Can a whole church really subscribe to a detailed confession of faith?

There has been a good deal of debate about whether the Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/1689 (2LCF) is a serviceable confession for Baptist churches. Some have argued it’s far too detailed for a whole congregation to affirm, and they suggest that a shorter confession like the New Hampshire Confession or the Abstract of Principles would work better. They argue that only the most theologically unified congregations could possibly hold to such a robust confession as the Second London Baptist Confession, and that its detail is an obstacle in church planting situations.

People have insisted that an encyclopedic confession like the Second London Baptist Confession would prohibit new converts and immature Christians from joining a local church that holds to it. But I would argue that a local church can faithfully hold to a robust confession like the Second London Confession without stumbling into any of the problems mentioned above.

I recommend the following manner of subscribing to the Second London Baptist Confession, though I also recognize that some faithful Reformed Baptists will disagree with me on some of these things.

1. Any believer should be allowed to join a local church, provided he does not have a divisive spirit.

A local church should be a “Professors Church.” That is, all who have a credible profession of faith are fit candidates for church membership (Rom 10:9-10). Credible profession involves (1) a true articulation of the gospel along with (2) a testimony of sincere faith and repentance of sin, and (3) evidence of a holy life. The Second London Baptist Confession teaches that a credible profession of sound conversion is prerequisite to membership. Chapter 26, paragraph 2 says:

“All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.”

Most historic Baptists have also held that those who give a credible profession of faith should be biblically baptized before they join a local church. Scripture says, “We were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13). That is my personal view, but it is not a requirement of the Second London Baptist Confession, which leaves the question open. Baptists were divided on whether baptism by immersion upon a person’s credible profession must precede membership at the time the confession was written.

But beyond the two universal requirements of (1) a credible profession of faith and (2) biblical baptism (my own position), there may be a great deal of disagreement about many doctrines among the members of a local church, even on the doctrines in their confession. Yet the church can still enjoy great unity in the gospel of Christ.

2. Churches that subscribe to a detailed confession should use a “subscription of unity” among church members.

The book of Romans teaches a robust system of doctrine, which is a summary of biblical truth, the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul wrote the epistle of Romans to the church at Rome, expecting the elders to teach its total content and expecting the whole church to believe and practice what it says. At the end of the letter, in Romans 16:17, Paul says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” What “doctrine” is Paul talking about? He means the robust doctrine of the whole book of Romans, which touches upon most doctrines of the faith.

Notice Paul doesn’t say to “avoid” those who “don’t understand” or “don’t positively and accurately affirm every doctrine” in the book of Romans. Paul, instead, says to “avoid” those who “cause divisions” or “create obstacles” to the doctrines in his letter to the Romans. Thus, the church of Rome could receive new believers who were still growing in their understanding of what Paul had written. Everyone in the church was to be growing toward a full understanding of all the doctrines in the book of Romans. But during the time when they were still working out their understanding of biblical truth, the members needed to agree to maintain unity in Christ. They were not permitted, therefore, to “cause divisions” or “create obstacles” about anything in the book of Romans. Divisive members need to be avoided. Titus 2:10-11 says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once, and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

Churches should subscribe to an encyclopedic confession in a similar way. The ultimate goal is that all church members will agree wholeheartedly with the whole counsel of God. Members should understand when they join that the teachers of the church will be consistently teaching the Bible as a whole and showing how the Bible supports the church’s confession of faith, since the teachers of the church believe that the church’s confession is an accurate summary of the Bible.

1. Therefore, at a minimum, church members need to have a teachable spirit, willing to sit under and learn from those who teach the Bible in a way that expresses all the doctrines of the church’s agreed upon confession of faith.

2. They should agree not to teach against the confession of faith, distribute literature against it, or campaign against it on social media, etc.

3. They must agree not to cause divisions or strife in the church about anything in the confession of faith (Rom 16:17; Titus 2:10-11).

4. And they shouldn’t be hardened in opposition to anything taught in the confession of faith.

This kind of subscription among members allows for a great deal of doctrinal diversity together with robust doctrinal confession.

A non-Calvinist, for example, who disagrees with the Second London Baptist Confession’s teaching on unconditional election, but who has a teachable spirit, and is not hardened in opposition to the church’s confession, is free to join the church. Similarly, a paedobaptist, who believes in baptizing infants, but who has himself been biblically baptized as a believer (it is my view that they must be biblically baptized, not a requirement of the 2LCF), and is open to learning from the Word of God, and to changing his position on baptism to the one explained by the Second London Baptist Confession is also free to join.

Credible confession of faith in Christ, together with a teachable spirit of unity in Christ, is all that is required for church membership. This manner of subscription is rooted in the moral law of God, which forbids a factious spirit and calls for unity in Christ. A divisive spirit is murderous, thieving, deceptive, covetous, etc., but God commands us to be united in Christ in love. Those who have the Spirit of Christ may certainly disagree about secondary doctrines without causing strife in the church because of their love for Christ and for one another.

Furthermore, all faithful churches have procedures for discussing and changing their confessions of faith, which are outlined in their constitutions or bylaws. Confessions are not infallible and are always subject to correction by the Word of God. Members who follow the agreed upon procedures for debating and changing a confession of faith with a humble spirit are not being divisive, provided they do so in love, with humility, and grace. The Scriptures are the final word on sound doctrine, not a confession of faith. A confession of faith is the church’s effort to accurately express what the Scriptures mean. And any human statement can be wrong. Therefore, faithful churches have mechanisms in place to change their confession, if so warranted by the Bible.

3. The officers of a church ought to embrace a “full subscription” to the confession of faith.

“Full Subscription” for officers, elders and deacons, means that they affirm every doctrine in a church’s confession of faith. Paul says that elders in the church must proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). And a church’s confession of faith is that church’s understanding of “the whole counsel of God.” Pastors are not free to teach whatever version of the “whole counsel of God” they personally believe. They must preach what the church believes. They are under the church’s authority to teach the Bible in a manner consistent with the church’s confession. The church as a whole adopts its confession, partly as a check on pastoral authority. Confessions of faith, thus, prevent pastoral authoritarianism. The Scripture as confessed by the church is what elders are charged to believe and teach (cf. 2 Tim 1:13-14).

Deacons, too, are required to “hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). “The faith” is the total body of revealed truth (cf. Jude 3), and a church’s understanding of the Bible’s truth is expressed in its confession of faith. Thus, deacons, as leaders in the church, should fully subscribe to a church’s confession of faith. All church officers should publicly vow personally to adopt and defend the church’s confession of faith. If a church officer changes his views at any point in his tenure, he should make that change known to the elders, and be humbly willing to withdraw from his office, if necessary. He would certainly be free to remain a member of the church as long as he doesn’t cause division over his disagreements with the confession.

In conclusion, there is a way for a church to confess its understanding of “the whole counsel of God” and still make room for a great deal of theological disagreement and for those who have a simple but sincere profession of faith in Christ. This is, in fact, what I believe Scripture requires the church to do: confess the whole counsel of God with a godly spirit of unity in the essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and love in all things