The Doctrines of Grace and the Importance of Confessions of Faith

Daniel Hyde wrote, “Despite claims that the creeds and confessions are unbiblical, that they are merely Roman Catholic traditions, or that they stifle the Spirit of God in the life of God’s people, they are, in fact, biblical and beneficial.” I concur. This post is a collection of sundry thoughts on why having a confession of faith or statement of faith is important. This is particularly relevant to churches that have not ever used a confession, particularly a confession which upholds the doctrines of grace. Given my personal views, this post will have a Particular Baptist flavor (particular referring to belief in particular atonement, rather than the general atonement view of “General Baptists”).

Presuppositions

This post is based on at least two presuppositions that will not be defended here. I may address and explain aspects of these presuppositions in what follows, but I will not offer a systematic defense of them. However, I do want to be upfront about them.

  1. Congregationalism is the correct, biblical form of church polity.
  2. What is commonly called “Calvinism” (or “the doctrines of grace”) is a true representation of biblical, orthodox Christianity. When I speak of Calvinism, I speak of the Reformed, Protestant doctrine that it represents, relating specifically to God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the grace of God in salvation. In this sense, for this post, any church that holds to this biblical doctrine is a “Calvinist” Church.

The Need for Confessions

Many churches stand in serious need of a confessional document that will be used in practical, edifying, and instructive ways. Imagine a church without a clearly defined doctrine. In God’s providence, the doctrines of grace began to be taught in this church. Some people welcome these teachings. Others do not. Others, despite hearing sermons which point to Calvinistic doctrine, seemingly remain largely indifferent to matters of doctrine. In a case like this, the question is this: What does the church believe? Is the church a Calvinist church? If not, what about those in the church who are Calvinists?

As I have experienced in the course of my walk with Christ, there is little that nominal Christians, semi-pelagians, Arminians, and unbelievers hate more than teaching which abases the pride of man and lifts high the free, sovereign grace of God. In my view, the doctrines which will be highlighted in this post are fundamental and essential to nearly every aspect of church life, both theologically and practically. It is both unrealistic and undesirable for a church to attempt to be evasive, vague, or noncommittal on the issues of God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the grace of God in salvation. It is for this reason that Reformed churches in general, and Particular Baptist churches in particular, have historically adopted very direct confessions of faith which uphold the doctrines of grace.

For a sampling of Particular Baptist confessions, consider the London Baptist Confession of 1689, the Goat Yard Declaration of Faith, and the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. The New Hampshire Confession of Faith, while omitting some of the clarity and precision of earlier documents, is still clearly in agreement with the doctrines of grace.

It should be clear, then, that this issue must be addressed at churches where the great truths of the gospel of grace are being taught. The need of every church without a unifying statement of doctrine is for the members to unite around a biblical confession of faith. Each church must ask and answer this question: What is it we believe?

I believe that every church, and especially a church coming to embrace the doctrines of grace, must by the common suffrage of the church itself, adopt a confession of faith which clearly embraces the doctrines of grace.

This belief is what I will be unpacking in what follows. Several challenges arise. What confession should be used? How does a church go about implementing a confession? What about those who oppose the doctrine? What should the role of the pastors be in this matter? The role of church members as a whole? I hope to briefly address these questions in what follows. Much will require further analysis, however. These are simply suggestions and ideas to generate further thinking.

Structure of This Post      

This post will be broken into two main sections: (1) philosophy and (2) methodology. In Section 1, I will address various facets of the philosophy behind my views. In Section 2, I will give practical, specific steps that could be taken in implementing a confession. 

Section 1: Philosophy Behind My View

My belief —that a church should, by the common suffrage of the church itself, adopt a confession of faith which clearly embraces the doctrines of grace—is based on two main beliefs.

