Without Exception: How to Handle Exceptions to the Statement of Faith
Mark Dever and I were conducting a typical membership interview at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. As always, Mark asked if the prospective member was willing to sign the church’s statement of faith, indicating his willingness to be held accountable to the truths confessed by our church. The young man affirmed that he was ready to sign but wondered if he could take exception to the statement affirming the “endless punishment of the wicked.” He wasn’t settled in his convictions, but he was leaning toward some version of annihilationism—the idea that the unsaved simply cease to exist after death. Somewhat to my surprise, Mark stopped the interview. A brief discussion ensued about the importance of the doctrine of hell, Mark suggested some further reading, and the interview was over. We didn’t even hear his testimony.
Was that an over-reaction? After all, the young man had just given us an excellent summary of the gospel and affirmed his faith in that gospel. If the gospel isn’t sufficient for membership, then don’t we run the risk of becoming unbiblically exclusive and uncharitably narrow? On the other hand, if we don’t agree on what we believe, how can we meaningfully pursue a common practice of discipleship and accountability to the truth?
TWO QUESTIONS FOR EVALUATING EXCEPTIONS TO THE STATEMENT OF FAITH
What do we do when someone takes exception to our church’s statement of faith? Here are two things to consider.
First, does the exception effectively alter the gospel?
We can summarize the gospel as a message that tells us something about God, ourselves, Christ, and how we should respond. On that summary, neither the Trinity nor the hypostatic union is the gospel. But if someone takes exception to the belief that God is triune or the Son of God is both fully God and fully man, then the gospel they profess has been altered. For example, a denial of the hypostatic union means that the gospel is no longer the biblical proclamation of the Father’s purpose to save a people by the propitiation of his own wrath through the representative sacrifice of his own Son.
Likewise, as we discussed with the young man that evening, if what we are saved from is less than eternal punishment, then the nature of Christ’s atoning work is changed. He no longer suffered our punishment in full for us, but simply provided a way for us to avoid the fate of eternal non-existence. What’s more, the nature and urgency of our gospel appeal is diminished. We’re no longer calling people to choose between heaven and hell, but between heaven and nothing.
A few years ago, a man in the church I now pastor informed the elders that he was no longer certain he believed in the inerrancy of Scripture or the eternal punishment of the wicked. At the same time, his belief in (and explanation of) the necessity of salvation by grace alone through the penal substitutionary death of Christ alone remained intact. It was tempting to retain him in membership on the basis of his belief in the gospel. After all, he was not divisive and was well loved. But having rejected the authority on which our faith is based, and the judgment from which we are saved, we concluded that however correct the formulation, the gospel he confessed was a different gospel and we accepted his resignation on the basis of unbelief in these two doctrines.
What are the doctrines essential to a biblical understanding of the gospel? At the very least, they include our doctrines of Scripture, the Trinity, the imago Dei, original sin, the person and work of Christ, justification, sanctification, and the future state of the righteous and the wicked. Change any of these doctrines and you change the gospel. Therefore, you should not take exceptions here.
Second, does the exception effectively alter the church and a member’s relation to the church?
A statement of faith not only summarizes those doctrines necessary for a biblical understanding of the gospel, it also summarizes what a church believes about itself, its organization, and its mutual relations between members. These matters aren’t essential to the gospel and salvation, but they are essential to a visible church’s life together. And that’s no small thing, because we understand the visible church is the display of the gospel on earth (Eph. 3:10).
Some questions about a church’s organization admit multiple options that don’t finally prevent our ability to live and work together. Things like the role of committees or how we organize deacons should not divide us, and for that reason probably don’t belong in a statement of faith.
On the other hand, matters of government, leadership, and membership are fundamental to a church’s identity. For example, the Bible establishes two biblical offices: elders and deacons. No one can, in good conscience, submit to the authority of an office they deny exists, or to officers they deny are qualified. Practically, that means complementarians cannot submit to the authority of female elders, and congregationalists cannot submit to the authority of presbyteries or bishops.
Or take membership, expressed in our practice of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper. When I lived in DC, two of my closest friends were paedobaptists and wanted to join Capitol Hill Baptist Church. They were willing to submit to the church’s teaching on baptism and not speak against it, but were unwilling to be baptized upon their profession of faith, maintaining that they’d already been truly baptized as infants. We could not take them into membership and thus admit them to regular participation in the Lord’s Supper. A church either baptizes babies, or it doesn’t. A church either takes into membership people who have been biblically baptized, or they don’t require biblical baptism. A church either admits to the Lord’s Supper the unbaptized, or they don’t. There’s no question my friends were strong believers in Jesus. But to allow their exception would change our understanding of the definition of the local church and its ordinances.
So where should we not allow exceptions on matters of ecclesiology? At the very least, we should not allow exceptions on the ordinances (how we take in and maintain the boundaries of the church), church government (where final authority on matters of membership, discipline, and doctrine lies), and leadership (the nature and qualifications for the biblical offices of elder and deacon).
AVOID OVERLY DETAILED STATEMENTS OF FAITH
In summary, we simply can’t allow any exceptions to doctrines that affect the gospel and the local church. Of course, you may be wondering whether that leaves room for any exceptions to the statement of faith. But there’s more wiggle room here than you might expect. Often, statements of faith are filled out with a level of specificity that goes beyond these two categories. These robust and detailed statements often speak to matters well beyond a right understanding of the gospel and the right organization of the local church.
For instance, when I was candidating at my current church, the search committee realized late in the process that I was not in agreement with the official statement of faith. They had unwittingly given me an unofficial one earlier in the process. The difference between the two concerned the timing of Christ’s return and its relationship to his millennial reign. Panicked, they thought they would have to start the process over. Instead, the elders then realized they should lead the congregation through a study of eschatology. In the end, the congregation agreed that while it was necessary that the church agree on Christ’s sudden, bodily, and visible return, and in his reign, we could disagree over some of the finer details. And so the statement of faith was changed so that either a premillennialist or an amillennialist could sign it. In short order, I became their pastor.
I think that should be our goal: statements of faith that do not allow for exceptions because they clearly define and protect the gospel and the local church, and no more. To require more will lead to a narrow and sectarian community that wrongly divides the people of God. To allow less will undermine the gospel and the discipline that makes that gospel visible in the church.