[Editor’s Note: For “Part 1” of Dr. Strain’s two-part article, click here.]
Having stated the scriptural and ecclesiastical necessity of confessions, the purpose of this second article is to reflect on the role the Standards play in our denomination. I rather suspect that, at least so far as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) goes, there would be near unanimous agreement among our officers and in our courts concerning the duty of confessionalism in general. The problems begin to appear when we ask how we ought to use our confessional standards? In what sense ought we to adhere to them?
Good Faith Subscription
If you’ve been in the PCA for long, you will know that we have had our share of battles over the form of confessional subscription required by our officers. At a denominational level, that was settled in 2002 when we adopted what’s referred to as “Good Faith Subscription.” My objective here is to help us begin to think through carefully the “why” and the “how” of meaningful, vibrant confessionalism within the PCA, within the current constraints of Good Faith Subscription. Having said that, permit me to add that, in my judgment, as a descriptor for a mode of confessional subscription, the term “Good Faith Subscription” is not especially helpful, and since it nowhere appears in our Book of Church Order (BCO), I do not believe we should feel overly wedded to it. However, as I understand the term, Good Faith Subscription is intended to mean that we receive men into our presbyteries based on their own declaration of commitment to the Westminster Standards, indicating what, if any, differences they may hold with its teaching. These differences having been stated, if they are judged by the presbytery to be acceptable, it is then assumed by the presbytery in good faith (hence, the name Good Faith Subscription)—that the candidate agrees with everything else in the Westminster Standards. That, I think, is what is intended by Good Faith Subscription.
But the model of confessional subscription aside, I think there is mounting evidence that the role played by our Confession and Catechisms—or at least, the use made of them in the PCA—is far from healthy at the present time. Anecdotally, one interesting, and frankly distressing, development that I’ve begun to hear more and more examples of, is when a man declares that he has no exceptions to the Standards on the floor of a presbytery during his examination, and his position is viewed with suspicion by his fellow presbyters. I’ve heard of members of presbytery responding to a declaration of “no exceptions,” that they do not think a man can have possibly read the Confession and Catechisms carefully enough. They seem to find it incredible, having been granted certain exceptions from the teaching of our Standards themselves, that anyone else could actually agree with the Standards and not with them! Friends, something terribly wrong is happening in the PCA. It is a mark of real spiritual division and doctrinal declension when a brother, who declares no differences with our stated doctrinal position, is being treated as suspect, and elders are rising to try to catch him out by finding undeclared exceptions that even he did not know he had! So much, at this point, for the practice of Good Faith Subscription!
The PCA’s Position: The Standards without Exception
Now I think it is important at this point to remember that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, as adopted by the PCA, state the sense in which our denomination understands the teaching of Scripture. And the PCA, as a church, has no officially declared exceptions. None. Our Standards are presented to the world as the complete and official statement of our doctrine. This is what we teach. To agree with them wholly and without exception is surely only to say what we ought, ordinarily, to expect every elder to say, “I stand with the PCA. I believe what the PCA says she believes. I teach what the PCA says she teaches in her public standards.” We ought never to be scandalized or consider it problematic when someone declares no differences with our confessional position. But we should pause and examine every difference we hear with great care. Exceptions to the teaching of the Standards should be rare, and anyone who is prepared to stand before a presbytery to declare a stated difference with our Standards ought to have his reasons thought through thoroughly, and to be ready to articulate and defend his convictions on the matter from Holy Scripture, or have the presbytery refuse to receive him.
And yet, more and more, certain differences have become almost an expected norm, and are granted by credentials committees and presbyteries with little scrutiny, while those who make no declaration of difference are viewed with increasing suspicion as dangerous hardliners who ought to be interrogated as possible threats to the peace of the church. Bannerman said that confessions are meant to be instruments of unity. They are supposed to offer an agreed-upon summary of shared conviction regarding the teaching of the Word of God, around which our elders can unite. But when those who agree with our Standards are being challenged, while those who do not are being waved through the process with barely an eyebrow raised, then the role our Confession and Catechisms as instruments of unity have been seriously undermined in an alarming way.