  1. The importance of doctrine
  2. The importance of confessions

The Importance of Doctrine

In his 1828 Dictionary, Noah Webster defined doctrine as follows:

In a general sense, whatever is taught. Hence, a principle or position in any science; whatever is laid down as true by an instructor or master. The doctrines of the gospel are the principles or truths taught by Christ and his apostles. The doctrines of Plato are the principles which he taught. Hence a doctrine may be true or false; it may be a mere tenet or opinion.

Scott Swain adds: “According to one definition, doctrine is teaching from God about God that directs us to the glory of God. This definition provides a helpful anatomy of sound doctrine, identifying doctrine’s source, object, and ultimate end.”

When we consider the idea of doctrine, we are essentially considering Christianity. What does it mean to be a Christian? How is one saved? Who is God? What is sin? What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? The answers to these questions, we rightly assert, are found in the Bible. However, students of the Bible know that Paul instructed Timothy to accurately handle or interpret the Bible: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Every Protestant, for example, knows that a Roman Catholic can quote the same biblical text, and yet not accurately handle that text, twisting it out of context and ignoring the analogy of faith. This is why it has been compellingly said that “the meaning of the text is the text.” That being said, it is paramount that we have the correct understanding of God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the grace of God in salvation (i.e. Calvinism).

There is no question that every single church has a doctrine. This is unavoidable. The real question is this: Is the doctrine sound? Is it biblical? Ideally, the beliefs of the church are spelled out in a confession or declaration of faith, which the members affirm. Oftentimes, however, a church will act upon the faulty logic of “no creed but the Bible” and refuse to define their beliefs. However, that such churches have a doctrine is unquestionable. Ask the pastor or the members if they believe God’s plans can be thwarted by human will, or if a Christian can lose his salvation, or if man is incapable of choosing Christ on his own strength, and you will behold their doctrine. There is, however, the potential for a church to have differing, even contradictory, doctrines. The pastor could believe one thing, but the majority of the church another thing. This is most likely to happen when there is no unifying confession of faith. In some ways, this is the problem at many churches, especially those going through seasons of doctrinal change: Is there a doctrine the church is united on?

The Importance of Confessions

In his helpful book, The Creedal Imperative, Carl Trueman writes, “If you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role, such as a statement of faith.” It is true that the Bible is the sole authority, “the infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” Confessions are not infallible, but rather are explanations of what the church believes about the Bible. (In even making the statement that “the Bible is the Word of God,” one is already entering the world of creeds and confessions, as evidenced in the previous sentence—note the use of the language of the confession to state that the Bible is the “infallible rule.”) They serve to outline the doctrine the church upholds as biblical. In commenting on how confessions help maintain corporate unity in a church, Trueman notes the following:

While Christianity cannot be reduced to doctrine, to mere teaching, it cannot be meaningfully separated from it either. Even the most basic claims, such as “Jesus is Lord,” carry clear doctrinal content that needs to be explicated in a world where, as we have noted before, every heretic has his text and not all who cry “Lord, Lord!” actually have any real saving knowledge of God…The use of confessions as standards of what the church believes and of creeds as corporate expressions of belief in worship services is thus important for underscoring what the church is. If you want to use a contemporary idiom, you could say that they tell the story of who the church is and thus ground its identity in a theological narrative. If, like me, you are comfortable with more traditional terminology, you might say they define who the church is doctrinally. Either way, creeds and confessions establish boundaries of belonging and, by implication, of exclusion. Both are necessary if the church is to have a meaningful corporate identity and unity.

Trueman rightly emphasizes the corporate nature and unifying features of confessions. The focus isn’t merely on what the pastor believes, but what the church believes. This is true of any confessional church, regardless of church polity: the members willingly and thoughtfully join themselves to a body of believers united, among other things, in sound doctrine as expressed in a confession of faith. Whereas some people assert that “love unites, doctrine divides,” the Apostle Paul “characterizes deviation from true doctrine as divisive” (Trueman). Confessions serve as aids in maintaining unity and cohesiveness concerning matters of doctrine.

