All Christians are called upon to confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. As Presbyterians we make this confession guided by what our church has stood for through the ages. For Presbyterian Church leaders in particular, this guidance is embodied in the literature collected in our Book of Confessions. As ordained leaders we vow to sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.
We also vow to be
instructed and led by those confessions as [we] lead the people of God
(G-14.0207c and G-14.0406c).
Hence, we Presbyterians live in a confessional church guided by a body of confessional literature that helps us, under tutelage of the Word and Spirit, to live the Christian life.
One of the ongoing challenges is to assure that our “confession” is more than a set of documents gathering dust on a shelf. How do we as a confessional church — a church with written confessions — live into that confession as a confessing church?
In the spring of 2000 certain PC(USA) churches sought to form a “confessing church movement” (CCM) within our denomination by putting forward three confessional convictions, each of which they considered to be under particular threat in current church life: (1) the Lordship of Jesus Christ; (2) the authority of an “infallible” Scripture; and (3) the need for personal holiness, including recognizing marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual relationships. Some of the churches in the CCM (though they now seem to be in the minority) have also called for the withholding of funds from the church at large; and some individuals within the CCM (also a minority) are now saying emphatically that the church should be split.
In addition, some CCM leaders have made the hyperbolic claim that the theological crisis going on in the PC(USA) today bears an analogy to the struggle of the “Confessing Church” in Germany in the 1930s, a struggle in which the church had to stand up against the neo-paganism of Hitler and the Nazis. Making this comparison, of course, implies that the PC(USA) has ceased to be a Christian church, an implication that was intensified when various people began accusing the church (or at least significant elements of it) of apostasy — i.e. denying the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
A basic principle of Christian charity is to respect the sincere confession of a fellow believer. A corollary is that theological differences arising between people who confess Christ as Lord are, in the first instance, an invitation to further conversation and not a cause for breaking fellowship (i.e., schism). In light of the initial impression left by the CCM that the PC(USA) had become a “no-church,” a claim which many of us considered to be both inaccurate and offensive, The Outlook published a series of articles in which I and others raised questions about what the CCM seemed to be advocating.
Fortunately, the vast majority within the CCM has backed off from comparing our present situation to the struggle against the Nazis. Instead, they are speaking less about “Barmen” (the declaration written by Karl Barth to oppose the Nazi effort to take over the church) and more about the need to listen to the Holy Spirit. This is a step in the right direction. In addition, the latest churches to join the movement are adopting confessional statements that point us back to the common confessional basis all Presbyterian leaders share: i.e., the ordination vows and the Book of Confessions. For example, one of the more recent statements speaks of Scripture not as “infallible” but as the “unique and authoritative witness,” thus tracking the ordination vows.
Given this apparent shift of emphasis in the CCM, it may be worthwhile for all of us to return to our ordination vows and the Book of Confessions. If the goal of the CCM is to challenge the PC(USA) not simply to pay lip service to its confessional standards but to live with its confession, then a focus on the Book of Confessions makes more sense than confessional articles drafted ad hoc, to which others are called to subscribe.
I submit, further, that the way forward consists in returning to the historic consensus in the PC(USA) concerning the confessional nature of the church. Last week I described that consensus in the form of a trajectory that runs from the Adopting Act of 1729, through the polity consensus of the 1920s, to the rebalancing of the church’s theology in the Confession of 1967 and the reunion of the Northern and Southern churches in 1983 (“Revisiting the Confessional Nature of the Church“). According to this trajectory, the PC(USA) lifts up shared confessional standards that are not to be ignored, but the PC(USA) also considers the ongoing interpretation of these standards to be a constructive task in response to the leading of the Word and Spirit. Confessions are neither shibboleths nor museum pieces, but guideposts.
That is to say, what the PC(USA) has learned from its long history of conflict is that strict subscriptionism without constructivism is empty, while constructivism without any grounding in confessional standards is blind. Although some believe the PC(USA) today has a fuzzy theological identity and blame the polity decisions of the 1920s and the theological diversity of a Book of Confessions, this view places blame in the wrong place. The fuzziness of Presbyterian theological identity has arisen not because we adopted a diversity of confessions but because some in the church seem to pay the confessions no heed. The proper response to this confessional amnesia, however, is not to generate new lists of “essential tenets” to which church leaders must subscribe. Throughout our history such subscriptionism has only divided us, and it forgets, ironically, that confessions are but subordinate standards that point us to Scripture, which in turn points us to what God does in Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power.
I submit, finally, that in order to move the conversation forward, there is a basic question the leaders of the CCM need to answer: Is the purpose of the movement to separate the “true” Presbyterian churches from the “false” ones? Or is the movement a particular interpretation of the confessional heritage we all hold in common and must all interpret? To put it another way, is joining the movement and subscribing to these three articles thought to be necessary in order for one to remain a worshiping, believing Presbyterian? If so, then the CCM represents a rebirth of subscriptionism, with its inevitable result: schism. Or does the CCM see itself remaining in full fellowship with the confessional standards of the PC(USA), and calling the church to a new embrace of its confessional heritage? If the latter, then the CCM may serve as a witness for renewal, but only if it can demonstrate how its vision for the church fits within the broad consensus that lifts up standards but leaves room for interpretation.
The confessions are not themselves the path, but they help us to navigate the path. It is good navigation that we now need. The church leaders who are speaking at the CCM’s gathering in Atlanta this month have a special obligation to provide that navigation.
William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary.