Confession and Pastoral Theology: Confession as Pastoral Promise
So the pastor of the church you attend says the church is “confessional”. He explains that this means the church requires its ministers, and perhaps even members, to subscribe to a common doctrinal standard underneath the authority of Scripture. You might wonder, what does that matter? As long as the pastor preaches the Bible, aren’t we all safe? Perhaps this Confession thing is just something for pastors to work out among themselves. Or maybe, at worst, it’s a distraction from the teaching of Scripture itself.
If you find yourself in a confessional protestant church, let me suggest that you think of your church’s confession as a promise to you from the leadership. What are you going to be taught? Consult the Confession. What is the basic theology you’ll be expected to live by and operate within? Consult the Confession. If the pastor strays outside of the positions of that document, expect the other pastors, elders, or the broader church structure, to confront them and hold them accountable. You see, all churches claim to be Biblical, but what that actually means is sometimes only discovered by listening to the pastor for months, even years. Of course, it also is as subject to change as someone’s opinion. In a confessional church, ideally, the church makes it known, up front, what to expect.
That’s not to say that confessions are the end goal itself. The Bible contains teaching that goes beyond any confession. Even if you think your church’s confession is awfully lengthy, it’s probably not as long as the Bible (if it is, there may be a problem). The ultimate goal, the Apostle Paul says, is “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). No confession can “contain” that measure in an exhaustive sense. But the end goal is not unrelated to confessions either. Paul says that there is a “standard of teaching” (Rom 6:15) to which we need to be committed, and a “pattern of sound words” (2Ti 1:13) that need to be handed down (2Ti 2:2). This means that there can be common confessions written down to guard the church from transgressing essential benchmarks. Every church, confessional or not, has a pattern of teaching and preaching that’s recognizable over time. It’s their basic operating system, their working theology, which guides their worship and practice. The difference in a confessional church, is that there should be no surprises when it comes to the baseline of teaching.
Perhaps an illustration will help. If the Bible is the mountain you and your church are scaling together, the Confession is the trail map. Indeed, the Bible is like a mountain: it’s an extremely big and beautiful book; and it alone is the authoritative Word of God. A confession is a map. It does not detail every bush or tree, every rocky crag, or every beautiful vista you’ll experience while scaling the mountain, but don’t you feel better if, when you meet some to hike up a mountain, you can consult the same map as them, and hopefully say, “Oh yes, I see that’s the way over there,” or, “Oh no, that looks like that way turns out badly”? Now, you don’t want someone to follow a map when you can see clearly just by looking that there’s a cliff where the trail is supposed to be. In the same way, confessions are subject to review and potential revision if they seem to conflict with Scripture. But when your trail mate says, “Oh yes, I printed off a map, here you go”, it doesn’t seem a hindrance, but a help and reassurance. I hope you begin to see your church’s confession in a similar light. It’s a promise from pastor to parishioner as travel companions, and also something parishioners can hold their pastors to, as you might pull your trail guide aside, if needed, and say, “but doesn’t the trail actually turn that way?”
Steven McCarthy is pastor of Walton Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is enjoying life with his wife and son in the Catskill region of Upstate New York.