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The Case for Historic Confessions in the Modern Church

A confession is the set of beliefs that unifies a religious body. A confession allows for real church unity around understood and agreed upon common belief and practice. In an age where people cannot even agree on the meaning of simple words, confessions help us to speak the same language – to see things from a common perspective and understand where others are coming from.

The use of orthodox, historic confessions help to keep us on the straight and narrow – they prevent us from being easily deceived or wandering outward on our own. They give us a standard by which to discern the preaching, teaching, and writing of those we either sit under or are influenced by.

Without a common confession, you cannot know or even generally approximate what others in your church believe, or from what angle they may try to influence the church. Without a clearly defined and taught confession, things will inevitably fall to the lowest common denominator – things never tend toward correctness on their own.

This is the foundation upon which I will build my case for the use of orthodox, historic confessions within the modern church.

The Wild West

I grew up in a typical American evangelical environment. Our church had a statement of faith, but I do not remember ever spending much time going over it or seeing anyone being held accountable to it. It was there, but it was more of a general guideline than a fixed standard.  

This does not mean that no one cared about the truth in my church, or that the pastors did not believe and teach consistently with the church’s statement of faith. It just means that for the average attendee, or even church member, the statement of faith had very little tangible value or purpose.  

This kind of environment tends to foster a bit of a figurative wild west in personal beliefs and practices. As in any group or society of people, a lack of clear, defined, and enforced standards will result in a drifting and divergence of beliefs and practices. To deal with that, the general mood will either tend toward apathy, or an unspoken agreement to embrace the lowest common denominator.  

In the end, every church has a confession they have agreed upon. The real question is whether everyone is aware of what those beliefs are. It may be written down and transparent, or simply understood by those “in the know”. You may only realize this kind of agreement is in place once you have unwittingly spoken or acted against it. Maybe you brought coffee into the sanctuary, or wore sandals while teaching Sunday School, or questioned the popular understanding of the rapture.  

The Blessing of Transparency

If every church is going to operate based on an agreed upon confession, either on purpose or according to some accepted lowest common denominator, let me suggest we ought not sit back and wait to see how the pieces fall. You will never settle on healthy systems or build a solid foundation on accident. That is not how things work.

While there may be something within some of us that recoils from a clearly defined set of rules and regulations telling us what we can and cannot believe, say, or do, I would argue that this kind of transparency is a blessing. It is a blessing that provides freedom and flourishing.

There is a massive difference between having dogma and regulation forced upon you and choosing to join with others under an agreed upon standard. Every closely held group or association, such as a church, will have a functional set of acceptable beliefs and practices. You can either navigate in those waters by feeling for each rock or stump to strike the bow of the boat, or you can choose to sail in waters where the safe boundaries are well marked and protected.

Further think of it as a child trying to grow and stretch his wings under the watchful care of his parents. If the child were not clearly instructed in what was expected of him and where the safe boundaries were, he would become quickly frustrated as he can never really be sure what response his actions will receive. However, if the child is instructed properly, he may still test boundaries when they are clearly marked, yet he will understand the response initiated by his actions. The child who has been given defined boundaries will be able to learn and anticipate how he can explore, to grow and test himself, while avoiding the landmines that would bring about a predictable, unfavorable response from his parents. Without that clarity, conflict comes even when unexpected. He will be left frustrated and confused. The child will either withdraw completely or learn to rage against all discipline.

There is great blessing in knowing where the safe boundaries are. That is true for citizens of a nation, children in the home, and for members of a church. Creeds and confessions provide those kinds of boundaries.

Historic Confessions and Creeds

Historic confessions and creeds provide individual Christians, churches, and Christendom at large, the kind of clearly defined boundaries that can keep them from straying too far from the faith once for all given to the saints. They give us the kind of transparency that is needed so that we can know what is expected of us, what we can expect of others around us, and where it is safe to explore.

The best way that I have heard creeds distinguished from confessions is that a creed is something that one must believe to be Christian, and a confession is what someone must believe to be in close unity and mutual service with one another. To hold to the creeds is to hold to the bare minimum of Christian Gospel orthodoxy, while sharing a confession enables mutual mission, common training, and church association and membership. The one is needed to simply view someone as Christian, the other to covenant together in the local church.

When we talk about Christian creeds, we typically are talking about the great early church creeds, such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. These are all from the first five-hundred years of church history and represent the refining of biblical orthodoxy in the face of opposition from false teaching. In these creeds the Trinitarian understanding of God, the divinity of Christ, and the hypostatic union of Christ were all defined and defended. All according to the manner and timing necessitated by the rise of unorthodox teaching.

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Confronting Error

Before the rise of unorthodox teaching, it was not well defined where the boundaries needed to be set. When it comes to finite and fallible man interpreting the words of an infinite and perfect God, some room is needed to account for our limited ability to both understand and explain as clearly as we would like. All creeds and confessions leave some room for different nuances of interpretation and emphasis.

