The Importance of Being a Confessional Christian
If an analyst were to survey a number of local churches, he would find that it is comprised of Christians from various ecclesiastical backgrounds, despite the church’s denominational affiliation. For instance, one might find a Presbyterian church to have several members with a Baptist upbringing. On the other hand, some attending an Anglican church may have been reared in a Free Church Tradition . These trends suggest that many Christians do not find certain theological matters necessary for the identity of the corporate body and the individual believer.
Despite some who argue that blending church traditions has been beneficial for the Church, this merging has had devastating effects upon evangelicals as a whole . Church members no longer know the tradition they belong to because of watered-down doctrine. Important doctrines are neglected for the purpose of giving primacy to the “essentials” of the faith, which results in a pick-and-choose mentality as to what doctrines are essential. Even worse, Christians are unaware of historic Christianity and thereby further disconnected from their heritage.
Amongst these concerns the question remains as to how to mend this broken ecclesiology. What will encourage Christians to wrestle with biblical doctrine and to consider the teachings of the apostolic tradition? Furthermore, how can the Church be unified when such diversity makes unity nearly impossible? The solution to such problems does not come when primary focus is given to essential doctrines. Rather, it comes when Christians engage with all of Scripture and the Christian tradition. It comes when Christians strive to be confessional.
What Is Confessionalism and Its Purpose?
Confessionalism is not a term used very often among evangelicals. The idea is often associated with strict, rigid doctrine that has been the source of centuries of theological division within the Church. This, however, is a misconception of what it means to be confessional. Confession is the means by which the body of Christ seeks to identify and affirm the main doctrines and teachings of the biblical narrative as Christian truth. This enables us to know, teach, and protect sound doctrine. “[Confession] is the watchword by which [the Church] is known,” states David Wells, “Without this knowledge, it is bereft of what defines the Church as the people of God, bereft of the means of belief, worship, sustenance, proclamation, and service. Confession must be at the center of every theology that wants to be seen as theologia, the knowledge of God, a knowledge given in and for the people of God” .
This is the sole purpose of confession and has been the Church’s priority since her inception. It is why Jude exhorted Christians to “contend for the faith that was once delivered to all the saints” (Jude 3). Paul charged Timothy to follow the “pattern of sound words” and to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). He taught that it is by this means that Christians walk in Christ, being rooted, built up, and established in the faith (Col. 2:6-7). For this reason the Apostle John tirelessly reminded Christians to remember what they had received from “the beginning” (1 Jn. 1:1; 2:7). The protection and establishment of this truth is a primary function of confession.
Not only does confession concern itself with doctrine, but it also serves to guide future generations of the Church to interpret Scripture. Thus we understand the reason that Anglicans , Presbyterians, Lutherans, and even Baptists  have sought to affirm creeds or confessions for centuries: They wanted to provide a faithful witness to the apostolic teaching that would serve as a guide for their spiritual descendants.
Confessionalism does not ask the question, “How much do we need to believe in order to build unity within the Church?” Rather it asks, “How much should Christians believe in order to build unity within the body?”  Whereas the former question is a minimalist approach, the latter engages the whole counsel of God. Much of this philosophy has been embodied in contemporary parachurch statements of faith. Concerning this issue Richard Lints states, “‘Essentialist’ statements of faith reject all that isn’t relevant to the immediate battle at hand as unimportant. So-called controversial points…are to be passed over for the sake of superficial unity” . Historic creeds and confessions on the other hand are “guides to the text, rather than guards against the Text” and serve as aids to reading the Bible .
The attempt to abridge Christianity has resulted in a lack of confessionalism among Free Will Baptists as well. F. Leroy Forlines comments, “This abridged or truncated approach to Christianity has been one of the greatest contributing factors to a weakening of Christianity. Except for isolated instances, a number of Christian doctrines have been written off” (emphasis his) . In effect, Scripture loses its primary place among the lives of believers, leaving them vulnerable to false teaching. Again, Lints states, “In practice, the Bible can become insignificant in the conservative or evangelical tradition as in the liberal tradition .
