I have spent some time scrounging around and asking folks for possible topics for this second blog post. After not really coming up with anything, I realized that I had just spent a good portion of my afternoon the other day establishing and polishing my Statement of Faith page on this blog. Now, as that page says, it is one of my firm beliefs that confessions of faith1 are crucial for the survival of the modern Church. Consequently, it is bothersome to me that there has now this day arisen a conflict between those who, like me, are confessional believers who subscribe to creeds and confessions and those who are increasingly skeptical of confessions of faith and thus subscribe to none. So, in this blog post, I will look through and address the pros and cons of each position—both biblically and practically (not that Scripture is impractical)—and, in the end, attempt to defend my belief that confessions are crucial for the Church and ought to be used without reservation.
Since the very early stages of the church, believers have formulated, recited, revised subscribed, and referred to confessions of faith. A confession of faith is simply a list—most of the time systematically organized beginning with Scripture, proceeding to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, and the end times—of doctrines a believer or a group of believers believe to be the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The most basic of these confessions is perhaps the Apostles’ Creed. Now, this creed is very basic, but outlines the very core of Christian doctrine. The same goes for the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. Confessions have become more and more complex as groups of believers became more particular in their distinctives.
- It assists in the identification of faith groups and denominations. No one likes labels. Yes, they can be frustrating because everyone has their nuanced beliefs that don’t quite totally conform to the written standard. However, in the case of churches, I believe this is essential. Why? Well, for one, it is convenient for people who are trying to find a church. If a church’s website contains information about events, programs, music and the staff, yet no statement of faith, how is that helpful? Secondly, it can give the impression that a church is indifferent about doctrine and might be trying to please everyone. Of course, not all churches are like this, but it is an increasingly problematic development these days.
- It serves as a defense against opposing doctrine. This is where, in my honest opinion, divisiveness is helpful. Part of the purpose of a written statement of faith is to ward away any possible teaching of false doctrine (in the eyes of the church or denomination). Also, if false doctrine is taught or fed into the congregation in any way, it will be noticed by the pastors or elders (and hopefully the laypeople because they have been taught thoroughly from their confession) and will be dealt with with haste. Without a statement of faith, theoretically anyone with enough time and diligence could turn doctrine on its head, posing a huge risk to the church’s witness and spiritual safety and health.
- It serves as a helpful guide for theological education. It is of supreme importance for pastors and elders to educate their congregations in the truth of Scripture––its story, teachings, doctrines, commands, exhortations, prescriptions, prohibitions, etc. Statements of faith serve multiple purposes in this area. First, they serve as good tools for ordering theological education, i.e. formulating curriculum for classes or lectures (because, let’s face it, there needs to be more lectures happening in the church). Secondly, they serve as good summaries of the content of this education. Again, without a statement of faith of some sort, any doctrine can be taught in a class, event, or even from the pulpit, and nobody would likely know the difference.
- It can lead to unnecessary division. This is probably the biggest con, in my book. There are those who hold to the confessions tighter than they hold to Scripture. It’s tempting. I know from personal experience. When in a doctrinal dispute or discussion, instead of walking the other person through Scripture to defend your claims or position, you simply go to the confession and wag your finger at it. It’s much easier and many times more satisfying. On that same token, some people do not seem to understand that it is okay if someone disagrees with a small part of the confession of a particular church. In my opinion, pastors and elders should be the only one’s required to hold to the confession of the church without much or any deviation. The laypeople shouldn’t be held to such standards (except, of course, with closed-handed issues central to the faith like salvation by grace alone). When people elevate confession to the level of Scripture, it can cause problems.
- It can lead to alienation of some believers. This is a direct result of the first con. Division leads almost inevitably to alienation. And, this happens not just in the church, but outside of it, as well. This (again) stems from the problem of holding to the confession as if it were Scripture itself. It is not. And, when dogmatic confessional people who do not understand the difference assert themselves, not realizing that the confession could be wrong (!), it can alienate others from friendship, community, the church, and even the faith.
- It runs the risk of taking the place of Scripture. I cannot beat this drum hard enough. Every orthodox confession I know of makes it a point to say that Scripture is the final authority in absolutely all things religious. My own confession says that (LBCF 1.10). Now, I am not saying that, because we have Scripture, confessions don’t matter and should be held loosely. No. I am saying that, in a matter of dispute (which is the exact wording of the LBCF 1.10), Scripture needs to be the thing wrestled with, not the confession. Doing this would, hopefully, solve most of the cons on this list.
With every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is no less true in theology as it is in physics. Every theological movement, with the exception of the New Testament, of course, can probably be traced back to a group of folks who saw flaws in someone else’s system, and formed a counter movement to alleviate the perceived damages of the former. Many times, this is done with pure motives, regardless of the result. Of course, confessionals has its downsides, and that is probably why so many churches today do not subscribe to confessions of faith. Of course, there are many other reasons. Many people see problems, sometimes very real problems, with denominationalism which, by its very nature, requires the subscription of individual congregations to some type of confession. Another factor, one closely related to the previous, is the rapid rise of nondenominational churches, which are growing almost as fast as those who claim to be non-religious.2 Many non-denominational churches that I have seen, in an effort, I imagine, to combat the perceived pitfalls of confessionalism, do not even have a statement of faith on their website or posted in their church.
