The value of a confession has already touched on its proper use. It is used to promote and defend the truth of Scripture. More specifically in the local church it can be used to evaluate teachers and pastors as well as provide boundaries for ministry.
Churches use, for example, the LBC of 1689 to teach systematic theology. It can be a quick reference guide to defend the faith. It can be used for new member’s classes, family devotions and more. Many churches do not require new members to affirm this. It would be too much for new believers to understand. They have a shorter statement for that, desiring them to know what they are signing. The church wants to keep out enemies, not the weak. They use the confession for elders and deacons and those involved in teaching in the church. This provides greater unity amongst those teaching, something for the immature to work toward, and a set standard to evaluate ministries, and ministers supported by the church. If you want to teach here, or get money from us, we need to know what you believe. There is freedom of use.
The confession is not an end all. It does not solve all problems or mean the church can check out because it has a confession. It is meant to be an aid to the church and her members. This is to be a public confession as indicated in the Scriptures (Matt 10:32–33; Rom 10:9–10).
Some have written as many as nine different levels of subscription. This seems much too complicated. Whatever the subscription level, unending exceptions makes it meaningless, but not allowing any exceptions is unreasonable. Discernment is required. An exemption on matters of orthodoxy, for example the Trinity, should not be allowed, but perhaps on the order of church government, an exemption might be permitted. The individual taking the exemption needs to be willing to submit to the church on that issue and not make issue about it or stir up descent or cause disunity. He may be asked not to teach about the topic. Some doctrines in the confession are essential for salvation and others are for the health of the church. They are not all of the same importance.
There are objections or dangers to confessions. Three are common.
1) The main objection is that Confessions undermine the authority of Scripture. The LBC of 1689 explicitly and at the beginning denies this, giving an excellent statement as to the authority of Scripture. The problem here is the attitude given to the confession. The Roman Catholics give the claim of infallibility to several creeds and some orthodox may be guilty of some sort of hyper-confessionalism as well. This seems to be rather rare in church history and less of a problem with Protestants. This hyper-confessionalism actually goes against the confession! The Confession never trumps Scripture, it is normed by Scripture. Some think that if you quote the confession more than Scripture you are guilty of this as well. One wonders who is counting, but if every time a pastor is asked a question he quotes a confession and not Scripture there may be a problem in his own mind.
2) The sufficiency of Scripture is undermined. 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 say we have everything we need. Again the confession affirms the sufficiency of Scripture. Scripture is not sufficient for every task. If your pastor only read the Bible and never explained anything, you would complain he is not doing his job and you would be right. If you only allowed the pastor to preach using biblical words, his vocabulary would be very limited in trying to communicate. Explaining doctrine in extra biblical words does not deny the sufficiency of Scripture.
3) Confessions take away liberty of conscience. This goes back to the proper use of a confession. They are not meant to be strait jackets. Over one hundred ministers wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Rest assured they did not agree on every jot and tittle of doctrine and they made room for themselves within the confession. There is places where we can disagree with each other and both still be confessional and there are places where exemptions can be considered. A problem with the confession though may reveal a problem in one’s own heart or mind.
Other potential problems with a confession are along the same lines. Like all things in life a confession can be misused. These potentials for misuse are not the fault of the confession, but of sinful and imperfect humans. These dangers do not out way the benefits nor does it negate the biblical evidence and necessity of having a confession.
A church in having a historic confession has a great commonality within the immediate body and with believers all over the world past and present. Confessions are a useful tool for the church in training up its members and defending the faith once for all handed down. Confessions are biblical and necessary. May our churches be full of and training up theological contenders who are passionate about what they confess. May the church have a tradition that is normed by Scripture.
Jay Wipf is a former student of Coalt Robinson and attended Grace University where he earned his degree in Christian Education. Jay is currently studying at Reformed Baptist Seminary in the comfort of his home in Huron, SD. By grace and at Grace he met his beautiful wife Rachel, and they now have three young children. Jay and his family live in Huron where he works in facilities at a local credit union and serves within the local church.