Confessional Officers in the Confessional Church
Receiving & Adopting the Westminster Standards for Ministry
Photo Description: Dr. Richard D. Phillips (standing, center) of the Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville (PCA) catches up with Pastor Ben Falconer (seated, far left) of Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) during the 2022 annual GRN PCA General Assembly lunch in Birmingham, AL.
As gospel ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America, we took vows. We voluntarily made them to God, “out of faith, and conscience of duty” (WCF 22.6). By making these vows for our ordination we more strictly bound ourselves to the necessary duties for the pastoral office each of us occupies. One of those vows states:
Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will, on your own initiative, make known to your Session the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow? (BCO 21-5.2)
In taking this vow, we make several assertions. First, we confess belief that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine that the Bible teaches. This is our hermeneutic. We hold that the Confession and Catechisms are not merely guardrails or boundaries that keep us from heresy. Rather, we positively teach and explain biblical truth to our people using these documents. These are our definitions that control our explanations. They are the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:13) we encourage our people to learn and cherish over time.
As officers who took this vow before God, it is our duty – and the expectation of our people – that the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms be the system of doctrine to which we shall refer as we disciple God’s children. This body of expressed doctrinal truth is not a side dish. This is the main course. It is the diet that we believe will build up our people into Christian maturity. It is also the “diet” that we believe the Lord has ordered for the salvation of sinners, conversion of the unconverted, and redemption of those in spiritual bondage.
The Scriptures themselves demonstrate to us that God intends for His people to use sound creeds and confessions for the discipleship of His people (Deut. 6:4; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-23; 1 Tim. 1:12-17; 3:1-7; 4:8-10; 2 Tim. 2:11-13; Titus 3:1-8; Jude 3). “Receiving and adopting” the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms is biblically faithful ministry. The vow we ministers take is not adding more to our ministry than the Bible does. Rather, it is bringing us in line with Scriptural teaching – endorsing and commanding the formulation, receiving, and adopting of biblically sound creeds, confessions, and catechisms.
A confessional church with confessional officers is one that embraces, teaches, trains, and holds officers to the standard of clearly and transparently confessed truth. Each local church should evaluate its ministry in light of its doctrinal statements. For PCA churches, that standard is what we pledge to uphold: The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. The confessional church is regularly repeating, rehearsing, and recalling these truths, as well as exposing false teaching in light of our confessional commitments.
Malnourishment, spiritual immaturity, and false teaching happens in our churches when our officers take these vows but proceed to give only lip service to the Confession and Catechisms in their ministry. A confessional officer is one that not only believes the Confession and Catechisms as his hermeneutic but he also actively and regularly teaches these truths. As J. Gresham Machen made plain a century ago, theological Liberalism creeps into the church when its officers neglect this central vow and proceed to teach whatever they want, even using (and twisting) confessional vocabulary in the process.
Therefore, a confessional officer is a man who regularly reads through biblically sound and approved Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms for his own edification and accountability. He adopts the worldview that is promoted in his denomination’s doctrinal standards. He then trains his flock in these truths. He provides theological explanations to his people that are consistent with these truths. He grows in teaching his family these truths and how they apply to all of life.
The manner of our ministry must always match the matter. The tone must always match the truth. A confessional officer is humble, gracious, patient, and loving. While love without truth is hypocrisy, it is also true that truth without love is brutality. Let us not fall into the trap of separating truth from love, or vice versa. The confessional officer is preeminently one who is coming to grips more and more with the fact that the only reason he has these confessional convictions is because of the free grace of God. Therefore, let us have patience as we teach these truths. But remember: patience is not counter to clarity in our teaching ministry.
Part of being a shepherd is defending against the wolves that threaten the flock. Even when circumstances call for passionate defense of the Faith, we should do it all out of evident love. At the same time, let us resolve to avoid thinking that we should never take a firm stand. Indeed, it is true that upholding the honor of God in no way prevents us from truly loving people. In fact, upholding God’s honor is actually how we love people (and know how to love people). When situations call for reproof, it is our shepherding duty to tell someone where he or she is not in line with biblical truth. Does that mean people might leave your church because they cannot embrace the truth you teach? Perhaps. But, even bearing that risk in mind, it is the most loving and God-honoring thing for them to hear you lovingly uphold and apply the truth.
When we positively, pastorally, and faithfully teach the doctrinal truths of the Confession and Catechisms we will see our churches bear fruit. Acts 2:42-27 gives a great picture of what happens. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Why did this happen? Because “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”.
Confessional and catechetical ministry is always relevant and beneficial ministry, whether to children, youth, college, or adults, regardless of the demographics that make up the particular local church or ministry. Speaking to our PCA context, such ministry should be our distinctive bread and butter in RUF, MTW, MNA, and CDM. In the various seminaries and colleges that serve the PCA (and especially in those accountable to our denomination), such teaching should be the regular diet in the training of future leaders in our churches. It should be the grid we have when we are discipling and counseling our flock. It should be the doctrinal standard by which we examine men who are in office and hold them accountable. We should recognize that our confessional body of truth is the means of refreshing those churches in need of revitalization. It should be the foundation, walls, roof, and furniture of our local churches.
When one comes across a church where its officers are genuinely, pastorally, and lovingly receiving and adopting the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, and implementing them in their ministry, then one will inevitably see a healthy church – regardless of its size.