Confession and Culture in the EPC

Every time I make some variation of the case that the EPC should lean into its Westminsterian, Reformed heritage, I am asked whether in doing so the EPC would lose its ethos. This reaction emerged to my “What the EPC Can Learn from the PCA” post. Usually the PCA’s more rigorous (rigid?) confessionalism is inferred to be part of a contentious dynamic, and that embracing a more confessional posture on the EPC’s part would sacrifice our ethos. In these cases, higher doctrinal standards, greater confessional rigor, and intentionally cultivating a Reformed identity are all assumed to be at odds with the culture of the EPC.

One of the biggest challenges facing the EPC is imagination. We struggle to imagine what a confessionally-grounded approach to ministry and polity would look like. When it comes to the PCA vs. EPC, we struggle to imagine how we could be confessionally rigorous without losing our relaxed ethos. This is a common sentiment, and it’s actually quite revealing — confessionalism is confessing what God teaches in scripture. The Westminster Confessions and Catechisms may get that wrong, but as a church the EPC confesses that we sincerely believe that they get the teachings and system of scripture right. The fear of some is that if we become more confessional then we will lose our ethos. If we have to choose between being faithful to our confession of faith and our “ethos” we should choose faithfulness every time.

But I think that’s a false dilemma: the EPC’s ethos is really about being relaxed and trusting each other, and that can be easily preserved within a confessional system. Imagine (there’s that word!) if church health and revitalization prioritized the law/gospel distinction in preaching, Sabbath observance, congregational prayer, etc. The ethos of the EPC would remain intact, but our confessional framework would be foregrounded.

What about liberty in non-essentials? This motto is deeply woven into the EPC’s fabric and is here to stay. But the “non-essentials” are not the doctrines absent from “The Essentials of our Faith”; the “non-essentials” are those doctrines whose presence or absence does not undermine the system of doctrine found in the scriptures, which we vow is contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (for more on this, see Don Fortson’s history of the EPC, Liberty in Non-Essentials, and the historical section in my post on the subject here). This doesn’t touch the issue of confessional exceptions, but what it means is that the EPC can preserve its culture of relaxed charity while growing in our confessional rigor.

And why wouldn’t we want to? If we truly believe that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms contain the system of doctrine found in the scriptures, why in the world would we want to downplay that in favor of a biblical and ecclesiological minimalism? Of course we should want our pastors, elders, preaching, ministries, discipleship, worship, missional work, and polity to have confessional Reformed theology as our mother tongue. The Westminster Standards are not the end-all and be-all of theology and biblical ministry, but they should be our starting point and frame of reference by which we measure pastoral competency and missional faithfulness.