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One person was rather noticeable at my mother’s funeral. He was a young Black man — the only one there.

Afterward, I introduced myself. He explained that he had come to support my father. My parents had been part of a small, interracial congregation. This young man was a musician there. Once when he was playing a solo, my father stood up. He explained to me that in the African-American tradition to spontaneously stand in worship was to express awe, gratitude, and agreement — that it was a powerful, holy moment. An older, white man standing up, alone, in church, as a gesture of appreciation, meant so much to this musician, he wanted to comfort my dad in his time of sorrow. 

I think of this story when I stand up — especially in worship, but also in other moments of reverence. Although I have never stood up alone and spontaneously, I do like to stand. Probably it has something to do with using my body. Participating fully. Feeling inspired, maybe even a bit courageous. Bold, or at least willing.

At the same time, when I stand to recite a creed — typically the Apostles’ or Nicene — I also recall conversations with good people who’ve expressed their discomfort when a creed appears in worship. These reservations come especially from younger people, often those asking questions — seekers, skeptics, deconstructors, ex-vangelicals. 

To stand and say a creed feels like pressure, conformity. The open, welcoming atmosphere in worship inexplicably flips to acquiescence. Fall in line. Space for doubt is suddenly replaced by rigid doctrine. 

And pretty odd doctrine, at that. “Begotten, not made…”? “Proceeds from the Father and the Son…”? How am I supposed to confess it, when I don’t even know what it means?

I get it. I don’t want to be a hammer pounding flat any nails that dare to rise above uniformity. But let me try to explain why I want to stand up, and why, even with questions and reservations, standing and joining in a creed can be meaningful and beautiful.

I’ve often said that if you don’t have questions about a phrase or two as you’re reciting a creed, then you’re not paying attention. But the creeds are bigger than the sum of their parts. They aren’t a checklist, a true/false test, or a menu. 

When I say a creed I think of myself being joined to Augustine of Hippo and Hildegard of Bingen. I am aligned with Boniface and Corrie ten Boom. I am standing with Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, Anglicans in Hong Kong, and Lutherans in Bethlehem. 

Do we sometimes imagine that we are the first and only person to have questions or doubts about the claims of Christianity? Probably almost all the people that we stand with have had similar wonderings. We aren’t joining ourselves to an army of automatons. Rather those around us are genuine, thinking people, who share our faith and our doubts. 

The four friends who carry their paralyzed friend to Jesus is a wonderful story. That’s the way I understand the creeds. During those times when we are paralyzed, unable to respond or frozen in doubt or despair, our friends carry us to Jesus. The next time, it may be our turn to carry the cot and declare on behalf of our paralyzed sibling, “I believe…” 

Sometimes, I accept things simply because people that I love and admire accept them. When I’m reciting a creed, part of me might be saying, “I don’t really know if I understand or agree with everything here.” But another part of me, usually the louder voice, is saying, “I want to believe like and be like Monsignor Romero and my mentors and my grandmothers.” 

In other words, creeds — or actually following Jesus — are more about community, being part of something bigger than ourselves. 

I wonder if these concerns about conformity and acquiescence don’t owe a bit to habits learned from our modern society — individualism and rationalism. Might we be overly enamored with our own cleverness? Or maybe we could say that sometimes we are a little too earnest. Despite our best intentions, part of us still acts like we must have all the right answers, a perfect score. 

And more than we know, we’ve been trained to emulate the rugged cowboy who refuses to go along, the noble fighter who knows better than everyone else. We, alone, are the final arbiter of all that is true and good. If we don’t understand and one hundred percent agree, then we must disavow. No doubt there is a time to stand apart, even at cost. But might we be overreaching for these heroic turns when there are also luminous moments to be joined to something beyond ourselves? 

More and more we hear appreciation for “mystery” in our Christian faith. Phrases like “he descended to the dead” or “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” might be some of those mysteries we treasure. We don’t have to have absolute clarity about them. 

I’ll stop now. I worry I’m slinging shame on those with honest questions and doubts. I don’t want to be just a different version of the hard-nosed fundamentalist shouting that “asking questions only leads to hell!” When I stand up I’m saying that I want to be part of something bigger and older than myself, beyond my logical categories and parochial perspectives.

Lately, I’ve found much wisdom and solace in these words from Karl Barth: “All those who have to contend with unbelief should be advised that they ought not take their own unbelief too seriously.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    You got it! I love it. And standing makes me more vulnerable than sitting down.

  • Lisa Vander Wal says:

    Amen. “I believe; help my unbelief.”

  • Jill Fenske says:

    Followed the writings on worship of Robert Weber in the 1990s. As a result in our liturgy on Sundays those who are able stand for the reading of the Gospel as a sign of respect.

    I also resonate with the concept of “holding faith” for those who are questioning, those who are struggling with their faith, those who feel distant or angry with God. And indeed the faithful congregation I serve among have done so for one another and for me. Beautiful and humbling gesture for their Pastor.

  • Marc Nelesen says:

    I am going to re-read this article, this time, standing.