The Right of Presbytery to Limit Teaching
Another related issue has to do with the question of whether a man can be required by his presbytery not to teach contrary to the Standards of the church. The Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) committee of General Assembly has said, “No, a presbytery may not forbid an exception to be taught.” On the other hand, several presbyteries have said “Yes” and have, in fact, forbidden such teaching. At least one presbytery has now repeatedly been cited for placing precisely this restriction on candidates. But it seems to me, fundamental to the rights and duties of presbytery in its capacity as a guardian of the truth, that it is always free—indeed it is bound by duty in the sight of God—to require that all the teaching that takes place within its bounds does not contradict the sense in which we understand the Bible. Put another way, the presbytery ought to require that all the teaching within its bounds be consistent with the Standards of our church.
No Uniform Practice
To this it might be replied that if presbytery has granted an exception to the teaching of the Standards, it has already judged the difference either to be merely semantic, or, if more than semantic, neither hostile to the system of doctrine nor striking at the vitals of religion. Therefore, what possible harm can be done to the teaching of the Confession and Catechisms by allowing the man to teach and propagate such benign differences? And that seems, at first glance, to be a reasonable response. However, consider that there is no uniform practice in the PCA between presbyteries concerning what qualifies as semantic, or fundamental, or striking at the vitals of the system of doctrine. Thus, in one presbytery, a difference may be deemed merely semantic, which, in another, may be deemed substantial, or even hostile to our system of doctrine. What is allowable in one place may not be in another. What then ought we to make of a case when a man is permitted freely to propagate an idea that is contrary to the Standards of our church in one place, when he would be entirely excluded from ministry altogether in a neighboring presbytery? One presbytery thinks the difference taken by this brother is minor and benign, while the neighboring presbytery might consider it to be sufficiently erroneous as to disqualify him from the teaching office.
Confessions within the Confession? Affinity Presbyteries?
If presbyteries do not have the right to require that all the teaching within their bounds conform to the Standards of the PCA, then it is not clear to me how they can be said to have a functioning confessional standard at all. The only recourse that is left to a presbytery in this scenario would be to draft its own list of acceptable and unacceptable differences, and to refuse to receive a man within their bounds unless he conforms to that list. But this would be to create a confession within the confession, and would surely lead to a still more thorough fracturing of fellowship in our denomination. A man who embraces a non-literal interpretation of the creation days, for example, may be unordainable in one presbytery, while a man who holds to 24-hour, six-day creation may receive the same treatment in another. What solution is there to this problem, except to resort to some instrument of ecclesiastical unity other than a shared confession of faith? Should we abandon geographical presbyteries and develop presbyteries according to theological affinity instead? But where would that lead in the end? Far from promoting unity, in my judgment, it would only foster even more entrenched siloes and divisions, and all but ensure a final breach of our already fragile denominational unity.
The Liberty of Whose Conscience?
Some argue that our doctrine of liberty of conscience demands that presbytery never bind a man to teach, or to refrain from teaching, except according to the dictates of his private conviction. But while liberty of conscience, as a civil right, means that all people have individual freedom to believe whatever their consciences demand, let’s remember that liberty of conscience, as a Christian doctrine, entails liberty within the boundaries of divine truth. We are free before God to believe only what is right. We have no liberty to entertain error. The PCA confesses the truth of the Word of God as it is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. This is the sense in which we understand Scripture. The content of our Standards expresses what we say the Bible teaches. If it becomes settled law in the PCA that no presbytery can prohibit the teaching of any difference from our Standards, then we are officially declaring our satisfaction with the propagation of doctrine that the denomination, as a whole, formally confesses in her Standards to be error.
