A West Oak Lane Confession of Faith

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This was originally written for a DMin class at Biblical Theological Seminary. My reason for posting is to get public reflection on the content.  Any suggestions are welcomed.

West Oak Lane Confession of Faith

The following is a proposed creed/confessional statement for the community of West Oak Lane, Philadelphia.  This confessional statements contains three parts; 1) Community Questions, 2) Declaration of Beliefs, and a 3) Declaration of Practice.

West Oak Lane

West Oak Lane

The creation of a fresh creed and confession for the West Oak Lane community would follow a rich history of organic declarations of Christian beliefs that were established in the midst of social upheaval and change. Many of the widely known confessions address more philosophical or doctrinal struggles than social struggles. The nature of previous confessions and creeds does not prohibit a move toward a southern styled confessional statement as we see with the Belhar Confession. As a precursor to the West Oak Lane Confession of Faith, it seems necessary to at least take a peek into the social settings for previously written confessions to capture the struggle to produce these important documents of faith. These creeds were instrumental in the discipleship of the early church. Augustine remarks about the Apostle’s Creed,  “These words are in the divine Scriptures scattered up and down, but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed, that every person may be able to say, may be able to hold, what he believes.”[1] The Apostle’s Creed remains a perpetual reflection and standard of Christian belief; it remains a barometer of orthodoxy.

Church historian Justo Gonzalez remarks on the possible meaning and implication of this creed for early Christians;

Another element in the church’s response to heresies was what we now call the “Apostles’ Creed.” The notion that the apostles gathered before beginning their mission and composed this creed, each suggesting a clause, is pure fiction.  The truth is that its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150.  It was then called “symbols of faith.”  The word “symbol” in this context did not have the meaning that it has for us today; rather, it meant a means of recognition, such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the “symbol” put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time, particularly Gnosticism and Marcionism.  Any who could affirm this creed were neither Gnostics nor Marcionites”[2]

As is the case with catechisms, confessions and covenantal documents, they are all birthed out of a particular context. The Heidelberg Catechism arose out of a 15th century German context.  The setting of this particular catechism was the German province of Palatine under a monarchy ruled by Frederick III in the year 1559. A violent conflict between Lutherans and Calvinist raged for years culminating with Frederick III coming to power and aligning himself with the Calvinists.[3]  Work on this particular catechism had been undertaken and completed by Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevisanus in the year 1563. The initial version appeared in German and Latin in 1563. Its impact is still felt today. The catechism in its latest form contains 129 questions and corresponding answers derived from the contextual theology undertaken by its authors. The significance of the historical backdrop provides clues into what was included in this particular catechism.

In the course of developing a catechism for West Oak Lane it also seems important to take a brief look at the historical background of another important document in Christendom, namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith. Parliament and King Charles I were at war, and to further complicate the process the leadership of the Church of England had been disbanded. The broad social happenings surrounding the formation of the Westminster Confession is a purview of the social strata of 16th century England.[4] As we think through how confessions and catechisms have come to be, it is important to understand them within their immediate context. One writer makes the distinction that the composition of the Westminster Confession should not be viewed outside of its historical setting.[5] The composition of this historical piece was a culmination of two broad but distinct groups from unique perspectives; English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. The dominant Church of England was under the power of the monarchy, but the construction of this confession allowed for a more congregational styled church. The assembly that was commissioned to complete the confession met over years and ultimately came up with the document we call the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647.[6]  Their chief aim was to reform the Church of England answering questions of faith and providing doctrinal clarification—these changes are present today all over the world as Reformed and Presbyterian churches remain faithful to this confession of faith in its various forms.[7]

A confession formed in the southern hemisphere outside of Europe is the South African Belhar Confession. This confession comes as a response to the destructive system of South African apartheid. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church recognized the system of apartheid as being incongruent with the gospel and in 1986 produced the Belhar Confession.[8] South African freedom fighter Allen Boesak, was instrumental in the formation of the Belhar Confession. He was known as an outspoken opponent of apartheid.  This confession does not come out of a vacuum, but is an organic document that addressed social discrimination within the South African society. The Belhar Confession is a reflection of its surrounding society and is not void of the social climate under which it grew to be a respected reflection of contextual theology. The Belhar Confession was not presented without its critics. Kevin DeYoung, a member of the Reformed Church in America and also a member of The Gospel Coalition, remarks that he found issues with the Belhar Confession stating,

First, there are a few lines that cannot be supported by Scripture. Here’s just one example: We believe that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged. To be sure, the Bible is full of examples of God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed. But it goes too far to say he is in a special way a God to them.[9]

Here DeYoung exemplifies the need for contextual confessional statements.  He, along with many others in Reform circles, disagrees with the preponderance of Biblical evidence that supports the notion that God has a special affinity for the suffering and the poor. They argue that the Belhar Confession goes too far and therefore comes under scrutiny. This would be and should be the case for any creed/confessional statement. The scrutiny of a creed/confessional statement should not invalidate that statement. In fact, the rejection of the Belhar Confession by many within the North American Reform circles may suggest that some older confessional statements are in need of scrutiny.  It may also suggest that adherents to these very old creeds/confessional are comfortable and unwilling to recognize the need to change or become contextual.

