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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 75–80 

The Place of Ethical Statements in a Confession of Faith

Gus Quadrizius

Theological and ethical diversity is becoming more noticeable among Mennonite Brethren. It is conceivable that this trend will continue. In an attempt to preserve confessional unity, the appropriateness of ethical statements in a confession of faith has been questioned. To aid us in grappling with this issue, I wish to raise three points: (1) the relationship between ethics and doctrine in the Scriptures, (2) the place of ethics and doctrine in the teaching ministry of the church, and (3) factors that determine the contents of a confession of faith. The first of these points is the most important and therefore receives the most attention.

Does the Bible separate between doctrine and ethics? . . . yes and no.


Does the Bible separate between doctrine and ethics? The answer is yes and no. While there is a separation between the two, there is also a unity between them. It is important to understand this relationship.

The separation between doctrine and ethics is evident in how sinners are brought into God’s kingdom. It is not by good works. As Abraham was justified {76} when he believed God, so we too are justified if we believe God in what he has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, namely that, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25, all quotes are from the NIV). This is where the covenant at Mount Sinai differs so drastically from the covenant sealed by Christ’s blood. The effectiveness of the former depended on the obedience of people. The effectiveness of the latter depends on the faithfulness of God, because everything that needs to be done to bring a sinner into covenant relationship, is done by God himself.

It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant and I turned away from them declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord; I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts; I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Heb. 8:9-12; emphasis added).

Indeed, God is the author and finisher of our faith. It is his work alone that makes sinners children of the living God. All Scripture bears witness to this (John 3:15-16; Acts 10:43; Gal. 3:2-3).

While Scripture is clear that ethics are not a consideration in why and how God grants eternal life, it does not eliminate the importance and even the necessity of good works. It only states that the grace of God is not given on account of works. We must allow the Scriptures to speak on the place and importance of good works.

There is no doubt that the Bible has much to say about ethics. What place do the Scriptures give them? First, good works reflect the nature of eternal life. Our Lord teaches, that as a tree always bears fruit consistent with its nature, so also people do what is consistent with their nature. The apostle Paul uses a similar argument. He reasons, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (5:20). That sounds like a license to sin or immunity from prosecution. Anticipating this accusation he continues to show that this is not {77} possible because of the nature of the new life which grace imparts: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” The message of mercy is not understood as an invitation to become careless about sin, because by nature those who have received new life have become haters of sin and lovers of righteousness. When they fall into sin they are not comfortable in it, they want out. Sin has become their enemy.

For this reason good works are necessary for proof of eternal life. Just as the nature of a tree determines its fruit, so also the fruit gives evidence of the kind of tree it is. In order to be able to separate the true from the false, Jesus says,

By their fruits you will recognize them . . . (Matt. 7:1ff.).

Therefore, for a faith to be saving, it must result in good works. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).

The apostle John, in his first epistle, argues that one proof of eternal life rests on this vital relationship between faith (doctrine) and works (ethics). He shows that in God’s children there must be a vital link between doctrine, obedience, and relationships:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-12).

While there is a clear separation of purpose and place between ethics and doctrine, there is no difference in emphasis or importance.

Good works are, in part, the purpose of redemption. Salvation from hell is not the primary explanation of God’s grace. He has purchased for himself a people fitted for good works—“who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). Good works, therefore, are a vital part of evangelism: {78}

You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14, 16).

Indeed, they constitute an essential part of the Christian calling:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).


A glance at church history tells us that errors in doctrine and ethics can be equally dangerous. The problem is not the church’s over-emphasis of one or the other. It is the insufficient emphasis of either and the improper view of the relationship between them that creates difficulties. The balance of emphasis in the teaching of the New Testament is our example to follow.

Ephesians 4:1 illustrates how doctrine and ethics are to be kept in proper balance. The apostle tells the Ephesian church, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” That statement is a deliberate challenge to apply the doctrines he has presented in the first three chapters. The adverb, “then,” links the predominantly practical section of Ephesians (chs. 1-3) to the predominantly doctrinal section (chs. 4-6). To “live worthy of the calling,” is a challenge to apply correct doctrine in the form of holy living.

Similarly, Romans chapter 12 begins to apply the doctrines set forth in the preceding chapters. The emphasis is on ethical issues which are applications of doctrines.

The teaching ministry of the church must keep this balanced approach between doctrine and ethics. Churches and denominations have suffered severe consequences in neglecting either one. The priority of doctrine is one of order, not of importance. It may be argued that doctrine is foundational to ethics. But the whole point of a foundation is to adequately support a structure. In itself it becomes quite useless. Similarly, a structure without a foundation is quite dangerous. {79}


Philip Schaff points out that, “A creed may cover the whole ground of Christian doctrine and practice, or contain only such points as are deemed fundamental and sufficient, or as have been disputed” (Schaff, 1:4). This allows for great variety. The contents, however, are not determined in the isolation of a scholar’s study but by the theological and ethical milieu of the time. They emerge out of their own Sitz im Leben and carry the marks of history on them (Leith 2,3). For this reason there is great variation in the historical creeds and confessions. They were written to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy or the church from the world or denomination from denomination. Luther, for example, was disturbed by the deplorable moral conditions he had seen among the laity and the clergy and thus produced the Small and Large Catechisms (Schaaf 16).

Changing historical conditions also demand periodic revisions. The issues with which the church grapples change from generation to generation. Therefore, revisions need not be the result of a changing faith; they may well reflect a living faith that seeks to be relevant in its time.

Is it appropriate, then, to include ethical statements in a confession of faith? Yes. I offer several guidelines that may govern their inclusion. First, ethics must not be regarded as secondary to the Christian faith. While doctrine is foundational, the marriage between doctrine and ethics is so complete that a separation between them does violence to the whole. This unity must be reflected in the church’s teaching and in its statements of faith.

Second, ethical statements which are distinct to a denomination should be included. For the Mennonite Brethren this would include a statement on love and nonresistance.

Third, ethical statements that clarify a denomination’s beliefs on intense controversies in its age should be incorporated as part of its prophetic witness and evangelistic voice. It would not be surprising to see various denominations include statements on the sanctity of life as it affects the unborn in future revisions of their statements of faith.

Fourth, inclusions should be limited to issues which are central to the faith and not to peripheral matters. It may be difficult at times to distinguish between that which is central and peripheral. For this reason a denomination should not be {80} hasty in revising its confession of faith. Time and debate within the brotherhood is needed to see some issues clearly. Hasty revisions would do more to divide a denomination than to unify it. At all times a confession of faith is to reflect the centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom. By his grace we strive for that.


  • Leith, John H., ed. Creeds of the Churches. 3rd ed. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.
  • Schaaf, James L. “The Confession-Making Process Among Lutherans in the 10th Century.” Studies: The Confession-Making Process, Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. St. Catharines, Ontario: Concordia Seminary Library, 1975. Unpublished.
  • Schaff, Philip. Creeds of Christendom. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1977.
  • Volz, Carl A. “The Confession-Making Process in the Early Church.” Studies: The Confession-Making Process, Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. St. Catharines. Ontario: Concordia Seminary Library, 1975. Unpublished.
Gus Quadrizius is the pastor of Niagara Christian Fellowship, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

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