So What Does Your Church Believe?

January 29, 1995



I had lunch this past week with a man who is still a relatively recent member of our church, and as we talked he spoke of a question that had come up a few days before while he was visiting with some good friends. They had learned of his new religious affiliation, and the wife, who belongs to a church with a very conservative theology, leaned forward eagerly: “So tell me — what does the Congregational church believe?” My friend, who is unusually bright and intellectually curious, was a bit perplexed by the question, and modestly blamed himself for not being able to tick off a quick list of doctrinal positions held by his new church. He need not have blamed himself: we have no such list.
The single most important difference between this church and most others is that we are essentially a non-creedal church. But for that to make sense, I must explain how creeds are built. Let’s imagine 50 people who meet for worship and study of the Bible. After a while, one of them says, “You know, I have become convinced that we should have communion every week, baptize only by complete immersion, and praise God in song with our vocal cords only and never with an organ or a piano.” Four or five people agree with him, and when the rest do not, this small group moves out to start a new church….and anyone who wishes to join it is expected to subscribe to those three doctrinal items: weekly communion, total immersion, and a cappella singing. Another of the original group, a woman this time, decides that according to her interpretation of Scripture, the proper day for worship is Saturday, not Sunday, and that women, as well as men, may preach or hold any office in the church. She is persuasive, and when she can’t convince the entire group, she takes those who agree with her and they go out to start a church of their own, with strong doctrinal emphasis on Saturday meetings and female leadership. If these ideas define that church, and if it insists on them as articles of faith, then you must buy into those convictions when you join.
The point is that over hundreds of years formal creeds came into existence to perpetuate certain interpretations of Scripture by men or women charismatic enough to find followers. So it is that churches are born: Lutheran because there were those who wanted to follow the views of Martin Luther, Presbyterian because of John Knox, Methodist because of John Wesley, Christian Science because of Mary Baker Eddy, the 4-Square Gospel Church because of Aimee Semple McPherson, the Mormon Church because of Joseph Smith….and on and on through some 300 differing denominations.
We think that this proliferation of differing churches proves that intelligent people, reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves, without coercion, will never see things exactly alike. Whether a church splits depends on how rigid the creed is. Churches which say, in effect, “Accept the party line without question” have a built-in splitting philosophy. I grew up in such a church, and while it had people in it as good as people anywhere, that church is now fragmented into 20 different splinter groups, most of which have no fellowship with any of the others.
Looking back over the divisions in religious history, and accepting it as a fact that people have unequal educational and life experiences, we do not expect conformity of opinion among those who worship with us. We have no party line, no catechism to memorize, no Apostles’ Creed to recite. We are open to all who wish to hear the teachings of Christ and who intend to walk in his ways as they come to know and understand those ways. With that kind of freedom, each person creates a personal belief system instead of accepting one that is second hand.
We try to preserve in a Congregational church a place where those who have been put off by rigid dogma, and who have been made to feel guilty because they have some honest doubts and want to ask some tough questions, can feel at home. As a result, we probably have the richest diversity of religious backgrounds of any church you have ever known. This morning’s inspiring harvest of new members is typical of those who find a home in this church: we have people who grew up Baptist, Lutheran, Christian Science, Cathlic and Quaker, Mennonite and Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, Church of Christ and Unitarian — the list is long and we love the dynamics and the tolerance we get as a result of that potpourri of believers.
Now to go back for a moment to the question the lady from Oklahoma asked my good friend who had grown up Catholic: “So what does the Congregational church believe?” The easy answer to that, and the best one as well, might be to say, “Well, we believe in trying to discover the way of life taught by Christ, and then each one of us, according to his or her level of understanding, trying to live that way.” But that would probably not satisfy the person who asked the question, and who would say, “Yes, yes, I understand that, of course, but what do you believe ?” — by which she really means something like this: “What do you tell people they have to do to join your church? How literally do you read the Bible? Do you believe, for example, that Jesus was born of a virgin? What is the position of your church on things like school prayer or the ordination of women or homosexuality or abortion?” And we have to say, “There is no official church position on such issues, because we honor the freedom of each individual conscience. Our minister may express his opinion from the pulpit, but none of us feel we have to agree with that position. The pulpit is a place where speakers share their thoughts, but it is not a platform for promulgating the creed of the church, because we have no such creed. As one such speaker, I try to present the complexities of certain difficult issues, and in the course of that my personal opinion may become clear, but we take no surveys after such a sermon to see how many agree with it. That is left to the private conscience, but this is difficult for the religious world in general to understand, because that world prefers dealing with institutional creeds which not only do not ask individuals to think critically about them, but actually discourage it by suggesting that critical thoughtmay lead to doubt and loss of faith. We see it instead as an essential test if faith is t mature and serve us in a rational world.
We keep on the guestbook stand in the foyer a stack of brochures entitled, “What is a Congregational Church?” I wrote the brochure especially for visitors on Sunday mornings and at our frequent weekend weddings, and they are picked up on a steady basis, but it has occurred to me that probably many of you who have been members here for a long time are not even aware they are available. Please remember that they are, so that if you bring guests and wish to give them a quick and easy introduction to Congregationalism you know where to find one. The brochures do in short form what I am expanding a bit this morning.
