On Being a Confessional Church

G. I. Williamson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 5, no. 1 (January 1996).

It is generally recognized that the Orthodox Presbyterian Church [OPC] is a Confessional Church and that the Westminster Standards are the official testimony of its faith. But the question is, what does this really mean?

The Membership Vows

It does not mean that every confessing member of the church is required to subscribe to these formularies from day one. This should be self-evident from the fact that the children of believers are received as members of the church through their baptism. They begin, in other words, as babes in Christ as well as babes in arms.

But the OPC also welcomes babes in Christ of another sort. It welcomes those who, like the Philippian jailer mentioned in Acts 16, are only beginning to grasp the whole counsel of God, but who give sufficient evidence of a hearty submission to the authority of the Word of God and—subordinate to that—to the officers whom Christ has set in the Church to teach them. To require such people to wait until they have had sufficient instruction to be able to subscribe to the entire Westminster Standards would be a serious departure from the Apostolic model. After all, what is the task of the ministry? Is it not to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ until we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the son of God (Eph. 4:13) so that—at last—we are no more children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (v. 14). Is it not clear from this that requiring subscription to a rather elaborate statement of Christian doctrine such as we have in the Westminster Standards, goes well beyond the capacity of many new converts to Christ? And is it not equally clear that the inspired apostles did not let this fact exclude those who gave credible evidence of faith in the Savior? It is my conviction that, in this, the OPC stands in the line of the most faithful Reformed Churches and I hope it always will. May the Lord continue to bring many out of this lost generation through the faithful testimony of the OPC, and may he then continue to do a great work of building them up in faith and obedience through the teaching ministry of our churches.

It is for this reason that our church makes a clear distinction between the relatively simple vows that adult converts take when they are received as church members, and the more elaborate vows required of those men in our midst who are ordained. This does not mean that the two are out of harmony with each other. Not at all, for if those who have taken membership vows are faithful in keeping them they will—as they grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord—come to that mature faith so fully and beautifully expressed in our Standards. The reason is obvious: it is the faith summarized in the Westminster Standards which is taught in the Bible. So anyone who sincerely submits to the authority of the Bible will be able, in the end, to say of these standards what we as office-bearers say; namely, here is the system of doctrine which is taught in the Scriptures.

The Vows of Ordination

It is important to note, however, that even then—even when we as office-bearers subscribe to the Westminster Standards—we do not for one moment put them on the same level as the Bible. It is one of the most important articles of our faith that the Bible alone is infallible. Even the very best writings of men (and that is, after all, what the Westminster Standards are) are fallible. And it is for this reason that the OPC has never bound the consciences of its pastors, elders and deacons to any absolute adherence to the wording of these documents. Is there any pastor, elder or deacon in the OPC who does not at some point or other disagree with certain wording, at least, of these documents?[1] It is also a fact that the OPC throughout its history has been willing to give men room for conscientious dissent from particular aspects of formulations contained in these Standards. And it is my conviction that our church has been wise to do this.

But it is right here that great care must be exercised by all of us who have taken ordination vows, lest we abuse this privilege of conscientious dissent.

Let us take, as an example, the teaching of the Westminster Standards concerning the Sabbath day. Can a man serve as an office-bearer in the OPC if he is not persuaded that the Bible itself teaches such a strict view of the present-day application of the fourth commandment as we find in these Standards? The answer is that he can, and this is not just my personal opinion. It is a well known fact. Sessions and Presbyteries of the OPC have ordained and installed men who have honestly expressed reservations concerning the Westminster formulation concerning the Sabbath. And the purpose of this article is not to take issue with this concession. But I do take issue with a further step that some have taken. I refer, here, to the public preaching, teaching or writing—and personal practice—by office-bearers of the church which contradicts our official Standards. It is my conviction that this is, in effect if not in intention, to undermine the confessional integrity of our denomination.

Personal Integrity Is Essential

To some this may sound like a severe restriction. But it is my conviction that it is only as each of us is willing to bear the burden of self-imposed respect for our creedal documents that we can remain a Confessional Church. What I am saying, in other words, is that it is my conviction that in all of my official teaching and personal practice I ought to sincerely seek to be in harmony with the Westminster Standards. In this way I contribute to the unity and peace of the church.

And let me add that there is no reason to consider this an intolerable burden. Not at all, because there is an avenue open to me to effect change in the official standards of the church if this self-imposed restriction becomes a burden too great to bear. It is not easy, of course, to come to Session, Presbytery or General Assembly with Scriptural arguments weighty enough to persuade others that I am right and that the Westminster Standards are wrong. This requires a great deal of hard work. And it is obviously much easier—and therein lies the temptation—to just ignore the official Standards of the church by unilateral teaching and practice. But the difficult way is the right way. Indeed, it is my conviction that it is the only way that is consonant with the terms of our subscription.[2] Just imagine what the OPC would soon be like if every man only did that which seemed right in his own eyes! Yet that is, in effect, what begins to happen when we choose to ignore—or even contradict—the official creeds of our church in our public preaching, teaching or actions.

In all of this we are reminded, again, that there is nothing will keep the OPC from falling if we who are office bearers lack personal integrity. Even the greatest creed ever written will not guarantee the continued faithfulness of a church. Isn’t this one of the patent lessons of the twentieth century? Great Reformed churches have gone down to spiritual destruction in spite of the fact that they have had elaborate creeds and strict membership and ordination vows.

The OPC has been wise, in my opinion, in not seeking to preserve its orthodoxy by an overly strict form of subscription. But there is no room for complacency. “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12). And “if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load” (Gal. 6:3-5).


[1] I highly esteem the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But I wish the authors had never characterized the Word of God as “contained in” the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments! The Westminster Assembly did not anticipate the way in which that term could—not because of the rise of the neo-orthodox error—become so ambiguous. I do not disagree with what the authors of this catechism meant, but I regret the way they said it.

[2] The sixth ordination vow for ministers of the OPC reads as follows: “Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel, and the purity, the peace and the unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account.”

G. I. Williamson is editor of Ordained Servant.