It's probably accurate to say that 'confessionalism' in church is no longer popular. In certain contexts, it might be thought that the unity of the local Church is better served if we don’t ask her to subscribe to a set of agreed doctrinal positions. We might identify several reasons for this. Some of those who attend non-denominational Churches used to belong to institutions such as the Church of England (especially those belonging to the older demographics). These denominations do have their doctrinal standards (e.g. the 39 Articles) but today they are largely eschewed in favour of a more forgiving spirit of ‘unity in diversity’. Meanwhile, the younger demographic are either apathetic towards such doctrinal standards (perhaps because they have never had a confessional attitude modelled to them), or they’re positively ambivalent towards such standards. This ambivalence might be partly explained by the theological emphases of the emerging church movement. This movement, though waning in its influence, is not exactly keen of doctrinal specificity. (Peter Rollins’ IKON Church, for example, a famous emerging congregation, has hosted a poem on its website in which it’s said that “D-O-C-T-R-I-N-E is s-u-f-f-o-c-a-t-i-n-g me”, followed by: “Wearing our creeds, Wearing our beliefs, Wearing them tightly, ‘Til We are barely breathing”.)
Being a confessional Church isn’t always popular in today’s world. That much is certainly clear. But I suggest that, despite all this, choosing to adopt a confession of faith is still the most Scripturally, historically and practically consistent decision to make.
 Scripture: True Unity Loves The Truth
First, the primary / secondary distinction is not found in the Bible - it’s ‘a-Biblical’. This doesn’t mean it’s un-Biblical, i.e. opposed to the Word. The distinction is indeed helpful insofar as it seeks to describe what the Bible says one must believe in order to be saved. However, the fact that it’s a-biblical means that the distinction is a theological construct, one that we bring to the Scriptures. The distinction therefore constitutes a ‘lens’ through which a local Church agrees to perceive Biblical truths. This is the problem: that’s essentially the same as a confession of faith! Instead of it being a better alternative to the confessional approach, the primary / secondary distinction is in fact forced to borrow from it in order for it to make sense. The danger is that many are not even aware of this, and so a Church’s understanding (or: ‘confession’) of what constitutes primary doctrine, and why, usually goes unstated and therefore unchecked.
Second, the Scriptural list of primary matters, i.e. what one must believe in order to be saved, is surprisingly small: we must believe ‘in’ Jesus (e.g. Acts 16:31) and we must believe that God raised Him from the dead (Rom 10:9). It’s wonderful that God’s grace is so simple, but we probably wouldn’t say that God only requires us to believe 2 / 3 things. Rather, we’d expect the people of God to confess His sovereignty, the authority of the scriptures, the physicality of the Resurrection, the deity of Christ, etc. In practice, therefore, we cannot simply leave the Church to gather around a handful of so-called ‘primary doctrines’, lest many other foundational truths go ignored.
The primary / secondary distinction does not work as a blueprint for Church unity. How, then, does the Bible describe the unity of the Church? Writing to the bitterly divided Church at Corinth, Paul succinctly paints a picture of true concord: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement” (1 Cor 1:10)
Instead of division there must be unity. How will this be achieved? By ‘all agreeing’; by being ‘united in the same mind’; by being united in ‘the same judgement’. Paul isn’t talking about bland uniformity (he will proceed to talk about valid differences with respect to marriage in Ch. 7 and food in Ch. 8, for example) - but his meaning is still clear. The Church is to avoid divisions and reach true unity not by gathering around its spiritual practices or by permitting a vast number of ‘secondary’ opinions, but by being one in our thinking and discernment, by the whole Church being in this kind of agreement. Note that this is how the Church is described again and again. Paul elsewhere asks that the Corinthian Church “put things in order” and “live in peace” by ‘agreeing with one another’ (2 Cor 13:11), and he asks the Philippians to live a life worthy of the Gospel by “striving side by side with one mind” (Phil 1:27). This is why Paul says to Timothy that he should fight the good fight of the faith in accordance with his “good confession” (1 Tim 6:12).
How might this kind of agreement be achieved? Realistically, by a local Church coming to an explicit and universal understanding of what it is that it believes. This understanding might be oral in form (e.g. a spoken creed or a didactic hymn) or it might be written (e.g. a Confession or a catechism); this would depend on the culture in question. But the principle is clear: Church unity is achieved through agreement. Today, in the western Church, this would probably be best achieved through a written and published ‘statement of belief’, ‘confession of faith’, ‘doctrinal basis’, etc. Indeed, as we’ve seen, this kind of approach is not opposed to Church unity; far from it. Nor is the love between brothers & sisters diminished if it’s secured by confessional subscription (after all Paul remarks that love “delights in the truth” [1 Cor 13:6]). Scripture is clear that the unity of the Church is established on the basis of doctrinal agreement. Anything less often serves to invite division, rather than dispel it.
 History: God's People Stand On The Truth
In the centuries that followed, the broader Church continued this habit. The confessions of the Reformation, for example, are numerous: the Formula of Concord, the Augsberg Confession, the Smalcard Articles of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Scots Confession of 1560, the First & Second Helvetic Confessions, the 39 Articles of the Church of England, the 1615 Irish Articles of Religion, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, etc.
