I Confess (Part III)
Confessions are by definition corporate documents. They belong to the church which upholds them. Their interpretation and application is the task of the church as a whole, not of any given individual. The confession stands above any single individual. True, sessions and presbyteries play key roles; but these bodies are themselves accountable to congregations. There are checks and balances; nobody has unfettered power.
This is one reason why confessionalism runs counter to the evangelical passion for Top Men and for making parachurch organisations functionally more significant for identity than local churches and ecclesiastical denominations. Not that all parachurches do this: seminaries, groups like the Alliance with very limited briefs, and charities focused on particular issues are unlikely ever to be mistaken for the church. I am thinking rather of groups which seek to set much broader agendas for the church and offer themselves as virtual denominations and sources of ecclesiastical identity.
Such groups typically have their own identity set primarily by the people who make up the leadership. Thus the big personalities and the personal convictions of the leaders become the driving factor. The production, interpretation and application of the doctrinal bases of such groups are driven by the need to keep the constituency leaders in place so as to keep the constituency intact. In other words, the doctrinal identity of the organisation is at base really personality-driven. If the leadership disagrees on baptism or gifts of the Spirit or sanctification, then these issues must be sidelined for the sake of organisational unity. It is the Top Men who really constitute the group's fundamental identity, not the confession. This is not necessarily a problem -- as long as the group has a self-consciously narrow brief and cannot be confused with the church or a denomination. Unfortunately, such groups often have aspirations that tend in that direction, with the result that the doctrinal positions of associated churches tends to be personality driven rather than truly confessional in the historic sense.
Of course, the flip-side of this is that confessional Christians are, by definition, those who
have sacrificed certain possibilities. They will only be able to go so far with Christian brothers and sisters with whom they disagree on issues ranging from the doctrines of grace to the sacraments to church polity. The lion share of their time will be devoted to their local congregation and, where applicable, to their denomination. Confessional identity carries a cultural price tag.
Indeed, it is interesting to be an outside observer of conservative denominations and churches that have tended in recent years to be more celebrity/personality influenced than the OPC (yes, if you insist -- we do have one influential celebrity, but he died on January 1, 1937). These also tend to be the churches where there is most tension over the status and role of the confessional standards. The cause is a matter for speculation but it often seems that the arguments are not so much that the confessional standards are in the first instance unbiblical so much as that they hinder certain alliances and practices which the big personalities desire. My point here is is not in itself a criticism of such, merely an observation -- and that with the intention of highlighting the fact that limitations on such alliances and practices are actually of the very essence of confessionalism. Confessions are principially particular and exclusive; they limit possibilities for those who subscribe to them on all fronts, from the doctrinal to the practical to the cultural.
Nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere, such elaborate confessions are of the very essence of the church; they are a vital component both of coherent testimony now and stable transmission of that testimony to the next generation; and it is the church, and not the dynamic leader, the flagship congregation or the trendy consortium, to which the promises of the New Testament apply. Confessionalism -- true, biblical, historic confessionalism -- plays a key role in placing the church leadership under an authority which is doctrinally determined and not personality driven; it also thereby imposes automatic limits on those who lead the church; but such limits are ultimately no sacrifice, no matter what the subsequent lack of invitations to hang with the cultural movers and shakers, the artists and the Beautiful People, might imply.
In the fourth and final part, I will reflect on the joys of confessional Christianity.
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.
The Great and Holy War
Theology for International Law
The German Roots of Nineteenth Century American Theology