There are many good reasons why a New Testament Church ought to have a Confession of Faith, a Covenant, and a Constitution. Together, these documents can greatly assist us in the efforts of biblically organizing and stewarding the ministries which have been entrusted to us by our Head, Jesus Christ. However, it must be admitted that these documents, despite their usefulness and precision, will accomplish nothing apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in a Church. Therefore, it should not be assumed that merely inserting these documents into a church will bring life out of deadness or order amidst chaos. These documents are not our savior, they must never be thought of as equal with Scripture, but a good confession, church covenant, and constitution can go a long way in promoting the health of the church.
CONFESSION OF FAITH
The Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, but a confession of faith is a summary of the doctrinal beliefs of the church and therefore becomes a valuable tool to protect and encourage sound doctrine within the church. While a confession of faith is not inspired by God or inerrant, it is a valuable resource that serves the good of the church. It helps visitors who want to know what the church believes, it serves members as it summarizes the doctrines that bind them together and it serves the elders as it provides wisdom in navigating pastoral oversight.
If a confession of faith is a summary of right doctrine, the church covenant summarizes right living. The covenant aids church leaders and members by describing what a Christian life looks like. It is for this reason that a good covenant summarizes many of the “one anothers” of Scripture. This means that a proper use of a church covenant will encourage members to take responsibility for each other’s growth in godliness. Now of course, the pursuit of a godly life does not save, but a changed life is evidence of conversion, and keeping a church covenant on the front burner of church life is a crucial way to keep sanctification front and center as well.
A constitution serves to define the practical questions of how a church will function as it carries out its duties and privileges. A good constitution should answer very foundational questions: who is qualified to be an elder or deacon? What do elders and deacons do? How are these leaders elected? Who can be a member? How should church discipline be carried out? Can an elder be dismissed? While these questions may seem dull or unspiritual to some, vagueness and ambiguity are of no value to a church trying to resolve conflict or navigate a leadership transition. Therefore, a church constitution will aid the body by clearly defining expectations, roles, and practice within the church.
I recognize not everyone is going to think documents like these are of great importance, especially when we look around the world (and hopefully across our fence) and see a great many needs for evangelism and discipleship. And rightly so, any church that is more concerned about a church confession than actual people needs to take a good look in the mirror.1
However, just because something is of less importance, it does not mean it is unimportant. Think of a vineyard. Undoubtedly, a crucial element of any vineyard is the vines themselves. However, every good vineyard also has a trellis. That trellis keeps the vines up off the ground protects the grapes from unnecessary harm or disease. Now, I don’t know of any wine tour that intentionally goes around and talks up how good a particular trellis is, but I guarantee that every good vineyard owes the quality of its fruit in part to a substantial trellis. You get the point – church documents are not the end of the matter but play a critical role in the life of a church.
- Admittedly, this is a bit of a false dichotomy. We can lovingly care for our neighbor by pursuing a healthy church that is organized around a biblical confession. ↩︎