Faith in flag vs faith in God — an argument 1700 years in the making

People raise their hands during the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis. PHOTO: REUTERS
People raise their hands during the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis. PHOTO: REUTERS
David Tombs explains why debate on the Nicene Creed at a Southern Baptist convention attracted wider attention.

Nobody expected the words "Nicene Creed" to be trending in some parts of social media in June 2024.

Alongside the shorter Apostolic Creed, the Nicene Creed sets out the central tenets of historical Christian faith. It is a foundational statement of Christian faith for Catholic, Orthodox and many Protestant churches.

It was first agreed at the Nicene Council called by Emperor Constantine in June 325 in Nicaea (modern-day Iznik, Turkey). The second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (381) developed the creed further.

Given the creed’s importance, many churches have been planning to mark its 1700-year anniversary with events in June 2025.

But few people expected the anniversary to get widespread public attention, and for the creed to get attention 12 months early surprised almost everyone.

The interest this month on social media seems to have been fuelled by discussions at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) which has just met in Indianapolis. The way the creed was discussed at the annual meeting shows how politics can take precedence over faith.

The SBC was founded in 1845 and is the second-largest denomination in the United States (after the Catholic Church), and the largest Baptist organisation in the world.

It is a collective of autonomous congregations held together by shared conservative evangelical beliefs and conservative interpretations of the Bible.

Southern Baptists gave strong political support to Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Their support might still play a crucial role in the November 2024 presidential election.

SBC beliefs are set out in the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), a short statement of SBC’s core convictions.

This has never formally endorsed the Nicene Creed and the SBC has never committed itself to any of the other historical creedal statements recognised by other churches.

The meeting in Indianapolis included three motions that proposed that the SBC should embrace the Nicene Creed as a foundational Christian statement.

Some of the opposition was procedural. It was suggested such theological issues should not be determined by motions at annual meetings but brought forward and discussed in other ways.

It was also claimed that the Baptist Faith and Message statement sets out what is distinctive in SBC teaching but this should not be seen as an exhaustive statement. It therefore does not explicitly need to incorporate historical creeds.

Most Southern Baptists would view their faith as aligned to the central tenets of the Nicene Creed, but at least some who spoke against the proposals pointed to potential concerns over interpretation around baptism and specific words like ecumenical and catholic.

In the fourth century, "ecumenical" referred to the whole church, and "catholic" referred to "universal".

Now, however, "ecumenical" is more suggestive of work towards church unity, and "catholic" is associated with Roman Catholic.

As a conservative Protestant church, the SBC keeps its distance from both, and the language was described as potentially causing confusion.

The outcome of SBC discussions on the Nicene Creed were mixed. One of the proposals was defeated, and the other two were referred for further discussion.

A separate proposal to ban churches with women pastors was narrowly defeated.

The main reason that SBC debate on the issue subsequently went so viral on social media was because after different viewpoints had been aired, the SBC messengers rose in unity to affirm the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag and the republic.

For many commentators the move from theological discussion of the creed to the political affirmation of the pledge captured so much of what is wrong in the SBC.

The visual contrast between SBC’s hesitancy and apparent division over the Nicene creed versus SBC unity over a patriotic pledge was stark. The contrast provided a goldmine for social media comment and memes on how the SBC seems to be more committed to political power and national identity than to God.

For Christians in New Zealand, the images from Indianapolis are a helpful reminder that the anniversary of Nicaea next June should celebrate the theological beliefs and values at the heart of historical Christian faith.

The anniversary should affirm what is shared by so many churches and reaffirm that Christian faith should always remain above party politics and national interest not vice-versa.

David Tombs in the Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago.