Confessionalism in the Local Church

Feb 20, 2023 | Articles, by Guest Writers, Marrow Ministries Free Content

“It is often said that the day of Confessions is past, and that the Christian world as a whole has become, or is fast becoming, anti-Confessional.”[1] Written in the early 1900s, this quote captures the anti-creedal mood that was carried into at least the mid-20th century; however, in recent decades, there has been a resurgence in interest in Reformed Theology and the confessions produced during and after the Protestant Reformation.[2] Recently it has led to various discussions, debates, and even divisions, not over whether or not there are benefits to ancient confessions of faith, but rather the level to which one is required to subscribe to the confessions.

I believe that Reformed Baptist churches should require substantial subscription from their elders, and no more than submission to the confession from its members. I believe doing so will provide the clarity and protection we seek from adhering to a confession, while also providing room to grow for all Christians.

Three Levels of Subscription

There are at least three levels of confessional subscription. Think of the first two levels (strict and substance) on each end of a spectrum with the third (substantial) serving as a middle ground.

Strict Subscription

Those adhering to a strict subscription do so because the confession is biblical. They hold to a strict subscription, “from a desire to preserve the church’s orthodoxy and doctrinal distinctives.”[3] Since the confession is held to because it is biblical, then the whole confession is to be subscribed to by all Christians joining a local church.

Substance Subscription

On the other end of that spectrum is “substance subscription.”[4] The confession should be subscribed to insofar as it is biblical. There will be a set of core beliefs that must be affirmed, but subscription to the confession as a whole is not required.

Substantial Subscription

Substantial subscription is the middle-ground that affirms the confession because it is biblical. Yet, at the same time, this level of subscription recognizes that no confessional document is infallible. Substantial subscription allows for the confession to carry weight, while at the same time leaving room for questions, exceptions, and concerns.

We must have an eldership committed to the confession in a substantial manner, and we must have a clearly identifiable membership who are fully aware of the church’s teachings and have humbly agreed to submit to it. Click To Tweet

Which is Best?

I believe that substantial is the most beneficial of the three levels of subscription. Substantial subscription, “upholds the doctrine of sola Scriptura, protects the subscriber’s integrity of conscience, maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition…and facilitates the application of semper reformanda to our confession, freeing us to make a good thing even better.”[5] This provides confidence, unity, clarity, and charity for church associations, denominations, and even seminaries as they seek to fulfill their mission. At the local church level, however, I do not believe it is this simple.

Subscription in the Local Church

In 2010, Shawn Wright wrote an article for 9Marks entitled, Should you use the 1689 London Confession in your church? Wright offers arguments answering the question in the negative. One of his stated reasons is that “The SLC is too doctrinally-specific in some places to serve as a local church’s statement of faith.”[6] He believes the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (and ostensibly any of the other robust confessions like the Westminster or Savoy) provides too tight a circle, for the statement of faith to, “Provide an outline of the church’s theology that will determine the contours of the church’s teaching and preaching ministries,”[7] especially since it would be too much for immature Christians to affirm. In offering this critique, Wright seemingly has no category for distinct levels of subscription within the local church. The implication is that once a church adopts a confession as its statement of faith, a full or substantial subscription is required from all who belong.

Sam Waldron, in response to Wright, concludes, “just as a bride ought not to think that she must agree with her prospective husband about everything in order to submit to him, so also a prospective church member ought not to think that absolute or full agreement with the church, its elders, or its confession is necessary in order to subordinate himself to them.”[8] Waldron argues, “It is clear from all this that a vital distinction must be maintained between the members and the elders of the church.”[9] In order for a confession to be effectively used in the local church, as a hedge against heresy, and as a tool for discipleship, there must be a distinction in subscription levels between elders and members.[10]

Elders—Substantial Subscription

For all the same reasons that substantial subscription is best for associations, denominations, and seminaries, it is best for a board (group) of elders.  Elders must subscribe substantially to the church’s confession of faith. Elders are called to teach the church (1 Timothy 3:2);[11] they are called to correct those in error (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Substantial agreement with what the Scripture teaches as outlined in a confession of faith helps facilitate unity amongst elders, eliminates confusion for members of a church, and provides an objective standard to evaluate doctrine.