The three previously mentioned confessions were birthed within cultures dealing with conflict and going through transitions.  McGlathery and Griffin in This Side of Heaven, Race, Ethnicity and Christian Faith accurately describes DeYoung’s tradition and perspective, “They [White Evangelicals] have maintained an almost complete rejection of various cultural theologies, which focus on biblical mandates to correct unjust systems of power.  They have adopted a biblical conservatism that undergirds and supports their political conservatism.”[10]

Of course, not every confessional or catechism is birthed in a time of extreme transition. However, in the case of these three, there are the pressures of war, political upheaval and institutional discrimination. The social backdrop provides an opportunity to make declarative statements about societal wrongs. The Belhar and Westminster Confession will both illicit a different response depending on its audience.  Some will say the Westminster Confession doesn’t go far enough and therefore encourages the presence of social inequality and others will say the Belhar Confession goes too far and provides a foundation for a socialist system.

The question that is the most pressing for the church in any culture or context is how we articulate the good news of Christ to those in our context. Dean Flemming says in, Contextualization in The New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission, “…how do we articulate the meaning of the Scripture, which came to expression in one cultural, social and historical setting, for people who are living in quite another?”[11] This is the challenge of creating an urban theology or a West Oak Lane Confession of Faith. The parts are all here to create a competent confession of faith; God, His people, sin, His word and creation. A confessional statement generally answers questions raised by a context. Granted, there are statements that simply propose a response to questions that were never asked.

The residents of West Oak Lane are predominantly African American. Most of the residents of West Oak Lane are homeowners and there are professionals peppered throughout the community.  The community is composed of various families structures; two parent households, single parent households, grand parents raising grand children, retirees going back to work, second generation homeowners trying to hold onto parents home, immigrants and Korean business owners. The community is nestled against Cheltenham Township, a predominantly white middle class community, just outside of the Philadelphia.

West Oak Lane is adjacent to the middle to upper middle class Philadelphia neighborhood of Mount Airy-Chestnut Hill. The racial makeup of this community may suggest a lean towards a kind of liberation theology. West Oak Lane holds certain community characteristics that may lean towards a confession like the Belhar which has emphasis on social justice and reconciliation. The neighborhood has made great economic strides, but it still struggles with some of the challenges that any minority community deals with as a subdominant racial and cultural group.

This community has made major progress in the past decade due to an active State Representative and a Non-Profit organization charged with the mandate to revive Ogontz Avenue.  Ogontz Avenue is the main artery in West Oak Lane—it is where most traffic flows and where the majority of community businesses are located.  There are various churches and houses of worship within the community, but none more prominent than Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. This church is located on Cheltenham Avenue, which borders the City of Philadelphia. Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church has been active in the community hosting many programs that address the spiritual and felts needs within the community. There are other churches within West Oak Lane like the church I attend, Great Commission Church which could benefit from a contextually sensitive and Biblically rooted confessional statement.

West Oak Lane Confession of Faith

West Oak Lane Confession of Faith

Great Commission Church is a twelve year old fellowship birthed in suburban Philadelphia, but ultimately called to go back into the city and replant itself in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. Although twelve years old the church is indeed a six year old church plant with a heart for the people of the community, but with few resources. The church is missional to the core and with that comes a heart to constantly reach out and serve. Great Commission Church has its roots with the Southern Baptist Convention (North American Mission Board).

An African American Southern Baptist Church located within inner city Philadelphia may sound unique, but it is more prevalent than previously imagined. There are very few ecclesiastical requirements to become a Southern Baptist Church and therefore creeds and confessions, although present, in many established churches are not a core part of the communal worship experience. The following proposal is novel in some ways, but traditional in many respects. The West Oak Lane Confessional is intentionally social in its scope and is not simply a redux of previously reworded Alexandrian styled confessionals. Black folks are much more practical and earthy in their approach to the Christian faith. It’s important not to make the mistake of believing that African American Protestants are not committed to orthodox faith, although they avoid the more Anglo version of Protestantism.

In the work, Blacks and Whites in Christian America; How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions, the authors present survey results on White and Black Protestants and their acceptance of orthodox belief or more specifically the Apostles Creed, “As with our previous findings, our multivariate results suggest that black and white Protestants do not differ in their beliefs about Jesus Christ.  This finding is of tremendous importance. No matter what other differences may exist between black and white Protestants, they are in fundamental agreement about this fundamental tenet of the faith: Jesus Christ is to them in equal measure the Divine, on Son of God.”[12] Shelton and Emerson, authors of the previously mentioned ground breaking work, draw out some clear similarities and differences within these two traditions.

In their research group they uncovered a real world example of the paradox that exists in American Protestantism the testimony of one respondent;

Well, for those of us who are of African descent in this country, we’ve had to pray more and worship more and read the Bible more to survive in an oppressive situation. So I’m going to ask you: is there a correlation between the black people who say their race is “important”? Because if you’re white, it doesn’t matter! They don’t even have the same construct about race!

Since I spend a little time in a college/university environment, I know that researchers are just beginning to understand that there is something called “white privilege.” Duh! [The room erupts in laughter]

And so if you [i.e., Christians in general] just thought that as a believer you are supposed to worship God and go to church, you might thing that those things just come along with the package. But if you have had to overcome, if you’ve had to make a way out of no way, if you didn’t have any food for your children and God provided food on your table, then you’re gonna go to church and praise and worship Him because He’s worthy.[13]

In writing about Two-Thirds World Theology, Harvie Conn says, “If theology was to speak to two-thirds world needs, it would need a new agenda. It would have to search for new answers. What does the Bible say about poverty and oppression? About nation-building and torture, racism and, dare I say it, sexism? The indexes of Anglo-Saxon theological texts yield little fruit for these kinds of questions.[14] It is the view from below that shapes the kinds of questions that may come out of this particular community.  These questions come from the unique soil of oppressed people and their theological tradition emphasizes God’s heart for the poor and oppressed.[15]  The following questions arising out of this community may provide an impetus for social change.

Community Questions

  1. Does God care about the hood?
  1. I am a young struggling single mother, how does God view me?
  1. I am a young black man, why should I choose Jesus Christ over Islam?
  1. Why are the schools so bad in this community?
  1. How does God feel about institutional racism?
  1. How should I live around day to day violence in my community?
  1. What is the church’s response to the violence within urban communities?
  1. Why should I hope for change?
  1. Who is God and how is Jesus Christ different from Allah?
  1. How do we improve our own community?
  1. Does God care that I was abused?
  1. I just got out of jail and no one wants to hire me, how do I avoid going back to the streets?
  1. Sex is the only thing that is enjoyable right now—why does God want me to stop?
  1. No one is married in my family—why should I get married before having sex?
  1. I’ve been a heroin addict for two decades, is there freedom from this addiction and can I be forgiven for all that I have done?
  1. The Prosperity Gospel is big with some churches in West Oak Lane, what does God say about that

Urban-Shalom-Missional Theology

Urban

The following is a brief synopsis of a theological paradigm that arises out of the context or a context similar to the West Oak Lane Community. A theology that is uniquely urban in its focus would highlight the urban themes threaded throughout the Biblical text. Highlighted within the pages of scripture are the many cities that God focused on as places to be redeemed. The urban centers are communities where humanity has gathered and have either sought to glorify God or dismiss Him. The presence of a city provides a unique arrangement of race, class, and ethnicity against the backdrop of God’s presence.

The question of city life centers on how one should live within the midst of a diverse marketplace? What is God’s will within a changing community which may have adopted a godless culture? A prominent text within this particular theological framework would be Jeremiah 29:7, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” The Lord’s words to Jeremiah gives a paradigm for God’s people who are living in exile. Another text is Revelation 21:1-5;

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (NIV)

Here we have a glorified people dwelling with their God. There is intimacy, healing, and a reconciliation and restoration of all things in Christ. The place of healing is a metropolis established by God Himself. The culmination of the plan of redemption is a city.

Shalom

The idea behind shalom is appropriately expressed by Eldin Villfane, “It is in the Old Testament root meaning of shalom that we find its richness and the significant meaning of “completeness,” “wholeness,” “soundness,” and “welfare.”  It speaks of harmony and concord—it is a wholistic term—responding to the needs of the whole person.”[16] The process of reconciliation is the correction or the creation of peace between opposing parties. Here God brings man to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus establishes peace between God and man and establishes shalom for man through the violence of the cross. Shalom is the result of God’s intervention into sin’s oppression in order to free mankind.

