Why I Don't Recite Creeds in Christian Worship Services

by cazort

There are numerous reasons to avoid including or reciting creeds in worship services; here I explain how avoiding creeds can lead to more sincerity and depth in faith.

Creeds, or statements of faith, like the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed, are central in many Christian worship services, including both Catholic, and some Protestant services. But not all Christians recite creeds.

I attended a Baptist church, for three years, that did not include creeds in the service, and at this church, I was swayed by the Pastors' explanations of why they did not include creeds, and also came up with some reasons of my own.

Now I choose to not recite creeds and encourage others, whether Christians attending church, non-Christians visiting churches, or church leadership, to think more critically about creeds. Below I explain how avoiding creeds can encourage sincerity of belief, and also acknowledge and respect the diversity inherent in Christian belief.

Creeds Aren't All Bad

Whether recited in services or used as statements of faith, creeds can play positive roles in faith, promoting unity and reaffirming or strengthening peoples' beliefs.

Before I launch into explaining why I don't like (and don't recite) creeds, I want to acknowledge that creeds aren't strictly a bad thing.  There are benefits and rationales to them, including to reciting them in worship services.  I respect people who recite creeds and I think it's a valid personal choice to recite them.  And I don't assume people who recite them disagree with all the concerns I raise about them.

One of the rationales behind using creeds is that it promotes a sort of unity among Christians, both across time and across many (but not all) denominations.  The Episcopal church has a page on creeds which explains: "...we join Christians throughout the ages in affirming our faith..."  With all the major differences between the different branches of Christianity, I think it is significant that the Catholic church and most Protestant churches share the Nicene and Apostles' creed in common.  The Nicene creed is also shared in common with the Eastern Orthodox church.

Creeds can also play a positive role in reinforcing people's beliefs.  The act of repeatedly reciting something can help to reaffirm or strengthen people's commitment to those beliefs, which can be a good thing if people want to strengthen or reinforce that commitment.

Do You Recite Creeds in Services?

Social Pressure to Recite Creeds

The seemingly mild social pressure to recite creeds can have undesirable consequences, confusing people about what they believe, encouraging insincere profession of belief, or souring their impression with the church.

One of the main reasons I don't like creeds is that reciting a creed in a worship service creates social pressure for people to recite the creed.  This provides an extrinsic motivator, which can interfere with people's intrinsic motivations.  The pressure may seem relatively mild, but I still have a problem with it.

Several problems I see:

  • Pressuring people to read a statement of faith, when they're uncertain about whether or not they want to make the profession of their own initiative, can interfere with their ability to discern what they really want.  In some cases, people might start to feel like they want something, when deeper down, they don't want it.  In other cases, people might react against the pressure and feel like they don't want to agree with the statement, even if they would agree if they were free of such pressure.
  • People may make a conscious choice to recite the creed, even though they don't agree with it.  This sets up a pattern of making a statement that they don't believe or agree with.
  • People may have a bad feeling about the social pressure to recite the creed, and this negative feeling could be a factor contributing to souring their impression of the church congregation, denomination, or even religion as a whole.

People don't always react this way to creeds, but I think the possibility of it, and the fact that the stakes are relatively high relative to the act of recitation (a person becoming confused about their belief system, a person being drawn into insincere profession of faith, or a person who otherwise might like a church, becoming alienated from it) warrants consideration.

Personally, I feel all of the concerns here, although in my case they are relatively mild.  I have known examples of people who have struggled with each of these problems to a much greater degree than I did.

Stained Glass, St. Matthew's Church, Paisley, Scotland
Stained Glass, St. Matthew's Church, Paisley, Scotland
Do you consider yourself Christian, non-Christian, or somewhere in the middle?

Creeds Hide the True Diversity of Christian Belief

Christian beliefs are much more diverse than creeds suggest. Creeds can make people with non-mainstream beliefs feel marginalized or excluded, and can make others less aware of the diversity inherent in Christian belief.

A lot of churches, like the Episcopal church I cited above, emphasize how creeds produce or connect with a certain unity of Christians.  But I like to ask a tough question: is this unity genuine, deep, or divinely sanctioned?  Or is it the result of an arbitrary political process, one which was carried out by humans, and which involved coercion and suppression of alternate viewpoints?

I studied early Christianity in college, and I was fascinated to find that early Christians had a much wider range of beliefs than mainstream Christians do.  They also had a much wider range of holy texts as well.  The Bible in its current form was not sanctioned by Jesus; it was a political process of people, several generations later, that canonized the Bible.  Some of the texts that didn't make it into the Bible have theological ideas in them that contrast with the ideas in the creeds used by most of the dominant Christian denominations.  The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library brought back many such texts.

The Nicene creed was the result of the First Council of Nicaea, in AD 325.  Prior to this time, there was no consensus in the early Christian churches about certain theological points, including the relationship of Jesus to God.

But even prior to this council, theological differences had sometimes been resolved by force, with people not adhering to mainstream church stances being labelled as heretics.  Gnosticism was one such group that was shut out.

A video explaining how in today's society, if you actually ask people about their beliefs, their true beliefs often differ from the "official" denominational stances of the churches they identify with.

Want to read non-Canonical early Christian texts?

This book collects a number of texts, some more recently discovered and translated, from Early Christianity, that did not make it into the mainstream Bible canon. It sheds an interesting light on the diversity of early Christian belief.
Documents for the Study of the Gospels

This collection of freshly translated texts leads to a new appreciation of the richness and variety of the religious world within which Christianity emerged as a powerful new fo...

View on Amazon

This book provides commentary on early Christianity, particularly Gnostic Christianity, and some of its key texts.
The Gnostic Gospels

A provocative study of the gnostic gospels and the world of early Christianity as revealed through the Nag Hammadi texts.

View on Amazon

I recommend this Bible for a more neutral, scholarly approach to the holy texts in the canonical Bible (and Apocrypha).
HarperCollins Study Bible - Student Edition: Fully Revised & Updated

The HarperCollins Study Bible—Student Edition is the landmark general reference Bible that offers the full text of the New Revised Standard Version as well as in-depth articles,...

View on Amazon

Have you ever read a non-canonical Christian holy text?
Christ Pantocrator Mosaic, Hagia Sophia
Christ Pantocrator Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

Does Jesus Require You To Believe Details?

The Bible depicts Jesus breaking rules and questioning authority. He doesn't ask the disciples to recite creeds or accept extensive doctrines, but he asks them to follow him, and emphasizes sincerity of faith and love.

Even the way Jesus is depicted in the canonized Bible, I think there's little evidence that strict adherence to doctrine is in any way advocated by Jesus.

For example, in Mark 1:17 or Matthew 4:19, when Jesus calls his first disciples, he says: "Follow me.", and does not ask or demand of them to agree to any doctrine or beliefs.  Later, in Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus describes how the ideas of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, are the commandments on which all the other religious laws hang.  Jesus is also frequently depicted as clashing with religious leaders of the time, often breaking many rules himself.

I recognize that different people and different denominations have different traditions of interpreting the Bible.  But, to me, Jesus seems to be a big picture kind of guy, and seems to be consistently advocating for looking for the deeper meaning behind religious rules, and then sincerely living out that meaning, even if you end up breaking the letter of those rules here and there.

In Conclusion

I hope that I have helped you gain some insight into why someone would object to creeds.

Hopefully, now, if you choose to recite them, you can do so consciously and mindfully, with awareness of the ways in which they can be misused or create unhealthy social pressures.  You can choose to recite them if you believe them, or if you want to reinforce the beliefs in them, or you can choose to consciously take them with a grain of salt but recite them out of tradition or because you appreciate them for some other reason.

And I hope that if you feel uncomfortable with creeds for the reasons I gave here, or any other reasons, that you have gained new confidence that will help you feel better about choosing to not recite them, or even considering the possibility of omitting them if you are responsible for designing or structuring your church's liturgy or worship services.