Allow me to highlight two uses of a confession of faith within church life, as this helps us understand the importance of confessions/doctrinal statements. In an article entitled 27 Ways to Use Your Confession and Covenant, Garrett Kell lists a number of important ways a confession of faith can be used. I will highlight two that I think are especially important: new member classes and discipleship of new believers. Kell notes the following about these two uses of confessions:

New Member Classes

As someone applies for membership, we require him or her to go through a membership class during which the documents are presented. Prospective members must be in full agreement with these documents to be able to join the church. Pastoral wisdom will of course be needed in some cases, as some will hold to varying degrees of agreement. Teaching through the church’s Statement of Faith and Church Covenant during a membership class is essential. This helps everyone who is coming into your church know plainly who the church is, what it believes, and how members are expected to live together as followers of Christ. I strongly recommend not short-circuiting this process by just having them read it on their own.”

Discipleship of New Believers

The confession can “serve as [a] discipling [tool] for new Christians. A young man named Alvin became a Christian and another member took him through our church covenant line by line, looking up the references and discussing them in context. Doing this helped Alvin understand more about how the gospel moves us to obey Jesus and how that obedience should affect the life of the church. The Statement of Faith and Church Covenant help introduce new believers to a whole host of doctrines that they would have previously been unfamiliar with.”

Confessions are important because they provide a framework for the church to conduct such activities. Even if a church adopts the “no creed but the Bible” mentality, they still hold certain doctrines. Opposition to these doctrines will lead to problems down the road. For example, imagine Calvin the Calvinist were to attend a “no creed but the Bible” church where everyone believes you can lose your salvation and regeneration is a matter of simply making a decision. Most likely, Calvin will soon be faced with serious opposition from church members who say his doctrine is “demonic” or “licentious.” If that church had a clear confession, it could have saved them (and Calvin) from a lot of trouble. At the very least, it could have provided a structure to interact with Calvin’s views. Confessions help spell these things out so that people understand the beliefs of the church upfront.

Another practical reason confessions are important is that they provide protection to both pastors and members. If a church member holds a position that is within orthodox Christianity (postmillennialism, for example) but is not addressed in the confession, he is free to share his view. A pastor would even be within bounds to teach this view, arguing its merits from Scripture. In each case, the “proponent of postmillennialism” is safely within bounds of the confession, though the church has no official position on postmillennialism, per se. Applying confessions in this way helps prevent a church member of being accused of not believing “what the church believes” when he simply disagrees with one of the pastor’s views (which is not addressed in the confession).

Confessions also provide helpful information for prospective church members who are already fairly developed in their understanding of Christian doctrine. If the church has at least a basic set of doctrines, and these views are shared (on a website, for example) with potential new members, people will have a better understanding if this is a church they want to fellowship with.

Choosing a Confession and Its Relationship to Church Membership

The question of Which confession? is an important one. However, the scope of this post will not allow me to compare and contrast the various confessions. In my mind, there are two main types: lengthy ones and succinct ones. Among the lengthier Particular Baptist confessions would be the London Baptist Confession of 1689. Among the succinct ones would be the Goat Yard Declaration, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and the Wilson Declaration. Each type has its pros and cons. A lengthy confession allows for in-depth teaching and discipleship. In the words of Trueman, it represents “the maximum doctrinal competence that can be expected from a congregation.” Anyone who has read the great, lengthy confessions of faith—the Westminster Confession, the Belgic Confession, or the Heidelberg Catechism, for example—knows the depth and richness of these theological documents. Trueman is quite right when he says that, the Bible excepting, historical confessions “contain more biblical truth per page than anything else” ever written. At the same time, a lengthy confession can be a bit harder to use in a church membership process. Trueman hints at this:

We do not want to stop new converts from coming into church membership and under the pastoral care of a local congregation because they do not yet understand the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ or have not fully developed a theology of the Trinity. We also do not want to exclude from membership the educationally challenged or those who cannot think abstractly and are never going to be able to articulate a clear defense of the Chalcedonian Definition. We want church membership to be as inclusive as the Bible makes it. Nevertheless, we surely do not want to send a signal to the congregation that members should simply be satisfied with a basic, mere Christianity, especially since the Bible itself clearly sets an ambitious standard for doctrinal understanding and expects growth in such understanding to be a normal result of belonging to the church.

