My journey to embrace confessionalism was not planned. In fact, growing up, I pretty much despised any confessions. They were relics of the past, used by the Church to get out of Roman Catholicism and they were better left in the past. I felt that they were divisive, man made, and put God in a box. My motto was the broadly evangelical phrase, “No creed but Christ.”
Growing up, I attended a church that was proud of its “Inter-denominational” heritage. So was I. It was a wonderful mix of believers from various denominational backgrounds. Many of whom I still consider friends and fellow believers. We were a melting pot of all sorts of different theological traditions. Baptist, Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, (even some Dutch Reformed folk were in there), you name it, it was probably in there somewhere. If variety is the spice of life, this church was extra spicy!
In the name of ecumenicism, that church never adopted a deep and meaningful confession of faith, rather opting for a simple and basic one. The statement was not wrong per se, it was biblical, but it was vague and left room so that all the different people could have room for their distinctive beliefs. For instance, even the two “lead” pastors were quite different. Their soteriology was different, their views on the charismatic gifts were different, their eschatology was different, not to mention various other points of doctrine. But they were, I suppose, both within the bounds of some kind of Christian orthodoxy, (although I am sure some would disagree.) One of them introduced me to the Charismatic theology of Derek Prince, while the other introduced me to Reformed Theology via RC Sproul and JI Packer. The point is that somehow it worked, they were not fringe crazy, they were not seeker sensitive, they were not emergent. They preached salvation for sinners through Jesus sacrifice. Though they differed on points of doctrine, and though there was a hint of moralism and error, the church seemed to thrive under their leadership.
Though I was young, I remember within that ecumenicism that there were vastly different thoughts on the direction the church should go. Some said they should become more broadly evangelical, reach out to the community, have meetings on the beach, get bigger bands, bring in more people, others wanted the church to narrow in and become more orthodox. Everyone had an opinion on which the direction the ship should turn.
When those pastors left, the church changed direction to be sure. It became seeker sensitive. It became progressive. It became broadly evangelical. In an effort to reach the community, the gospel message was made easier to swallow, talk of sin and depravity was replaced with talk about how valuable we are to God, and that God has a big plan for us…essentially it replaced the gospel with a feel good gospel. Under the new leadership, the ship was being turned a direction that it did not want to go. The faithful, for the most part, wanted to stay within the bounds of orthodoxy, but the ship kept turning anyway. There was nothing in place to stop the ship, no warning signal, no light house to warn of the danger.
Most of the old members jumped ship before it crashed.
While I had left some years before this happened, I watched from the outside, astonished, as the ship I grew up on, veered into dangerous waters. My heart was breaking. I watched many people leave the church altogether, disillusioned at the direction it was going.
Though I came to a confessionally Reformed church many years ago, it was not until I watched the crumbling of that old church, that I started to really doubt the road that the broadly Evangelical community was taking. Evangelicalism used to include a mix of men like J.G. Machen, BB Warfield, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All different for sure, but all well within in the bounds of orthodoxy, and all confessional. Broad evangelicalism at the time would have included men like John Stott, AW Tozer and Martin Lloyd-Jones, less confessional, but certainly still orthodox. Today, however, evangelicalism means anything from RC Sproul to Steven Furtick, Joel Beeke to TD Jakes, John Piper to Rob Bell, John Macarthur to Clayton Jennings, J.I. Packer to Joel Osteen and everything and anything in between. The walls of Evangelicalism have been torn down and rebuilt, expanded, and pushed out. The walls are no longer built on the foundation, they are built out so far that they are constructed right on the dirt.
How can a house built on dirt stand? The word evangelical, really, has lost it’s meaning.
So about 5 or 6 years ago I fully embraced Reformed confessionalism. Specifically the Three Forms of Unity. If I am honest, I never thought I would fully embrace it. As I mentioned, growing up in an interdenominational church I looked down upon “catechisms” and “confessions” as archaic tools that were used to keep Christians apart. Now I look at them as unifying tools. Doctrine does not separate…it unites. We must have doctrine. As the apostle Paul says:
“Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” (Romans 16:17).
“Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine“ (1 Timothy 1:3).
“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Tim. 6:3,4).
“Teach what accords with sound doctrine“ (Titus 2:1).
Embracing the Reformed confessions has been like a breath of fresh air. Like finding a map and a compass after wandering the desert. Todd Pruitt poignantly states about his own journey to confessionalism with these words:
“The experience has been like finding an oasis in a desert. It has been like discovering a GPS after meandering blindly through an unknown country. Too dramatic? It does not feel that way to me. It is nearly impossible to effectively put down error and nurture unity within a church whose minimal statement of faith is only able to identify the grossest of heresies.”
So it strikes me that while I was a long time in embracing confessionalism, that some in Canadian Reformed Circles, have subtly embraced “nonconfessionalism.” What do I mean? It seems that some of us are all too willing to give up many of our doctrinal distinctives; it seems that as long as we get to keep a broadly evangelical definition of being “Reformed,” we are happy. Perhaps we will cling to TULIP and predestination, but loosen our grip on things like worship, baptism, the covenant, liturgy, sacraments etc. Perhaps this is in reaction to the perceived sectarianism and inward focus of the past, or perhaps it is caused by a mixing with the tolerant culture of today in an age of information. I am not certain what the reason for it is, but it is there. While this generation rightly decries sectarianism, we must be very careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
All Christians are confessional, at least in a shallow sense of the term. Even the ecumenical motto, “No creed but Christ,” is a kind of confession. These Christians wrongly believe, like I did, that their churches don’t have confessions, but the truth is that every church has a confession, even though it may not be written down and though it may evolve according to whomever is at the helm of the ship.
All churches, and Christians, have a lens through which they read and interpret the Bible. So, this begs the question, “Which lens are we are going to use?” Is it the Reformed lens or some other lens? If we look through our own individual lenses with our own preconceived notions, desires, and biases, we end up, not united together in sincerity and tolerance as some think, but with a kind of sincere individualistic chaos and the danger of veering our ship into very shallow waters.
We must be confessional in order to to be truly united.
We must be confessional in order to faithfully maintain our witness to the community around us.
We must be confessional to maintain our orthodoxy.
If we lose our confessions, we will inevitably veer into the shallow waters of individualism, tolerance, and a false ecumenical unity living in a shelter with walls built on dirt.
Without the light house, a ship will crash into the rocks.
With out confessions, a church will crash into error and heresy.
That is why I am a confessional Christian.