Even though this article is written by a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, it does a very good at explaining why we have confessions in Presbyterian churches (the Westminster Confession of Faith).
The Purpose of the Confession
While we believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the very Word of God, inerrant and infallibly inspired by God throughout, we rely on the Confession to provide for us a summary of the system of doctrine taught in the Bible. We need to summarize the system of doctrine in the Bible for a couple of reasons:
1. We need to be able to answer certain questions like, “What does the Bible teach about Christ? God’s providence? the church? marriage? civil government? the fall? the nature of man? salvation?” More than just a simplified “Statement of Faith,” the Confession endeavors to summarize the Bible’s teaching in the core areas the church needs to heed generation after generation.
2. We don’t need to re-hash every doctrinal debate in every new generation. Without an established Confession, we would be subject to a re-consideration and re-deliberation on any and every topic of theology in every generation.
3. We need a document that provides the basis for teaching our system of doctrine in our churches. While our teaching must always be Biblical and we should endeavor to teach the whole counsel of God, we need a document that we can all use that summarizes our beliefs and can be taught to classes and discussed in small groups.
4. We need a document to use to evaluate ministers and officers in the church. Among those who would subscribe to the inerrancy of Scripture, we have significant disagreements on free will vs. God’s sovereignty, who should be baptized, who is qualified for church office, how we are made right before God, how the fall has affected our human nature, etc. The Confession allows us to examine and evaluate candidates for church office and the ministry against a set of established beliefs.
One of the purposes of confessions is to maintain unity within a denominational body. Sometimes the idea is that “doctrine divides.” But as the author explains:
I have some Roman Catholic friends who criticize Protestants because we have so many different denominations. I look at the 12 denominations in the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) and I wonder why we aren’t more united, if we all subscribe to the same Confession. Yet in truth the 12 denominations of NAPARC are more unified than the Roman Catholic Church. While they may have more organizational unity, the Roman Catholic Church has as much theological division in its ranks as does all of Protestantism. Within the RC Church, liberals and conservatives, evolutionists and creationists, Republicans and Democrats, traditionalists and the avant garde all co-exist in a not-so-happy and not-very-unified church.
What about disagreements in doctrine, particular when it comes to ministers. This is a good explanation, and addresses a concern that I often have, and that is often not handled well by ordaining bodies (imo):
If, after reading and studying, disagreements arise, a candidate should register his disagreements and they should be evaluated by the ordaining body. If they are fundamentally out of accord with the system of doctrine contained in the Confession because they are “hostile to the system” or they “strike at the vitals” of our faith, then the candidate should be disallowed for office. … If the disagreement is considered minor and not fundamental and vital in nature, the man may privately hold his view, but he must agree not to teach it publicly. This is the rub! The problems we have in the PCA, and which the OPC has also had, almost all arise from men who have been ordained to office and who mistook an “allowable exception” as permission to teach their exceptional view.
The article is a good read and helps bring out the importance of confessionalism in Reformed bodies.