The Confessing Theologians Commission, a group of prominent theologians from all of the mainline Protestant denominations in North America, met in Dallas, Texas, September 20-22. The commission gathered at the invitation of Dr. Thomas Oden of Drew University School of Theology, who called the group together under the auspices of the Association for Church Renewal (ACR). The ACR is an association representing the leadership of numerous confession and renewing movements that have come into existence in most all of the mainline Protestant denominations in North America.
"This team represents what we think are the best qualified theologians at work in the mainline Protestant renewal movements," reports Oden.
The following document, "Be Steadfast: A Letter to Confessing Christians," was developed by the Confessing Theologians for the Confessing the Faith Conference. It is their response to three urgent questions put to them by the Association for Church Renewal.
"God's solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: 'The Lord knows those who are his; and, 'Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.'" 2 Timothy 2:19
Sisters and brothers in the Lord:
God alone renews and continues to bless his people. God has not abandoned his church, and calls us to keep faith with him and those dear to him. We are called to be obedient to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
In thanksgiving for God's promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we seek to humble ourselves before him, pray, seek his face, and turn from sin, that he may hear, forgive and heal. We all stand under divine judgment; we all are in need of divine grace.
We give thanks also for this, the first North American gathering of renewing and confessing movements. Your conveners have asked confessing theologians to address three urgent questions facing all mainline renewal movements.
1. Why should we remain in our churches?
The challenges facing our churches today are indeed immense. We have all seen declines in biblical and theological literacy, catechesis and spiritual formation. Our churches have experienced severe declines in numbers of congregations and in absolute numbers of members. We have also seen our churches rent by contentious argument, exhausted by never-ending conflict. Many grow weary, and wonder if they and their congregations should stay.
Our own experience speaks to this question, too. We have all passed through long seasons of anguish and travail, and we anticipate more. We are still here. The Holy Spirit has not abandoned our churches, neither will we.
Resignation, quietism and despair do not serve the church catholic and the communion of saints. We urge our brothers and sisters not to withdraw, but mutually to encourage one another to a struggle in which there is good hope. Our Lord reminds us, "God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit" (John 15:2). We pray God will give us courage, perseverance and mettle for the task.
Much work has been begun by the various renewal movements among our churches. We note with thanksgiving the revival of Bible study, renewed interest in evangelization, fresh seasons of prayer, and renewed concern with the plight of the poor. We have committed ourselves to the ongoing life of the churches in which God has placed us, and we pledge our best efforts as theologians of the church to those who are engaged in this divine work of reform and renewal.
It is a beginning, and must continue, commending ourselves and our denominational leadership to God with fear and trembling.
But ultimately the reason we cannot and must not leave our denominations is that the Gospel can still be freely proclaimed in them and the sacraments administered without hindrance. However true it may be that "other gospels" are also heard in our midst, none of our churches have legislated against the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In such a situation, it is unnecessary for congregations to turn their backs on their churches.
2. Why do our churches need faithful confessors?
Churches need faithful confessors for one essential reason: a church that is unable to confess its faith is a lame and withered church. The church needs faithful witnesses in order to be the church of Jesus Christ.
We believe that God's call to be faithful witnesses within the churches requires not only truthful confession, but also a long-term effort to reform our institutions. Our deliberative, legislative, administrative and educational structures in many instances do not faithfully serve the church's mission and pastoral obligations. The work and witness of faithful confessors helps to reclaim and redirect these institutions toward their proper ends. We, therefore, believe that confessing movements are necessary if the institutional forms of our churches are to be tied to God's purposes for his church.
We note with joy how renewal movements in many churches have led to the discovery of a common bond in the faith of the church catholic and mutual encouragement in the Gospel. Across the renewal movements, we rejoice in the recovery of sound doctrine, for example the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the unique, saving significance of Christ's person and work... God has enabled many to recover their intellectual nerve.
God has also blessed our churches in other ways through the work of the renewal movements. In some quarters, we see fresh vitality in worship and in preaching. In other quarters, we witness new ventures in mission, the renewal of personal piety, and an increase in enthusiastic discipleship. In still other places we see increased reading of Holy Scripture, deepened petitionary prayer, and a more profound embrace of God's concern for the poor.
God has given us a spirit of repentance and shed abroad his love afresh in our hearts. We expect further blessings in the years ahead, and we anticipate that God will continue to use renewal movements for the sustaining and furtherance of such blessings.
3. Why does our society need faithful Christian confessors?
Faithful Christian witness humanizes society and heals the nations. St. Paul teaches, echoing Isaiah, "The root of Jesse shall come, one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope" (Rom. 15:12). Confessing Christ requires the discipline of life, personal and corporate, private and public.
In the absence of faithful Christian witness, society establishes false idols. The twentieth century is littered with the victims of secular ideology. Nazi and Marxist ideologies produced Auschwitz and the Gulag. The North American threat comes from a more benign form of atheism that banishes Christian witness from the public square. Consumerism, materialism, individualism and hedonism rush in to fill the void. Dogmatic atheism brutalizes and destroys the church. The more benign and civil atheism seduces and marginalizes the church. Disoriented by the ideology of moral relativism, some church leaders haphazardly champion fashionable causes. In each case, the savor of the church and the light of Christ are lost.
In the mercy and power of God, a renewed church will reform public life. Christian witness reminds government of its accountability to God and empowers the faithful to fulfill their duties as citizens. In teaching us to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, the Christian Church supports space for political disagreement and debate. It endorses finite patriotism--loyalty without idolatry, criticism without cynicism. The Gospel champions the sanctity of human life, urging us to protect the weak, the vulnerable and the innocent. A robust faith teaches us that the fruits of our labor are a gift from God, to be used for the common good. Spiritual renewal engenders a right ordering of sexuality and family life. A confident orthodoxy fosters care for creation for its own sake and for the sake of human flourishing. Most importantly, even in times of great social crisis, the Lordship of Christ inspires a hope that will not despair.
In our zeal for justice, we must not confuse specific policy proposals for prophetic proclamation, nor collapse the church into a chaplaincy for our favorite political party. Living in a powerful country, we must not exaggerate our ability to influence events for either good or ill. A renewed witness calls for appropriate humility, repentance, and self-criticism.
These are our prayerful and considered responses to the questions that have been posed to us.
Be steadfast in faith and humility
We thank God for the hunger that he has placed in the hearts of people for reform and renewal, for clarity concerning the things of faith, for godly instruction and holiness in life. We rejoice in our work together for the faithfulness of Christ's church.
We know that along with God's great blessings in the work of the renewal movements come temptations to timidity, faithlessness, and presumption. Our work for renewal involves repentance and amendment of life as well as witness. The empowerment for our ministry comes from abiding in Christ the true vine, apart from whom we can do nothing.
Christ has told his disciples that persecutions will come, but as James reminds us we are to count it all joy when we meet various trials. In that joy, and confident of his great faithfulness, let us together proclaim the Gospel by which we have been saved.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.