theological contention, heresy, and/or persecution. When the faith is placed under pressure, or enemies of Christ strive to break up His church, articulations of beliefs that unify the body of believers become necessary.

The benefit of trial has been a common theme in Christianity. The creeds attest that hardship often results in good things—particularly, in the case of creeds, formation and solidity of ‘the faithful’ in ‘the faith’. As Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” Christ, who also assured His followers that living a Christian life would attract persecution, speaks of the good that it births, saying, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When beneath the press of trials, creeds attest to Christianity’s tendency to solidify, rather than disintegrate. The perhaps best-known creed, the Nicene Creed, was formed in the face of a growing heresy called Arianism. Another example would by the many creeds of the Reformation, which were formed in the various emerging denominations’ need to distinguish themselves both from the Roman Catholic Church and also from other Reformed groups.

Article 3Concerning the Use of Creeds

Creeds serve two key purposes. First, they are an educational tool used in catechizing converts and children. Christianity is a religion of freedom, not slavery. If someone enters the church, they should be informed of, and freely assent to, the foundational beliefs of that body. Of course, Christian education should not end with creeds. They are like the milk that Paul writes of to the Corinthians: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.” Nevertheless, point to the stable, powerful foundations of Christian faith and fellowship.

For the mature in the faith, creeds serve a different, but equally vital purpose. Even those who are mature in the faith fall into times of doubt. Scripture offers many examples of the firmest pillars of faith falling into doubt. The apostles themselves doubted that Christ would rise as He promised—Saint Thomas doubted even after being explicitly told He had. We should expect times of doubt, and not despair when they come. Such avoidance of despair is where the creeds come to our aid.

When we look at the sun with naked eyes, it appears to have dark spots on the surface. But we know that, in reality, it does not: when we look through a dark film, the sun can be seen as it is, free of spots. Creeds serve a similar purpose as that dark film. When Christianity seems absurd, inconsistent, and unbelievable, we can hold to the creeds as reminders of truths that we cannot trust ourselves alone to see accurately.

Internal Excommunication

Confronting discipline is uncomfortable. Walk by a person in the process of getting a traffic ticket. It’s awkward. Some pretend to be invisible. Others look with curiosity until the unfortunate driver sees them, then hurry away. In that situation, I often find myself feeling indignant towards the police officer and a vague sense of comradeship with the chastised driver. I could be them. Even police officers speed frequently. Let those with no traffic sins cast penal fines.

Some of my recent theological discussions have paralleled those encounters. In dialogues focused on Paul’s epistles and the various creeds of the Church, the doctrine of excommunication, (otherwise known as ‘the ban’), has raised its hoary head. Usually, it met general balking and confusion. The main questions circulating were, “What is it, why is it, and how does it affect me as a twenty-first century American Christian?”

While excommunication varies slightly by denomination, it was traditionally practiced by both Catholic and Protestants churches. The general idea even remains within the congregationalist (evangelical) tradition: if a church member continues in sin despite prior admonishments, they are to be avoided by the general congregation until they repent, at which point they can re-enter the community. Excommunication does not mean the individual in question has been stripped of her Christianity, though often misunderstood to be just that. Nor is it ‘the silent treatment.’ If someone from a different city visits your town, you still talk to them, but don’t consider them intrinsic to the community. Likewise, an excommunicate is still part of society, but is temporarily exiled from their church body.

Various churches have had these things to say about ‘the ban':

Anabaptists, Schleitheim Confession: “The ban shall be employed with all those who…are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin… The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned… But this shall be done…before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.”

Anglicans, Thirty-Nine Articles: “That person…ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance…”

Reformed, Westminster Confession: “Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brothers… For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime…”

St. Paul, in his second letter to Thessalonica, says something similar. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul says. “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul seems to be speaking from a strong sense of unified community. If standards of the community are violated, then for the sake of the community’s preservation, the offender should be extracted until they are willing to act within the community’s standards.

This seems reasonable. So why do many instinctively recoil from the practice? I suggest it is because of the same reason that I immediately side with the ‘ticketed’ and not the ‘ticketer’. Rather than seeing a traffic fine as what everyone deserves when they speed, it can seem like the fate of one unlucky fellow who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violator becomes the victim.

The same applies to excommunication. Yet the ban is not the actual removal of someone from the community, but the physical recognition (via separation) that they have already, in an important sense, removed themselves.

For example, imagine showing up to the office wearing a bathing suit. The likely response would be, “Go home, come back when you’ve got the proper clothes on.” But, other than in a strictly physical sense, the discipline did not actually cause removal from the office community—that happened when the standards were violated. The separation was simply the response.

Most churches in America do not practice excommunication. Frankly, for many it is not practically possible—our church communities are not intimate enough. My church wouldn’t know if I was a habitual thief or if I was a perpetual drunk six days a week. But that does not undermine the relevant truth of the albeit disconcerting practice.

Seeing someone being ticketed is uncomfortable because I know it could just as easily be me. Similarly, the reason excommunication is uncomfortable is my knowledge that I fall horribly short of how a Christian is called to live. A ticket, thankfully, does not strip one’s license away, and excommunication does not remove one’s justification through Christ.

Still, I excommunicate myself every day from the community of believers, with or without it’s being noticed by anyone else or myself. And yet the gospel remains, and remains as this: in the cross, we find a bridge that perpetually reconciles us in our self-extrication to the unified body of Christ. In the cross, we have a constant means of regaining communion with God and community. In the cross, we can come back to the home we never truly left, like a runaway child who, returning home, knows the house key will still be underneath the flowerpot on the porch, unmoved, constant.