Now, consider that the elders of a presbytery are bound to uphold the constitution of the church and to maintain the purity of doctrine taught within the bounds of that presbytery for which they are responsible. It is part of the very heart of what it means to be a Presbyterian that we do not all do what is “right in our own eyes.” We are not Congregationalists; ours is a connectional church, and we are responsible for one another. So, what you teach in your congregation is very much my business, and what I teach in mine is very much your business. But that means that when someone is allowed to propagate a view that departs from our doctrinal Standards, it is in fact the consciences of the other elders in the presbytery who adhere to the Standards that are being violated. This brother is being given cover to teach what the other elders regard, and what our constitution itself regards, as error. Far from upholding the biblical doctrine of liberty of conscience, this would in fact overturn it. There is no liberty before God to teach lies or errors. And so, neither ought there to be any liberty in His church to do the same.
The Way Forward
What must be done to recover a vibrant and meaningful confessionalism in the PCA? Let me suggest five things.
1. We must make and win the argument that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms express in luminous, concise prose what it means to belong to the central stream of historic Presbyterian conviction. To stand with our Standards is not to be conservative or “TR” or right wing. To stand with the Standards is to be a faithful Presbyterian. Period. Those on the far left of the PCA wish to paint confessionalism as narrow, so that they can appear broad minded and reasonable when they depart from our Confession. Meanwhile, those on the far right of the PCA want to paint confessionalism as right-wing and narrow, because that is precisely where they stand! But we must reject both claims and assert instead that to be faithful to the Confession and Catechisms is to stand right in the heart of historic Reformed theology, piety, and practice. It is not narrow or restrictive or obscurantist. It is faithful, beautiful, relevant, and life-giving.
2. If it is to be a meaningful instrument of unity in our denomination, we must have a Confession upon which we truly agree. If the greater part of the PCA has ceased to believe any part of our Standards, it ought to overture the General Assembly to amend them. Uncomfortably holding to Standards we no longer meaningfully embrace is surely worse than changing the Standards to reflect the real convictions of our ministers and elders regarding the teaching of Holy Scripture. And we have a clear constitutional process for doing that. So, if we find ourselves out of accord with our Standards, we ought to make our case for a change before the courts of the church. What we must not do is play games with presbyteries or practice any sort of “studied ambiguity” in subscribing to our confessional position. Let’s deal openly and honestly with one another. If the PCA stands with the Westminster Standards, then let those who are dissatisfied find a denomination that aligns more closely with their true convictions. If, as a denomination, we really believe that certain things taught in our Standards ought no longer to be required of elders, then, rather than the ad hoc and uneven approach taken presently by our presbyteries across our church, the standards ought to be amended to reflect more accurately the real mind of the church concerning the teaching of the Word of God. But failing that, surely our presbyteries ought to hold men to the Standards. I believe it is time presbyteries ought to say to members who reject the teaching of our Standards at certain common points, “brothers, put up or shut up.” Bring overtures for change, move to a different denomination, or stop teaching contrary to our Standards.
3. That means, thirdly, that sessions and presbyteries need to hold the Standards without equivocation, and become much less comfortable with exceptions, even common exceptions, than I suspect we often are. Exceptions ought to be exceptional by their very nature. Our normal expectation should be that TEs and REs essentially endorse the whole doctrine of the Confession and Catechisms as the confession of their own faith, and we ought to be shocked to find any who differ, rather than shrug when we hear of more and more dissent from the Standards. We need to be prepared to ask for a candidate’s reasoning. We need to know how he has come to hold the position he has, where he bases his case in the Scriptures, how he responds to objections, and what he has read on the subject. We are not being divisive, and we must not be belligerent when we do this. A vibrant confessionalism is an instrument of unity, remember. Pressing men to stand with the Standards will ensure that we can all stand together and preach the same message with joy to the glory of God.
4. The Confession and Catechisms must be restored to their position as much more than theological shibboleths whose only function in our congregations and our sessions and presbyteries is to screen out doctrinal error. They cannot be less than that, of course, but they must be more. We need our TEs and REs to teach the and Confession and Catechisms in Sunday School. And that means that our elders need to be trained in our Standards thoroughly. Preaching needs to cite the Standards whenever appropriate, to show our people that the teaching we confess is the teaching of the Word of God. Our congregations need to be helped to see that a beautiful, biblical piety and practice arises organically from the theology articulated in the Confession and Catechisms precisely because they express the teaching of the Bible.