The peace of the city and all creation should be a primary focus of those who hold to a theology that arises from the bottom, a theology of liberation. Shalom is expressed when the eschatological aspirations of the New Jerusalem is not only hoped for, but also implemented as right now kingdom living. The movement towards the New Jerusalem is made possible by the Messiah who has bridged the gap and established the kingdom principles which were taught about and demonstrated. He brought about an end to the slavery of sin and the law. Jesus Christ establishes shalom in hearts, marriages, homes, communities, institutions and the marketplace.

Missional

God is on mission in the world. God has demonstrated His love for all of mankind by His pursuit and rescue of the lost, oppressed and enslaved. God puton flesh and lived among sinful men and women in order to redeem them. This missional God is found through the pages of scripture from the Garden of Eden when He pursued Adam and Eve to His pursuit of Gentiles to the four corners of the globe utilizing His representatives, the Church. Christopher Wright explains the dominant nature of mission in the scriptures, “The Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”[17] It is absolutely necessary to understand God as chief missionary and the church as following alongside Him fulfilling His ongoing plan of redemption. The covenants and promises of scripture in one way or another piece together God’s mission to rescue the enslaved, oppressed and lost.

These three theological mainstays must shape any confession representing the West Oak Lane community. They are unique categories when set against White Western styled theologies.  Each represents an active not passive theology. The God represented in these three categories is not unengaged waiting to be observed and studied. He purposefully goes about His work of sovereign Lord over all things. With the exception of the missional category, it is not implausible to suggest that most White Western theological frameworks ignore or have not considered the urban and shalom (reconciliation) categories as key pieces of a comprehensive theology.

These questions provide a starting point for engaging in the process of creating a West Oak Lane Confession of Faith.  These are context sensitive questions rather than those borrowed from an alien culture dealing with people groups from another time and place. These questions are all answered in a theology that remains faithful to the text of Scripture.  This creed/confession piece is intended to be more communal in its focus.  The use of “We” within the creed is significant because it conveys community. The creed/confessional must be Christ centered, redemptive and thoroughly missional. (Colossians 1:15-16; Romans 8:19-23; John 20:21)  The creed/confessional is more than a doctrinal statement because it focuses on orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The following ten statements provide an orthodox confessional. It begins the process of a complete local-contextual confessional statement.

It is also important to include the need for prophetic creed/confessional statements. The prophetic tradition of African Americans must influence any composition of a confession. In the same tradition of a Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Dubois, the church in West Oak Lane cries out against things like the PA Voter ID laws that disproportionately impact minority voters within the State of Pennsylvania. A prophetic commitment removes the confession from being a simple part of worship and moves it into the praxis. Too often it seems that creeds/confessions are simply a rhetorical devise. There is no other tradition in the history of this nation that has called to account the hegemony inherent in the culture. Additionally, the prophetic tradition founded by black Christians stand as an ongoing reminder of a past that is all to close–wounds are still fresh.

The church, like the prophets of Israel, namely Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah, were called to speak to those in power. They were beckoned to call those in authority or rebellion to listen to the witness of Scripture against greed, idolatry, promiscuity, neglect of the poor, etc. When the church misses its mission it becomes a compliant church directed by the culture it finds itself a part of.  It is my contention that a reminder, such as a creed/confession, helps the prophetic mission of the church.

Declaration of Belief

As a community of believers, we accept the following statements as accurate reflections of Biblical teaching and we affirm the statements as binding for ongoing fellowship.

We believe in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer over all creation.

We believe in His only Son Jesus Christ who was slain for the sins of the world, but resurrected conquering sin and death.

We believe in God the Holy Spirit who is presently empowering the church, God’s missional representatives in the earth, to fulfill His will in whatever country, culture and context there is on the earth.

We believe that all mankind was created in the image of God and that man was specially created to be in relationship with the Triune God. God in His brilliance, created diversity within color and culture and His creation is without excuse or qualification. We believe that men and women were created equal and that their standing before God is not diminished by their roles within the church or home.

We believe that through mankind’s disobedience, sin entered the world and altered, disrupted and introduced hardship and death on the earth.

We believe God, who is rich in mercy, planned and secured redemption for mankind through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

We believe that Jesus Christ is the only true way of salvation for mankind. He redeems individual’s families, neighborhoods, cities and nations.

We believe that Jesus Christ came to earth to rescue the oppressed within society; this includes those that suffer because of race, gender, class and ethnicity. He exacts justice for the oppressed and downtrodden and provides relief to those who are marginalized and discriminated against. We believe that addiction to drugs, sex and gambling are all sin issues that Christ came to deliver mankind from.

We believe that Jesus Christ will rescue His church from the pending judgment that will culminate at His second coming. God will also fulfill His New Covenant promise to the descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. We do not believe that God has replaced Israel with the church, but rather has a plan for ethnic Israel as Abraham’s descendents according to the flesh. We believe that His relationship with Israel is covenantal and is similar to His commitment to the church, His bride.