The brochure points out, at the start, that while most churches are built around a creed, a body of interpretations of Scripture, and that one is expected to accept and defend those creedal items when one becomes a member, we have no such checklist. We are, instead, a covenant church. The word is unexpected, but it means simply an agreement. We came together in this church by making a simple agreement to live together as people inspired by the life and teaching of Christ to seek truth, honoring the past but not enslaved by it, believing as a famous early New England Congregationalist put it, that new light is forever breaking forth from the Word of God. If you grew up, as I did, in a creedal church, you probably wondered at times why you heard the same things said over and over, forever and ever, from the pulpit — never any surprises. The answer, of course, is that creedal churches are static when it comes to understanding the will of God. They have already understood it, and there can be little or no growth in individual members for the simple reason that one who grows may very well grow AWAY from the others and will then have to be told to repent or leave. In a covenant church, there are no restrictions on growth.
The agreement or covenant by which we create this Christian family was carefully thought out: “In the love of truth….” — not, mind you, in the love of tradition for tradition’s sake, but in the love of truth that may lead us into new and challenging ways of life — “and in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ….” — not of Muhammed or the Buddha, great as they were, but of the Galilean prophet and son of God whom we have chosen in our time and place to follow — “we join with one another to worship….” that is, to find inspiration and challenge together — “and to so live that peace, justice and brotherhood may prevail in the world” — that is, to put in actual practice the things we believe in, even when they are not easy. Three words, but they pretty well include what we need to create the Kingdom of Right Relationships on earth. We ask you to share that simple but profoundly important mission with us, and beyond that, we do not examine you. We do not make judgments about where people are before we accept them. We ask only your company on a long, exciting road of exploration and learning how Christ would have us create His kingdom.
The brochure points out that we really do believe in the freedom of individual conscience. With no formal or itemized creed, we do not bind statements of faith on one another. We would not expect someone to become a member of a Christian church who did not believe that Christ had answers about how to live, but just how he came into this world, how he went out of it, whether he will come again physically, what might be the accurate translation of what he spoke in Aramaic and was later translated into Greek (and still later into English) — all this we leave to the individual conscience as we study the implications of Scripture together. And this freedom extends to our pulpit. We expect a minister to share the insights of his or her schooling in Biblical literature and in a wide range of thoughtful books, but we feel perfectly free to say at the exit door on a given Sunday, “Sorry, but I think you had it wrong this morning.”
We gladly embrace the help of modern scholarship and of science in understand-ing the world out of which the Bible came, and the textual difficulties one encounters in studying that book. It does not bother us to find that the story of creation, and of the blood, and of the tower of Babel in Genesis were all influenced by much earlier Babylonian stories, nor that most of the laws said to have been “brought down” from Mt. Sinai by Moses were anticipated long, long before Moses in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. It is clear to any careful student of comparative religion that the Bible is indebted in all kinds of ways to the culture out of which it came.
In reading that book, we are not literalists. We know that one-third of the Bible is poetry, and not meant to be read woodenly. Bible writers used legend, saga, myth, parable, hyperbole, song, and symbolism — a great variety of literary strategies — and these have to be read in terms of their own unique ways of expressing truth. We also recognize that the Bible expresses some truths that are universal and eternal, but that there are other commandments and prohibitions which were culturally conditioned and which have no relevance at all for a quite different society. The modern church is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either take the great stories of the Bible as literal truth, no matter how they contradict reason and science, or else dismiss them as the childish stuff of a bygone age. Some highly intelligent and sensitive people give up and do the latter. We want those people to find this church, to realize that in readomg the poetry of the creation story, the deliberately humorous tale of Jonah, the beautiful and touching story of the birth of Jesus, tone need not be mechanically literal-minded, that there is a truth beyond fact, a high poetry of the heart with a wisdom and a use of its own.
Given such feelings, it is not surprising that Congregationalists from the very start have put such great emphasis on education. I mentioned to this morning’s class of new members that the first college founded in America was established by the Congregational church to train its ministers and was named for the man who donated its first library: John Harvard. After that came Yale, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Amherst, Oberlin, Mt. Holyoke, Beloit, Drury, Grinnell….some 40 in all, including Washburn at Topeka and Fairmount Cong. College in Wichita, which became Wichita State and celebrates its centennial this year.
And finally, what are the people like? Well, we think a sense of humor is compatible with our profession of faith. Life, even church life, often displayed irrelevant triviality, even self-deception…and the cure for that is laughter. We are puzzled by people who think Christian living requires a kind of solemn sour look. We are a happy lot! And most of us feel it is impossible to live wisely or safely in this world without a touch of scepticism. Faith is essential and motivating, but scepticism is the saving salt of a reasonable life in a world of superstition and hypocrisy. In a way, I suppose, we are a “church of last resort” for those who have given up on churches — an alternative to rigidity and dogmatism. If that sounds good, then this may be your church, as it has become this morning, to our immense delight, for these 21 new members who begin with us todaywhat we hope will be our greatest year yet. Please welcome them gladly in Fellowship Hall in just a few moments.
For the new enthusiasm and talent that joined their strength and energy
to ours this morning, we give thanks, Almighty God, and hope that together
we shall be a force for commonsense and uncommon compassion in this city.