Confession and Orthodoxy: Confessional Identity

Ministering in a small, rural town with over ten churches, all with relatively low attendance, I have often heard the question, “What makes your church different?” I have found this question difficult to answer, not because I couldn’t rattle off positions and practices that other churches in town don’t hold in common with us, but because being defined by negative differences does not wholly represent our identity, especially when things we hold in common with other local churches are at the core of who we are: the doctrine of the Trinity, a high regard for Scripture as God’s Word, and zeal to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

After much reflection, I’ve decided that the best, brief answer to that question, which captures both the negative and positive aspects of our identity and relation to other Christian churches, is that we are a confessionally Reformed church.* That is, we subscribe to a historic confession of the Reformed churches, namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms. More than that, we self consciously identify with and hold to a common tradition of reading and teaching the Scriptures and applying them to questions of doctrine, life, worship, and church practice, that we believe is required by the Bible itself. That legacy is expressed in the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, which themselves build on the historic ecumenical councils, and in the work of theologians who have faithfully expounded the same Biblical and Reformed faith.

If you take even a cursory glance at the Westminster Confession of Faith, you realize that it is fairly substantial in the breadth and depth to which it addresses itself to questions of theology, the Christian life, and church order. While other churches sincerely claim adherence to Scripture, they often aren’t willing to write down for public scrutiny more than the bare minimum of what they believe Scripture teaches. I remember a friend who was frustrated with how much my church had to say on doctrinal matters, but we see it as a strength that we don’t try to simply answer these things by ourselves. As the Reformed confessions themselves maintain, the Bible is the only final, unerring authority, but the Bible is clear enough that we can agree with others today and throughout history on what the Bible teaches and how we are to live as a result.

Our Confession and Catechisms are not just on our books or in our libraries as historical oddities, nor are they the basis for contracts that our ministers sign with a wink and a nod while privately holding to their own novel, idiosyncratic theologies. Instead, these dusty, old documents express our living and active faith, convictions borne not out of any inherent authority in these documents themselves, nor veneration of the particular historical moment in which they arose, but from our own contemporary study, in concert with those who wrote them, and with faithful men and women who came before and after them, of the Word of God itself, the Scriptures, by which the Holy Spirit himself continually bears witness. Because of this, we invite anyone to look into our confession and measure it carefully against the Spirit’s own testimony in Scripture. In this way, we hope to confront what we believe is error, but also to promote the unity, purity, peace, and prosperity of the whole catholic church.

* By the way, if you are somewhere near Walton in Delaware County, NY and you are also “confessionally Reformed”, I’d love to hear from you!

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is living with his wife and two boys in the Catskills of Upstate New York.

Steven McCarthy