So far, this essay has explored two of the essential features of presbyterian polity: government by elders, and government by church courts. This chapter describes the role of confessional standards in the government of the church.
We noted earlier that the church may issue doctrinal statements as a product of its deliberations. This observation points to another scriptural principle: the church is governed by confessional standards. Briefly, a confessional standard may be defined as a public statement of the beliefs held by a church. Such a statement may contain the truth in positive form, or it may refute heretical notions which are being denied.
As shown, the decrees of the Jerusalem council had a binding governmental function in the church. The decrees denied the false teaching of the Judaizers, and also gave some brief instructions governing the practice of members of the church (1 Pet. 1:1; Acts 15:24;; 15:28-29).
Elsewhere in the Bible, doctrinal tests are provided. For example, the apostle John writes: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now is it in the world" (1 John 4:13).
Throughout history, as heresies became more numerous and more complex, the confessional statements of the church became more elaborate. The doctrinal statements provided more details in order to deal effectively with the subtle crafts of heretics.
An example from the fourth century illustrates the point well. The doctrines of Arianism swept throughout the Christian church and produced a large number of heretics who denied the deity of Jesus. The Arians did not openly deny the teaching of scripture. They affirmed their belief in Jesus as the "Son of God," and also used other biblical titles given to the Saviour. The heretics circumvented the scriptural teaching, however, by attaching their own special meanings to the biblical terminology. In order to flush out these heretics, a church council, which met at Nicea, formulated a confession of faith in 325 A.D., summarizing the true meaning of the biblical texts. The confession is known as the Nicene Creed, and it was used to exclude Arians from the church.
Many other creeds and confessions have been drawn up over the centuries. Some have even been written by the heretics themselves. The point at issue here is not which creeds are the best expression of Christian doctrine, but to illustrate that confessionalism is consistent with the scriptural government of the church.
Creeds are also an outgrowth of the teaching ministry of the church. It is not as though a creed usurps the role of the Bible. The Bible is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. But since many sects claim to uphold the authority of the Bible, a creed is extremely valuable because it reveals how a particular church understands the scriptures.
Creeds provide a means for the church to state the truth in a summary public form. In this respect, confessions help fulfill the church's role as a witness to the world by proclaiming the truths of the gospel.
In the present era of religious decline, creeds are especially valuable to the testimony of any denomination. By looking at the creed of a church, men may determine the nature of its doctrine and what principles (if any) govern its members. Presbyterian denominations have generally adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, or the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
The confessional standards are objective standards. By this characteristic, they point to the objective nature of God's revelation in the Bible. Creeds provide a defense against the shifting fads of theological liberalism. They also protect the church from mystical desires to exchange the objective authority of scripture for the subjective authority of inward impulses. Far too often, people mistakenly regard their inward feelings as the leading of the Spirit, even when their feelings contravene biblical revelation. Confessions direct men to the principles of scripture, by which all opinions and actions should be judged.
The confession of a church functions as a safeguard. The teachers of a church should never proclaim any doctrine contrary to the creedal statements of the church. The members of the congregation can then be assured that they (and their families) shall not be subjected to teachings outside the framework of their confession.
The officers of the church are bound to the confessional standards in a special way. Upon taking office, elders and deacons vow to uphold the beliefs of their church and protect them from subversion. The officers are themselves in submission to the standards, which have governing power in the courts of the church.
Finally, as hinted earlier, creeds serve as symbols of visible unity in the church. It has been asserted in this essay that churches should not be independent, but ought to be joined under a common government. Wherever a group of churches is bound together in a common government, their confession of faith underscores this vital truth. It testifies that the congregations share a set of beliefs, and are dedicated to seeing their beliefs preserved and disseminated.
Note for Chapter 4
1. The Arians were named after Arius, a fourth-century presbyter from Alexandria. He denied the eternality of Jesus Christ, and his teachings were condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The chief opponent of Arianism was Athanasius, who vigorously defended the doctrine of Christ's deity.
Copyright ©1983, 1994 by Kevin Reed