A lengthy confession such as the London Baptist Confession of 1689 is worth its theological weight in gold. But that doesn’t mean it has to be used as the standard for membership. Furthermore, even if a church doesn’t adopt such a lengthier confession as their statement of faith (or perhaps not initially), they could still use it as a teaching and discipleship tool, as a shorter Reformed Baptist statement would not contradict anything in the lengthier one.

The benefits of using a shorter confession of faith are worth noting. For one thing, it isn’t so daunting for new believers or prospective members. However, this does not mean it is shallow. The weight and substance of its affirmations are deep and powerful. The shorter confession can provide a good introduction to biblical Christianity to the new convert or immature believer. It may also be easier to get the whole congregation on board relatively quickly. It can be used as a stepping stone to a lengthier confession, or it can remain the confession of faith while the lengthier confessions are utilized as auxiliary tools for Christian education and discipleship.

If using the confession as a true standard of church membership, a decision in selecting a confession will also likely be based on how “narrow” church membership should be. As it relates to requirements for membership, use of confessions vary. Some churches who hold to extensive confessions (for example, the Belgic Confession of Faith), “have a history of requiring confessional subscription of every communicant member.” Others require church officers to subscribe fully to a lengthy confession, but “set the bar for full communicant church membership very low: a simple but publicly coherent profession of faith in the line of Romans 10:9-10 is sufficient” (Trueman).

I agree with Trueman when he notes, “It is surely important…that we set the bar for membership no higher than that which we find in the Bible itself.” He notes that a “basic trust in Christ and an outward profession which is consistent with that” is sufficient for membership. Therefore, as it relates to membership requirements, I favor a shorter confession of faith. This does not mean there is no place for longer confessions—it just means using them as a standard for church membership is somewhat difficult.  

Some pastors who hold to lengthier confessions address this concern by maintaining that members need not “agree” with everything in the confession. For example, Sam Waldron notes:

This view of the church’s confession has great, practical bearing on the church member’s relationship to the church and its confession. Though the elders on behalf of the church must inquire if a prospective church member has any actual disagreements with the confession and determine whether such disagreements are consistent with church membership, from the viewpoint of the prospective member only the measure of agreement sufficient to make subordination possible is necessary. This certainly requires that all prospective members be familiar with the church’s confession, but it does not require that they fully understand or agree with the confession of the church. If they agree with it sufficiently to submit to it sweetly, live with it peaceably, and respond to its exposition teachably, this is all that it is required. Of course, if someone cannot be sweet, peaceable, and teachable under the teaching of any given confession, this is a barrier to church membership.

In some ways this sounds nice, but in practice I think it is less than adequate. I lean more towards a view of confessions which aims at unity: this is what we all believe. As a committed congregationalist, I am also hesitant to adopt a confession as a church that not all the church members submit to. Several years ago I was visiting with a church that was struggling with this issue. The church’s doctrinal statement was a modified form of the London Baptist Confession of 1689The church’s statement was something along the following lines (of which I am in large agreement with):

We accept the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 and the Baptist Catechism as our doctrinal standards for teaching and discipleship with the following addendum:

Clarifications: In Chapter 19, paragraph 4, we understand the “judicial laws” of the Old Testament as being a subset of the “moral law,” and that the phrase “their general equity only being of modern use” indicates that the principles and standards of justice inherent in the judicial laws of Old Testament Israel are binding on nations in the New Testament age. In Chapter 24, paragraph 3, we understand “the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth” to refer to those laws that conform to the standards of God’s revealed law. In Chapter 26, paragraph 4, we believe it best to end our confession with the phrase “neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be the head thereof.” In Chapter 29, paragraph 4, we would read “Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is the best means for the due administration of this ordinance.”

