Not A Choice
In vain does a Christian church suggest that it does not require full subscription of its officers and even its members to some confession or confessions. Every church requires that its officers and members agree to certain propositions and abide by certain rules of behavior. Is there any church where it is deemed acceptable to believe that one should murder the other members of the church? And is there any church which would tolerate if a member mauled and stole from its fellow members? Among the more conservative presbyterian churches in our land, is there any church which tolerates members to disbelieve in the existence of God, the Trinity, and the afterlife? So there are obviously some propositions and certain rules of behavior which each Christian church requires absolutely of their members to subscribe and adhere to, though the set of propositions and rules of behavior (i.e., its confessional standards) clearly differ from church to church.
But A Choice
While there is no choice regarding whether a church requires full (or absolute with no exceptions) subscription to a confessional standard, there is a choice regarding the form that confession takes. Many
churches leave their confessional standards largely unwritten. They may leave the written part of their confession confined to a few propositions like "no creed but the Bible", to which they add many
unwritten, absolute requirements of officers and members like profession of faith in Jesus Christ, no drinking of alcohol, etc. Most of the more conservative Presbyterian churches in our land (OPC, ARP, RPCNA, etc.) employ a more subtle maneuver. Although they have an extensive written confession, this written confession is not the confession to which they effectively require officers and members to pledge and implement full subscription. There are a variety of propositions in these written confessions to which they allow officers and members to take exceptions. The specific exceptions allowed vary from denomination-to-denomination and even in time within a denomination. It can be the 6-day creation issue, the Sabbath issue, etc. But these presbyterian denominations in reality have an unwritten "confession within a confession" to which they require full subscription, typically on issues like the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ, etc. Some fundamental flaws of this system of subscription include:
- The unwritten confession to which absolute subscription is effectively required can change over time without going through the scrutiny and examination that changing a written confession would.
- Because it is unwritten and can easily vary over time, the members do not know precisely what the confession of their full subscription is.
- It undermines the church’s role as the upholder of Biblical truth which it is to be in the world (I Timothy 3:15).
- Judicial decisions can more readily be subject to caprice and politics, since the real rules and doctrines of absolute governance are not clearly set forth.
- It undermines the doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture, for if scripture is perspicuous, then it is proper to require full subscription to a body of doctrinal standards clearly set forth by the church. Not to so do gives credence to the Romish Church’s contention that scripture is not perspicuous.
This all results in a certain degree of lawlessness and independent spirit, which it would seem is exactly what many officers and members like. But it is hardly what God calls his visible church to embrace.
Rather, the visible church is to embrace "one faith" clearly set forth. And the visible church is to be unified in mind in the Biblical doctrines and practices. An unwritten "confession within a confession" is
diametrically opposed to Biblical, Presbyterian church government, but is instead consistent with un-Biblical, independent church government. It sets up a facade of written confessionalism, while the reality is different.
The proper method of subscription is that practiced by our Presbyterian fore-fathers in the Church of Scotland. As J. Ligon Duncan successfully demonstrates in his article in "Premise" magazine entitled
"Owning the Confession: Subscription in the Scottish Presbyterian Tradition", subscription to the written confession was marked by adherence without exception. Such subscription is a manifestation of walking in unity. And such subscription allows the elders of the church to faithfully keep their pledge to defend the church's confession. This choice meets the requirements of a sound, Biblical subscription.
It should be apparent to all that every church will fully subscribe to some confession. The only question is whether the manner in which this occurs complies with the principles of scripture. Christians should not settle for a denomination which employs a method of subscription contrary to scriptural principles.
Historical Note: As noted in the article at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3817/is_199809/ai_n8817820/pg_1 , there has long been contention concerning creedal subscription in American Presbyterianism. Rev. Brian Schwertley rightly diagnoses many consequently problems in his book at http://www.reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/The%20Current%20Crisis%20in%20the%20OPC%20and%20PCA.htm : “The reason the OPC and PCA are plagued by false and deficient ministers is their very lax concept of subscription to the Westminster Standards. When traveling or moving to a new area the family that visits an OPC or PCA church does not know what they are going to encounter until they attend a church service. Will it be a “new life” celebrative (i.e. Arminian Charismatic style worship), a James Jordanite Anglo-Catholic service, a “traditional” old-fashioned service or a Westminster Confessional service (a cappella exclusive psalmody)? Will there be the many false teachings and practices that are allowed by way of exceptions to the Standards: paedocommunion, high church prelatical liturgies, priestly robes and vestments, deviant views on the early chapters of Genesis, mono-covenantalism, baptismal regeneration, higher life antinomian concepts of love, justification through faithful obedience, etc? A Presbyterian denomination that has a lax concept of subscription is “like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get.” If the OPC and PCA want to stop the declension they need to stop treating the Standards as a rubber yardstick or a set of broad recommendations. They must return to the full subscriptionism of their forefathers. If the OPC and PCA do not condemn and censure the heretics, which is likely given their rather advanced states of doctrinal decay on creation, the gospel, morality, biblical worship, the sacraments, etc; then they should be open and honest and rewrite the Westminster Standards to reflect what they really believe, allow and practice. The purpose of full subscription is to lock in a particular theological system and protect it from decay. Another purpose is to tell everyone what is confessed and represented. The lax system in place today really does neither. The Westminster Standards are sort of what we believe, sometimes, depending on who the local pastor and session is.”