We believe that God will create new heavens and earth and the central place for the universe will be the New Jerusalem which will be the eternal place of our dwelling in fellowship with the Triune God Head.

We reject the prosperity gospel movement which is a uniquely western style theology which is based on the notion that God is obligated to answer any request claimed in His name.[18]

We reject the ideology that the church is somehow to be disconnected from serving and meeting the physical needs of the poor and oppressed.

We believe that the marketplace is an important part of the community. We believe that part of lifting the oppressed involves facilitating financial stability whereby heads of households can provide for loved ones and also support those in need through gifts of mercy. We understand the need for quality education for the young and old as they seek to become contributing members of the community.

These declarations require a response from those who are God’s missional representatives within the West Oak Lane community. How should we, the church, respond with a creedal statement that addresses the acute issues of the day?  A majority of local churches in the West Oak Lane are African American and most understand the results of systemic oppression, teen pregnancy, violence and broken homes, etc.  They have also heard many of the questions raised within a context looking for real social change. The ontological and epistemological questions being asked by many white churches in the suburbs are many of the irrelevant questions for many churches birthed in urban, impoverished environments. Many of the Black churches have very orthodox belief systems which has stood the test of time.  These churches have moved onto praxis, answering the question, ‘How do I give out the good news in places where survival is on the minds of residents?

Any church within this particular context should know the importance of identity and must be willing to at least grapple with the false teaching concerning the ‘Curse of Ham’[19] or even combat the idea that Christianity is the white man’s religion. A solid understanding of sound Biblical teaching coupled with an understanding of culture and sociology is important when approaching the massive problems facing the urban Black community.

The economics of a community is vitally important. Joblessness within a minority neighborhood adds a heavy burden to what is already considered to be a difficult life. The broader society may experience growth or recession; however these national gains or losses are either mitigated or intensified within black and brown communities. The national unemployment has stayed at around 7.8% according to statistics put out by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The same report put out as recently as October 5th, 2012 shows that the unemployment rate for the African American community in the month of September is 13.4%.[20] In West Oak Lane the dominant business owners are non-residents who are either Korean, Chinese, of Middle Eastern descent or a major corporation with franchise locations in West Oak Lane.

To further hinder economic progress there is the common presence of pay day loan stores who prey on the poor with excessive interest rates on emergencies loans. The criminal enterprise also impacts the economic stability of a community by keeping both potential business ventures and patrons away. The soup of despair is stirred through animosity and hopelessness. The community becomes a cage with few options prompting residents to dream of leaving rather than remaining and changing a community. No doubt there have been strides in the right direction primarily through the arts and other civic initiatives. The broader culture experiences recovery, but these communities continue to experience generational stagnation.

The scriptures provide an ethic for economic dealings.  The importance of community is tied to the economic success or despair of others (my neighbor). The practice of the Jubilee found in the Mosaic Law gives a model of economic renewal. (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15:1-2; Exodus 23:10-11) In the jubilee there is redistribution of land (wealth) so that it is not tied up in the hands of the few. Wright suggests,

In modern application, that calls for some creative thinking as to what forms of opportunity and resources would enable people to do that, and to enjoy the dignity and social involvement that such self-provision entails…The jubilee then is about restoring to people the capacity to participate in the economic life of the community for their own viability and society’s benefit.  There is both ethical and missional relevance in that.[21]

Wright highlights the redistribution of wealth which may be a hot button issue within the US, but the principle has precedent in the pages of the Scripture.  God’s design for his people under law allowed for the needs of the poor and impoverished—there is a plan for those without to re-enter the world of land ownership and contribution. Biblical scholars agree that the fifty year redistribution and forgiveness of debt has never been practiced in the history of the nation. Is there an opportunity to enact a kind of jubilee year where ex convicts are able to rejoin society or those who for generations have depended on welfare could get a fresh start. A creed or confession where jubilee issues are at least discussed may be an impetus to begin a conversation afresh.

A creed/confessional begins the work within the pews through a solid understanding of the teaching of Scripture. This strong foundation is forged with a weekly or perhaps daily recitation of a creed. The creed/confession provides good pedagogy as the eternal truths are infused and create an unshakable paradigm that can stand the winds of false teaching that spread so quickly through fast paced urban environments.

The following is a practical response for those reciting the ten declarations.  The following declarations are more concerned with the practical outworking of the previous ten declarations.  Eloise Hiebert Meneses in her chapter (Science and the Myth of Biological Race) of the book, This Side of Heaven, Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith, she says, “The church, the new family composed of disciples of Christ, must not only teach, but also demonstrate the practical love of Jesus for people of varying ethnic background.[22]  “They answer the question, “How does this work within my context?”

Declaration of Practice

We confess our faith in the Triune God who knows our needs, provides and sustains us as we seek to remain faithful in the midst of a fallen and unjust world. Our confession leads us to endure through the sufferings of this present world knowing that God rules over all

We confess our faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which has made redemption possible.  He is our Savior and Shepherd who has defeated our enemies; death, sin and the devil. We are freed from the hold of sin and its consequences in all of its various forms. Our confession leads us to walk in victory knowing that our enemies, sin, death and the devil have been defeated.

We confess our faith in God the Holy Spirit who empowers and equips us to fulfill God’s heart which has a special place for the poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed. Through the power of God the Holy Spirit, we are equipped to handle the task of addressing the effects of the fall wherever the Lord places us. Our confession leads us to walk in the power of the Spirit and to produce the character of Jesus Christ in our everyday lives as we fulfill the missional mandate.

We confess our love for all people who are created in the image of God. We will love our enemy as ourselves; we will seek genuine fellowship with those of every race, ethnicity and gender.  We will extend love to those who live lifestyles in opposition to God’s will knowing that it is by grace that we have been saved. We are committed to reaching those who identify themselves as LGBT because God loves them and can free them from destructive behavior.

  • We seek the reconciliation of all things to God and we accept our role as ambassadors of reconciliation. We will work and pray for reconciled homes where fathers are present and mothers are respected. We will work so that children grow up to understand God’s original design for family. We will work and pray that adults and children first find their identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  • We seek racial reconciliation within society wherever we recognize the unjust sin of discrimination whether it presents itself within interpersonally or broadly as institutional racism.

We confess our commitment to work alongside God as He redeems every broken place presently within creation. We will faithfully fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. We will seek to protect and enjoy the natural world as it points to the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Although our surroundings are fallen, we will fulfill God’s original mandate to be a steward over creation.

We confess our faith in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; His death, burial and resurrection, and that it is center of the good news. We will reach those who are lost and broken fulfilling our responsibility to our neighbor. We know that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. We believe that those who have been convicted of crimes and served their debt to society should be able to enjoy the forgiveness and reconciliation that comes as a result of new life in Christ.

We confess our faith in the return of Jesus Christ to rescue His church from the wrath to come.  We believe that Christ expects to see His church working as if He were the recipient of service. We reject the ideology that the gospel does not include doing radical and ongoing social ministry. We understand that it is our role to provide a preview of justice anticipating the just rule of Christ as He reigns during His millennial kingdom.

We confess that God is a covenant keeper and will fulfill His promises concerning Israel as well as the church. We trust Him and know that He has made promises to us and He is true to His word. As a community, we recognize that we are part of a larger group of people called the people of God which includes Israel, Gentiles and the Church. We have a responsibility to recognize past Biblical testimony and enjoy current fellowship with our brothers and sisters from other faiths and lands. As Israel enjoyed the promises of God, the church enjoys God’s promises and blessings.

We confess that we long for our home in heaven where every tear will be wiped away and will rest from our toil in the sweet by and by. Our chief occupation will be worship as we proclaim for eternity, “Worthy is the Lamb”. We don’t cease to fulfill our directive to love God and love others—we work diligently making the most of our time here looking for our Savior to come; Maranatha.

The following are several ideas for the implementation of the West Oak Lane Confessional Statement. There are several ways to implement a community creed. One idea is to create a forum for discussion around the topic. This could be a conference where pastors gather to discuss matters within the community. The conference would host a panel filled with pastors in West Oak Lane. These pastors would field questions about community issue coming directly from residents. These pastors being on the same stage would form connection, if only a visual connection the presence of community pastors on a stage would provide the impetus for the creation of a creed/confessional statement.

Another option would be to create a community website that highlights the West Oak Lane section of the city.  The website would take into consideration the history of West Oak Lane, things like the Annual Jazz Festival[23] which occurs in June each year showcasing well known jazz musicians. West Oak Lane has gone through a very visible restoration due in large part to the presence of very active state representative, Dwight Evans.  The infusion of resources and the ongoing presence and investment of the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) provides the ingredients of a community that is changing, but not as a result of gentrification.[24] In addition to these major players there is a community with a tremendous number of churches, but there remains nothing that unites these community churches.

There is a third method that may work in an urban setting. Urban settings provide the quick distribution of information to pockets of residents in dramatic and sometimes unconventional ways. For example, dance clubs have a guaranteed way of advertisement. These organizations flood certain sections of the community with flashy post cards advertising an event or an artist. The method of skipping church leadership may prepare a community primed for the potential creed/confessional.  I think the advertisement would need to consist of the three parts presented in this paper; 1) Questions being asked by the community, 2) A declaration of belief and,  3) A commitment to action; praxis.  It may be necessary to stay away from the use of the words ‘creeds’, ‘confessional’ and ‘catechism’ statement—the terminology is not transferrable and may keep more people away to the concept.