Christ’s Mediatorial Kingdom. At His ascension Jesus Christ was exalted to the right of the Father and given authority over all things in heaven and earth. As a reward for His obedience unto death, He has been given the nations as His inheritance, and has been charged by the Father with the task of breaking the rebellion of the nations and putting all enemies to His reign under His feet. By His sovereign power Christ is going forth in the world to accomplish the subduing of His enemies, and will at last triumph over them and establish His kingdom to the four corners of earth so that the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the seas. Having fulfilled His commission as mediatorial king, Christ shall come again in glory, raise the dead, and deliver up the kingdom to the Father. (Psalm 2; 110; Isaiah 9:6-7; 11:9; Daniel 7:13-14; Matthew 13:31-33; 28:18-20; Acts 2:32-36; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28; Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:8-11; Revelation 2:26-27; 7:9-10; 19:11-16)

However, the pastor did not want to limit membership to those who agreed with everything in that confession. Therefore, he adopted a two-tiered level of membership: constituent members and associate members. Constituent members agreed fully with the doctrine of the church and had full voting and office holding capabilities. The associate members, however, were limited in that they could not hold office and not vote (or only vote for certain issues; I cannot recall). This seems a bit complicated, but I understand the rationale behind it. It is the same rationale that is present in Presbyterian churches where the tiers are regular church members and office holders. As a congregationalist, however, I do not believe pastors should be held to a different standard than regular church members, but rather should be held more rigorously to the same standard, with a special focus on their calling to preach and teach. D.A. Carson, commenting on the qualifications for pastors, notes, “almost every entry is mandated elsewhere for all believers.” John Hammett elaborates: “Whatever is involved in being an elder [i.e. pastor], it is not a calling to a higher standard of Christian living…The character required to be an elder is the character necessary to be an example to the flock.”

In practice, therefore, many (if not all) churches that adopt lengthy confessions have a difficult time using said confessions as a requirement for membership. If they did, a new membership class could take well over a year! And perhaps there is something to be said for an extremely lengthy membership process where all 32 chapters of the London Baptist Confession of 1689 are expounded, but I do not see that pattern in Scripture. In reality, the best case scenario is that prospective members are asked to “read the confession on their own” and note any concerns they have. This hardly results in a unifying, clarifying function of the confession, at least not on the front-end of membership. This is one of the main reasons to favor a shorter confession.

Having considered the importance of doctrine and the importance of confessions, I now turn to the practical outworking of these points.

Section 2: Practical Thoughts on Adopting a Confession

Adopting a confession in a church which has not previously adopted (or applied) a confession raises a number of questions concerning implementation. What confession should be adopted? What is the role of the church is selecting a confession? How should a confession be implemented?

A Confession That Lays the Foundation

There will always be theological topics not addressed in a confession. The point of any confession, but especially a shorter one, is not to remove the need to ever thoroughly look at theological issues, but rather to lay some key doctrinal foundations. Therefore, for the sake of churches who have never used a confession before, I recommend they consider a shorter one for implementation (the Wilson Declaration is an example of the length I have in mind). A confession that is short enough to be covered over the course of several weeks in a membership process may be ideal. This does not mean that every facet of each subject would be exhausted—by no means! Rather, it means that a new Christian, with the Spirit of God indwelling him, should be able to understand (and submit to) the basic affirmations for each subject. For example, the topics covered in a confession could be the following:

  1. The Scripture
  2. God (trinitarian affirmation)
  3. Creation
  4. Christ Jesus
  5. Man’s Depravity
  6. Election
  7. Efficacy of the Atonement
  8. Irresistible Grace
  9. Perseverance of the Saints
  10. Repentance and Faith
  11. The Church
  12. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  13. Harmony of the Law and the Gospel
  14. The World to Come

