The Confessional Church
I’ve been doing a lot of writing on Synod and structure recently but increasingly conversations are turning towards our denomination as a confessional church. There are a number of reasons why I think this deserves more direct attention than we’ve given it over the last 50 years. I think if we want to preserve the value in the idea itself we will need to take some time to explore it and figure out how it functions in the 21st century.
There have been a number of episodes and struggles in the CRC in the last 20 years that have renewed our focus not just on the confessions but also on what it means to be a confessional church.
The Women in Office Wars
The CRC (Christian Reformed Church) was consumed by the conflict over women serving in church office in the late 20th century. The wars were quieted down with the compromise of the “two readings” but continue to rumble through classes today.
Conflicts threaten the unity of the church and during the WICO (women in church office) wars I remember Jim De Jong, then president of CTS state repeated “this is NOT a confessional issue”.
When I was at CTS in the late 80s the students and faculty were split over the WICO issue and leaders including Jim De Jong were trying to keep the house together. The message was “you can disagree on WICO and still agree on the confessions. The Confessions are our ‘three forms of unity’ so this is something indifferent that we can agree to disagree on.
Many, especially those who left the CRC obviously didn’t agree. Implicit in the confessions they asserted was fidelity to Scripture and because in their reading WICO was not permitted by Scripture allowing WICO violated the confessions.
Same Sex Marriage
I think we can safely anticipate some of the same conversations over whether same sex marriage is a confessional issue. Kevin De Young, who trying to take his congregation out of the RCA and into the PCA has written about this at The Gospel Coalition.
These two issues draw attention to the question of whether the confessions serve the church today in a sufficient way. While the CRC states that it can update its confessions for the most part the denomination is reluctant to do so often for ecumenical reasons. If the CRC keeps doctoring the confessions it holds in common with other denominations, like the RCA, how can it find confessional alignment with them?
Our World Belongs to God
One way to address this has been the Contemporary Testimony, Our World Belongs to God. The document has been well received. Has recently been updated and is increasingly used in liturgies in the CRC and beyond. I’ve had RCA pastors express to me their appreciation for the document.
The document is in some ways like a confession and has emerged within the denomination to behave like a confession even though it doesn’t have that status.
I also appreciate that the document has been allowed to mature slowly, gaining popularity and acceptance. It hasn’t been shoved down anyone’s throat. It’s being embraced as an authentic expression of our identity, which is (as I’ll write in a subsequent post) probably the best way to understand what a confession should be in our present cultural context.
One way in which the CT (Contemporary Testimony) is different from our historic confessions is that hasn’t been born out of conflict. It doesn’t directly address hot button issues within the church today and with its statement place the church on one side of a hotly debated line or the other. It doesn’t directly address WICO or same sex marriage. I imagine it intentionally avoids these issues.
For me this observation opens up the question of to what degree a confession must be a polemic document? Is it in the nature of a confession to take a stand in the midst of a conflict or should a confession more strive to bring unity around things that are not being hotly debated today?
The announcement that the Inter-Church Relations Committee was going to recommend that the CRC adopt the Belhar as a fourth confession certainly got my attention. My first question was not so much “What’s in the Belhar?” as “How are they going to try to lead this process?”
The conflicts with the RCA that created the CRC didn’t produce a new confession. The CRC inherited the three it currently has. How did this committee imagine a new confession should be adopted by the church?
Anyone intending to lead a process by which the CRC would adopt a new confession has to be in possession of a contemporary working definition of what a confession is and what it is for. Because this recommendation came from the committee in charge of ecumenical relations some answers to that question were already implicit. Confessions are documents that help guide how we relate to other denominations. Less was clear about how this new confession would operate WITHIN the CRC.
