Besides our sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, profession of faith holds a central place in the faith life of individuals and of the church. For most people in the CRC, profession of faith happens during the teen years and functions as a rite of passage from spiritual childhood to spiritual adulthood and as a public vow by which the individual affirms intellectual assent to biblical and theological principles and promises to love and serve God fully for the rest of his or her life.
Intellectual assent to principles of faith used to be the most important aspect of profession of faith. (For example, when I made profession of faith in 1973, one of the questions I was asked as I sat before my pastor and a table full of elders was, “What were the six stages of Christ’s humiliation?”) I thank God that rigorous intellectual understanding about our faith has been and remains a hallmark of the Reformed faith. I thank God too that we now put a much greater emphasis on commitment of the heart and life when we invite young people to make their public profession of faith.
That heavy emphasis on intellectual assent presented a problem for churches in the past when individuals with intellectual disabilities wanted to make a public profession. Because these individuals could not grasp many of the theological principles that pastors and councils considered core to our Reformed faith, they were judged to be spiritually immature and incapable of making a public profession. I thank God that this perspective has changed dramatically, both as profession of faith has come to be seen as a commitment of the heart and hands (and not just the head) and as people with intellectual disabilities have been embraced more and more as fellow members of our covenant communities. (Over the past 30 years, Friendship Ministries has helped churches dramatically in their welcome of people with intellectual disabilities. Resources such as Expressing Faith in Jesus have really helped too.)
A number of years ago, I mentored a young man with significant intellectual disability in his public profession. When the time came for his profession before the congregation, we had distilled the complicated questions asked of most confessors down to two simple ones that he understood: Do you love Jesus? Do you want to live for Jesus? He answered “Yes” to both of these questions and was welcomed into full membership.
This simplified profession of faith still assumes that an individual is capable of answering these two simple questions. Individuals with severe intellectual abilities cannot comprehend the meaning of even these two simple questions. Does this mean that they are barred from making a public profession?
With the decision of Synod 2011, these individuals are now welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper without making a public profession. I thank God for this welcome to the table to some of our most vulnerable members.
Can such individuals also make profession of faith? Not in the traditional sense, no, they cannot. However, churches can invite people to make a public profession by thinking more broadly about what the profession involves.
In part, public profession is a public stand before God and congregation that is made by the individual. Also, public profession is the congregation’s acknowledgement and celebration of the confessor’s faith. This second idea fits well with the Reformed faith’s emphasis on the church as covenant community. None of us ever stands alone before God, but we always stand with fellow Christians before our God who makes and keeps his promises to his people.
For an individual who has severe intellectual disability, public profession of faith can lean heavily on public acknowledgement of the confessor’s faith. A couple years ago, I watched a video created by a congregation for just this purpose. The video featured the young woman’s mother, other care givers, and young people from the congregation all describing what they saw in the faith life of the confessor. They talked about her warm personality, her gifts, and her behavior during public worship and during private family devotions. The video was her profession of faith and a public celebration of her part in the community of faith.
Since this person is not making a clear stand, can we know for sure if this person is saved? No. Neither can we know that any person who makes a public profession is saved; however, we can know and celebrate someone’s part in the community of faith and celebrate his or her expression of faith.