Each of these articles can be outlined in a brief paragraph. The confession is thus a realistic and modest tool which can be used to guide membership processes, new believer courses, and other educational initiatives. In my opinion, the doctrine outlined in the Wilson Declaration is foundational. It contains topics that a new believer, with a little guidance, should be able to understand. Of course, this reflects my view that the doctrine called “Calvinism” contains the basics of Christianity, the foundational truths that are necessary for any substantial, coherent understanding of orthodox Christianity. I believe that what is commonly called “Calvinism” is an accurate summary of biblical Christianity, specifically as it relates to soteriology (justification, sanctification, glorification). I believe this is fundamental doctrine. Therefore, I believe that true Christians will “hear” this doctrine and submit to it (cf. John 10:27; 1 John 4:6). Hence, I do not want to be hesitant to proclaim with great clarity and boldness the precious doctrine of the Bible, for I am persuaded that all those who are truly born of God will accept the doctrine and be thus edified and strengthened. It may take some time, but the true believer will not remain long in stubborn opposition to the divine truth. Ergo, to refrain from speaking most clearly on these matters only serves to leave unbelievers in a state of supposed communion with God despite a rejection of the doctrine which proceeds from his Word.

What About Timing?

I contend that there is no time like the present to begin the process of implementing a confession. From the perspective of a pastor, the reason for this is that a confession is simply a statement of the doctrine you are already (or should be) teaching. Therefore, I can think of no valid reason to refrain from immediately teaching the doctrines of grace explicitly. I am fine with not using the term “Calvinism,” but in the end, I think that is a minor issue. The real issue is the doctrine itself.

A question that I think warrants attention is this: What if this tears apart the church? Or, What if people aren’t ready and are pushed away? If your church tries to implement a Calvinistic confession, it may lead to many people leaving the church. If you don’t push for a confession, you can still “discreetly” teach Calvinism and hope and pray things change with time. I think such thinking is misguided. What if the church rejects the confession? A more pressing question should be this: What if the church rejects the doctrine? The confession is simply a summary of the doctrine that the church (and ostensibly the pastor) believes is vital. If someone believes, as I do, that the doctrines of grace are essential, then they will be forced to deal with this issue. As I consider the following articles of the Wilson Declaration that summarize the doctrines of grace, I am moved to conclude that these doctrines are essential to faithful gospel ministry—I cannot preach and teach without addressing all these aspects of sound, biblical doctrine.

Of Man’s Depravity

Because of the Fall, man has become spiritually dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God and is therefore unable of himself to choose spiritual good and determine his own destiny. In our natural state we are averse to all that is good, wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body, and are by nature children of wrath. We are at enmity with God, unwilling and unable to love, worship, or submit to him.

Of Sovereign Election

Before the world began, God did graciously and freely elect a certain number of people unto everlasting salvation, whom he did predestinate to the adoption of children by Jesus Christ, of his own grace, and according to the good pleasure of his will. God’s choice of certain individuals for salvation was not based on any foreseen response of obedience on their part, but was based solely in His good and sovereign will.

Of the Efficacy of the Atonement

The eternal redemption which Christ has obtained, by the shedding of his blood, is special and particular, that is to say, that it was only intentionally designed for the elect of God, and sheep of Christ, who only share the special and peculiar blessings of it and whose salvation was secured by it. The doctrine of the efficacy of the atonement is fully harmonious with fervent evangelistic zeal and missionary efforts, the Lamb being worthy to receive the full reward of his suffering.   

Of Irresistible Grace

Regeneration is not an act of man’s free will and power, but of the sovereign, efficacious, and irresistible grace of God. The Holy Spirit gives spiritual life to a dead sinner, making him both willing and able to repent of sin and trust in Christ unto salvation. This giving of a holy disposition of love towards Christ is not based on any movement toward God by the sinner but solely on God’s action towards him.

Of the Perseverance of the Saints

All who are chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit are eternally saved. They are kept in faith by the power of Almighty God and therefore continue to persevere in faith, bearing fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. He who began a good work in them will surely complete it.

