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

In the first post I pointed to the importance of confessions as stabilising and regulating the public teaching of the church. A second important use, however, is the way in which they bind elders and people together by setting the terms of their relationship and provide the necessary foundation of a relationship built on transparency and accountability.

If a church has no confession, or has a confession that is so minimal that it does not touch in significant ways on a relatively comprehensive set of topics covering Christian doctrine and life, the stage is set for potential pastoral tyranny. That is perhaps counter-intuitive: we often tend to think of confessions as weapons wielded by the powerful; in fact, they can be the best line of defence of those who do not hold office in the church against those who seek to use their official positions for ill.

Take, for example, the case of someone in the church who commits adultery. If the church concerned has clear, explicit teaching on the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman, is for life, and is to be the sole context for sexual union, then the elders have both the obligation and the power to discipline that person accordingly. If, however, someone turns up in a loud plaid suit or chooses to educate their children in a certain way but these matters are not covered in the church’s confessional documents, the elders have no obligation to intervene. Indeed, they should not intervene. If they were to do so, it would indicate an illegitimate extension of their sphere of authority and, in extreme and persistent cases, a form of ecclesiastical tyranny.

Further, transparency in ecclesiastical process is vital. Congregations elect elders and therefore can and should expect their elders to be openly and consistently faithful to their ordination vows, the contents of which — the confessional documents — are public and available to all. At a procedural level, presbytery meetings are typically open: anyone can show up and see and hear what is going on. That is for a reason: the business we conduct there is not secret; we have nothing to hide; we are thus happy to be subject to public scrutiny. There are no ‘Top Men’ who make it up as they go along behind closed doors whilst assuring everybody else that everything is under control. Presbyterians should never have to resort to Sledge Hammer’s ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing’ ruse, which to my cynical mind usually means that some kind of PR exercise is about to start up. If your church operates in terms of secret councils, keep your eyes open for that person who suddenly disappears from the photographs of last year’s church picnic.

In short, confessions serve to curb the power of the elders by making the limits of their power clear to the congregation and thus making them publicly accountable. This is vital, as even the church leader with the most cheerful Celtic smile and avuncular sexagenarian demeanour can fall prey to the temptations of exerting too much power and tend towards tyranny if left unchecked. Church history is replete with examples of good church leaders who went bad because they were never held to account according to the terms of their public confessional subscription. A church is always to be defined by its confession, not by its leading personalities (a point to which I shall return in Part III). For this reason, confessions need to be connected to clear processes of accountability by which congregations can hold elders to account for their beliefs and actions in light of that to which they subscribe and which they have been ordained to uphold.

Of course, a confession does not guarantee that the leadership will function appropriately any more than a law code ensures a law abiding society. People are sinners, after all, and if they see a law, sooner or later they will want to break it or manipulate it for their own purposes. But, as no society without a law code can function properly, so no church without a public confession can be truly disciplined in the correct sense of the word. A public confession makes it very clear what the church represents, what the people can expect from their elders and what obligations the elders have relative to the congregation. A church which has no confession, or none of any reasonably comprehensive specificity, is always going to be at a disadvantage on these points. The vaguer the confession, the more scope there is for the leaders to arrogate too much unchecked power to themselves.

In the third post, I want to make the point that confessional churches should by definition not be churches led by celebrities and big personalities. I know that that is pretty counter-intuitive in the modern American scene but it is most certainly one of the pressing needs of the hour. Great teeth, an entertaining stand-up routine and the ability to hold an audience of thousands are no substitute for the more prosaic qualities of basic doctrinal and pedagogical competence relative to a confession of faith and good reputation with those inside and outside the church, Confessions and polity are great levelers because they place the church and its identity above and beyond that of its most significant individual leaders. In the meantime, if your elder tells you to stop wearing that 1970s plaid suit to church, you might want to take his advice — but do so on grounds of good taste and sartorial common sense, not because he has the right to dictate to you the content of your wardrobe.

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.