When the apostolic tradition and the rest of historic Christianity are examined, it is clear that such a truncated Christianity has never sustained spiritual vitality. The apostolic tradition understands all Scripture as vital to sanctification. The Protestant tradition has historically been confessional-minded and has held to the creeds established by the church fathers such as the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) and the Chalcedonian Creed (451 A.D.). This is why the Westminster Confession was established by Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, the Thirty-Nine Articles by the Anglican Communion, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith by Calvinistic Baptists, and the 1660 Standard Confession by Arminian Baptists. All of these traditions identified through confessions what they thought to be the most faithful teaching of Scripture. Despite their differences, they all approached Scripture with a common assumption—the authoritative truth lays at the heart of Christian faith and practice .
What Are the Benefits of Confessionalism?
Being confessional provides tools necessary to build an ecumenical bridge. A common objection to confessionalism is that it is divisive, hindering unity. However, when this indictment is scrutinized, it quickly unravels. All confessional traditions established their confessions for the purpose of unifying the body. Unity does not occur by ignoring essential doctrines that might cause friction among fellow Christians. Adherence to the Church tradition and confession provides a hermeneutical framework as the unifying means for interpreting Scripture. Thus, we interpret Scripture from the same orientation—that is, a confessional one. This is the basis for our unity . It allows us to continue the dialogue with other confessional traditions and gain a deeper knowledge of God’s special revelation. If agreement upon essential doctrines alone is the only basis for unity, we actually prevent against ever achieving it because we simply ignore teachings given for our benefit. Instead, we achieve a superficial unity and neglect to teach the whole counsel of God. Unity works in the midst of diversity to establish God’s truth.
Confessionalism is not only the grounds for encouraging unity, but it is also the means to building ecclesiastical loyalty. In an age of post-denominationalism, creeds and confessions push us to wrestle with the key doctrines they affirm. They do not allow us to settle for a shallow understanding of the God’s narrative, but require us to grapple with the truths they fully embrace. When we seek to properly understand those truths, we will find that our loyalty to the teachings of our tradition will increase and become firmly rooted in our own spiritual life. Tradition then begins to mold and guide us in our spiritual growth. No longer will we view our denomination as some mere church affiliation, but rather as something that seeks to be a part of the great Christian tradition. Its affirmations become our affirmations. Its prerogatives become our prerogatives. We now become a part of it as it becomes a part of us.
Finally, confession gives us a greater appreciation for the church fathers. We interpret Scripture in light of what they have said and weigh carefully their thoughts. As Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Perhaps the most effective way of guarding oneself from hermeneutical idolatry—the omnipresent danger of making a god of one’s own interpretations—is to be aware of how other saints demonstrate canon sense” . This does not mean that we will necessarily agree with all they taught, nor should we. Rather, it offers a corrective to a postmodern way of interpreting Scripture. No longer do we interpret Scripture alone, but interpret it together with the rest of the Church, past and present. Exegesis is not to be done in isolation, for it is a communal act.
In an age where church fads come and go, the need for identity has never been more pertinent for Christians. Believers continue to ask the question, “Who am I and what do I believe?” To this end the Church has sought to define itself through confession. It is the means by which we identify ourselves with the body of Christ and are connected to the historic Church. It embodies everything the Church has always sought to be. As we embrace this confessional mindset, we better understand ourselves, the Church, and the very heart of the Gospel.
