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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why the Apostles' Creed?

Several people have asked recently about the Apostles’ Creed—why we say it in our church every month on communion Sunday, and why we say it in a form that includes language that may be unusual for us and/or difficult to understand.  So I'd like to talk a little about the reasons we have been doing this, which hopefully will also shed some light on a broader vision for the purposes and practice of public worship among Christians.

First, to lay some foundation, let me reproduce here a section from our church's Vision/Prayer Project, put together by myself and our other leaders a few years ago:  "Pray that our Sunday worship would represent God accurately and reflect His Divine attributes in a balanced way, so that the members of the body and anyone who joins us would see Him in all His glory.  Pray that our worship would communicate both His transcendence and His immanence, the fact that He is both a God of the ages and a God of today, and the balance of formal order and informal spontaneity that is revealed in His creation.  (This is why elements of our worship are both “traditional” and “contemporary”—why we sing both old and new songs, for example, and offer some prayers that are scripted and some that are spontaneous.)"

Part of our vision for corporate worship is, and has always been, that some elements would intentionally communicate our connection with the past ages of church history, and that some of them would also be a bit difficult, and even uncomfortable for us, because they are designed to take us out of our comfort zone and remind us of attributes of God that we may not be familiar with.  So I actually hope and expect that some elements of our worship will “stretch” many of us and take us “out of our comfort zone” to one degree or another, as I’m sure the Apostles’ Creed does for some.  Of course, saying the Creed may be no problem for some, while other elements of the worship might be uncomfortable for them (like modern songs).  And that’s okay—in fact, it can be good—because we all tend to have a set of conceptions about God and the church that should be “stretched” as a part of the sanctification (Christian growth) that we all need, and we want to experience God in all His varied attributes and works, as the quote above says.

So why is the Apostles’ Creed itself worth saying, even with the exact words we have been using?  How does it help us to represent the truths that God is a God of the ages and that we are connected to the historical church that Jesus has been building since Pentecost (Matt. 16:18)?  Here are a few reasons that I think it is helpful for achieving those goals...

First, the Apostles’ Creed is probably the most used recitation, other than the Lord’s Prayer, in the history of the church.  It has been used by almost all denominations around the world since the fourth century, and probably before, and therefore is immediately recognizable as a part of Christian tradition.  We don’t do many things in our service, which contains mostly contemporary elements, to make that connection with the past, so doing this one thing once a month assures that we will make that connection regularly.  Second, it is one of the few things that we do that will be recognizable to people coming from a background in many historical church traditions, that will communicate to them that we are not some cult or innovative offshoot of historical Christianity, but a part of the same tree.  We don’t have to worry about being “overly traditional” or “worshipping the past,” because we have so many contemporary elements in our worship, but we do face the danger of not sufficiently connecting with the past.  Saying this recognized historic confession once a month helps us to do that on a regular basis.

I also think it’s good that the Apostles’ Creed, in the form we say it, has been a traditional part of worship in the Roman Catholic church.  We are not hesitant to criticize that church’s significant errors and identify ourselves as separate from it, but we also want to recognize that the medieval Roman Catholic church was part of the "family tree" that we are descended from, and that there were good things about it that we can celebrate rather than criticize.  So those who visit or attend with us who have a Roman Catholic background will recognize the Creed and its specific wording, and will see that we are not rejecting everything about that historic church.  And finally, the fact that some of the traditional wording is often misunderstood (like “descended into hell” and “holy catholic church”) should not keep us from using it…it’s important that we retain those words and explain them the right way.  We shouldn’t let terms like that be monopolized by those who teach error, but keep them and rescue them from distorted understandings.  An example would be that we don’t stop using the term “justification” simply because it has been used in the wrong way so many times…we keep using it in an accurate way to “win it back” from the false teachers.

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