It’s been concluded that between 1523 and 1675 no fewer than 25 major confessions appeared amongst the Reformed Churches alone, and this excludes Lutheran confessions and smaller, minor examples. What’s more, this Scriptural instinct to be in confessional agreement hasn’t dissipated in more recent times. The 20th Century alone saw the production of over 30 confessions. In the 21st Century, we’ve seen the Evangelical Alliance release their ‘Basis of Faith’, as well as the publication of UCCF’s Doctrinal Basis. Internationally renown Churches, such as Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis (which John Piper used to pastor), have detailed statements of belief. (In the case of Bethlehem, there is one statement which the congregation are asked to sign [around 900 words in length], and a much larger statement for elders [around 30k words in length].)
The decision to stay clear of confessions of faith is indeed a recent one. For the vast majority of the history of the Church, God’s people have sought to put to print their doctrinal agreement.
 Practical Wisdom: Truth Bears Fruit
It is my suggestion that this perception, though understandable, is false. There’s a reason why the Scriptures encourage mutual doctrinal agreement, and there’s a reason why the historic Church has so frequently followed suit - confessions of faith are immensely useful. Permit me a brief description of 16 examples.
Useful in general:
 A confession of faith helps guarantee a fidelity to the Scriptures in terms of securing orthodox understanding, amongst both the leadership and congregation.
 Having a confession of faith helps the Church to conform to the Scriptural mandate to be in doctrinal agreement, to be of one mind and one judgement. (Remembering our previous discussion.)
 To be a confessional Church establishes that we are inheritors of both history & tradition. It unites a congregation with the long tradition of Church history, and it is thereby encouraged to hear the great cloud of heavenly witnesses, cheering us on. (Heb 12:1.)
 In a congregation that embraces the gifts of the Holy Spirit, a confession allows for there to be explicit agreement as to the affirmation of Charismatic expression, at the same time establishing the agreed biblical criteria by which it is to be weighed and judged.
Useful for the congregation:
 A Church that has a confession of faith prevents any ‘nasty surprises’ and/or frustration for newcomers; ‘they know where you stand’ doctrinally. Those new to the Church can become members on an informed basis. They will not be shocked or offended if they discover doctrines that they disagree with are taught and assumed by the Church.
 Having a confession of faith protects the integrity of those participating in Baptism or Eucharist (as well as the sanctity of both sacraments). Since it’s guaranteed that candidates are making a sound decision, at least with respect to their doctrinal understanding, there can be a greater confidence that all is in order and God is being honoured.
 In a Church that hosts a confession of faith, objective criteria are provided by which disagreement between brethren might proceed healthily. If the controversy concerns an agreed article of faith then the objection can be dismissed in the absence of good biblical reasoning. If such reasoning is forthcoming, however, then said article might be revised (for the right reasons).
 The congregation are served in their intellectual discipleship (in the ‘renewing of their minds’ and in their ‘taking every thought captive’ etc) - they’re given a clear, biblically supported understanding of the key points of Christian doctrine, they’re helped to understand what is necessary for salvation and they’re given a public example of what it means to take doctrine seriously.
 A confession of faith serves the processes of Church discipline (as well as excommunication if necessary) for heresy or immoral behaviour.
Useful for preachers:
 If a congregation is in agreement as to what is constitutes doctrinal truth, then the preacher is free to speak as a herald of the Gospel, as if God Himself were speaking from the pulpit (1 Pet 4:11). There is no need to worry about the need for balance or about possible disagreement, for the congregation know what to expect from a preacher, doctrinally speaking. The Word of God is, in this scenario, able to be proclaimed prophetically without reservation or qualification.
 In the same scenario, preachers are required to preach what they have confessed as true. Doctrinal agreement encourages us to treat the preacher as one whose teaching is to be tested and weighed by God (James 3:1), in accordance with our confession of what the Bible teaches.
Useful for those in leadership, specifically elders:
 An established confession of faith helps to guarantee that ministers are to function as ‘one approved’, rightly handing the Word of truth (2 Tim 3:15).
 A confession of faith (especially an expanded version for those in leadership) requires elders to have a sound knowledge of good doctrine, so as to correct those with false doctrine (Titus 1:9).
Useful for our relationship with the world:
 A shared confession has a prophetic dimension, confessing to the city, to society as well as to the powers + principalities that God alone is King and that God has spoken.
 A shared confession displays the Church’s unity to the world: first, the unity of the universal Church, in that the congregation affirms the creeds; and second, the unity of the local Church, in that the congregations affirms a shared statement of belief.
 A shared confession guarantees that, because our knowledge of the faith is united + orthodox, our evangelistic proclamation of the faith will be also. It helps us to become more biblical and consistent evangelists.
It could be said that my purpose here has been to decorate Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. Church unity is not just desirable, it’s also necessary, lest we stand in the way of Christ. But as we’ve seen, the Bible’s understanding of unity cannot be reduced to an unspoken set of ‘primaries’ and a wider array of ‘secondaries’. Rather, the Scriptures would have us establish true unity on the basis of speaking the truth in love (cf. Eph 4), through universal agreement, by being of one mind and one judgement.
It’s my suggestion - and it’s also the example of the Scriptures as well as the Church in history - that this is best served by establishing a confession of faith. Not a rigid confession that can never be amended, nor a statement of belief lacking in love and heartfelt belief. But a confession of faith - made by a congregation (or denomination) at a particular point in history, in reverence for what God has done in their midst, proclaimed to a watching and waiting world.
 PostScript: Some Practical Thoughts
- First, a system of Church membership is introduced.
- Second, membership is then encouraged.
- Third, members are required to sign a congregational confession of faith.
- Fourth, elders (and preferably preachers as well) are required to sign a more detailed confession.