Alister McGrath has argued that the “dangerous idea” of Protestantism – dangerous to the Catholic church at the time, at least – was that each Christian should be able to interpret the bible for themselves.
As many Protestant churches have become less rooted in history and tradition (such that many who read this sentence will see “Protestant” as an archaic term!) this has meant that finding a common thread or set of beliefs amongst Protestant churches has become more difficult.
In the New Zealand Baptist context, this is even more apparent. Here, Baptists have never been ones for creeds and confessions, unlike some of our Baptist brothers and sisters in other times and places.
All of this means that it’s not uncommon for congregants, and even pastors, to have a much more fluid view of doctrines, beliefs and practices. And, of course, to change their minds over time.
I recently asked a question on Facebook: should pastors have their theology “sorted”, or are you happy for them to be on a journey, and to change their mind about certain things? I asked it to two sets of people: congregants, and pastors.
The comparison is far from a substantial study. But the anecdotal results were still interesting. There was a mixed response from both congregants and pastors, though in general the congregants were slightly more dogmatic, and the pastors slightly more open.
Most congregants felt that some change in their pastor’s theology was realistic and acceptable. Many acknowledged that there were certain theological positions which were important to them (such as on the gifts of the Spirit), which may cause them to leave a church should the pastor come to a view which disagreed with theirs, but they did not seek to “creedalise” these views. On the other hand, a few had strong feelings on topics which haven’t historically been the subject of creeds, like the means by which God created, and argued that these were a sign of orthodoxy.
The theme which came through the strongest from congregants was that a pastor should have a view on theological positions, and be clear on the “essentials”, but that humility and the ability to say “I’m not sure,” was also to be valued.
The essentials, however, were not largely articulated or agreed upon. While there were a few mentions of the “biblical foundations of our faith” there were no appeals to creeds, or any kind of plumb line of orthodoxy in the historic tradition of the Christian faith.
There was a lot of crossover, but I would say that the pastors I asked saw a bit more room for the flexibility to learn and grow, prioritised over and above any desire from congregants for them to have unbending positions. There were a few mentions of certain positions that were worth holding to strongly, but again these were largely undefined.
The overall impression I got from the conversations was that in New Zealand Baptist circles in the 21st century, there isn’t a great shared clarity on what would constitute orthodoxy. There are certainly issues which are important to people, and which would cause them to draw a line in the sand, but these are either highly personalised, or they are issues which historically have not been marks of orthodoxy, which are elevated by individuals to that status.
Certainly, as Baptists, we approach this all from a different perspective to other traditions. For example, saying something like, “From now on we’re all going to abide by the Westminster Confession,” might make things clearer and simpler, but it’s not the Baptist way.
We do agree on some common beliefs, of course. As New Zealand Baptists we affirm…
- The true humanity and deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- The atonement made on the Cross by our Lord for the sin of the world.
- The person of the Holy Spirit as the one who sanctifies and who sets apart, empowers and imparts spiritual gifts to the church.
- The inspiration of the Bible and its authority in all matters of faith and practice.
- Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
- Membership of the church is for those who have received salvation.
- The immersion of believers as the only scriptural form of baptism.
…though interestingly, no one made reference to this statement as an evaluative measure for a pastor’s theological positions.
All of this leads me to believe that exploring how we could articulate a clearer, more historically rooted, but still explicitly Baptist orthodoxy might be a fruitful subject. A New Zealand Baptist catechism, perhaps, if that’s even possible.
So what do I think?
I don’t think a pastor needs to have their theology completely “sorted”. Humility is a must, and growth is a natural part of journeying with God.
But there are also marks of orthodoxy which are widely agreed with. Creeds such as the Nicene and Apostle’s creed give helpful guidance here, and I’d want my pastor to be able to affirm those.
While I’d also acknowledge that the New Zealand Baptist statement of faith is by no means all-encompassing, if I joined a Baptist church in New Zealand I’d want to know that the pastor didn’t just give lip-service to the statement, but affirmed it whole-heartedly.
As a commenter on the thread where I asked this question so wonderfully put it, I also believe pastors should seek to exposit and preach the bible, not their own doubts and faith journey.
But possibly the most essential thing to me was articulated by Andy Shudall, who commented on the thread…
“For me the primary theological conviction I need to see in a pastor is that God has revealed Himself decisively, authoritatively, clearly and sufficiently in Scripture so that when my pastor is brought up short by God’s Word they will submit to rather than preside over the text. Scripture teaches us that those who lead and teach and those who are being lead and taught are equally in need of God’s grace: they should be of good character and their gifts clearly recognised by the community. So not necessarily ‘sorted’, just humble and faithfully confident.”
Amen and amen. We are people of the Book. For me, the most essential trait for a pastor to have is not a pristine systematic theology, but the willingness to stand under the bible, not over it.
I would want the pastor themselves to be shaped by Scripture, and to lead the congregation to be shaped by Scripture too. That, I think, is the most important thing.