Lastly, a video documentary that captures the essence of the questions initially proposed would be helpful to a community familiar with youtube or hulu.  This could be done by taping school yards, communities meetings, crime scenes, and the homes in the community. The proposal of the creed is presented in a format that can reach millions, but is organic to the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. The missional component is inherent within the actual creedal statement that answers the initial questions which arise out of the community context.  The practical side of the creed shows that those who sign on are serious about real change. This may seem to be a less dignified way of communicating a new confession, but it is tantamount to Martin Luther’s attaching the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door.[25]

In conclusion, the formation of creeds, confessions and catechisms are nothing new for the church. There are creeds within the text of Scripture. Paul includes one in 1 Timothy where he states, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Tim. 3:16) These are foundational truths infused into the minds and hearts of the community of faith.

The confession or creed by its nature encourages a corporate prophetic declaration among others of like hearts and minds. We can sing or recite with a united voice the truths that we hold close to our heart.  The creeds are tantamount to the Negro spirituals which are sung in many black churches today.  One person begins by moaning the chorus and another person responds to what has been moaned and both are raptured into a shared fellowship of suffering. The spirituals invoke a common narrative. Some might read the spirituals and see an oversimplified faith, almost a kind of surrender to enslavement. Cone gives perspective, “Contrary to popular opinion, the spirituals are not evidence that black people reconciled themselves with human slavery. On the contrary, they are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”[26]

These spirituals have integrated a God who liberates the downtrodden. This same God dwells and gives hope to the slave as they deal with the ferocious oppression placed on their shoulders. Every cry and moan carries a prayer of some kind—some unutterable. What is also significant about the spirituals is that these sacred hymns were originally recited in the presence of the slave master—they were creeds of resistance. William H. Becker adds, “It is the spiritual anguish that permeates first the sorrow songs or spirituals and, later, the blues.  It constitutes the special voice with which American blacks sin and preach their particular appropriation of Christianity, a voice that combines profound pain and unyielding affirmation. “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows but Jesus.” “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?”[27]

Here Becker points to a history of a people that unfurls into songs which have dual meaning depending on audience. To the slave master the spirituals were the aching moans of dehumanized black bodies, but to the slaves these songs were their theological and prophetic reflection about injustice. The hymn “Didn’t My Lord Delivery Daniel” is an example of theological expression from the bottom. This song rises out of the depth of despair to glory.  The eschatological hope that the song ends with shows the ultimate hope of enslaved people.  The strong suggestion is that death and ‘Canaan Land’ were synonymous destinations not to be feared; this was the slaves’ deliverance.

Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel
Deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel
An’ why not-a everyman….

I see my foot on de Gospel ship
An’ de ship begin to sail
It landed me over on Canaan’s shore
An’ I’ll never come back no mo’

Much could be extrapolated about the community that served as midwife to these lyrics. Their theological scope is amazing considering that they received most of their biblical teaching from their oppressors. Most of these slave owners were racist Christians who utilized the scriptures to subjugate those under them. These slaves had to endure and get to know the Christ of Christianity and to reject many of His followers with the understanding that their teaching was false and filled with contradiction. Frederick Douglass said, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”[28] I think Douglass captures the dichotomy of Christianity in America.

These slaves were able to take what they were given, although void of compassion, and create a theology which best expressed their plight and hope. The creation of the Negro Spirituals may provide the West Oak Lane community with a teaching opportunity.  To introduce the Negro Spirituals rather than a Westminster Confession of Faith would give instant credibility for the African American community of West Oak Lane.  It provides a prototype for an earnest and faithful creed that addresses the strongholds that have held this community back from resembling the New Jerusalem that the believer looks forward to.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, Jr., R. Dean. Of the Church; An Historical Overview of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25. Westminster Theological Journal 52, 1997.

Becker, William H. The Black Tradition of Spiritual Wrestling. The Journal of Religious Thought 51, no. Winter-Spring, 1994-1995 .

Bureau of Labor and Statistics US Department of Labor. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf (accessed October 26, 2012).

Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation. Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis, 2010.

Cone, James. Black Spirituals: A Theological Interpretation. In African American Religious Thought; An Anthology, by Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude, 780. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

Conn, Harvie. Contextual Theologies: The Problem of Agendas. Westminster Theological Journal 52, no. 1, 1990.

Corporation, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization. OARCPhilly.com. 2012. http://www.oarcphilly.org/Default.aspx (accessed October 27, 2012).

