“I” or “We” Believe?

[This is the second interaction with Ben Myers’ new book The Apostle’s Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. Click here to see more posts about this book.]

Picture of Book2I worshipped for two years in a United Methodist congregation. City Well UMC was a diverse and joyful congregation. They prayed the traditional liturgical elements of the UMC Book of Prayer but with spirits of fire. During that time I learned that the prayers, songs, and sacraments all preach in their own way. “The Great Thanksgiving” was itself a blessed sermon, that came from somewhere in the past, but each week challenged me afresh.

So when I began an internship at a United Brethren church whose worship did not include elements like “The Great Thanksgiving,” I began to dream about including bits of the church’s beautiful traditions. The pastor, Kevin, was kind enough to let me try. On one of my first Sundays preaching, I invited the congregation to recite the Apostles’ Creed together. “I believe,” the congregation repeated. “I.” As I read through the creed with all of my brothers and sisters in unison, the “I” felt out of place. What does that word preach? Does it imply Christian faith is mainly an individual thing? Shouldn’t it be “we believe” instead?

In The Apostles’ Creed, Ben Myers asks “Who is the ‘I’ that speaks when we make that confession?” “The whole company of Christ’s followers goes down into the waters of baptism,” Myers writes, “crying out the threefold “I believe!” In baptism, nobody is invited to come up with their own personal statement of belief. All are invited to be immersed into a reality beyond themselves and to join their individual voices to a communal voice that transcends them all.” Much like Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

I think Professor Myers is correct in his interpretation of the baptismal use of the creed. Baptism is an individual’s journey, guided by the church, into communion with Christ and, so, they are “immersed into a reality beyond themselves.” But I still wonder if when the creed is read in corporate worship, in unison, we should use the word “we.” In baptism an individual confesses our shared belief individually, so “I” is appropriate, but in corporate worship an individual confesses our shared belief communally, so “We” seems more appropriate. 

What are your thoughts?

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9 thoughts on ““I” or “We” Believe?

  1. “I” vs “We”. I find great agreement here with the exception an entire congregation that may have some in attendance and even members who really do not “believe” Before , and here I push back against church polity, accepting one into membership or even ordination the “I” is important. Now , having said that, many will say they do when they are so convinced that it is unnecessary because it does not fit they life style let alone the theology of Scripture, note I did not say doctrine.

    • Hi Dr. Stauiffer. Thanks for reading and commenting! What I understand you to be saying is the “I” is preferable to the “We,” so as not to include someone who either doesn’t believe or does not believe in a way that shapes how they live. Is that right?

      • Perhaps my comment needed to include more than what I wrote. As a pastor I cannot control who joins in when reciting the creed(s) any more than who receives The LORD’s Supper, or is baptized. My concern remains just that a concern. My obligation is, and I hope is that of all pastors, to provide clarity in sermons, training of teachers et al of the creed or sacrament. I cannot give an exact quote here but although Peter Bohler’s admonishment to John Wesley to “preach faith till you have it…” could be applied to reciting the creeds. Or, John Hicks message of pluralism be taken as truth so people may visit a service, take communion and recite the creed just to cover the basis. That is why when I lead either the reading or the taking I preface with a short homily of the why and the effect of either.

  2. I wonder: when an individual says the Creed, “I believe…,” are they really saying it individualistically, because even though they intone “I” their individual voice joins those of their brothers and sisters in the community at that exact instant. Myers wants to say that the one who intones is always already part of the larger body, which re-orients what their “I” actually, ontologically means. I’m not saying that so much as this: the I who intones aloud does so in the midst of others who do the same, so her “I believe” isn’t as individualistic as you might worry.

    • Yes! I totally agree, with you and Ben, that the “I” is, in fact, an “I” that is wonderfully and mysteriously united to the holy catholic church, so it is never truly individualistic. My concern–as a pastor in an American church today–is whether the everyday congregant hears and understands it as a united “I.”

      When we perform the creed, I generally introduce it by inviting “all to join the confession the church from every generation and every place.” That’s one attempt to help my congregants see the “I” as united to something bigger than their own personal belief and experience. But I wonder if it may be a helpful–even countercultural–practice to have the congregation confess their beliefs as a “we,” which emphasizes the communal nature of our faith, rather than potentially reaffirming the widespread “individual belief” that turns faith inward. Does that make sense?

  3. I totally get it. You could also say, “We say “I believe” as WE: all of us together here, and all of us with those around the world and in every era.” Its the communal nature of the intonation that I’m emphasizing. No member of your congregation is saying “I believe” alone in the room.

  4. Pingback: When the Author Predicts Your Question – Theology Forum

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