If these doctrines are essential to gospel ministry, then making them plain via a confession is secondary to making it plain from the pulpit. Therefore, I believe that the doctrines of grace should be taught systematically in churches that hold to these great truths of Scripture. 

A church that is putting forth a confession to be voted on might want to consider doing a series on the doctrines of grace on Sunday mornings—that is when the whole congregation gathers together and this is a matter of utmost importance to the whole congregation. These sermons could still be expository in nature, focusing on one verse for each doctrine. For example, the sermon series could be something along the following lines: Total Depravity (Titus 1:15), Unconditional Election (2 Timothy 1:9), Limited Atonement (John 10:15), Irresistible Grace (Ephesians 2:5), Perseverance of the Saints (Philippians 1:6). However, teaching on the doctrine of a recommended confession can also be done in a number of other ways:

  • Teaching Sunday nights on the five doctrines that make up what is referred to as TULIP.
  • Teaching through the proposed confession of faith in Sunday School classes, addressing one article a week, and allowing honest and candid feedback.
  • Writing blog posts on various aspects of the confession and answering questions from parishioners concerning the doctrine.
  • Creating short podcast episodes for the church body on the doctrine of the confession.
  • Hosting numerous informal (and perhaps some formal) gathering where church members can simply come and sit around a table and discuss these issues with the pastor(s).

This is about the church coming together, not the pastor dictating. Obviously, the pastor will not endorse a confession he rejects, so he is not kowtowing to the congregation in matters of doctrine. Rather, he is shepherding the people, seeking to persuade them (via teaching) of the truthfulness of biblical doctrine. In the end, if a pastor cannot persuade people of the core tenets of Christian salvation, then I think either (1) he shouldn’t be a pastor or (2) these aren’t the people he should be shepherding. The point is to get the church to unite around a confession so that there can be an official position of the church, not merely of the pastor. A pastor ought not say (or act accordingly) the following: “This is the direction we are going and you should vote to support it.” The bottom-line is that the Word of God is powerful and sufficient to convince people of the glorious doctrines contained therein. I agree with John Hammett who says, “It is primarily by means of his preaching and teaching that the elder exerts the influence of leadership in the congregation.” This is no doubt true when it comes to adopting a confession.

Voting on a Confession

There are numerous options when it comes to voting on a confession. Here are three:

  1. The pastor(s) selects and approves a recommendation (no church vote)
  2. The pastor(s) makes a recommendation and the church votes to approve it
  3. A recommendation can be made by any church member in good standing (including the pastor) and if a certain number of church members second the motion, it is moved to a vote

These are simplistic explanations of avenues to adopt a confession; each would require more detailed explanation. However, they correspond to varying levels of congregational polity. In the case of option A, this is really only “congregational” in the sense that the members elected the pastors (usually a one-time, lifetime election). In option B, this is closer to pure congregationalism, but still falls short because the pastor(s) has the sole authority to recommend a confession. Option C, in my view, is truly congregational. The pastor’s influence and authority is in teaching and persuading, not dictating the decision of the church. If a recommendation is made that the pastor thinks is unwise, he is free to persuade (via teaching, not psychological strong-arming) that another course of action would be better. Option A, in my view, is too far removed from congregationalism to merit consideration. Option B at least gives the church full authority to reject any recommendation by the pastor. 

I would note that just as important as the doctrine of congregational church polity is the practice of openness and humility that is needed for it to work. I’d rather be in a church where Option A is in place if the pastors actually care about what the church members think and church members are welcomed to discuss disagreement, than in a church where Option B is in place but members are pressured to vote “yes” to whatever the pastor recommends.