Strict subscription is not feasible and runs the risk of unnecessarily binding the minister’s conscience. Substance subscription grips the confession so loosely, that no group of elders could wield it as an effective tool in teaching, correcting, or defending the truth. Substantial subscription from the church’s elders provides a proper tool for the church’s leaders to fulfill their calling. It helps establish the confession as a subordinate, but valid, authority within the church.

Members—Submission

Gonzales argues, “In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Ephesians 4:11-14).”[12] In other words, believers are made part of the church, prior to being mature in the faith. This would rule out strict subscription for members. Many churches then swing the pendulum in the other direction, requiring only substance subscription so as to allow the most immature believer to join. Waldron argues against this position writing, “The confession of the church must not be held hostage to the immaturity of its youngest members.”[13]

Church members should be required to submit to the church’s confession[14] for at least two reasons: First, any believer of any maturity level is able to join the without being required to comprehend all points of doctrine. Second, the church can remain crystal clear and precise on what it believes that the Bible teaches. In this way, the church’s confession of faith can be used properly, as a tool to guard against error, while also being used as a tool to disciple younger believers.

Other churches have sought to accomplish this by requiring substantial subscription from elders and members to two different confessions,[15] but this does not solve the problem. First, there will always be particular doctrines in any confession of faith that young Christians will struggle to comprehend and embrace. Second, this is another version of the substance subscription view argued against earlier–the substance is the reduced confession of faith.

If we want to embrace the historic confessions for the purpose of ensuring the clarity of what we teach, the unity of the church, the protection against heresy and error, as well as a tool for discipling believers, then I believe this is our way forward. We must have an eldership committed to the confession in a substantial manner, and we must have a clearly identifiable membership who are fully aware of the church’s teachings and have humbly agreed to submit to it.

May our confessions be used as flood walls to guard against the swelling tide of the theological, cultural, and moral decay of our day. And at the same time, may we be found behind the flood wall, feeding and nurturing all the sheep for which Christ died, whether they are young in the faith, old in the faith, strong, or weak, all for the glory of God!


[1] W. A. Curtis, “Confessions,” ed. James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh; New York: T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908–1926), 890.

[2] Evidence of this resurgence is seen in many ways. For example, the rise of organizations like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition, which hold Reformed positions. Also, there are associations like Reformed Baptist Network and others who formally subscribe to one of these confessions. Several years ago, Mark Dever gave his opinion as to why this resurgence took place. You can read this opinion here.

[3] Robert Gonzales Jr., “Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial,” Reformed Baptist Blog, October 3, 2016.  https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2016/10/03/confessional-subscription-strict-vs-substantial/.

[4] Curtis, 17-20.

[5] Robert Gonzalez Jr., “Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial,” Reformed Baptist Blog, October 3, 2016.  https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2016/10/03/confessional-subscription-strict-vs-substantial/.

[6] Shawn Wright, “Should you use the 1689 London Confession in your church?” 9Marks, March 1, 2010. https://www.9marks.org/article/should-you-use-1689-london-confession-your-church/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sam Waldron, “Why (and How) Your Church Should Hold the 1689 Confession,” 9Marks, February 26, 2010. https://www.9marks.org/article/why-and-how-your-church-should-hold-1689-confession/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gonzales makes this same observation when he writes, “Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members.” Robert Gonzales Jr., “Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial,” Reformed Baptist Blog, October 3, 2016.  https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2016/10/03/confessional-subscription-strict-vs-substantial/

[11] Sam Waldron distinguishes between the subscription of church members and elders in this very point. “Members need only submit to the confession. Elders are obliged to teach it.” Sam Waldron, “Why (and How) Your Church Should Hold the 1689 Confession,” 9Marks, February 26, 2010. https://www.9marks.org/article/why-and-how-your-church-should-hold-1689-confession/.

[12] Robert Gonzalez Jr., “Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial,” Reformed Baptist Blog, October 3, 2016.  https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2016/10/03/confessional-subscription-strict-vs-substantial/., fn1

[13] Sam Waldron, “Why (and How) Your Church Should Hold the 1689 Confession,” 9Marks, February 26, 2010. https://www.9marks.org/article/why-and-how-your-church-should-hold-1689-confession/.

[14] This term is borrowed from Waldron’s 9Marks article that has already been quoted: “Members need only submit to the confession.”

[15] Some churches have their elders affirm the Second London Confession of Faith, while their members affirm the New Hampshire Confession of Faith.

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