Confession and Orthodoxy: Confessions for the Non-Confessional

What is the value of historic confessions for a typical evangelical church?

Many doctrinally solid evangelical churches would not self-identify as “confessional”. What is the value of historic confessions for this kind of typical evangelical church? If the church is already doctrinally orthodox, evangelical, and solid, why encourage such people to think more “confessionally”?

In the interest of full disclosure, I belong to and am ordained by a church that has a written doctrinal statement that is not one of the historic confessions. Yet, as I read our doctrinal statement, I find it has been influenced by and in some cases borrows directly from historic creeds and confessions. I write as much to myself as to others, when I ask, “What is the value of confessions in this type of ‘non-confessional’ evangelical church?” To be clear, here I use ‘non-confessional’ in a very narrow sense and thus we certainly hold to and confess the historic doctrines of the Reformation and historic evangelicalism. I imagine there are other evangelicals who in positions similar to mine: confessional without necessarily having a historic confession as their doctrinal statement. How can we benefit from confessions and more “confessional” approach?

First, every church needs some kind of written statement of what it believes. A church without a doctrinal statement is not really a church. A church is not merely a collection of believers but a collection of believers who believe the same things on the core doctrines of the faith. A church must put its doctrine in writing.

Second, an evangelical church’s doctrine should not be peculiar to itself. The church cannot adopt the mentality of a watch-blogger assuming they are the only ones left holding forth the truth. Even if your church has written its own doctrinal statement, the doctrines contained in it are not and cannot be unique to itself. The goal of a doctrinal statement should be to articulate core doctrines that have been confessed down through the ages. A doctrinal statement must be grounded on Scripture and also faithful to the historic understanding of the Biblical doctrines.

With that stated upfront, there is the great value of using a historic confession as a church’s doctrinal statement. We can more readily remember and identify that we are confessing things that the church has confessed for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We live in a day and age that cherishes novelty, but the true church has never confessed and held new doctrines. We are to be people who “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Let me offer some suggestions for the ‘non-confessional’ to be more confessional in their thinking and practice:

  1. Value that the church believes and confesses important truths. A doctrinal statement is not merely something that one puts a checkmark beside when one becomes a member of the local church. It is a statement of faith, it is a statement of belief. You are saying I, with my local church body, confess and profess that these things are true and solid Biblical doctrine.
  2. Incorporate historic creeds and confessions into your worship and church life. For example, evangelical churches should not be afraid to recite something like the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed. For myself, I have regularly reminded people the pulpit that the things we believe—that Jesus is Lord, that he was crucified, buried and risen the dead—are things that the church has confessed for 2,000 years. The Creeds and historic confessions all reflect this. Confessions can be like guardrails to keep my thinking within the road of Biblical doctrine. Older confessions are not old rusty rails to be replaced but bulwarks that have stood the test of time.
  3. Incorporate historic confessions in to your disciple-making process. While I am not a Presbyterian, I have used the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my children at times to help them understand important doctrines. I am not reinventing the wheel both with my doctrine and my pedagogy. Let me suggest that confessions make excellent study guides and even devotional readings as to help understand key Biblical doctrines. New and young believers need help to build a grid or framework of basic doctrines. A historic confession (or catechism) can be an excellent aid serving as a lattice upon which their growing vine of Biblical knowledge may begin.
  4. Use confessions in your Sunday Schools. On one occasion, I had the privilege on teaching a Sunday school series on the early centuries of church history. We spend several weeks looking at the Christological controversies in the early church and the issues that lead to the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed. As we look specifically at these Creeds, it was important to emphasize how these documents are Biblical in their articulation but also that the language affects our church today. We confess Christ as one person having two natures that are united “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” We need to remember as evangelicals we believe and confess these things and how much more so when we teach other doctrines like justification by faith or perseverance of the saints?

Early in the last century, J. Gresham Machen wrote “Indifference about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith” (Christianity and Liberalism). He warned us of a mentality that considers Christianity merely as “a way of life” apart from doctrine and confession. Since then this problem has only grown like a weed even spreading its pernicious roots into evangelicalism. The mindset of a confessional church seeks to guard against this. We gather as a church around key truths. The church is grounded on truth and is to be the ground and pillar of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). Christian unity and fellowship in the local church must be doctrinal as well as experiential. Let me encourage you to recognize and remember the value of historic confessions in the personal and church life of the twenty-first century Christian.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Place for Truth on April 20, 2016. Used with permission.

Tim Bertolet

Tim Bertolet serves with ABWE as Director of Instructional Design and Theological Education. He’s served in pastoral ministry for sixteen years and knows the life of an MK firsthand. With a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of Pretoria, and degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and Lancaster Bible College, he specializes in Bible and theology and is passionate about applying it to life and ministry. Tim’s also an adjunct professor, research fellow with BibleMesh, and a published author. Tim lives in York, Pa. with his wife and kids. He enjoys reading, writing, science fiction, and gardening roses.