Studying church history does more for the church than provide sermon illustrations. Church history allows us to learn from those who’ve gone before us so that we might benefit from their experiences and avoid their failures. Consider this example.
In recent years, creeds have gotten a bad name. Opponents have labeled them oppressive, intolerant, divisive, and just about any other negative that you can imagine. As you can imagine, part of the problem is opponents, by definition, must oppose something. They oppose the creation and imposition of creedal statements as a violation of their religious freedom. They point to periodic abuses in the church when creeds were used incorrectly to eliminate opposition and argue that all creeds must therefore be abusive and disregarded. In essence, they throw the theological baby out with the bath water. But, a survey of church history tells us that’s not necessarily true and unnecessarily hurtful.
The term creed comes from the Latin credo which means “I believe.” Thus, by definition again, a creed is little more than a statement of one person or one group’s personal beliefs. Surely no one can be opposed to that. In fact, the opponents of creeds use their own beliefs to make the case against creeds. But still, they complain, the use of creeds institutionally violates their religious freedom.
The earliest creedal statements arose in Christian history during a period of increasing heresy, not simply doctrinal diversity, and rising persecution. Individuals and churches had to know where they stood on the key tenets of the faith to establish and defend the church. Creeds filled that need.
Creeds were written to summarize the beliefs of the individual and the local congregation. Creeds provided the doctrinal basis that defended the religious freedom of the early church against charges of cannibalism, paganism, and infidelity to the state at a time when the Empire wanted to take away the church’s freedom.
Creeds were also developed so that one might recognize fellow believers. As the government sought to identify and persecute the early church, believers needed to know who stood with them and who stood against them. They weren’t trying to exclude anyone from their fellowship. They were trying to make sure that those in the fellowship were truly in the fellowship. By ensuring that the church was not infiltrated by the world, the church made sure that the church wasn’t lost to the world.
Creeds were used as tests of orthodoxy. By that I don’t mean that they went from Sunday School class to Sunday School class checking to make sure everyone was in lock-step agreement with the religious majority. No, instead they used the creed to make sure that the individual catechumen, the would-be believer, actually believed those things necessary for salvation. You can’t believe that Christ was a created being and be a Christian. You can’t believe that Christ is one of many ways to salvation. There are some things that must be believed to be saved (see Romans 10:9-10, 1 Corinthians 15:4, and 1 Timothy 3:16; all biblical creedal statements).
The church cannot force anyone to accept the doctrines of the church. You’re free to disagree. However, the church, then and now, believed that the faith once for all handed down to the saints contained certain key truths that you are not free to disregard. That’s where religious freedom ends and where orthodoxy begins. The use of creeds to test one’s orthodoxy, then, does not deny religious freedom. Instead, they aim to keep the church free of destructive error.
A creed is a good thing. It’s a positive affirmation of one believer’s or one church’s or one organization’s key beliefs. They build a hedge around the church not to limit discussion or eliminate dissent but to protect the church from deadly error. Creeds ensure religious freedom by allowing every believer to state what he or she believes and allowing him or her to seek out a body of likeminded believers with which to fellowship.
In the end, we have to ask: Do creeds undermine religious freedom? The answer from history is “no.”