Why (and How) Your Church Should Hold the 1689 Confession
Introductory remarks by Mark Dever May 27, 2005
“This article considers the question of why a church should consider using the Second London Confession (1689) as its church statement of faith. It has been occasioned by an article by Shawn Wright in the 9Marks e-newsletter in which Shawn concludes that the 1689 confession is not the best confession for a congregation to use. While I agree with many of Shawn’s points, I regret needless division over this. I love and appreciate the 1689 confession, and the sister churches who use it; and I would not want to discourage them in their God-glorifying work in any way. How a statement of faith is used is as much at issue in this discussion as which statement of faith is used. I hope and pray that vigorous and charitable discussion of the congregational use of statements of faith will be encouraged by this exchange. It is a good conversation to be had between brothers, and it should be had in a way which encourages us all to get on with the work according to the best light we have. Sam Waldron, a friend and co-laborer in the gospel, associate pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, Owensboro, Kentucky, has submitted this defense of using the 1689 confession. He instructs us well on the practice of many Reformed Baptist churches and provides good food for thought.”
Let me begin by thanking 9Marks for graciously allowing me this opportunity to respond to Shawn Wright’s article, “Should you use the 1689 London Confession in your church?” Fairness to Wright dictates that this essay not greatly exceed his in length. A more extended rebuttal will be published in the June 15 issue of the Founder’s Journal. Allow me to say that it gives me no joy to criticize the essay of my friend, Shawn Wright. It is only a sense of the importance of the issues he raises that constrains this response.
The Historical Context of the 1689
Wright argues that the 1689 is historically conditioned by the religious events of seventeenth century England and concludes that for this reason the 1689 is not to be “used as a local church statement of faith.” But how does this follow? All statements of faith are so conditioned, and all by this reasoning would be disqualified from being statements of faith.
Wright’s comments leave the impression that the historical origins of the 1689 are somehow “accidental” to the identity of Particular or Reformed Baptists. The Particular Baptists, however, were not Baptists who by some historical quirk happened to be Reformed. Particular Baptists emerged from the Puritan movement by means of Puritan Congregationalism. [See Erroll Hulse, An Introduction to the Baptists (Hawards Heath, Sussex, England: Carey Publications, 1973), 1720; James M. Renihan, “The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Evengelical divinity School, 1997), 1-31.] These Baptists were distinct from both Anabaptists and General Baptists and at pains to make this clear in the First and Second London Baptist Confessions. The 1689 Baptist Confession is not “accidental,” but reflects the distinctive nature of Particular or Reformed Baptists.
To underscore the historical context of the 1689 Wright notes that at 26:4 it asserts that the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist. It need not be denied that a slight revision of the 1689 Confession is necessary here. Reformed Baptist churches today, when they express their allegiance to the Confession in their constitutions, commonly make an exception of this statement.
The Purpose of Local Churches’ Statements of Faith
There is a non sequitur in Wright’s reasoning. Having said that the 1689 fails to function well for the purpose of determining the contours of the church’s teaching ministries and as a teaching tool, he proceeds to argue on this basis that the 1689 is too specific in what it requires for church membership. Wright has changed the subject. Which is it? Is the 1689 too doctrinally specific as a teaching tool for leading church members to “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col 4:12) or too doctrinally specific in its conditions for church membership? Perhaps Wright does not distinguish these two things. I can only say that they seem emphatically different to me and that this difference—as I will make clear below—is foundational to a proper understanding of confessionalism.
The Doctrinal Specificity of the 1689
Wright finds the 1689 Confession too doctrinally specific and provides three illustrations of this excessive tightness. He finds its assertion of “a literal six-day creation,” “definite atonement,” and “a Sabbatarian view of the Lord’s Day” too strict. He remarks that such doctrinal rigidity “stops believers from uniting with each other as members in a local church,” limits “membership,” and are “required belief(s) for church membership.”
If he thinks that a church’s holding the 1689 Baptist Confession requires such limitations on membership, Wright is misinformed. My own experience as a pastor of Reformed Baptist churches holding the 1689 dates from 1977. The churches I have pastored during that time do not limit church membership to those who hold every jot and tittle of the Confession. The circular letter prepared for the 2005 Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America General Assembly by Dr. Jim Renihan is entitled, “The Doctrinal and Practical Standards for Local Church Membership according to the Bible and the Second London Confession of Faith.” Renihan in that letter remarks: “We must notice what the Confession does not say. It does not say that every believer must have a full-blown understanding of Christian theology, even of its own theology, in order to become part of a church.” One pastor present at the General Assembly’s discussion of this letter remarked, “For most of our churches, full (not absolute) subscription is required only of the elders.” Wright may think such flexibility inconsistent, but he should not imply that those who hold the 1689 require full subscription of all church members.
Why Church Membership Does Not Require Full Subscription
Is it consistent for churches holding the 1689 not to require full subscription of all church members? The fundamental thing to understand in response to this question is that the formally adopted confessions or statements of faith of a local church do not possess of themselves divine authority. They are a kind of human authority. They are confessions—what we confess. They are creeds—from the Latin credo—what the church believes.