More about religion and belief systems
Why This Way is a consensus-based organization and belief system which may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition of religion.
How to converse respectfully about religion, how to share your religious beliefs in a respectful way that will help others to feel comfortable.
Updated: 09/04/2014, cazort
 
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frankbeswick on 02/21/2015

I am a Catholic because I attend mass weekly,because it is meaningful to me. I do not agree with everything that a priest says, but that's the joy of the Catholic Church, We don't throw out people because of disagreement. I have had some strong disagreements with m local priests, but I still attend their masses, and they do nothing to prevent me from doing so.

cazort on 02/21/2015

Yeah, that makes sense about Protestantism. I have, I guess you could call it a "quibble", with how people talk about the Catholic church. Like, I'm aware that (with the exception of a few small splinter groups that call themselves "Catholic") the official Roman Catholic Church is standardized with respects to beliefs, and the official church stance is that people who deviate from these beliefs aren't Catholic.

But viewed from the outside, the term "Catholic" is used in everyday speech to refer to people who are culturally Catholic, identify as Catholic, and/or attend Catholic mass regularly. For example, most demographic surveys that identify Catholics as a religious group, don't survey anything about their beliefs, they just respect self-identification. And among these people, my experience has been that many of them deviate considerably from official church stances on a wide range of issues, including stuff related to the content of the creeds.

frankbeswick on 02/21/2015

Protestantism is heavily fragmented and there are differences between churches. The Catholic position is more uniform, but even in the RC Church there are differences of opinion. These tend to be about issues that developed after the creed was formulated, though the Filioque issue, about a clause in the creed, still festers between Catholics and Orthodox. I have not noticed much if any difference within the RC church about the content of the creed. The differences are mainly about ethical issues, women priests and ecumenism

cazort on 02/21/2015

Just a caveat, I'm cautious about saying "Catholics believe X" or "Protestants believe X." I think there are official church stances (which can differ hugely between denominations), and it's also common for individuals to hold beliefs different from the stances. For example, I've attended a number of Protestant churches where the dominant view of the pastors and most congregants, are that the revelation of the Bible comes through the human institutions that led to its canonization, i.e. more close to what you described as the "Catholic" view.

I've also talked to a fair number of Christians who see the Bible in its widely canonized form as a bit of a historical accident, and subject to the cultural biases of the time...so that the idea is, the divine truth contained in the Bible was distorted through the cultural biases evident both in the writing of the texts, and the political process of canonization. So, for example, these people take sexism in the Bible with a grain of salt, because the Bible was written in the context of a largely sexist society. In my experience, this viewpoint is actually pretty dominant within many of the mainline protestant congregations, like ELCA, UCC, Episcopal, etc.

frankbeswick on 02/21/2015

The Bible, as you say, was compiled after the apostolic age, but from material deriving from that period. Here we come to a major difference in theology between Catholic and Protestant traditions. Protestants see the Bible as the revelation of God, but Catholics believe that the revelation comes in the Spirit present in the church, and therefore the New Testament and all other writings express that Spirit. The books of the New Testament were chosen from people who were either apostles or close to them so that they would faithfully express the teachings of Christ to which the Spirit testifies.

Creeds are later still and were baptismal formulae that underwent a process of development as Christian Theology evolved. They affirm the main outlines of the Trinitarian faith, but they ignore later differences between Catholic and Protestant.

Guest on 02/20/2015

A good piece. Many in our church - Holy Trinity Stratford-upon-Avon - agree with you.

cazort on 10/03/2014

Yeah, that makes sense!

Part of the reason that I don't recite them is that I tend to have a somewhat different perspective on what aspects of a belief system are central to religion, for me. The creeds seem to focus on theological details that seem less important than the day-to-day values that drive how your belief system actually plays out, and translates into actions.

WriterArtist on 09/07/2014

I think if people understand the principles behind those creed and imbibe the values they can really have positive impact. However; blindly accepting the beliefs may not be beneficial at all, hence I understand when you say that you do not recite them, you are actually looking for substance and practical experiences.

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