Many times, it is exceedingly difficult to know how far is too far for someone to wander in a particular direction until they fall off the ledge. That is what has happened repeatedly in the history of the church. Faithful men in countless churches proclaim the Gospel of Christ according to the best of their understanding. At times some of them wander further from the accepted norms.

Eventually, when they wander far enough that they have left the clear teaching of Scripture behind, a collective response is needed to define the border of acceptable doctrine in that direction. This is all done to protect any that might begin to wander in that same direction.

This can work itself out in ecumenical creeds, in denominational confessions, or in doctrinal statements. All of these perform similar tasks where different layers of agreement are required. They all seek to define what Scripture clearly teaches, and then place boundaries around it to keep people from unknowingly wandering to their ruin.

A Bowling Analogy

Think of it like a bowling lane. If the ball travels directly down the center of the lane, you have a good chance of perfectly hitting the mark. At the least, you will make solid contact within the intended target zone. You do not have to stray very far off track, however, to miss the target completely and end up in the gutter. Imagine how much harder this would be the further out you extended the target, as in a person continuing to learn and grow over a lifetime. It would be almost impossible to stay on target as the distance grows, and along with it, the opportunity to fall into the gutter.

Using that metaphor, consider that the creeds and confessions of the church function much like those bumpers you can put in alongside each edge of the lane. No matter how long the lane is stretched out, the ball will make contact with the target on the other side. The bumpers act like a fence that keeps the ball from straying out of bounds.

This fence does not guarantee a strike every time, and it is not designed to. The design is to keep someone from heresy, from abandoning the truths of the Gospel. It is to keep us from following a false teacher or becoming one ourselves.

Does Doctrine Divide or Unite?

You may have heard someone say that doctrine divides. Likely that was said as a sort of proof for why confessions and detailed statements of faith are unnecessary or even dangerous. They might follow it up with a cliché such as, “I need no creed but the Bible.”

There is no nice way to say it. This sentiment is foolish and dangerous. A right understanding of God divides. We need to have a clear understanding of God and what He requires of us. If the truth divides, then we should desire to be on the side of truth: knowing who God is, what He requires of us, and surrounding ourselves with likeminded believers. To do otherwise would be madness.

In fact, the only kind of unity that comes from the rejection of doctrine is the basest form of unity. Unity around apathy; unity around the rejection of meaning and consequence. Doctrine may divide, as in it divides faithful teachers from false teachers, yet it also provides the most important means of unity. Clearly defined doctrine allows for the true brotherhood of believers united under the faithful proclamation of the Gospel – as handed down once for all to the saints.

Historic Confessions and Catechisms

Specific to this conversation, I want to commend the historic reformed confessions of faith that arose out of the Protestant Reformation. I am a Baptist, and confidently so. And yet, while many in other reformed denominations may not want to grant me access to the reformed party, I recognize the great commonality that my confession has with other historic reformed confessions. Much more so than I would have in common with many other Baptist denominations and churches.

You will find a great deal of unity between these historic reformed confessions. The Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the Reformed Canons of Dort and Belgic Confession, the Presbyterian Westminster Confession, and the 2nd London Baptist Confession.

Along with confessions that detail both the necessary essentials of the faith, as well as church government, ordinances, and common practice, were written catechisms for the discipling of new believers and each new generation. Catechisms are designed to teach the basics of the Christian faith through a series of questions and answers. Some of the greatest catechisms that are tied to the historic reformed confessions are the Lutheran Heidelberg Catechism, the Presbyterian Westminster Shorter (and Longer) Catechisms, and Keech’s Catechism (often simply referred to as the Baptist Catechism.)

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Modern Doctrinal Statements

Creeds and confessions are written to deal with the times and challenges they are born out of. Because God’s Word does not change, the creeds and confessions do not expire or lose their meaning. When they are faithful to God’s Word, they will stand the test of time. If not, they are abandoned – they are not Scripture, they are a means to hold us to Scripture.  

Because they are written in response to the challenges of their day, they will not address everything that we come across. As new challenges arise, new defenses of truth need to be defined and communicated. We have seen this in recent decades, as faithful men of God, from several different denominations, have worked together to define and respond to modern controversies and errors.  

Some of these recent documents that would be worth your time are, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Nashville Statement on a Biblical Understanding of Human Sexuality, and the Dallas Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. No doubt as new challenges arise, new positions and boundaries will have to be worked out and defined.  

Resources for Further Study on Historic Confessions

I want to leave you with a few resources if you want to dive in more deeply into a confession. As the confessions I have commended are old, we benefit much from learning of the context out of which the men wrote – the challenges they faced, and the errors they were protecting against.

I have more resources listed for my Baptist brothers and sisters both because I am Baptist, and because I find that solid reformed Baptist resources are harder to find.

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