Confessions and The Relevant
One question which I am frequently asked is whether we need a new confession, or at least some additional paragraphs or chapters, to deal with contemporary issues. It is perhaps not surprising that the most common example cited is that of gay marriage.
All true Protestant confessionalists must be open to the idea of confessional revision in the light of biblical teaching, even as such revision must be done according to responsible ecclesiastical process. The question is: when is revision necessary? Given that gay marriage is the ethical, political and legal issue of our time, should our foundational confessional documents not address it directly?
To take this specific issue, it actually seems unnecessary to engage in any revision at all. While the topic is not directly addressed in the Westminster Confession, the positive principles of marriage are laid out in Chapter 24, ‘Of marriage and divorce.’ Thus, for example, the first paragraph reads:
Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband, at the same time.
Marriage is between one man and one woman. This clearly rules out the marriage of one man with another man, along with any other permutation of partnerships with any other life forms one might care to imagine. There is no need for confessional revision or supplementation.
Of course, a church might want to reflect in more detail on the various pastoral, disciplinary, and legal issues surrounding same sex marriage. In such circumstances, a church report, such as that on human sexuality from the RPCNA, is useful. It is driven by the church (and so not simply the thoughts of a group of self-selected Top Men) and can offer very helpful insights. But because it is not embodied in the confessional standards of the church, it does not bind consciences nor does it run the risk of becoming rapidly antiquated.
These are perhaps the two major problems with confessional revisions or expansion. First, they add yet more to the things which ministers, elders and deacons have to believe, thus further binding their consciences and restricting Christian liberty. Second, they also run the risk of becoming dated very quickly. Marriage is a divine institution. It will remain relevant until the new heavens and the new earth. Who knows if gay marriage will last that long as an issue? Maybe it will, maybe it will not. But as long the Confession excludes it simply by the positive definition of that which is perennial, then the Confession does not run the risk of irrelevance or redundancy. In short, as a general principle we should always try to address pressing contemporary questions, whether theological or ethical, using the resources our confessional standards provide for us. Only when that provision is thoroughly inadequate and when the issue is one of such obvious permanent concern should we consider revising our confessional foundations.
This brings me to my final point: for all of the trumpeting of ‘confessional evangelicalism’ over the last decade, what the term usually denotes is ‘evangelicalism which holds at some level to the importance of doctrine and of an anti-Pelagian understanding of grace.’ Thus, confessional has simply replaced the older, more staid adjective conservative. In its actual manifestations, it is typically not confessional in the ecclesiastical sense but rather more Southern Baptist: personality driven, with brief or ad hoc statements of faith expressing basic soteriological concerns. It often also feels a need to speak to the wider world which then sometimes becomes confused with the need to define doctrinal standards for the church. Such a movement, with such meager confessional resources, is likely to feel the temptation to keep plugging perceived holes in ecclesiastical statements to meet current cultural challenges. In such a context, it would simply be easier (and ironically far more relevant in the long run) to adopt an elaborate confession from three or four hundred years ago which is by and large focused on perennial principles not today's tastes.