Confessions: Thick or Thin?
Confessions of faith come in all sizes. You have comparatively thick ones (like the Westminster Confession of Faith), medium-thickness ones (like the New Hampshire Confession), and thin ones (like the statements of a few churches I’d rather not point you toward!).
The driving question behind the thickness or thinness of a statement of faith is, how much do Christians need to agree upon to be a church? Longer confessions imply more; shorter confessions imply less.
Either way, the underlying assumption is that a church’s existence depends upon nothing if not its confession. Jesus said he would build his church on confessors confessing the right confession (Matt. 16:16-18). So what must be included in that confession for us to be a church?
THE SALVIFIC MINIMUM PLUS WHAT?
I assume that all Christians would affirm that we need to agree upon Peter’s Matthew 16 confession—that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (v. 16). But what else? The nature of Scripture? The Trinity? A detailed account of the gospel and salvation? Providence? The work of the Spirit? The nature of the church and the ordinances? The end times?
The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, which is used by many churches as well as the institutions of the SBC, has statements on evangelism and missions, education, stewardship, the Christian and the social order, peace and war, religious liberty, and the family. Other ministries confess that church members must abstain from alcohol, not wear casual clothes to church, and, if the church uses “taped” music, know “the background of the musicians and their testimony.”
BUILDING A PROTECTIVE HOUSE AROUND THE PRECIOUS CENTER
Nearly all churches require members to assent to more than just the bare minimum of what it takes to be saved, however that minimum might be construed. Even a comparatively thin statement, for instance, might require a person to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, and it’s not immediately evident to me that someone must believe in Scripture’s inerrancy to be saved.
After all, a good confession will try to build a doctrinal house around that salvific minimum. It will erect the doctrinal foundation, walls, and roof necessary for protecting that salvific center from the blazing sun of ignorance and torrential storms of heresy (see Eph. 4:14). In that sense, a good confession, in addition to affirming the bare minimum, tries to shepherd the church toward more mature understanding and unite it around a stronger structure.
For instance, my church’s medium-sized statement (adapted from the New Hampshire Confession) spends 808 words explaining the nature of salvation under the subheadings “Of the Fall of Man,” “Of the Way of Salvation,” “Of Justification,” “Of the Freeness of Salvation,” “Of Grace in Regeneration,” “Of Repentance and Faith,” “Of God’s Purpose of Grace,” “Of the Righteous and the Wicked,” and “Of the World to Come.” Meanwhile, another much-more well-known church spends exactly 44 words covering the same terrain: “We believe Jesus died on the cross and shed His blood for our sins. We believe that salvation is found by placing our faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. We believe Jesus rose from the dead and is coming again.”
This church’s statement, in my mind, captures the bare minimum of what is necessary to be saved. But how strong and safe do those 44 words make the church against the winds of cultural decline and false gospels? It might be helped, for instance, by this floorboard from my church’s statement, which not only affirms faith but renounces works: “justification . . . is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood.” Or this exterior wall, which affirms not only Jesus’ return but an endless separation: “the wicked will be adjudged to endless punishment, and the righteous to endless joy; and that this judgment will fix forever the final state of men in heaven or hell.”
How deep the doctrinal foundation of a confession should be, and how thick the walls, is a judgment call. You don’t want a cardboard shack that topples with the slightest gust of heterodoxy. But nor do you need Fort Knox.
WHO KEEPS THE CHURCH FAITHFUL?
Another factor which affects the thinness or thickness of a confession is the question of who in the church is finally responsible for maintaining a church’s confessional faithfulness.
The governing documents of some churches give responsibility for maintaining faithfulness to the officers, which means the officers have the final authority to exclude or excommunicate. In such cases, the members are often required to affirm only a fairly minimal confession. Doctrinal fidelity does not depend upon them, after all, and so they don’t need to personally erect the whole house around that precious salvific center. The officers are responsible for that.
When the documents give responsibility to the whole congregation for maintaining a church’s doctrinal faithfulness, however, the church will probably want a slightly “thicker” confession for the members. All the flock must affirm all the confession because the flock is finally responsible for guarding that confession—the whole house.
As an example of the former model, the elders in a Presbyterian Church of America church must affirm the entire Westminster Confession of Faith. Members, however, must merely say “yes” to these five questions (taken from the bbok of Church Order, 57-5):
- Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
- Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
- Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
- Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
- Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
Notice that members of a PCA church don’t have to affirm much, at least formally. There is no explicit reference to a doctrine of Scripture, the Trinity, substitution, justification, or the resurrection. In fact, they only have to affirm 36 words (not 44 or 808) describing and affirming the gospel (#2). Strictly speaking, then, an inerrancy-denying Arian who affirmed Christus Victor and denied penal substitution could say “yes” to these five questions and become a member of a PCA church.
At the same time, to be sure, these gospel specifics (substitution, resurrection, justification, etc.) belong to the church’s overall confessional and historical context. Meaning: the elders must affirm the more expansive confession; the elders teach everyone joining the church from that confession; and any PCA elder worth his salt, when interviewing member candidates, will make sure that a person affirms the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, and so forth. So, typically, a slightly more substantive confession of faith is at least implied when a member-candidate makes these five vows.
But notice what’s going on. In a non-congregational church, the church’s confessional faithfulness depends finally upon the officer’s faithfulness, which means a Presbyterian elder will affirm everything a Baptist church member affirms and more. But there is a wee bit more flexibility in the joints for what a member does or doesn’t have to affirm. An elder or a session might not like it if a member candidate denies inerrancy, but they can decide to admit such a person to membership because the church’s gospel faithfulness does not finally depend upon the members.
