This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Biblical unity has been replaced by a counterfeit unity that goes by the name of confessionalism. Protestants have historically loved to write confessions of faith. These documents are designed to clearly spell out one group’s understanding of biblical doctrine at a particular point in time. Although the original intention behind the writing of most confessions was to make a clear statement of doctrinal beliefs and to separate true believers from false believers, most confessions have today come to be used as a means of separating true believers from true believers. Although not originally designed to be used in this fashion, confessionalism is a primary engine of the sin of factionalism.
Confessional unity is a counterfeit unity. As a counterfeit it has done tremendous harm to the genuine unity of the Church. This concept is a very difficult one for a confessionalist to stomach. Many churchmen have lived their entire lives trying to become experts in their particular confessions. Many churchmen have risen up the ladder of spiritual power in their denominations by defending their confession against all others. Many churchmen have a vested interest in seeing the practice of factionalism continue on a grand scale. Many churchmen are going to be very surprised when they find out that God was not nearly so concerned with their confessions as they were (except to judge them as an instrument in the sinful practice of factionalism).
To illustrate my point about the evils of confessionalism, consider this one little gem from my favorite confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). WCF section 31:4 says this, “All synods or councils since the apostle’s times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both.” This is a great statement because the authors of the WCF recognized the tendency of men to begin to use the written confession, rather than the Bible, as a test of orthodoxy. They specifically repudiated that practice by asserting that confessions are not inerrant. This is a healthy and proper understanding of the drafting and use of confessions.
What has happened in our factionalized time? The WCF is the rule of faith and practice to thousands of Presbyterian elders around the country. My own ex-denomination required this oath before being ordained as an elder, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the WCF as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures and do you promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine…?” This is a strange oath indeed! How is it possible to swear an oath of allegiance to the WCF when the WCF itself asserts that it is never to be the object of a sworn oath? I asked this question of several of my fellow elders in my ex-denomination and was never given an answer (Or, at least, a biblical answer. I did get an earful of lectures from many of them on the importance of upholding the WCF against all enemies, especially Baptists!)
Confessional unity is a sham. It does not exist. Everybody has exceptions to one or another part of any confession. Then it becomes necessary to spend tremendous amounts of time and energy to determine if the exception makes that person somebody that needs to be separated from the particular church or if they can remain, insofar as they promise not to teach what they believe that is contrary to the confession. One churchman went so far as to suggest that each new elder have a signed letter of resignation on file at the denominational office so that all he had to do was make a phone call whenever he had a change of belief on some doctrine mentioned in the confession.
Confessional wars are being fought in many denominations. The “strict subscriptionists” vs. the “loose subscriptionists” is not the name of some Hollywood movie. In this case, those who want a verbal, plenary oath of allegiance to the confession are fighting against those who want an oath to the general “system of doctrine” taught in the confession. Leaders of the church are expending tremendous amounts of time and energy as they fight with one another over doctrines that fit into that alleged third class of doctrine and practice that is not necessary for salvation but which, nonetheless, must be believed and practiced to be a part of their faction.
In addition to being a sham and counterproductive, confessionalism is the coward’s way out with respect to the hard work of biblical unity. Biblical unity is arrived at via the process of church discipline. Church discipline is what determines whether a doctrine is necessary for salvation or elective for the individual. If a doctrine is necessary for salvation, then it must be believed and practiced. If a person does not believe a necessary doctrine then he is necessarily a heretic and must be excommunicated. On the other hand, if a doctrine is elective, individuals are free to disagree with each other provided they do not separate from each other. There are no other options. There is no other class of doctrine or disagreement.
A coward likes confessionalism because it permits him to not have to make judicial decisions about the beliefs of others (see my paper on “The Case for the Reformation of Church Disciplinary Procedures” for a full study of this topic). A coward can hide behind a confession and never have to make a hard decision. It is despicable that there are leaders in our churches who routinely make statements about the beliefs of others without ever rendering a judicial decision about them. For example, I went to a Baptist seminary, despite the fact that I do not believe in the traditional Baptist doctrine of baptism. I had many spirited debates with my fellow students. Oftentimes the word ‘heretic’ would arise. When that word would be uttered I would ask, “So am I necessarily unsaved (a heretic) for not believing in believer baptism?” In the heat of the moment some would say that I was condemned to hell for not believing the Baptist doctrine on baptism. Most would recognize that I could be a true believer and a paedobaptist, even though they didn’t like it. A confession allows Christians to separate from each other and “agree to disagree” on a particular doctrine (like baptism) without ever actually having to deal with a person who disagrees with the pet doctrine. I have often heard that amazing statement that we must “express our unity by dividing” in cases such as that.
The concept of expressing unity by dividing is the exact same concept that exists in the world with respect to divorce. Couples who have grown tired of each other decide that it would be better for all involved if they were to divorce as the ultimate expression of unity! Then they are free to become “just friends” since both parties recognize that they are better “friends” than they are “marriage partners”. After all, is that not also in the best interest of the children?
That same idea exists in the Church. We are told that unity can best be exemplified by separating into separate denominations. After all, we only fight and argue over our pet doctrines when we are together. It is alleged to be better to be friends and separated than enemies and united. How, we are asked, are we going to conduct the other vital ministries of the church when we spend so much time fighting? And we must not forget the sheep. Is it not better for the sheep to not see the elders always fighting with each other? Yes, it must really be in our best interest to separate for the sake of our unity! Hiding behind a confession as a means of expressing our unified disunity is the easiest way out for someone who is unwilling to do the hard work of “considering others as more important than himself.”
The Church is made up of a diverse group of people. Although Christians are legally saints, there yet remains the stain of sin and sinful behavior that makes life within the Church, just like life in the marriage, difficult at times. As a result, there are many conflicts in the Church. How we resolve those conflicts is the key to biblical unity.