 Free Church traditions are those churches that do not worship according to the liturgical calendar, the Common Book of Prayer, or any other liturgical structure that might have been developed for the purposes of conducting the church’s weekly and yearly worship services. Hence, they are free from the confines of any liturgical structure thought to be a hindrance in the Spirit’s leading in worship. On the other hand, this does not mean that those within the Free Church tradition worshipped however they pleased. They conducted their services in regard to the regulative principle of worship. That is, they thought the New Testament was the only means to obtaining proper instruction on how to worship God. Thus, anything Scripture did not instruct as a proper element of worship (i.e. songs, prayers, public reading of Scripture, sermons, and the partaking of the ordinances) was prohibited. As a result of man’s depravity, when he is left to worship according to his own device, he would inevitably fail, regardless of his intentions. Those within the Free Church tradition thought that the liturgical calendars, prayer books, etc., were not taught by Scripture, thus they were prohibited. The more radical Puritans were the founders of this movement and were the forefathers of the Baptists, Congregationalists, and some Reformed movements. This theology of worship has affected many denominations present within evangelicalism today.
 Russell D. Moore, “Where Have All The Presbyterians Gone?” Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703437304576120690548462776.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTTopOpinion; Accessed 7 Feburary 2011; Internet.
 David Wells, No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 99.
 Ironically, the Anglican Church considers itself officially to be a non-confessional movement. However, the communion’s use of catechesis, its affirmation of Episcopal polity, its sacramental teaching on the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), and its adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles suggest otherwise.
 Some may argue that the Baptist motto has always been, “No creed but the Bible.” This, however, is quite the contrary. Although there have been Baptist who have taken this approach, historically, Baptists have developed confessions in order affirm particular doctrinal truths they thought to be in accord with Holy Scripture. They have always taught that creeds and confessions did not have final authority and are always subject to revision, unlike some traditions. This is the distinction that Baptists made between creedalism vs. confessionalism. Baptists are not creedal, but confessional. Thus, their confessional affirmations are not governed from the top-down, but rather the ground up. They thought it appropriate for local churches to voluntarily gather together to affirm and confess as was taught by the New Testament. This is the framework for a Baptist understanding for confirming creeds and confessions. As a result, Baptists have historically not practiced the reading of confessions within public worship, but have used them for purposes of teaching and discipleship in other venues. For Baptist confessions and creeds, see William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia: Judson Press, l959).
 I credit the proposal of such questions to classroom discussion and personal interaction with Richard Lints, the Andrew Mutch Distinguished of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His comments provoked my thoughts tremendously concerning this issue.
 Richard Lints, “How do Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms Differ from ‘Statements of Faith’?” Modern Reformation.11(2001); http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=393&var3=main; Accessed 7 Feburary 2011; Internet.
 F. Leroy Forlines, “A Plea For Unabridged Christianity,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (2004), 91.
 Wells, 99.
 When thinking about unity, the central focus of the discussion should not solely be concerned with how far does one need to go in their agreement on doctrinal matters to achieve unity (although this should not be considered irrelevant to the discussion. It is an important aspect). In some sense, this frame of thought refers back to what was said previously about guarding against the text. Doctrine alone should not be considered the only aspect by which we achieve unity. Interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Church’s past should be our approach to providing a foundation sufficient for ecclesiastical unity. This does not mean that there will not be disagreements concerning doctrinal matters—there will be—but we will work from the same orientation as we attempt to identify and define those issues.
Without this common ground, we will continue to talk over each other’s head in our discussion. Moreover, we may find we have more in common with those from different theological traditions than with those who adhere to the same doctrines as we do found within our own tradition. Often unity is more common among Christians who are confessional, yet differ theologically, than there is with Christians who are not confessional and share similar doctrine. The common bound, it seems, is adherence to Scripture and the need to affirm the apostolic confession. Thus, a Free Will Baptist may find more common ground with a Presbyterian than he does with a fellow Free Will Baptist. Despite their differences, their hermeneutical approach to Scripture and adherence to the Church tradition serves as their unifying bond.
 Kevin Vanhoozer, ”A Drama-of-Redemption Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, Stanley Gundry, Gary Meadors, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 181. As part of the larger context of the quote above, he says, “Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13) has reference not to this or that denomination or individual, but to the whole (kath’ holou = “catholic”) church. The Spirit-led tradition of the church extended in space and time provides a rich resource of case studies in how other performers have made judgments concerning contextual fittingness” (181).
David Wells, No Place For Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 97-115.