Though this post is not a defense of my presupposition that congregationalism is the correct form of church polity, let me note one thing. In the end, the church body truly does have the final say. According to Mark Dever: “The congregation will have their say. That’s a simple fact. It is like gravity. It’s just a matter of the way things work.” Thus, embracing congregationalism “provides for what is a practical inevitability.” The “people can always vote, with their funds and feet, if in no other way.” At the end of the day, the church members can all leave if the pastor(s) goes in a direction they do not desire. Though there may have been no voting, the church is disbanded and the pastor is left with no congregation to “govern.” Far better, in my view, is to involve the church body all along. This is primarily because I think it is biblical, and secondarily, because it is inevitable.

Possible Outcomes of a Vote

If Option B or C are selected, there are several possible outcomes. Even if Option A is selected, one of these general outcomes will result—the difference will be that no one voted on the matter. A key question here is this: Could seeking to implement a Calvinistic confession of faith lead to a “church split”? Yes, but no less than simply teaching Calvinstic doctrine might lead to a church split. What I mean is this: the doctrines of grace will inevitability cause “problems.” These “problems,” though not pleasant, most not be avoided when sound doctrine begins to be taught and embraced. I believe that being open and honest sooner, rather than later, is the wiser route to take for any church.

A few of things could happen if a church seeks to adopt a Calvinistic confession of faith. One, everyone might embrace the doctrine and vote unanimously to affirm the new confession. This would be ideal. Two, the majority affirm it and the church adopts it. Three, the church does not vote to affirm the confession. The first possibility requires no further analysis here. The other two do.

Those Who Reject It

If a church as a whole adopts the confession, what becomes of those who didn’t vote to affirm it? This is an intensely difficult and practical problem that needs to be addressed elsewhere. But this is essentially the question churches deal with anyway when they do not adopt a confession but still teach Calvinistic doctrine for the first time. People leave on a case-by-case basis as the doctrine becomes clearer and clearer. This could certainly be prevented (for a time) if a pastor decides to tone down his “Calvinistic” tendencies. But would such a thing be honorable? Certainly not! Therefore, should one refrain from encouraging the church to adopt a Calvinist confession, simply because some people may then leave? As I alluded to above, I believe those who refuse to accept the doctrines of grace are in serious danger concerning their view of God, salvation, and the Christian life. Though I have no special desire for any church to see members leave, I have an even greater desire to be true to Scripture. Biblical Christianity is inevitably exclusionary.

Part of voting on a confession would also be deciding how it will impact church membership. Are those who voted “no” grandfathered into the membership of the church, even though they reject the doctrine? I think this is problematic. Another option could be that membership requires accepting the doctrine of the church and if you cannot do so, then you should voluntarily rescind your membership until you are ready to do so. However, if someone refuses to, then things get complicated. Nevertheless, the principle seems clear. A prospective new member could not join the church without adopting the confession. Therefore, a current member who refuses to submit to what the church as a whole has voted on ought not to stay a member. I hesitate to write more on that topic now. That is probably the greatest practical challenge facing a church when considering the adoption of a confession. 

If the Church Rejects It

What if the church rejects it? I suppose in that case the options for a pastor who endorsed the confession are to (1) leave and plant another church or (2) to remain and continue to preach the very doctrine that the church as a whole just refused to affirm. I would lean towards the latter (if the church wants me to stay), at least for a significant amount of time. Stay. Shepherd. Preach. Teach. Instruct. Don’t compromise. In time, the people may come around to embrace the doctrines of grace. The fact is that the church voted “no” to a specific confession— the church did not vote the pastor out. There is time to get feedback and understand the church’s decision. There is time to keep teaching and persuading.

Conclusion

As there has been something of revival in the doctrines of grace, many churches are dealing with these very issues as they seek to be true to God’s Word while dealing with a past of less than precise theology and doctrine. Understanding how and why to use a confession of faith is a great help to churches in those situations. For more on the use of confessions, I do heartily recommend Carl Trueman’s book, The Creedal Imperative. 

For more about Chris Hume’s ministry and for information on how you can support the work, please visit www.ChrisHumeREF.com or https://www.refglobal.org/hume-chris.html


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