It ought to be a cause of deep concern to us when we almost never hear confessional categories taught, celebrated, or commended in our pulpits. When the Standards are merely presupposed and assumed, but the categories we really prefer to speak in reflect whatever the latest trends may be, I dare say that we are in big trouble. Whether these are psychological categories: brokenness and shame; or identity-political categories where righteousness is identified with victimhood, and sin with oppression, where speech is violence, and feeling offended is to be “traumatized”; when the call is not to conversion but to community; when repentance is no longer insisted upon, but healing is the leading motif; when hell and the wrath of God are an embarrassment—brothers and sisters, at that point a deep rot has set in. It’s not that anyone has denied the Confession or Catechisms, you understand. It is simply that they have become irrelevant in their eyes to the day-to-day realities of ministry. That is not only a tragedy for the spiritual welfare of the flock of God, but an extremely dangerous position for the PCA.
But if we are to make a change, it must start with us, with our own attitudes and practices. May I suggest, for example, reading a section of the Confession or Catechisms devotionally, perhaps as a part of your daily quiet times, after you read the Scriptures? Use the Scripture proofs in the Standards. Go slowly and reflect deeply on the truth. Our confessional tradition is a rich mine of glory and grace that we may be leaving to tarnish and gather dust on the shelf, like the precious family silver. We’d hate to lose the family silver, but we almost never use it anymore. That must change. We need to take it down and begin to use it again. Pastors, have you considered preaching a sermon series structured around the Confession or Catechisms (a Continental Reformed practice that has much to commend it—and one that is not completely unknown in the Presbyterian tradition: see for example Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity, or Thomas Boston’s sermons on the Shorter Catechism)? Have you written pastoral letters highlighting the spiritual and pastoral benefits from particular questions and answers of our Catechisms? Do you commend books and articles and addresses to your people that promote confessionalism and the doctrine of our Confession in particular? Does your church catechize the children, and celebrate their successes when they memorize the questions and answers? Could you take a few questions of the Catechism and structure the devotional at your elders’ meetings around them? Have the men repeat them aloud with you, and then lead them in a short meditation on the truth being taught. Whatever our strategy, we must do more than merely use our Standards to screen out error. We must recover, and revel in, the doctrine being taught, for the good of our souls and the glory of the name of Jesus Christ.
5. We must urge the seminaries that serve the PCA to teach the Standards as the ground and obvious organizing principle of its theological curriculum and not just as a minor elective survey course along the way. We want candidates for gospel ministry who know the Standards, who love the Standards, and who will joyfully, vigorously, and faithfully defend and promote the teaching of the Standards as the system of doctrine taught in Holy Scripture. Likewise, our pastors as mentors, our sessions who oversee the development of interns, and our presbyteries’ candidates and credentials committees all should require evidence of sustained and detailed personal engagement with the text of the Confession and Catechisms during the course of ministry preparation. They should give special attention to areas of present controversy, and the places in the Standards where differences are most commonly stated, so that we can be certain that a man standing for licensure or ordination within our bounds is thoroughly prepared to confess a like precious faith with us.
Much more could be said on this subject. But I have tried to inform or to reinforce your conviction that confessionalism is both a biblical duty and a pastoral necessity. I’ve also tried to show that a healthy and functional confessionalism is facing some real threats within the PCA today, and there is a great deal of confusion about the role it ought to play in the life and ministry of pastors, elders, and congregations. If we are to recover our confessional integrity, brothers and sisters, we must do more than analyze what is wrong. We must take our own responsibility seriously to love and defend and promote a healthy adherence to the Westminster Standards, in the firm conviction that the theology, piety, and practice expressed and promoted in them will best serve the health of the church, the salvation of the lost, and the glory of Jesus Christ. May the Lord bless us as we contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints!
 For this point I am indebted to David Coffin’s unpublished paper on the subject of confessional subscription delivered prior to the 29th PCA General Assembly in 2001.