Subscription to a Confession (Part 4 of 4) 

Cornfield Theology
Cornfield Theology
Subscription to a Confession (Part 4 of 4) 

Series Introduction

Recently, I have been posting why Redemption Hill Church is confessional. The term confessional has lost its luster over the last 100 years, but prior, most churches held to a Confession of Faith. I attempt to show in these blog posts the value of confessions and why a local church should be confessional. This blog is part 3 of 4. These four blogs on confessionalism are about:

  1. The Nature of Confessionalism
  2. The Parameters of Confessionalism
  3. A Vision of Confessionalism
  4. Subscription to a Confession

If you are new to confessionalism, or the term is foreign, that’s ok. The purpose of is to introduce people to new concepts, terms, and theological ideas. 

These four blogs on confessionalism have been adapted from a paper I submitted to the elders of Trinity Fellowship Churches in preparation for Theology Day before our General Assembly. This fourth blog post is on subscription to a confession of faith. If a local church pastor is a part of a denomination that holds to a Confession of Faith, then to what degree is the confession affirmed, taught, and defended? 

Subscription to our Confession

In confessional denominations, one of the most debated issues is about subscription. But what is subscription? Merriam-Webster offers a helpful definition. Subscription is the “act of signing one’s name (as in attesting or witnessing a document).” And it is “the acceptance (as of ecclesiastical articles of faith) attested by the signing of one’s name.”

Here is the question at hand: To what degree should an elder or eldership subscribe to a denomination’s Confession of Faith? A too loose subscription will result in a confession being rendered useless. What is the point of ascribing to a confession or statement of faith if you are unwilling to affirm, teach, and defend it? There will not be unity but pragmatism in a local church and across a denomination.

But, the aim of a collection of churches is to be united on doctrine. As I have said in previous blogs on confessionalism, uniting around a person is unstainable. Trying to unite around a methodology will not last. Uniting around a vision is great until the vision changes, and not everyone is on board with the change. Uniting around culture has the potential to be toxic. But uniting around truth can last generations. 

Uniting with truth means churches in a denomination should strive for a subscription where an exception to the stated Confession of Faith is difficult to achieve. 

How does an elder or eldership determine the balance between robust subscription and the potential to make an exception? 

Holiday Inn Express

It’s not enough to stay at a Holiday in Express to sort out the nature of subscription. It’s time to call in an expert. In “Confessional Subscription: Its Terms and Types,” Robert Gonzales offers a helpful point of departure. He shares six different types of levels of subscription. Here they are in order of “tightest” to “loosest” subscription. 

  1. Absolute subscription 
  2. Historical subscription 
  3. Full (or Strict) subscription 
  4. System subscription 
  5. Substance (of the evangelical faith) subscription 
  6. Substance (of the Christian faith) subscription 

I will refer you to Gonzales for all his definitions, but maximizing long-term unity requires the tightest subscription possible. However, it might be wise to allow an elder or eldership to make an exception. Sometimes the ideal is not achievable, but we can try to get close to the ideal. 

Here are a few broad rules to follow when a denomination allows an exception. 

  1. It must be difficult for an exception to be granted. 
  2. An exception should not be granted if it contradicts the denomination’s values.
  3. An exception should not be granted if the exception can create disunity. 
  4. An exception can not be made to primary doctrines (ex. justification by faith alone). 

Local Church Unity

The principles in a confessional denomination should extend to leadership in the local church. Uniting around the truth of God’s Word is vastly more important than any other factor. Uniting around truth does not dismiss nuance or additional qualification, but it fosters ongoing dialogue. When the truth is the unifying factor, the door is swung wide open for personal theological growth. 

Membership and Doctrine 

Because this blog is for the local church and not the denomination, I want to provide an additional qualification about the relationship between doctrine and membership. So the question on the table is this: Must a person subscribe to the Confession of Faith to be a member? The short answer is no. Traditionally, elders subscribe to the church’s Confession of Faith. Practically, it’s up to elders to teach their members the Confession of Faith. The baseline for membership is the gospel of Jesus Christ and then the shared commitments of the church. Now, every church will move the membership line according to their preferences, but the standards for elders and church members are different. 

Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM.