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I Confess: The Discipline of Being Confessional (Part I)

In this, the first of a short series on the discipline of confessionalism, I want to make the point that confessional Christians are those who are disciplined by their confession. What do I mean by this?

Take an elder in a confessional church. He has taken public vows before the church to uphold a particular set of theological tenets, for example, the sovereignty of God as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter 5 (Of Providence). That vow binds his public teaching to the standards outlined in the Confession, and by 'public teaching,' I mean anything he might say either from the pulpit or while standing at the coffee machine after the service.

Perhaps this elder wakes up one morning to find that some terrible tragedy has intruded into his life: bereavement, serious illness, loss of material goods or status. Such an event might well have a traumatic effect not just on his emotional psyche but perhaps also on his faith as well. Perhaps there are moments, or even an extended period of time, when he questions whether God really is in control. I pray that I never experience it, but I imagine that standing by the grave of a beloved child must be a very hard moment to believe in God's loving sovereignty and care for his people.

This is where the discipline of a confession is important. This elder has no right to share his doubts with the world in general. Of course, he can speak confidentially to a ministerial friend for counsel; but he must not teach (in any sense of the word) against the content of the vows he has taken.

This is important for several reasons. First, the witness of the church is not to be dictated by the emotional ups and downs of her officers. That would destabilize her doctrinal testimony in a very serious manner. Confessionalism assumes that the truth is independent of the convictions of any particular individual and free from any turbulence - intellectual and emotional - which any individual elder may experience. It regulates the public teaching of the church and her officers,no matter what their personal circumstances.

Second, confessions and vows protect the elder from saying something precipitate and wrong. The man standing at the grave of his child may not be in the best emotional state to make a clear call on the biblical teaching of sovereignty. The fact that he has taken a vow before God and the church should acts as a brake on immediate public statements and encourage him to take his time to reflect upon how his theology and his experience connect.

Third, the processes connected to confessionalism place the man in an ecclesiastical and pastoral context which can help deal with the specific issues. He may, after much heart-searching, come to the conclusion that the confessional content of his vows is wrong. For example, a Presbyterian may change his view on baptism. In this case, his vows mean that he must report this change of opinion to his brothers in the Presbytery who should then make efforts to persuade him otherwise. If, however, at the end of this process his new beliefs remain intact, there is a clear, honorable and public process by which he can be released from his vows. The church's testimony is protected and the man's conscience is honoured.

What cannot be allowed is a confessionalism which is undisciplined in both senses of the word: where the individual does not understand that, in terms of a particular church's public ministry, his conscience is not the ultimate court of appeal and arbiter of what he can and cannot say while being an officer in the church; or where elders are allowed to play fast and loose with the teaching of the confession and the terms of subscription without anyone holding them to account.

The first important thing to grasp about confessionalism is that it requires personal and corporate discipline. A confession without discipline is no confession; and, as I will argue next week in Part Two, discipline without a confession is tyranny.

Carl R Trueman is Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. This article is reprinted from the Reformation 21 blog.