Everyone believes in something. In fact, everyone believes in many things. I believe that the computer I’m typing on exists, or else I wouldn’t be moving my fingers in the manner I am moving them. I believe that chocolate tastes delicious, or else I wouldn’t take every opportunity possible to consume it. But of course, I also have foundational beliefs that we sometimes call convictions, because we hold them more strongly than we do our beliefs in the taste of chocolate or the existence of our laptops.
Foundational beliefs guide us in how we approach the world. They include beliefs about God, good & evil, how we come to know things and the nature of the cosmos. It's “big stuff,” I know, but we all have beliefs about the “big stuff” of life. Sometimes we haven’t thought through our big, foundational beliefs, as much as we probably should, but that doesn't discount the fact that we have them. Whenever you try to explain human motives, you are relying on your big beliefs. Whenever you attempt to speak meaningfully about tragic events or give advice to someone in need of perspective, again you are relying on those big beliefs.
This all brings me to traditional Christian worship. When I say traditional, I don’t mean outdated. I am simply referring to practices that the Christian church has made use of for many centuries. One component of this kind of traditional, Christian worship has been the corporate confession of faith. Christians, since the time of the apostles, have been reciting summaries of the Christian faith (Matt. 10:32; 1 Tim. 3:16). The corporate confession of faith often looks like this: the pastor says “Christian, what do you believe,” and those gathered respond in unison by reciting a summary of the Christian faith. One summary used by many churches is the Apostle’s Creed.
The Apostles’s Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy catholic Church; The communion of saints;The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
So, why do it? Why participate in this old practice? Well, I can think of a handful of very good reasons: to remind, to check, to separate, to motivate, and to unite.
First, to remind yourself. We are a forgetful people. I forget what I’m doing all the time. I forget what I’m supposed to be working on or what I’m trying to say or where I am supposed to be. Something tells me that you may be able to relate. We humans are forgetful about the little things and, regrettably, the big things too. Honestly, we are probably apt to forget the big things even more than the little things. We have calendars and apps designed to help us remember our routine tasks, and yet we tend to neglect practices that remind us of our foundational convictions. The corporate confession of faith is a weekly reminder for the church and those watching of what the Christian truly believes. It's a needed opportunity for church members to stand in front of the mirror and be reminded of their Christian identity.
Second, to check yourself. It is one thing to hold a belief and a wholly different thing to act upon that belief. A college freshman who philosophizes his way into believing that his chair doesn't really exist is not likely to impress or persuade anyone until he stops relying on the chair to bear his weight. Sometimes Christians are the inverse of the college freshman but no less hypocritical. Christians say that they believe in the God of the Bible while refusing to trust that He can "bear their weight." The weekly confession of faith allows the Christian to evaluate whether or not their lives match up with the faith they claim to inhabit.
Third, to separate yourself. This one may be the toughest for (post)modern people to stomach. Confessing the Christian faith means that your basic beliefs about the world are distinct from the beliefs of others. The Apostle's Creed speaks of foundational issues to the Christian faith: God as Creator, God as triune, salvation in Jesus alone, judgment, and eternal life. These beliefs act as clear boundaries, distinguishing the Christian from the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Mormon, the Muslim, the Jew, the secularist etc. By stating what you believe, you are also declaring what you do not believe.
Fourth, to motivate yourself. While some would see it as divisive or arrogant to separate oneself from others on the basis of religious beliefs, many Christians have viewed it as fundamental to evangelism. When we embrace the exclusivity of the Christian message, we realize that Christianity is more than a result of personality and culture. The biblical claim is that Christian faith is necessary for anyone to enter into the fullness of human life as God intended it - "life everlasting" as the Apostle's Creed states. Christianity isn't just true for me, rather it is simply true, whether or not you believe it. The reason for this, according to the Apostle's Creed, is that truth is located in the triune, Creator God, not in the human individual. So, the corporate confession of faith should motivate the Christian church to take their confession into the world with a renewed confidence that it is universally true and therefore always relevant.
Fifth, to unite the church to one another and to God. To speak the words of the confession is to bind yourself to the covenant of grace; this is a covenant summed up in God's promise: "I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will make my dwelling place among you" (Jer. 32:38; 2 Cor. 6:16). It is very much like taking wedding vows: "I take this God to be my God and his church to be my church." You are not simply saying the words of confession into the air, rather you are declaring them as an oath to God and to your fellow Christian. In essence, you are saying, "these are words to which God and my local congregation can hold me accountable."
Why is it then that so many churches no longer participate in this ancient and biblical practice? Perhaps churches have abandoned it without sufficient consideration. If you go to a church that still practices corporate confession, rejoice for you are greatly blessed! If you go to a church that doesn't, maybe it's time to humbly suggest that your church leadership recover the practice. And if you are looking for a church home, perhaps you should seek out a church that allows you to confess the faith weekly.