DeYoung, Kevin. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/05/11/belhar-confession-yea-or-nay/?comments#comments. May 11, 2009. (accessed October 20, 2012).

Douglass, Frederick. http://declaringamerica.com/douglass-slaveholding-religion-and-the-christianity-of-christ-1845/. October 26, 2012.

Festival, Jazz and Arts. http://www.westoaklanefestival.com. June 2011. http://www.westoaklanefestival.com/.

Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament; Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Peabody: Prince Press, 1984

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_Confession_of_Faith. July 29, 2012. http://www.en.wikipedia.com (accessed October 20, 2012).

Meneses, Hiebert Eloise. Science and the Myth of Biological Race. This Side of Heaven, by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, edited by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, 31-46. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Olson, Roger. Patheos.com. February 7, 2012. (accessed October 25, 2012).

Shelton, E Jason, and O Michael Emerson. Blacks and Whites in Christian America; How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Usry, Glenn, and Craig Keener. Black Man’s Religion. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1996.

Villafane, Eldin. Seek the Peace of the City Reflections on Urban Ministry. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God; Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.

Wright, W.E.C. “What is the Apostle’s Creed.” Bibliotheca Sacra 57, no. 226, 1900.

http://www.greatsite.com. http://www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history/martin-luther.html. October 28, 2012. (accessed 2012).


[1] Wright, W.E.C. “What is the Apostle’s Creed.” Bibliotheca Sacra 57, no. 226 (1900): 379.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Peabody: Prince Press, 1984. p. 63

[4]  Anderson, Jr., R. Dean. “Of the Church; An Historical Overview of the “Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25.” Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1997): 178-179.

[5] Ibid.178

[6] Ibid.179

[10] Meneses, Hiebert Eloise. “Scient and the Myth of Biological Race.” In This Side of Heaven, by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, edited by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, 31-46. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. (p.154)

[11]  Flemming, Dean. Contextualization in the New Testament; Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005. (p.153)

[12] Shelton, E Jason, and O Michael Emerson. Blacks and Whites in Christian America; How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions. New York: New York University Press, 2012.(p.52)

[13] Ibid.,p.87

[14] Conn, Harvie. “Contextual Theologies: The Problem of Agendas.” Westminster Theological Journal 52, no. 1 (1990): 62.

[15] James Cone in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation says, “Theology can never be neutral or fail to take sides on issues related to the plight of the oppressed.  For this reason it can never engage in conversations about the nature of God without confronting those elements of human existence which threaten anyone’s existence as a person.  Whatever theology says about God and the world must arise out of its sole reason for existence as a discipline: to assist the oppressed in their liberation.  Its language is always language about human liberation, proclaiming the end of bondage and interpreting the religious dimensions of revolutionary struggle. Cone, James. A Black Theology of Liberation. Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis, 2010. (p.4)

[16]  Villafane, Eldin. Seek the Peace of the City Reflections on Urban Ministry. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995. (p.53)

[17] Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God; Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006. (p. 22)

[18] Roger Olson provides a snap shot of the prosperity theology, “God promises that if you have positive faith and truly believe AND speak that faith with your mouth in positive affirmations (e.g., “God is my source of healing and prosperity; I am well and rich”) God is obligated to heal you and give you financial blessings beyond your wildest dreams.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/02/is-the-prosperity-gospel-heresy/

[19] Usry, Glenn, and Craig Keener. Black Man’s Religion. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1996. (p.70)

[20] Bureau of Labor and Statistics US Department of Labor. “http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf.” http://www.bls.gov. October 5, 2012. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf (accessed October 26, 2012).

[21]  (Wright 2006) p. 297

[22] Meneses, Hiebert Eloise. “Scient and the Myth of Biological Race.” In This Side of Heaven, by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, edited by Robert J Priest and L. Alvaro Nieves, 31-46. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 45

[24] Corporation, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization. OARCPhilly.com. 2012. http://www.oarcphilly.org/Default.aspx (accessed October 27, 2012).

[26] Cone, James. “Black Spirituals: A Theological Interpretation.” In African American Religious Thought; An Anthology, by Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude, 780. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

[27] Becker, William H. “The Black Tradition of Spiritual Wrestling.” The Journal of Religious Thought 51, no. Winter-Spring (1994-1995): 29.

4 thoughts on “A West Oak Lane Confession of Faith

  1. sambutlerjr says:

    Very thorough and thought provoking.

  2. Kyle says:

    Thanks Sam – appreciate you taking the time to read the post.

  3. This is excellent. Thanks for sharing it. Your thoughtfulness and not falling into clichés is so refreshing. I may steal some stuff at some point (with permission!).

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