Confessionalism is loyalty to a formal, written creed or doctrinal statement. This does not necessarily imply that one must approve the contents of a creed to be saved. However, it does require the details of a statement must be “affirmed” by someone who wants to identify as a member of a particular denomination. Those who disagree are not necessarily condemned in a confessionalism approach, but disagreement places a person outside that group. Trends toward confessionalism often arise in response to controversies or cultural changes.
The most direct contrast to confessionalism is conversionism. Whereas confessional churches emphasize agreement with an objective set of doctrinal statements, churches defined as conversional—or conversionist—prioritize personal experience. Confessionalism insists on agreement with a formal set of beliefs; conversionism insists that one’s relationship with God is not defined by external statements. Conversionist churches effectively allow the individual, not others, to define whether he or she is holding to the correct set of beliefs.
As with many such issues, both confessional and conversional are idealized terms. Almost every church, congregation, or person holds a position along a spectrum between the two ideas. Maintaining an absolute view of either would be almost impossible. “Perfect” confessionalism would allow no disagreement from the listed doctrines, yet even very conservative churches accept at least subtle variations in how to interpret the creed. “Perfect” conversionism would require no agreement with any doctrine, yet even very liberal churches expect agreement on a certain set of basic premises.
In modern times, the difference between confessionalism and conversionism is not so pronounced or important as it might have been in the past. Opposition to issues such as theological liberalism often references creeds and statements of faith, but this is rooted in a deeper disagreement than the basic outlines of “confessional” versus “conversional.” Common creeds used to summarize faith are historic texts such as the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed. Other, more recent traditional sources are documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
A church that requires teachers and leaders to affirm something beyond basic Christian doctrinal views could be considered “confessional.” In contrast, congregations that allow disagreement on all but the most generic Christian beliefs could be considered “conversional.” Groups that ignore important Christian doctrines—or actively oppose them—are not meaningfully “Christian” at all.