This past Wednesday, Aimee Byrd tweeted out a link to a new guest post on Scot McKnight’s blog. She announced that the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals had cut their ties to her in response to her new book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and that she would return to writing on her personal blog.
The very next day, a website emerged containing a massive dump of screenshots from the Genevan Commons, a notorious private Facebook group long known for it’s toxic and unChristlike atmosphere. The screenshots, many of which focusing on women in general and Byrd specifically, were far worse than most people suspected, both in the depravity of the content and the identity of some of their authors, many of whom are officers within Byrd’s own denomination, the OPC.
Tellingly, in both instances, the opposition and action against Byrd was not because she was in violation of her confessional standards. Byrd has maintained and demonstrated that her teachings and writing are in alignment with the Westminster Standards, and neither the Alliance nor the members of this depraved Facebook group1 could demonstrate which section of the Confessions or Catechisms Byrd had contradicted. And yet, these two groups – one of which is literally called The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals – deemed her out of bounds of orthodoxy and a threat to the church, one that must be de-platformed in public and eviscerated in private.
I love confessionalism. It is the perfect blend of Scriptural faithfulness and pragmatic utility, and a natural development and evolution of the idea of “credal Christianity”. It serves the church and our neighbor by clearly summarizing our beliefs according to a public standard that pastors and elders agree to teach and promote. It is an anchor against the winds and waves of every doctrine that comes and goes, and clarifies what issues are primary and which ones are secondary.
I also believe the biggest enemy of confessionalism are the cultures and individuals who champion the idea, and these two recent examples are not outliers in a larger trend.
Confessionalism exists to outline the boundaries for orthodox belief and practice, which in turn outlines the boundaries for secondary issues and matters of acceptable disagreement. The Westminster Standards do not define whether a Presbyterian must believe in Young Earth Creationism (or another particular model), whether one must practice Presuppositionalism or some other method of apologetics, or even how one ought to vote in elections. These topics (among others) are important, but they do not constitute the “core” of Christian doctrine and are issues where Christians are at liberty to disagree with one another without breaking communion with each other.
Significantly, in addition to the handful of examples given above, the Westminster Standards do not list complementarianism (at least as understood by it’s largest proponents) as a required belief and practice for orthodoxy, and yet in cultures shaped and defined by commitments to the Westminster Standards (or the LBCF or 3FOU), belief in complementarianism is considered as essential to orthodoxy as justification by faith alone and the Hypostatic Union, and those who oppose it are treated as those who oppose legitimate, actual teachings of the Westminster Standards.
Don’t believe me? Ask Aimee Byrd how her week as been.
Confessionalism is good and beautiful, but it does not exist in a vacuum. It is a belief and practice promoted by individuals and communities, and the character and conduct of those individuals and communities will either commend or condemn the idea of confessionalism to the church universal. No external critique or polemic could do more to undermine the idea of confessionalism than the godlessness of individuals like those the Genevan Commons FB group or the inconsistent hypocrisy of the actions taken by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The toxicity of misogynistic and patriarchal cultures will only succeed in winning stragglers, and being de-platformed and silenced in the name of orthodoxy for issues not defined by your agreed-upon confession renders the whole idea of holding to a shared confession moot.
These two instances are not the only two that could be mentioned here, nor is this exclusively an OPC problem (indeed, 1689 LBCF Twitter has a notorious reputation for similar reasons). I also do not think this is a problem unique to the Internet, although the Internet certainly accelerates and exacerbated the problem. This critique is not even all that new; it has been made by many within and without Reformed contexts for some time. Confessional culture, in the name of championing Reformed theology, is often times anti-Reformed, both in it’s tendency to shelter wolves who check all the right doctrinal boxes while constantly shifting the goalpost for what those right doctrinal boxes are – despite the fact those boxes were already given to us.
Reformed denominations must work to correct these problems in our churches. Thankfully, the OPC has already begun to speak out against this, but more action must be taken if long-term change is seen. Importantly, the solution here is not to stifle or silence disagreement, even vocal disagreement, as these are good and necessary outcomes of proper confessionalism. What is necessary is Reformed theology’s own prescription of the perpetual need of reformation, including repentance for violating one’s vows to protect the peace and purity of the church by compromising the confessional documents meant to secure that peace and purity.
1: I do want to make clear that my remarks here are specifically tailored to those who participated in these demonic exchanges. As there are with most Facebook groups, there are many people in the group who have muted the group but never “left”, or were added and don’t remember joining, and do not deserve to have the sins of others imputed to them. There is a hierarchy of responsibility and guilt here.