Picket Fences & Trip Wires

hroughout the history of the church believers have found it necessary to summarize their beliefs on important topics. This often happens in response to challenges either inside or outside the church. The result has been creeds, often in the case for really big issues, or in recent years, statements that set a biblical view in contrast to less favorable positions.

I affirm a number of historic creeds and contemporary statements. For example, I affirm the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed as it relates to orthodox views of the Triune God. I also affirm contemporary statements like the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Complementarianism.

Such statements should give both clarity and liberty. They should give clarity for where those who sign the statement believe the Bible provides definitive direction. They should also give liberty to operate within the parameters of the statement while perhaps disagreeing on other issues that don’t violate the written confession.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my backyard. If I put a fence around the entirety of our yard our dog Dorothy could play outside unsupervised. The picket fence would provide protection, clear boundaries, and liberty for her to romp around after the kids and chase the occasional squirrel. It would be an odd thing to then bury an electric fence with different boundaries, partitioning off some areas of the fenced yard. She would become a paranoid mess, never knowing what was permissible and what was out of bounds.

As far-fetched as the example might seem, sometimes Christians do this with confessional statements. People sign the statement and identify with others who do the same. But often they discover that some who signed the statement have a far more narrow set of expectations. While the statement gives visible boundaries, the unstated expectations set trip wires.

Here’s a case in point. It was a diverse group of Bible believing leaders who drafted and signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978. The statement provided both clarity and liberty for those who signed it. For example, it would be wrong for a Presbyterian to say a Baptist was out of line with the statement for differing on the issue of baptism. They might differ on issues of interpretation, but they could still be unified on their understanding of inerrancy.

This is how statements should function. When Christians unite around a confession that defines what they believe the Bible requires on a given topic, they need to stick to the picket fences. They shouldn’t set trip wires. If the statement was worth drafting and signing in the first place, trip wires are neither necessary nor helpful.

It might be that newer and more narrow statements become necessary in time. But where believers have agreed and defined the grounds for unity, they should not encroach on the liberty provided within the confession. As one Christian leader famously said, “In necessary things: unity; in non-essential things: liberty; but in all things: charity.”