I belong to a confessional church by choice. I would venture to say I go to a confessional church of necessity.
Many of my friends and acquaintances need to have that phrase – confessional church – explained to them, which I am all too happy to do. The basic thing I emphasize is that the belief system that my local church proclaims and lives by is set out for all to see. A confession is a compendium of biblical teaching. It binds me to a much larger body of God’s people, both geographically and historically. Everyone, and every church, has such a belief system… mine is written down. And it is not a minimalist statement of faith. It has gravitas. It has roots.
To say that the Bible itself is our confession or creed does not cut it for me. Certainly, for every Christian and the church, the Bible is the ultimate authoritative voice for rightly believing and living, and any confessional statement is subject to Scripture. But to proclaim “No creed but the Bible” is, frankly, naive and lazy.
Why do I say naive? Naive, because it minimizes and dismisses differing interpretive arguments about Scripture. Truth does not benefit from vagueness or obscurity. It requires clarity, precision, and careful definition. A confessional statement is a cogent summary of what the Bible teaches. It sets out plainly what the church is to confess… to declare. How can true unity be achieved by minimalist, fuzzy, obscure, or evasive beliefs? The simple fact is that doctrine divides. It is naive and wrong to think that unity can be achieved by evading an explicit digest of sound doctrine. Further, God is glorified as we understand better and serve more faithfully, which is what a confession (and catechism) are intended to achieve.
Lazy? Yes, I said that, because the Bible is far too big to claim it as a creed or confession, and a laconic statement of faith is inadequate. Crucial biblical statements require definition, understanding, and declaration. These truths will be embraced by some and misunderstood and rejected by others. Watering down sound, biblical doctrine to find the lowest common denominator for belief will never achieve meaningful unity of purpose or activity. Elusively hiding behind a cloak of “getting along together” for the sake of some kind of unity is to disparage the Bible.
Precision and cogency require time and effort and learning and skill. Most of all, a sound confessional statement requires the help of the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of believers. A confessional statement, after all, is a summary of what the Bible teaches, and one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to open the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of sinful humans (that’s all of us) to the truths of God’s work of salvation. That story must be kept pure, uncontaminated, lucid – and a confession does that. Diligence, study, and labour are necessary to understand and apply the Bible to a context of the world’s opposition and misinterpretation. Such work must be guided by God-given wisdom and discernment.
We have excellent confessions and catechisms that have stood the test of time. These include, but are not limited to, the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity. It is no easy task to produce an effective, faithful, and useful confession of the Christian faith, but it is necessary. God not only loves truth… he is truth. He loves communicating truth. The unchanging truth of the gospel must be made known in an explicit and compelling manner.
Perhaps the thing I am learning the most from adhering to a confession is worship. Faith thrives on true teaching that is drawn out of Scripture and properly summarized and applied to life. A confession teaches and guides and affirms. It is a marvelous mentor, and it points the church (and me, as a member) to a transcendent, beautiful, glorious God who is truth – infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably.