What is Confessional Church Membership?
By “confessional church membership” I mean church membership in which all of the members hold to a common confession of faith. For the present, I don’t even necessarily mean one of the lengthy historic Reformed confessions of faith. I simply mean, any doctrinal statement (no matter how long or short it is) should be commonly believed and confessed by all members of a local body of believers—after all, what are they a body of believers in? …But now I’m getting ahead of myself. So, let’s back up and discuss why this is a vitally important subject for us today.
A Much Needed Reformation
In my 17 years as a Christian, it has been clear to me that something is wrong with the visible church, at least in America. As I have read the Bible daily for almost the past two decades, it has become increasingly clear that the modern American church does not look anything like the New Testament church does in Scripture—and I’m not taking about mere outward forms and cultural differences. I mean the modern church essentially differs in both doctrine and practice.
It would be extremely foolish to suppose that all this spiritual rot and decay in the modern church stems from any one problem. However, it does seem perfectly clear to me that we need more than a revival. We have made an awful mess of things by getting away from biblical doctrine and practice. Before revival, we need a reformation.
This drift away from biblical doctrine and practice has happened little by little, probably through some well-meaning men who made relatively small compromises. However, over time these small comprises multiply and get embedded into the culture and lifeblood of the church. Sooner or later, without diligent and intentional reformation, these little compromises make one huge mess. At this point in time, it would be foolish and presumptuous to think that God is going to simply pour out the Holy Spirit on this mess we have made by negligence and disobedience to the written Word of God. No, we need more than a revival, we need another reformation.
The area where I believe a reformation must begin, is with regards to having confessional church membership. In this article I will make various arguments showing why confessional church membership is necessary if we are to once again see spiritual healthy and thriving congregations such as we see in the New Testament. May the Lord grant his people grace, boldness, and courage to do whatever it takes to stand for the truth that Christ may be glorified in his Church!
What is the Church?
One of the questions we have to ask up front is, what is the church? In 1 Timothy, which is one of the pastoral epistles, Paul writes to young pastor Timothy in 3:14-15 saying,
“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”
According to this text, the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Proclaiming, defending, and upholding truth (that is “sound doctrine”) is essential to what it means to be the church. If a “church” reduces or minimizes truth, or if they as a “congregation” are indifferent to truth, then they are no true church. “A pillar and buttress of the truth,” that is what the church is!
What is the Truth?
So then the question becomes, what is the truth which the church of the living God is a pillar and buttress of? Jude calls it, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) Paul calls it, “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) Elsewhere Paul calls it, “the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me.” (2 Timothy 1:13) So, “the truth” is the unchanging, comprehensive biblical doctrine of the faith (a.k.a. “systematic theology”) which is “taught” (Titus 1:9) through words—not caught through “spiritual experiences.”
Historically, from the time of the Apostles to today, churches have stated the truth which they confess in brief, definitive statements, usually in the form of creeds and confessions. Most people hate and utterly reject this whole idea of having doctrinal creeds and confessions today. I believe that this is because most professing Christians value experience more than truth—which is a fundamental denial of the whole Christian faith as taught and exemplified in the New Testament. A.A. Hodge gives us this outstanding argument for the necessity of creeds and confessions. He writes,
“Why are Creeds and Confessions necessary, and how have they been produced?
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament having been given by inspiration of God, are for man in his present state the only and the all-sufficient rule of faith and practice. This divine word, therefore, is the only standard of doctrine which has any intrinsic authority binding the consciences of men. All other standards are of value or authority only as they teach what the Scriptures teach.
But it is the inalienable duty and necessity of men to arrive at the meaning of the Scriptures in the use of their natural faculties, and by the ordinary instruments of interpretation. Since all truth is self-consistent in all its parts, and since the human reason always instinctively strives to reduce all the elements of knowledge with which it grapples to logical unity and consistency, it follows that men must more or less formally construct a system of faith out of the materials presented in the Scriptures. Every student of the Bible necessarily does this in the very process of understanding and digesting its teaching, and all such students make it manifest that they have found, in one way or another, a system of faith as complete as for him has been possible, by the very language he uses in prayer, praise, and ordinary religious discourse. If men refuse the assistance afforded by the statements of doctrine slowly elaborated and defined by the church, they must severally make out their own creed by their own unaided wisdom. The real question between the church and the impugners of human creeds, is not, as the latter often pretend, between the word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the individual objector.”
It can’t be said any better than that. Creeds and confessions help us to clearly state exactly what is “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) They give us a “pattern of the sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) in order that we may make disciples “who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2)
So, while truth belongs to Scripture alone, the creeds and confessions help us to definitively summarize that truth, and to do so in a way that is tremendously helpful in the process of making disciples. However, creeds and confessions are not only for the sake of the truth, but also for the sake of unity and fellowship in the church, as we shall now consider.
How Can Two Walk Together?
It is often thought that “doctrine divides.” This is a half truth. The problem is that sound doctrine gets the blame for division which is caused by doctrinal error or theological indifference. In his excellent book, “Christianity and Liberalism,” J. Gresham Machen says,
“It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.”
That is a brilliant and keen insight into the true nature of divisions in the church. The devil, always full of deceit and craftiness, is happy to have us blame God’s truth for the mischief that he stirs up within the church. Error itself is what causes the divisions, not sound doctrine. Machen then gives us this compelling example from church history when he writes,
“It was a great calamity when at the ‘Marburg Conference’ between Luther and the representatives of the Swiss Reformation, Luther wrote on the table with regard to the Lord’s Supper, ‘This is my body,’ and said to Zwingli and Oecolampadius, ‘You have another spirit.’ That difference of opinion led to the breach between the Lutheran and the Reformed branches of the Church, and caused Protestantism to lose much of the ground that might otherwise have been gained. It was a great calamity indeed. But the calamity was due to the fact that Luther (as we believe) was wrong about the Lord’s Supper; and it would have been a far greater calamity if being wrong about the Supper he had represented the whole question as a trifling affair. Luther was wrong about the Supper, but not nearly so wrong as he would have been if, being wrong, he had said to his opponents: ‘Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about the table of the Lord.’ Such indifferentism would have been far more deadly than all the divisions between the branches of the Church. A Luther who would have compromised with regard to the Lord’s Supper never would have said at the Diet of Worms, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me, Amen.’ Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith.”
To that historical observation I can only say, Amen! Yet, when we indifferently gather together as the church without urgently discussing doctrinal differences—but rather we just casually talk about work, family, and sports—are we not in effect saying, “Brethren, this matter is a trifle; and it makes really very little difference what a man thinks about Calvinism or Arminianism, 1689 Federalism or New Covenant Theology, Cessationism or Continuationism”? All truth is God’s truth, and therefore, we cannot be indifferent about the least revealed truth in Scripture.
So, when a man of God recognizes such errors and stands for the truth, he is not to be blamed for any divisions that result. Our commitment is first and foremost to the truth, but when we are sanctified in the truth of God’s word, we will have unity. (See John 17:17-21) In Scripture, truth and unity are not two contradictory opposed ideas which we have to hold in tension. The will of God is “good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) If God wills both “truth” and “unity” then they cannot be at odds with each other because they are both within the perfect will of God. Rather, one is the means of the other. More truth leads to greater unity.
Regarding church unity I find myself returning again and again to these simple but profound words in Amos 3:3,
“Do two walk together,
unless they have agreed to meet?”
For two to walk together (to have “fellowship” with one another) there must be common ground. In the practical realm of walking together with another person, there must be common principals and goals. If two people are operating based on different principals, or if they have different goals, they will not walk together for long before they come to a fork in the road and part ways.
I have experienced this so often in my own life as I have gone to various churches. I visit a prospective church home, being fully willing myself to overlook doctrinal disagreements so long as it is not on “the essentials,” but before long I find myself alone, the fellowship superficial, and I see no evidence that anyone is truly partnered together for the sake of advancing the gospel.
For example, if you hold a strong Calvinistic view of the gospel, that is going to change the way you do evangelism in multiple ways. Doctrines like total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints radically changes the way you share the gospel, especially when compared to an Arminian who thinks that they must somehow help that lost person exercise their “self-determining autonomous free will” to make a decision for Christ. In a church mixed with Calvinists and Arminians, the two will not “walk together” in evangelism when they have not “agreed to meet” on the truth of the gospel.
Examples could be endlessly multiplied, but the principal is simple: “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?” Everywhere that Christians are to walk together is only made possible when they have agreed to meet, and biblically, the only place where genuine Christians can meet and so walk harmoniously together in a non-superficial way is to meet at the truth.
My firm conviction over the years (learned partly from Scripture, partly from church history, and partly from painful experience) is that the doctrinal statement of the church is where the congregation ought to meet. It is no use pretending to have a confession of faith which only part of the congregation confesses. This is why churches must have a confessional church membership, so that they can walk together in truth, unity, and love to the glory of Christ’s name.
How Long Until the Dam Bursts?
A church may decided that one of the historic Reformed confessions is too long and detailed. If that is someone’s firm conviction I would not argue over it too much, but whatever the confession of faith is, the whole membership of the church should confess it, because when churches don’t require any confessional unity, it gets messy and confusing real quick!
For example, I may go to a church that claims to be “Reformed and Charismatic.” (I would argue that they are not actually Reformed, but that is another article.) They have a statement of faith that is Calvinistic in its soteriology, in which I rejoice. However, it also claims that all of the miraculous gifts of prophecy, healing, and tongues continue and are necessary for the church today. I reject “continuationism” as being false and potentially very dangerous, but I may not necessarily feel that I must break fellowship over it. The church says it will accept me into their membership although I completely disagree with their statement on spiritual gifts. Is this a good thing? I say, no it’s not.
It is like a hole in a dam. Soon you find out that they also accept people into their membership who reject Calvinism. Well, that is a problem since I very well may break fellowship over that issue since now we are talking about our understanding of God, man, sin, and salvation. Yet, even more problematic than Calvinism itself is this: How many holes will appear before the whole dam bursts? What is really doctrinally required to be a member of the church? Is there an unwritten secret code? Is there part of the statement of faith that is in bold letters which imply it is an essential doctrine? Who in the church is accountable to what doctrinal standard? At what point does the church cease to be a Christian church because it has been invaded by the spirit of theological liberalism? And since practice flows from doctrine, who is accountable to what standard of holiness and godliness in the Christian life? The problem is, practically there is no standard. Either of doctrine or practice, and this leads to another problem…
A Church or a Christian Sub-Culture?
So what happens when a local church does not unite around a common confession of faith? The church will inevitably become nothing more than a vaguely Christian sub-culture. Without doctrinal truth as the uniting principal in the church, some other principal will naturally become the uniting force in the church, whether it be skin color, some political affiliation or cause, or various hobbies, interests, activities, and cultural lifestyles. Instead of being the multi-general, multi-ethnic bride of Christ, the church will become just a cute little social club.
Again, the doctrinal statement of the church is where the congregation ought to meet. Without this, they will find another meeting place, and that place will most likely be some vaguely Christian sub-culture. Then what happens is, people end up trying to find a church home where they can “fit in” or “connect.” This is grossly man-centered, yet inevitable. When the weightiness of the glory of God is not the center of gravity in the church, sub-cultures naturally fill the void.
This is what leads men of conviction to leave the church. Men who have biblical convictions, fear God, love Christ, and who have a passion to reach the lost with the gospel are driven away because they find no genuine manly fellowship. All they find is a pathetic sub-culture which is usually effeminate and caters to the most worldly people who are indifferent towards sound biblical doctrine…but coincidentally they make enough money to be good tithers.
Now, some Reformed pastor may think I am just picking on seeker sensitive churches. I’m not. “I’m talking about you!” (Paul Washer) Reformed churches are often just as guilty of this. Many of them don’t require confessional unity either, and then the church becomes a homeschool hillbilly sub-culture or some strange thing like that. I mean, maybe some churches exist in cities where there is only one ethnolinguistic people group, but in the towns and cities I have lived in, you don’t have to look too far to see a wide range of diverse ethnicities and cultures. But if the church is not united by truth, culture will unite. Oddly enough, it is not doctrine that divides, but culture. Most churches will accept someone with almost any doctrine into their membership, but don’t you dare listen to Christian hip-hop and not partake in their annual square dance!
Domineering Church Leadership
Another thing which must be considered is, what happens to church leadership when there is not a common confession of faith uniting all of the people in the congregation? All true Protestants would quickly affirm that Scripture is the supreme and final authority in the church. However, without a confession of faith, who’s interpretation and application of Scripture will be the supreme and final authority in the church practically? The pastors and elders, that’s who.
You see, if the church’s confession of faith is “king” in the church, then all are accountable to its authority as the proper interpretation of Scripture, which alone is the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith in practice—as any confession of faith worth its salt will clearly confess! Furthermore, it is not the pastor who “reigns” over the church, but truth itself which reigns as the supreme governing authority in the church. Besides avoiding abusive totalitarian leadership in the church, confessional church membership is also inherently God-centered church membership because it puts the truth of God’s word at the center of the congregation, rather than the pastor.
Pastor and elders are not to reign over the people, but they should be humbly submitted to the authority of the common confession of faith just the same as the rest of the congregation. If it is a good confession, such as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, it will help govern the whole church as a solid, robust, and full interpretation of Scripture concerning the whole counsel of God, which includes the proper role of elders and deacons. In this way God’s truth will be the supreme authority in the church, and all men will be humbly gathered together under the Lordship of Christ—and not under the tyrannical rule of a Pope…or a domineering Pastor.
Having been a member in an abusive church where, rather than shepherding the congregation, the pastors controlled the congregation right down to their Facebook content, I don’t take this lightly. I know what tyrannical and domineering church leadership looks like. Abusive, domineering church leadership is also one of the practical reasons why I think we need confessional documents with more, rather than less, theology. Personally, this is one reason I would advocate for some form of congregational church government such as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (if you are a credobaptist), or the Savoy Declaration of 1658 (if you are a pedobaptist). This form of church government makes truth supreme, and the whole congregation, pastors included, accountable to one another under the Lordship of Christ and his written Word. We need this kind of full confessionalism. Especially in our day which is full of confusion and abusive leadership in all realms of society, which unfortunately also includes the church.
Finally, I want to ask: Why does this seem like such an impossible task? I mean, if someone agrees with my argument in principal, but then honestly looks at the state of the church and the vast multitude of doctrinal divisions in each church, this will seem like a fools errand. I think there are at least two reasons why confessional church membership seems impossible to us.
First, we’re far too scared to let people leave the church. We don’t think of doctrine, discipleship, or the church like Jesus did. Jesus evidently did not care about large numbers. He wasn’t concerned with the quantity of disciples he had, but with the quality. For example, in John 6 he preached what we now-a-days call Calvinism. (See v. 37,39,44-45) As a result of his Calvinistic sermon, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60) Rather than backing off for fear that his doctrine might cause offense (after all ‘perhaps these are just babes in Christ who need some milk for awhile before they eat the strong meat of Reformed Theology’), Jesus presses them further saying,“Do you take offense at this? Then what if…” (v. 61-62) Then in verse 66 we read, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” He doesn’t run after them apologizing that perhaps he gave them too much doctrine too soon. On the contrary, “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’” (v. 67) Jesus taught sound doctrine even if it emptied out a mega-church sized crowd of 5,000 members, leaving him with a tiny congregation of only 12…and yet still Jesus says to them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” (v. 70) Evidently Jesus’ standards and methods of growing a church were vastly different from our own. We need to be as willing to stand for truth and let people leave the church who are offended at sound doctrine (even the particulars of Calvinism) as we see Jesus exemplify for us here and elsewhere in the gospels.
Second, I believe it seems like an impossible task because the church is not making disciples. We are not systematically instructing everyone in the church in sound biblical doctrine. We may have a short membership class where we tell prospective members what “the church” is all about—even though almost no one in the church except the pastor actually believes and embraces it. A short membership class is easy, but it is hard work to patiently open the Scriptures with someone, to prove to them the various doctrines of Scripture, to show them how they relate to one another, and then to help apply those doctrines practically to every day life and to evangelism and global missions. Yet that is exactly what it means to make disciples, but we’re not doing that. If we were, then it would be a very small step forward to say, “Now let’s form or adopt a common confession of faith as a church.”
They Devoted Themselves to the Apostles’ Teaching
The beautiful thing is, once the elders have established confessional church membership in a local church, now there is a healthy church full of doctrinally sound men. Furthermore, during that process the pastors will be able to identify other “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2) So, the burden won’t always fall entirely on the pastors. This kind of culture of discipleship “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:16) Suddenly, you don’t just have a professional pastor doing all of the work, you have a New Testament church. The question is, is any one willing to put their hand to the plow and do whatever it takes to establish a culture of disciple making in these days of doctrinal indifference?
My confession of faith is the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. By most people’s standards it is too long and complicated. However, it is really not that complicated if you let Scripture speak for itself. How hard would it be to sit down with another person with the Confession and an open Bible, and to begin to work through these doctrines? It would take time to be sure, but could you think of a more pleasant and enjoyable way to spend your time? I can’t. I mean, that is what it means to make disciples. If we are not doing that, then what the heck are we doing?!? The First mark of the New Testament church was this:
“they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42)
I can’t think of anything that is more antithetical to the present attitude and condition of the church than this. We are far from being devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Worse still, this text doesn’t merely say that “they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching,” but rather, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Evidently this desire to know the apostolic doctrine arose from within their own hearts. For us, that raises a much more frightening question than ‘how to reform the church?’ We must ask, are we the church? Have we been born again? Are we indwelt by the Spirit of the living God? If so, then why don’t we have the same devotion to sound doctrine that the New Testament church had?