Sometimes people who come from the non-confessional evangelical world look at confessional churches as though they are hide-bound traditionalists. Doubtless, that is sometimes true. The words “we have never done it that way” have been heard from time to time in Reformed churches. In recent years, however, I have noticed a remarkably rapid shift in segments of the non-confessional church world. Two large Bible churches with which I am familiar have, in different ways, undergone impressive doctrinal shifts. One of them, which would once have been regarded as rock-ribbed, as they say, in its fundamentalism (e.g., Dispensational, premillennial eschatology) has made optional belief in the traditional doctrine of hell (i.e., eternal conscious torment), and belief in the substitutionary atonement. This does not seem to be an isolated instance, but part of a larger pattern.
The Shift In The C&MA
One outstanding example of such a shift is the recent decision by the Christian and Missionary Alliance to begin ordaining females to pastoral ministry.
In fairness, some of the churches that came out of the Keswick Movement, of which the C&MA is one, have long been more open to the ordination of females, but it is still remarkable to see a church that confesses inerrancy, premillennialism, etc. take this step. 1 Timothy 2:12 says, “and I do not permit a woman to teach nor to exercise authority over a man . . .”1
To be frank, I am surprised by what I am seeing. I did not expect to see churches in the Bible church tradition calling into question the traditional doctrines of hell and the atonement. I have seen other fairly dramatic shifts to an openly pragmatic approach to ministry that are equally alarming.
The Usefulness Of Confessions
All of these things, those mentioned and others unmentioned, suggest the utility of confessions. It is not that confessional churches can never go bad. There are counterexamples that show that it can and does happen. The Presbyterian Church USA has a book of confessions, including historic Reformed confessions, which did not stop them from becoming deeply corrupted by theological liberalism. The C&MA has a confession of sorts in their brief statement of faith, but that statement did not prevent them from moving in a more theologically liberal direction.
Nevertheless, where there is no objective, binding, shared confession of a church’s understanding of Scripture, there is very little that anyone can do when a church goes bad. It is one very useful tool to help prevent a church from losing its way that is absent from the toolbox. How is it that a congregation which was, until very recently, stoutly fundamentalist (is there any other way to be fundamentalist?) in the Bible church tradition, declined so rapidly? The practical, de facto confession of that congregation is whatever the pastor teaches. To paraphrase the apocryphal saying attributed to Louis XIV, L’Éeglise c’est moi (I am the church). In such a polity (pattern of church government) the pastor is a de facto pope. He may have cardinals (hand-picked lieutenants), but they are just that.
Consider a secular analogy. In England, there is no written constitution. They speak of a constitution, which can be confusing to Americans. When say they constitution, they mean something like “a way of doing things.” By contrast, in the USA, when we say Constitution, we are referring to a fixed, written document that, when used correctly, norms our laws and practices. Thus, Americans have an explicit guarantee of certain liberties and rights. We have a natural right, recognized in and protected by the constitution, to free speech, freedom of religion, a free press, and freedom to assemble. When I lived in England there was a considerable degree of free speech, but since Covid, the rights of English citizens to free speech have been considerably curtailed. When the American government tries to do this sort of thing—and they do try—we have an objective agreement (the Constitution) to which we can appeal in the courts and in the legislatures.
So it is in the church. When churches confess their faith in a document, there is an objective statement of the church’s agreed understanding of God’s Word. Should the minister adopt a view that contradicts what the church confesses, the church has a recourse to the confession by which they can complain against the change, or appeal for relief. Of course, in the case of an independent church government, appeal and complaint are either much more difficult or impossible, which raises other obvious problems. Still, even within an independent/congregational church government, the members can appeal to the elders (or those who function as elders) on the basis of the church’s confession. If there is no avenue for appeal or complaint, then we may fairly wonder whether a congregation is a church or a cult.
How does this work in practice? Ask Henk and Elsie Navis. In our federation of churches, we had a minister who preached a sermon teaching that at the judgment, we will be accepted by God partly on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity. Henk and Elsie recognized that this contradicted the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. On that basis, they complained against the sermon to the elders and minister, who rejected their complaint. So, they appealed to the regional assembly of ministers and elders, who rejected their complaint. Finally, they appealed to the national assembly of ministers and elders. That body agreed with them heartily and rebuked the narrower assemblies and instructed Henk and Elsie’s pastor and elders to teach according to the Heidelberg and the Belgic. The federation used that occasion to take a stand against the so-called Federal Vision theology.
Without a confession and catechism, what recourse would Henk and Elsie have had? To what would they have appealed? Without a confession of God’s Word and a catechism, how would the federation of churches address the threat of the error being preached and the Federal Vision theology?
Confessions do not do everything, but they do something, and that thing is valuable when we use it and stand by it.
1. “διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός . . . ” The context of this verse is the gathered worship of the visible church. Paul is not issuing a general prohibition on females exercising authority outside of worship. Obviously, mothers exercise authority over their sons. There were queens in the ancient world ruling in the civil sphere and there have been queens since then, most recently Queen Elizabeth II.
Paul urges “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Tim 2:1), which sets the tone. He calls for “thanksgivings…for all people” including “kings” and others in “high positions” so that Christians might “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:1–2). He appeals to his office and vocation as a “preacher and apostle” (1 Tim 2:7) and reminds the churches of Asia Minor of his desire
that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works (1 Tim 2:8–10)
Most of this is either explicitly or implicitly liturgical in orientation and context. After considering the alternatives, I am still hard-pressed to see how anyone who professes to submit to the authority of God’s Word could look at this passage and conclude that Paul permits the ordination of females to special office in the visible church.
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