- To many people, especially the un-churched, it is more welcoming. Religion is particularly unappealing when its adherents seem dogmatic. Unlike times past, people today are interested in relationship and experience rather than dogma and doctrine. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Relationship with Christ and his people is something to be experienced. Christianity is lived out, not just studied. Of course, I have to point out that one has to study it to live it out correctly and in a God-honoring way.
- It allows more diversity in the congregation. This, too, is a good thing. One of the most enriching experiences of my life so far is attending a broadly, yet thoroughly, evangelical seminary. It has helped me learn to commune with people who are theologically different from me. I have even learned from professors who are quite different from me theologically! While my positions haven’t changed much, I still have grown from the experience. I think our churches could use a little more diversity, to be frank. Now, of course, this cannot be at the expense of crucial doctrine that defines us as evangelicals. For example, having fellowship and communion with someone who holds to works-salvation or denies the deity of Christ is not something I could allow for myself or my church if I were a pastor.
- It can help emphasize focus on Scripture. This is the opposite of one of the cons for confessionals above. If there is no statement of faith, religious disputes are (or should be) forced to go back to Scripture. In this case, no creed or confession would be in the way for someone to possibly pick it up and wave it around like a banner of war. Scripture would theologically and practically be the standard of truth.
- It could allow the church to be continually wavering in their doctrine. Without a written statement of faith, essentially the church’s doctrine is whatever was preached the previous Sunday. Even worse, Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, small group hosts, and children’s ministers are rather in the dark regarding what they can and cannot teach. Since there is no standard accessible to them, they are always in danger of conflicting with what the lead pastor or teaching/ruling elders are teaching. This, obviously, is a serious issue and could allow for necessary and possibly destructive battles happening in the leadership of the church. It risks unity at the expense of freedom.
- It leaves no standard to which pastors and staff are to be held. This is problem closely related to the first. How are teachers and ministers supposed to be equipped when there is no standard from which to teach them and no rule by which to discern who is and is not fit to teach or minister? Surely when a church is seeking a new minister they draw up a list of carefully considered criteria by which to evaluate potentials. The problem becomes very severe when a church is seeking a new lead pastor. Without a written confession, the entire theology and doctrine of the church could drastically change with something as simple as the change of a leader.
- It makes it incredibly difficult to discern where the church stands on any given issue. This one is very personal for me. Nothing is more frustrating than going on a church website and not be able to discern where the particular denomination stands theologically. Of course, there are other clues, especially if they post their sermons online. However, in order to really understand where a church is doctrinally, one has to attend several services. This can be frustrating to someone who is looking for a new church or who is visiting an area for a week or so and wishes to attend a worship service during their stay.
Now, my opinion should obvious. In this article, I tried to be as fair as possible, even to the point of making sure I had exactly three points under each heading. While writing this, I even discovered some pros to not having a confession about which I had never thought! However, the problem is that our faith by its very nature is confessional. The Scriptures contain many things that have to be confessed and believed (Deut. 6:4, Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 15:3-8, etc.). Christianity is a confessing religion. We confess that Jesus is both Lord and Christ. Without this confession, our faith means nothing. And while there is no command in Scripture that says, “Thou shalt have a confession of faith in your church”, history has required it of us. Our confession is part of what separates us from the world. It says, “We are a congregation of God in Christ; this is what we believe about him and his revealed Word.” Without a confession, how will anyone on the outside know what we are and what we proclaim? Lastly—and probably most importantly—our confession is a wonderful defense in a world not only full of God-haters, idolaters, and unbelievers, but also theologically deficient and doctrinally indifferent churches. Confessions of faith may be old-fashioned, but they were created for a reason. When we hold fast to the truth to the point where we study it, systematize it, and write it down, we are binding ourselves to that truth. If our confessions are biblically faithful and truthful representations of the Word, our walls of defense are strong. No one will creep in unnoticed and subvert doctrine. No pastor who holds to doctrines contrary to the faith will ever be given a position of authority in any church. A confession of faith says to the world and the rest of the Body, “We know what we believe.” In sum, I believe that churches who create and/or subscribe to a confession of faith are taking Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thess. 5:21 seriously: test all things; hold fast what is good. Yes, there are cons to this position. However, confessional Christians need to learn these pros and cons so that they can understand why the “No Creed but Christ” movement has taken hold so that they can fix the problems––the main one being holding the confession to the level of Scripture.
All this being said, I would like to encourage whoever reads this to do a few things. First, if your church does not have a statement of faith, inquire of your pastors or elders as to why not. Try to exhort them to consider drafting a statement or subscribing to one already written (as I have done). Second, if your church has a confession, read it several times. It is the quickest and simplest study in systematic (doctrinal) theology. It will also help you better understand what your church teaches and believes. As Christians, we should not fear educating ourselves. We can never be too educated in our faith. Third and finally, read other confessions of faith, whether current, old, or ancient. Broaden your horizons and push your boundaries. Challenge your current beliefs and strengthen others. Do whatever you can do to learn your faith better. Confessions are one of the greatest places to start.
For those who are curious about the doctrinal positions to which I hold, click here. If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment with your thoughts, ideas, additions, or challenges.
- In this article, I use “statement of faith” and “confession of faith” interchangeably.