The Belhar was recommended by one Synod but not ratified by the next one to take it up. The reason it wasn’t ratified in my opinion was because the question of how it would function WITHIN the CRC was not sufficiently addressed. The RCA’s ability to ratify it and the CRC’s reluctance to do so demonstrates a key cultural difference between the two denominations. The CRC very much believes that confessions should have a living presence within the denomination. Even though it was frequently repeated that “The Belhar is a gift” the value of the gift was not sufficiently appreciated to have the CRC adopt it AS a confession. The Belhar was accepted as an ecumenical document by the CRC, carving out a new category, but that category itself articulates how the CRC understands confessions within itself.
The Belhar episode not only expressed the implicit belief of the CRC for what a confession is but also made explicit how and where it wanted to draw lines.
Calvin College and Genesis
Another front in which Confessions are playing a role is the question of how Calvin College professors can deal with questions of Genesis and science. This is of course a long standing conversation. Calvin College professors must sign the Covenant of Office Bearers (the new incarnation of the old Form of Subscription) . Concerns regularly arise from conservatives whether college professors are staying within “confessional boundaries”. Others are concerned whether or not the confessions are limiting the kind of exploratory work that college professors need to do. Do the confessions limit the ability of the faculty to engage big questions in the world? Are the confessions hobbling the institution?
One way of thinking is that confessions ought to be able to be changed to reflect the best Biblical scholarship. According to our statements about confessions the confessions themselves are subject to the Bible and therefore if we believe that the confessions are out of step with the Bible the confessions must give. For those who embrace a more progressive assumption of Biblical scholarship, noting that in the last 100 years we know far more about the ancient languages, cultures and context of the Bible than we did when the confessions were written, the confessions should be subject to today’s better scholarship.
Others are suspicious that newer scholarship is in fact better. Since God doesn’t change, the Bible doesn’t change, and therefore our theology and confessions shouldn’t change. The confessions are therefore seen as a bulwark against the threat of modern thought, ideas and scholarship. It is important that we NOT change them. The confessions keep us safe from change.
There are interesting conflicts beneath these position. Denominations that are more quickly embracing contemporary social changes often maintain formal subscription to these older confessions even if many no longer seem to believe them. For them the confessions ought to testify to their history more than they testify to the status of their contemporary beliefs.
The difference therefore between what some might call “liberals” today and “conservatives” is that they won’t don’t want the documents tinkered with, they just use them in different ways. Those different ways usually find their way into the language of the form of subscription or the Covenant of Office Bearer. In other words the confessional fight isn’t so much in the confessions but more in other documents and in practice. I’ll get into this issue more in a subsequent post.
What is in play when it comes to how the confessions relate to faculty members whose job it is to explore, unearth and inform is what role the confessions play in that enterprise. Do confessions place limits on research? Do those limits impede the discover of truth?
The confessions themselves have implicitly within them a progressive assumption of truth as does Christianity. The Old Testament is modulated by the new revelation in Christ Jesus. The “humanism” of the Protestant Reformation demanded that the church go “back to the sources” to update and reform the church according to the best scholarship available. Did advances in that scholarship cease with the confessions we currently possess?
Some might be tempted to say that they did, but I bet that many also continue to read contemporary conservative scholars who themselves benefit from the discoveries of the last century in language, history, and culture. The idea of confessions has within it the assumption that this can be updated if the church wishes to use them in this way.
Narrative Thread and Identity
Confessions are supposed to express the identity of our ecclesiastical community. They are supposed to help us follow the narrative thread of our identity through time.
I think confessions probably have an important use especially in North American culture where we stand amid a sea of non-denominational and anti-creedal churches who too often unselfconsciously express the church of “what’s happening now” without much ability or communal awareness of the story that made them.
If, however, a North American confessional church is going to escape the mindless lapses of the non-confessional community we’re going to have to continue to update what we mean by confessions, how we use them, and how we will maintain them.
- Will confessions simply become historical markers of what the church believed in years past?
- How will confessions help the church navigate the need for change and the need to listen to the wisdom of our theological ancestors?
- Can confessions move us towards ecumenical unity while also strengthen communal theological identity?
- Can confessions maintain unity within the church while giving it strength to productively work through conflicts?
What do you think? Leave a comment.