I do most of my work by contract, which means I'm usually looking for work. When the time comes for me to put my feelers out for new opportunities, I tend to look far and wide. In doing so, sometimes I come across some unexpected prospects.
A couple of years ago, I applied for an editorial position at a magazine. Things were going well until we got down to the final rounds and they placed a statement of faith before me that I was expected to sign. There was much in the document that I didn't agree with, and in general, I balk at signing anything that tries to nail down what I believe or what I claim as a Christian.
I respectfully declined to sign the document, and within the hour, they withdrew my name from consideration for the job. I was recounting this to a friend and fellow writer last night over a beer, and he shared a number of similar experiences. He tends to "get" evangelical Christian culture a bit more than I do, however, so he has found various ways to work around the points of disagreement he finds in such statements.
In one case, at a college where he was applying for undergraduate studies, he performed a line-item edit, striking out everything with which he took issue. Surprisingly, the administrators at the school accepted the revised document and never mentioned his changes.
"The fact is," he said to me, "they wanted my money a lot more than they wanted my conformity. If my parents asked, they could say with confidence that I had signed the statement, and they could claim as much to potential benefactors. The fact that the document I signed hardly resembled the one they gave to me didn't really seem to matter to anyone."
There is another situation where he had to sign a similar statement of faith for a new job. As the human resources staffer went, item-by-item, through the statement, he simply said that he was unresolved about certain points with which he took issue. Granted, he had to go through the requisite training, which included driving home the importance of sticking the claim from particular key "moral issues," but the fact is that no one ever questioned or challenged him about his reservations or difference of views.
The more we talked, the more I realized how many people who signed such statements — and even sometimes those who are soliciting your signature — don't actually agree with the content of the document in question. In many cases, it seems that it is more of a social contract that helps maintain appearances of uniformity, despite the reality that, lo and behold, each organization is made up of individual human beings with individual experiences and opinions.
Such efforts to mold everyone into the same set of practices and beliefs about God seem naïve at best. At worst, it is a dangerous relic of institutional and cultural privilege that a few people in power still used to wield over those who lack such authority. Such legalistic, top-down impartation of beliefs that, ultimately, are deeply personal seems pharisaic not just within our modern cultural context, but also when held up against the type of ministry Jesus actually lived out.
So here is my "modest proposal" for those organizations that feel they need to have some record of the beliefs and values of those within their fold. Rather than telling people what they are supposed to believe and then coercing them into signing it (which we all know doesn't actually change a person's beliefs at all), why don't we take the kind of risks that Jesus himself took when engaging people about their understanding of his nature and the nature of God?
From now on, I propose to replace all statements of faith a much simpler, single question: Who do you say that I am? Then just leave space below for people to share their story. Aside from acknowledging the humanity of those over whom we have influence or power, it also pays due respect to the many ways in which God and the teachings of Jesus are understood, embodied, and lived out in our world.
And who knows? If they are simply willing, perhaps the organizations themselves might discover a richness of understanding that helps them be more Christ-like as well.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.