  • Clyde Rinsema says:

    Good thoughts, Steve!
    Clyde Rinsema

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Perhaps this is off your main point, but I so loved these words about standing: “Participating fully. Feeling inspired, maybe even a bit courageous. Bold, or at least willing.” Since adopting the intinction method of communion, we, as a congregation, come forward singing; sometimes joyfully triumphant songs and sometimes songs of remembrance or longing. There are those who miss the contemplation of the pew; but many of us feel the participatory nature of the act of moving, in joy-filled anticipation, to the feast. Thank you for your words.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Yes, thanks, Steve. We often underestimate that standing for and affirming the great creeds is as much a matter of strengthening faith as declaring it. A great chorus of assurance sings not only around us but before us. And a deft and bracing quote from Barth!

  • Doug says:

    This was wonderful. Made me smile and cry at the same time.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thanks much. Yes, in our services we do read the Gospel as we stand–and sing. But I do not recall ever reading (not to mention reciting…) a creed or confession in the nine years we’ve been members. We have abundant room for questioning and enjoying the mystery, but maybe a rousing or even meek creed recited or read would be a good thing. I’ll be on this one . . .

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thanks, Steve.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    I’ve taken to saying “I trust…” instead of “I believe” in the Apostles Creed we stand to recite every Sunday in the ELCA church I attend. A few years back I realized that using trust instead of belief makes it much more personal for me, and makes me invest myself in what I’m saying with everyone else. And still allows for all the things we do not understand. I always enjoy your writing, Steve.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your support and appreciation! A few observations:
    Jill mentions “standing, if able.” That’s an important caveat. I hear it expressed in various ways in most congregations these days. I hope those who have difficulty standing hear it as truly allowing them the option of remaining seated.
    As I’ve thought more about my father standing in worship, I’ve wondered how he knew of this practice. I’m stumped.
    While I’m not looking for someone who totally rejects what I say, I half-wish a seeker or ex-vangelical might have engaged with a response along the lines of “I hear you. I understand, nonetheless I’m still not keen on standing for creeds because…”

  • Steve Wykstra says:

    Okay, Steve, thanks for your last comment! Let me then say
    (though yesterday I resolved to keep my mouth so to speak shut) .

    I hear you. I understand. Nonetheless…
    …what you say does, for me, touch on questions
    that trouble me more than they seem to trouble others.
    But how to explain this…?

    I too (like you, if I am hearing you right?)
    when I try to worship on Sundays,
    do so with a kind of inner together-saying confession along these lines:
    “this long tradition going back to Jesus through Kuyper and Calvin and Augustine
    and this tradition-guided covenant people whom I now uneasily join each Sunday,
    *is* the one that,
    despite all my twists and turns,
    has most nurtured me (and also most tormented me)
    over my 70 (or whatever ; ) years…
    and so I am going to keep throwing in my lot with it,
    and keep looking to it for my ultimate sustenance and guidance..”

    But (unlike you?) I am feeling increasing inner pressure to not misuse a word.
    When I sing or say “I believe that X”
    where X is the propositions of a creed or confession or Reformed standard,
    I feel like I am misusing the words “I believe that”
    if the above stance is all I mean to be expressing by them.

    If I’m going to sing or say “I believe that…” in front of various credal propositions
    (e.g. “was begotten, not made”; or “was born of the Virgin Mary”; or “he descended into Hell,”
    I feel like it would misuse language and deceive myself and others if all I mean is:
    “I hereby declare that I seek my sustenance
    within a community descending from those who once believed these statements.”

    So every worship service in my church puts me in a bind.

    It’s not that I can’t say “I believe that” when I’m not sure proposition really comes to, or how it could be
    true. I believe that (and can say “I believe that”) for lots of things that are very mysterious to me. Physics is full of them: I can still say “I believe that” for them. Because I have a basic trust in the authority of the physics community that discovered and hammered out their reliability–even when it is way over my pay grade..

    So it’s not that.

    Which helps, I guess, say what it is.
    It’s that for these Christian propositions, I am now worried about the process by which these credal propositions really got “fixated” –settled, determined– back when, as Eusebius celebrates, Constantine was calling together his Councils to hammer out an orthodoxy. So far, starting to look into it, the worries haven’t gone way. I can’t yet say I trust that process.
    Sometimes I do find myself been looking for a different word — other than “I believe that…” — when I am invited to say or sing a creed in church. I word I can substitute, without anyone noticing too much.

    So far I haven’t found a good one. I still do love and seek the sustenance and nurture I find in the tradition emerging from those who believed these things. Now and then, to express that, I ‘ve said –even when asked to stand! — “I *belove* that (e.g., Jesus was begotten, not made.” (Lewis says somewhere “I believe” comes from “I belove”)
    Or sometimes I pretend I can’t pronounce the “l” sound,
    and I softly say “I *bereive* that (e.g.) Jesus was begotten not made.”
    Which, being homonymous with “bereave,” also touches on the pain
    of lacking a belief that (or even a half-belief that),
    the pain of of trying to be part of a community
    that asks me to utter “I believe that”
    but no longer, so far as I can tell,
    seems to find much place for serious study of such things as
    Neal Plantinga’s 1979 book A Place to Stand.
    with all the beautiful drawings by Paul Stoub,



    But I don’t want to misuse a word.

    +r 74 years.
    +, and that

    I don’t want to misuse a word.

    And I feel like I’d need a new verb,
    if I’m

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