In a congregationalist conception, again, the whole church is responsible to protect the church’s gospel doctrine. As such, Baptist churches, historically, have required every member to affirm not just the gospel, but the component pieces of the gospel (e.g. Trinity, substitution, resurrection, justification, faith alone, Jesus’ return, etc.) as well as a few doctrines which are critical to protecting and maintaining the gospel over time (e.g. Scripture as inerrant revelation, believer’s baptism). If you believe the people are responsible for guarding the gospel, you want to make sure they know what they are talking about!
SO . . . THICK OR THIN?
So how thick or thin should a church’s confession of faith be? Well, the storms that a church will experience depend, to some measure, on the cultural weather patterns of where it’s planted. A church next to a mosque in Dubai or just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts or down the street from the Vatican City in Rome will experience different types of winds. And churches today are experiencing different storms than churches yesterday. So though I prefer historical documents, for the reasons Bobby Jamieson presents, I do think we should be mindful of the dynamics of context.
Further, I’m convinced that every Christian occupies Adam’s office of priest-king, which means every Christian is responsible to watch out for serpentine intruders (like Adam was supposed to do) and to keep the holy separate from the unholy (like the priests were to do), as Paul argues in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. How then can one possibly think that the every Christian (and therefore the whole congregation) is not responsible for protecting the gospel and maintaining the church’s gospel faithfulness! As one book I read puts it, to remove responsibility from the members is to fire them from their God-given job. It promotes complacency, nominalism, theological liberalism. Instead, I believe that Scripture teaches that all the saints are responsible to protect the faithfulness of churches, which means the whole congregation should affirm the entire statement of faith, and there should not be a separate statement for just elders.
More specifically, every member of a church should be asked to affirm those doctrines which help to protect the what of the gospel and the who of the gospel.
CONFESSIONS SHOULD INCLUDE…
1. Doctrines that Proclaim and Protect the What of the Gospel
Arguably, protecting the what of the gospel will mean including statements on the nature of God and the Trinity, the doctrine of humanity and the fall, Christ’s person, Christ’s work (substitution, justification), the Spirit’s person and work, repentance and faith, sanctification and perseverance, Christ’s return, and final judgment.
I also think it requires a statement on Scripture, by which we know all these things.
2. Doctrines that Proclaim and Protect the Who of the Gospel
Insofar as Scripture specifically authorizes churches to guard not just the gospel but the people of the gospel (e.g. Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5), churches need to be able to agree on what the church is and how the identity of the church is affirmed. Is the church, by design, a mixed community, consisting of believers and their children? Or is it, by design, an unmixed community, consisting only of believers? A group of Christians’ answer to that question will dictate how they view baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As such, I think confessions must also include some type of affirmation both on the church and the ordinances.
These days, more and more Western churches, feeling the pressure of changing sexual mores, have begun to include statements on biblical sexuality. Better, I think, would be to include some type of statement on how the Lordship of Christ and the call to repentance governs the entirety of a Christians life, including a Christian’s sexuality, finances, work, and so forth. A further word could then be spoken in this context about sexuality belonging to marriage, marriage belonging to a man and a woman, and so forth. Framing the matter in this way places the ethical requirements inside of gospel beliefs, rather than privileging this one ethical claim to a place where it sits alongside of the gospel.
CONFESSIONS SHOULD NOT INCLUDE…
Additionally, confessions of faith should not include:
1. Doctrines on Matters where the What and the Who of the Gospel Are NOT at Stake
The what and the who of the gospel (I don’t believe) are not at stake over whether or not God unilaterally elects individuals to salvation (though I think he does). In other words, I believe that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists should be able to join the same church. Now, you may disagree with me, and believe that one’s position on Calvinism is essential to maintaining the gospel. If you do, then you should probably hardwire your position into your statement of faith.
Further, I don’t believe that one’s position on the millennium is critical for maintaining the gospel. As such, I wish all churches would remove such positions from their statements, and not divide the body of Christ over the millennium.
To be sure, all doctrine impinges on the gospel in some way. Ultimately, then, a church must make a judgment call: doctrines that impinge directly and immediately on the gospel should be included in the statement of faith (like justification or repentance and faith); doctrines that don’t bear an immediate affect on the gospel or the salvific minimum can be left as places where church members agree to disagree (like the millennium).
But even if different churches will disagree about which doctrines fall on this side of the line or that, I would still recommend this is the question we should ask for what goes in and what stays out: is this particular doctrine close enough or important enough to the gospel that, to remove it from a church’s confession, will quickly threaten the church’s ability to remain a faithful gospel church? Does it play a critical role in holding the house together?
2. Matters of Christian Freedom
Finally, statements of faith should not divide the body of Christ over matters of Christian freedom. To do so, I believe, is to deny the gospel and undermine justification by faith alone. Forbidding members from drinking alcohol, for instance, is a clear example of this.
In the final analysis, a good confession of faith will probably please Goldilocks: not too thick and not too thin, but just right.
It should equip the saints for the work of the ministry in the building up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith, not tossed to and fro by the wind of every false doctrine and the waves of human cunning (Eph. 4:11-16).
It will shepherd, unify, protect, and guide. And on confessors confessing such confessions, Christ will build his church.