The fact that confessions possess only human authority means that no confession (or church) ought to demand absolute agreement, blind faith, or implicit obedience. Only divine authority may require such responses. Still, confessions have a human kind of authority. The key word used in the Bible for how we should relate to such human authority is hupotassein which has for its essential idea subjection or subordination. While subordination may involve agreement and usually requires obedience, these are distinct concepts. While the Bible requires subordination to divine authority, its requirements go far beyond mere subjection. Human authority, however, is commonly and essentially described as subjection or subordination. Children are to be subject to parents (Luke 2:51; Heb 12:9), slaves to masters (Titus 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18), women to men in church (1 Cor 14:34), wives to husbands (Eph 5:24; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1, 5), subjects to their civil authorities (Rom 13:1, 5; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:13), the younger to the elder (1 Pet 5:5), prophets to the whole prophetic band (1 Cor. 14:32), Christians to Christian ministers (1 Cor 16:16). Even demons are subject to the seventy, and this clearly does not mean that they agree with them (Luke 10:17).
In the confessions of local churches we have to do with a special kind of human authority. Though children, for instance, cannot choose their parents, Christians may choose the local church they will join. Every Christian must seek to join a local church, but he is not obligated to join any particular local church. Here he is left to his own conscience bound by the Word of God. Clearly, where subordination to a human authority is voluntary in its origin (whether of a prospective wife to a prospective husband or of a prospective church member to a prospective church and its confession), as much agreement as possible should be sought. Yet, just as a bride ought not to think that she must agree with her prospective husband about everything in order to submit to him, so also a prospective church member ought not to think that absolute or full agreement with the church, its elders, or its confession is necessary in order to subordinate himself to them. To think that such agreement is required in order to such submission would practically destroy both marriage and the local church. None of us—not even any of us Christians—has such perfect agreement with other human beings.
This view of the church’s confession has great, practical bearing on the church member’s relationship to the church and its confession. Though the elders on behalf of the church must inquire if a prospective church member has any actual disagreements with the confession and determine whether such disagreements are consistent with church membership, from the viewpoint of the prospective member only the measure of agreement sufficient to make subordination possible is necessary. This certainly requires that all prospective members be familiar with the church’s confession, but it does not require that they fully understand or agree with the confession of the church. If they agree with it sufficiently to submit to it sweetly, live with it peaceably, and respond to its exposition teachably, this is all that it is required. Of course, if someone cannot be sweet, peaceable, and teachable under the teaching of any given confession, this is a barrier to church membership.
It is clear from all this that a vital distinction must be maintained between the members and the elders of the church. Members need only submit to the confession. Elders are obliged to teach it (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24; Titus 1:9). Thus, pastors must have a much greater degree of agreement with the confession than that required of church members. From this perspective, Wright’s slipping (in the non sequitur I pointed out above) from the use of the confession as a teaching tool to the requirement of full subscription of church members obscures a vital distinction.
Failure to make this distinction has serious consequences. Wright’s position requires that the church confess only as much as its newest, baptized member understands and believes. This is clearly wrong. Surely the Bible requires the church to believe and confess much more than this. The great Reformation confessions are treasuries of what the church had come to believe over the previous 1600 years. The confession of the church must not be held hostage to the immaturity of its youngest members. The youngest members must be nurtured redemptively and lovingly up into the fullness of its faith.
Why Differences Should Not Be Veiled by Complaints about Specificity
Wright’s desire for less specificity in confessions veils what I believe to be important doctrinal differences between him and the 1689 Confession. Let me hasten to say that he may not think these differences important, but I may! I should be allowed to decide for myself if they are—without being accused of exclusivity, rigidity, and tightness. I am not prepared to assume that no great doctrinal differences are revealed by variant views on six-day creationism, definite atonement, or the Christian Sabbath. Charges of too much doctrinal specificity in the 1689 Confession derail important theological discussions that need to take place today among Baptists of Calvinistic persuasion.
Why Churches Ought to Hold the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith
Let me close by giving my readers a number of reasons why local churches should hold the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Churches should hold the 1689 because:
- It is a repository of the great doctrines of Christian orthodoxy regarding the Scriptures, the Trinity, and the Person of Christ.
- Its distinctives are biblical. Its Reformed approach to God, His decree, the work of Christ, the application of salvation, the law of God, and Christian worship is biblical. Its Baptist approach to the covenants, the ordinances, and the local church are all deeply and substantially biblical.
- It identifies them with their historical origins. There are great and important historical differences between Anabaptists, General Baptists, and Particular Baptists.
- It provides both an adequate standard of church membership and a wonderful goal for instruction. The 1689 provides a rich treasure of truth to set before new members as a goal for their Christian maturation.
Let me close with an illustration. Wright invites you to go with him to the church picnic and share with him his little basket of truth. The food in it is good and nutritious, but limited in its variety, flavor, and quantity. I also invite you to go with me to the church picnic. I have in the back of my SUV a large cooler full of wonderful ice-cold drinks and a gigantic picnic basket filled with luscious foods. I will not even make you eat every one of my treats—even though I think them all delicious. It seems to me the reader’s choice is clear.