I did a double-take when I read the sign in front of a small white church beside a two-lane blacktop that snaked through the hills of western North Carolina. I stopped and backed up my SUV to get a second look. The weathered 12-by-18 sign read: “Welcome to Trinity Baptist Church. We are an Independent, Bible-believing, Trinitarian, KJV-only, amillennial, evangelistic congregation.”
Two things on the sign captured my attention: “KJV-only” and “amillennial.” The Bible translation didn’t surprise me much, but I’m more accustomed to churches affirming the KJV alongside some form of premillennialism, so the “amil” affirmation took me back a little.
But that church’s sign does raise an important question for confessional Christians: Which doctrines should be included in a church’s or evangelical organization’s confession of faith?
In Albert Mohler’s helpful scheme of theological triage, issues such as eschatology or church music are third-level doctrines on which good Christians may disagree and (typically) still be considered not only orthodox, but part of the same denomination or church in good standing. Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, led the school back to its confessional roots in the 1990s after it had fallen into theological liberalism in the mid-20th century.
While Christians should never approach any doctrine with anything less than full seriousness, Mohler establishes three orders of doctrines that are helpful in establishing confessional non-negotiables:
First-order doctrines represent the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith, and a denial of these doctrines represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself. … The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from the first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on the second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. … Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations. I would put most debates over eschatology, for example, in this category.
Two extremes ought to be avoided when discussing theological triage and confessional statements. Fundamentalism tends to operate as if every theological issue is of first importance and, therefore, no second- and third-order issues exist. Theological liberalism, meanwhile, tends to operate as if no first-order issues exist. So how should confessional Christians stay out of the opposite ditches of making either everything or nothing a first-order issue?
Here are three questions we might ask to determine whether to include non-fundamental issues in a confession of faith.
1. HAVE THE MAJOR HISTORICAL CONFESSIONS ADDRESSED IT?
The best of the historical statements of faith, particularly in the Reformed tradition, have not typically included third-level doctrines such as the millennium and the timing of Christ’s return.
Architects of both the Second London Confession of 1689 and its Presbyterian cousin, the venerable Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), included articles on the reality of final judgment and the truthfulness of Christ’s return, but not the timing or the millennium.
Chapter 32 (“The Last Judgment”) in the Second London Confession begins: “God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness, by Jesus Christ.” The second paragraph reads: “The end of God’s appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient.” Chapter 33 of the WCF words it the same way.
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional statement, deals with “Last Things” in Chapter 20: “According to his promise, Jesus will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth.” Others such as the Belgic Confession deal with the last things similarly.
The major confessions among Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists (as well as the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles) have included mainly first- and second-order issues: all doctrines germane to orthodox Christianity and the gospel such as justification by faith, the person and work of Christ, the full deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the resurrection of Christ, along with denominational distinctives such as church government, baptism, and the sacraments (or ordinances).
Congregationalists in England published the Savoy Declaration in 1658, and British Particular Baptists drew up the Second London Confession three decades later with the specific intent of demonstrating that neither was a dangerous, heretical sect; both affirmed the same orthodox, evangelical theology as the Westminster divines. Baptists and Congregationalists, among others, were being persecuted as heretics and seditionists by the state-run church.
Churches and organizations have penned many other excellent confessions in the centuries following the Reformation; almost none of them has demanded specific views on third-level issues such as the millennium or the timing of Jesus’s return — for good reason.
2. DOES DEMANDING SUBSCRIPTION TO THIS OCTRINE NEEDLESSLY DIVIDE CHRISTIANS?
I once spent several months as a candidate for the office of senior pastor in a church in the Deep South. I went through three rounds of interviews, including one for which I traveled for a face-to-face session. I wrote answers to theological and practical questions that totaled nearly 40 pages. The committee also interviewed my wife extensively. Numerous phone calls went back and forth between the chairman and me. I probably invested well more than 100 hours in the process, and it became clear that I was the leading candidate.
So the search committee scheduled a weekend on which my family would meet the congregation, participate in a battery of meetings, and then I’d preach on Sunday. Unfortunately, my candidacy ended abruptly when the committee learned that I didn’t subscribe to Scofieldian Dispensationalism, which was included in an appendix (which I hadn’t seen) to the church’s confession.
I wasn’t bothered so much by the fact that they didn’t call me as pastor; obviously, it wasn’t God’s will. I did, however, believe this confessional item was unwise and divided brothers needlessly. An evangelical confession should avoid that mistake. Elder boards on which I have served in local churches have included men with a variety of views on issues such as the end times, church-music styles, and Bible translations — and we’ve never experienced division over it.
Reject the Trinity and you’re not a Christian. Reject believer’s baptism and you’ll need to join another denomination. Reject my view of the millennium, and we can serve on the elder board together.
A church or denomination’s confession should affirm all the cardinal doctrines that define orthodox Christianity and important second-order issues that make up denominational or church distinctives such as baptism, the sacraments (or ordinances), issues related to complementarianism/egalitarianism, and church polity.
3. IS IT RELATED TO AN ISSUE THAT DEMANDS THE CHURCH SPEAK PROPHETICALLY?
There are legitimate occasions that call Christians to speak prophetically by narrowing — often by adding to or clarifying — their confession of faith.
For example, in the late 1990s, rising feminism and the broader culture’s attack on marriage prompted the Southern Baptist Convention to adopt articles on male headship and the sanctity of biblical marriage and to add them to the Baptist Faith and Message.
In 2008, the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) revised its article on the doctrine of God to reaffirm God’s exhaustive knowledge and the reality of God’s wrath — old orthodox truths that were being challenged by the heresy of open theism.
The Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 spoke to such issues as “Of the Mass,” “Of the Marriage of Priests,” “Of Confession,” and “Of the Distinction of Meats.” Similarly, Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles rejects the doctrine of purgatory. Centuries later, these may seem like tertiary issues, but they were of massive consequence and strident debate amid the early decades of the Reformation. Churches need to declare their colors on those matters.
Christian organizations often adopt confessions of faith to directly address burning issues in the culture, as was the case with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood when it published the Danvers Statement on gender roles in 1987 and, more recently, the Nashville Statement affirming biblical sexuality.
Historically, the tendency to include premillennialism in mid-20th-century evangelical confessions came in response to the modernist–fundamentalist controversy. Premillennialism served as a badge of membership for conservative evangelicals over against amillennialism, which was perceived at the time as a view that signaled theological liberalism. Since then this perception, and thus the level of urgency, has changed.
If a church, denomination, or Christian organization needs to offer clarity or speak prophetically, then adding or revising articles is valid, even necessary. There are times when a non-first-order issue, such as egalitarianism/complementarianism, rises to a level of importance that it must be dealt with confessionally. In other words, our triage chart on second- and third-level issues may change as circumstances such as cultural pressure and theological debates demand.
I believe this is the situation Southern Baptists are now facing with complementarianism. I believe SBC messengers did the right thing in disfellowshipping three churches last June over the issue of female pastors. I believe Mike Law’s amendment to the SBC constitution is necessary, and I hope messengers give it a hearty final approval at next year’s annual meeting in Indianapolis. I do not buy the argument made by some prominent leaders that such a move is discouraging to women and their ministry to the local church. Affirming and reaffirming God’s Word in its entirety is always good for women and for all believers. As one older SBC pastor told me many years ago when I first began preaching, we never need to apologize for God’s Word.
I’m thankful to have been a part of confessional Christianity for many years now, and I want to do everything I can to nurture it. But I don’t want to define membership by millennial views or Bible-translation preferences.
Confessions of faith should function as guardrails, not a straitjacket.