Running To Confessionalism
From the end of 2008 to 2013 I was the lead teaching pastor of a large non-denominational church in the northeast. During my time there I was told by various elders to lead the church in a more “broadly evangelical” direction. By others I was encouraged to lead the church to become more narrowly Reformed. I was told that our theological “tent” was too big and that it was too small. In those few years I understood the wisdom of the words of Dirty Harry, “A man has to know his limitations.” There are a few things I can do. There are other things I could probably learn to do. But one thing I will never know how to do is lead a church in two opposing directions simultaneously.
During that sojourn I came to the conviction that the entire project of “big tent” evangelicalism is failing. Whereas broad evangelicalism used to mean John Stott, now it encompasses Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Gregory Boyd. The tent pegs of evangelicalism’s big tent have been moved out too far. It can no longer support the weight of its own contradictions.
So, in August of 2013 I ran to confessionalism. Specifically my ordination was transferred to the Presbyterian Church in America and I became the Lead Pastor of a PCA congregation. The experience has been like finding an oasis in a desert. It has been like discovering a GPS after meandering blindly through an unknown country. Too dramatic? It does not feel that way to me. It is nearly impossible to effectively put down error and nurture unity within a church whose minimal statement of faith is only able to identify the grossest of heresies.
A church needs something more than a statement of faith that encompasses mere Christianity. As one of my fellow pastors put it recently, “a church’s confession needs lots of words.” Indeed. For example I know of an Old Testament professor who rejects much of the Bible but nevertheless insists on affirming inspiration. What he means by “inspiration” is radically different from what the church has historically affirmed. For this reason, a church which desires to maintain a biblically faithful and historically orthodox doctrine of Scripture must now be careful to use “lots of words” in explaining it. A church desiring to be doctrinally conservative can no longer state that they believe the Bible to be “inspired, truthful, and authoritative” and expect to properly guard its doctrinal boundaries. It sounds ridiculous perhaps. But such is the state of mere evangelicalism.
There are at least three reasons why I joyfully fled to a confessional church and denomination.
1. Only confessionalism is able to adequately guard a church’s doctrine.
Paul writes to Timothy that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15). Elsewhere he tells his young apprentice to “guard the pattern of sound words that you heard from me” (2 Timothy 1:13). One of the essential qualifications of the elder is that he must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). What is more, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). I argue that a comprehensive confession of faith is what makes this possible. “No creed but the Bible” is simply not realistic. It fails to reckon with the fact that most Christians do not know the Bible well enough to have a properly formed system of doctrine which can defend against error. An excellent confession of faith, like the Westminster Confession of Faith or London Baptist Confession, properly summarizes Scripture thus equipping the church with not only a tool for instruction but a buttress against error.
2. Only confessionalism is able to adequately guard a church’s unity.
A church is not simply an umbrella organization for various individual’s ministries and hobbies. A church is not a convention hall for loosely connected groups of evangelicals. Confessions of faith act as a remedy against the balkanization of a local church. Essential to a church’s unity is agreement in doctrine and not just of the merest sort. A church cannot limit its statement of faith to that of the average para-church ministry and expect to maintain its unity for the long haul.
A few years ago I explained in a staff meeting why our leadership would not be endorsing a particular book. The book in question was then, and continues to be, enormously popular. The issue was discussed in three consecutive staff meetings with plenty of push back from several. My perspective was backed up by two other pastors on staff as well as some of the elders. But there was nothing in our rather mere statement of faith that spoke to the particular errors of the book in question. As a result no consensus was ever reached, no final decision made, and division rose as a result. Paul makes clear in Romans 16 that those who cause division in a church are not those who guard sound doctrine but those who seek to undermine it.
Without a clear confession of faith a church will a) be ruled by whoever has the most influential voice or b) break into various camps holding mutually exclusive positions on important matters. What it will not have is durable unity.
3. Confessionalism is properly aspirational.
I owe this insight to Carl Trueman’s book The Creedal Imperative. Confessions of faith are not first and foremost defensive. Rather they represent the aspirations the church holds for its members. Trueman writes: “[Confessions of faith] represent that which the church aspires to teach its members…If a church has a six-point creed or confession, she essentially communicates to her people that these six things, and only these, are important. Everything else is so minor that it forms no part of its identity” (177, 178). A church ought to desire something more for God’s people. A church ought to desire its members to be mature and maturing in their knowledge of God’s powerful and profitable Word. A church ought to aspire to more than simple agreement on the broadest possible doctrinal categories. It ought to aspire to greater things than simply “majoring on the majors.” Again, Trueman writes: “A good confession becomes not a stick with which to beat people…but an exciting map of the territory of biblical truth and something to which to aspire” (180).
None of this means that confessional churches are safe from the machinations of the enemy and the sins of its own members. We are still south of heaven after all. Confessional churches can and do struggle mightily. However, a confessional church within a confessional denomination is far better equipped to deal with the inevitable threats that arise.
Todd Pruitt (MDiv, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) currently serves as lead pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, VA. He is also co-host with Carl Trueman for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals' podcast Mortification of Spin. Todd and his wife, Karen, have been married since 1990 and have three children: Kate, Ryan, and Matthew.