The Confessions are for Freedom
Written by Pastor Nick Monsma
Many Americans cherish freedom. (I don’t mean to leave out Canadians, here, but Americans are especially known for being obsessed with freedom.) If you do, you should love total confessional subscription–where officebearers submit their teaching and leadership to the totality of the confessions, to every doctrine contained in them, without exception..
There are many kinds of freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of movement, economic freedom, and so on. There’s also freedom of conscience—the freedom to profess and practice one’s internal beliefs without harassment from some authority. Total confessional subscription seems to some people to restrict this freedom. It requires that ministers, elders, and deacons submit their teaching and leadership to these five-century-old documents. But those who think that this practice restricts the freedom of conscience have it entirely backwards. A simple comparison with the function of the US Constitution shows this. (Again, I’ll focus on the US, mostly because of the robust lore of freedom surrounding our constitution.)
Most of us who cherish political freedom do not prefer anarchy—the absence of government. God has given rulers the right to exercise power. We want a government, but we don’t want one with unlimited power, a tyranny, or even a government with poorly delineated power, some kind of a monarchy based on tradition and shifting norms. We want a limited government.
And so, a constitution like the one in the United States attempts to set clear limits around the powers that the government may exercise. Ideally, the constitution doesn’t just give examples of the sorts of things the government may do, allowing those in power to try their hand at exercising power in other, creative ways. Nor should the constitution describe only what the government may not do, giving those in power the freedom to do anything else. No, we want a constitution that enumerates the powers of those in authority. The constitution lists the things those in power may do, and they may only do those things.
This is all about freedom. The only way to protect the freedom of the ordinary citizen while acknowledging the legitimate authority of those in power is to limit, narrowly and specifically, the power of the person in authority. Or so says the person who cherishes freedom.
In the same way, total subscription to a set of confessions protects freedom. The Bible teaches us that true freedom is a matter of slavery to the Lord (Romans 6:18), as guided by those whom he has given authority to in the church (Ephesians 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:12). Spiritual anarchy would destroy this freedom. To deprive individual Christians of ministers, elders, and deacons who can discipline them in their discipleship to Christ is to leave them to their own devices. That threatens to consign them to slavery to sin, which is no freedom at all (John 8:34). Spiritual tyranny destroys this freedom as well, as God warns us in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10, where we are warned not to trample on the consciences of ordinary believers in disputable matters by judging them or leading them to engage in something they disagree with.
The CRC’s newly adopted Code of Conduct mentions this problem: “we will continue to wrestle with the urge to misuse power… The power that we hold by virtue of our person or our position can always be twisted into the project of building our own kingdoms at the expense of others.” The Code of Conduct has leaders pledge to “teach, admonish, or discipline in ways that are biblical and Christlike,” in contrast to harassing the body by imposing one’s own ideas and practices. The efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the spread of Protestant ideas in the days of Martin Luther certainly falls into the category of the abuse of power. Cults exhibit the most extreme form of this abuse of power when they devise schemes to severely limit the ideas an ordinary member is even exposed to so that eventually those members can only think in terms of the cult’s limited philosophy (See, e.g., Steven Hassan, Combating Cult Mind Control).
Having a narrow and specific set of doctrines delineated in our confessions is like having a good constitution. Without a good, government-limiting constitution, a nation tends toward anarchy or tyranny. It is wise to fear the same for a church without a good, leadership-limiting confession.
Remember, the ordinary member of a society, not the person in power, is the focus of a genuine concern about freedom. When we consider the effect of total confessional subscription, and when we worry about whether it infringes upon the freedom of conscience, we must start by thinking about that ordinary person sitting in the pews. The minister climbs into the pulpit and tells them what God says. The elder takes them aside and calls them to account for their sanctification. The deacon passes them the offering plate in view of their neighbors, directing them to be generous toward various causes. We should not underestimate the power in these offices.
The minister has the power to bind the conscience of that ordinary churchgoer, imposing on them a sense of guilt for believing this or that wrong thing about God. The elder has the power to change the behavior of that ordinary churchgoer, engaging in discipline, even removing them from the community, if they do not follow the elders’ instructions. The deacon has the power to direct the hand and property of that ordinary churchgoer to support certain causes and efforts. The officebearers in the church have power to weigh down the conscience of that churchgoer.
If we care about the freedom of conscience, we must care about limiting the power of the officebearers according to the Word of God. Total subscription to the confessions allows us to do just that. In the CRC, when the ministers, elders, and deacons are called to their offices, they are handed these three documents: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. They are told to subscribe to them: “Here are the doctrines that you may enforce in preaching and leadership in the church. You may not show up one Sunday morning and bind the consciences of the ordinary churchgoers by telling them that God’s Word clearly teaches something beyond the limits of these documents. You may not threaten to remove someone from membership for engaging in practices not prohibited here or for objecting to practices not endorsed here. You may not truncate the freedom of the tithers who sit the pews by directing their donations to a cause that violates these doctrines.” And so on. What the Word of God teaches is open to dispute—more in some matters, less in others. Total subscription to the confessions ensures that, when it comes to all but the most important doctrines, members remain free to engage in these disputes.
Total confessional subscription also guides those officebearers in the appropriate exercise of their offices. What doctrines should they teach, what practices should they disciple members into, what causes should they lead the church to support? Those that will lead the members toward true freedom, slavery to Christ and not slavery to sin. Namely, the doctrines in these confessions.
Of course, all this requires that the right set of doctrines are summarized in our confessions, and this is something that we must be open to continuing to correct. But loosening this subscription, handing the confessions to officebearers as something other than a limiting document, perhaps as a set of examples, a mere historical document, or a somewhat optional list threatens to destroy the freedom-protecting structure that the confessions erect, allowing those in power in the church to choose their own set of ideas and practices to teach and enforce.
Over the last two years, there has been a bit of hand wringing among some in the CRC over confessional subscription. (This reached all the way to Advisory Committee 8’s unfinished work at Synod 2023.) This worrying has tended to focus on gravamina and the plight of ministers, elders, and deacons—specifically the ones who would like to be able to transgress the boundaries that the confessions set for them. The concerns about freedom have been mostly concerns about the freedom of those in authority to exercise authority as they see fit.
This is a strange and backwards view of freedom. The Bible is clear that the consciences that need protecting most of all are the consciences of the weak and powerless. The freedom that needs defending most of all is the freedom of the ordinary churchgoer. For a church devoted to true freedom, freedom in Christ, total subscription by the officebearers to the doctrines in the confessions is essential.