Baptist history includes more confessions of faith than we have the patience to enumerate or read in a simple blog post. Baptist history also includes a number of people, churches, and groups of churches who opposed the creation or use of confessions of faith. Virginia lawyer and religious liberty activist John Leland was perhaps the most eloquent when he asked about confessions of faith “Why this Virgin Mary between the souls of men and the scriptures?” Through the present day, the anti-confessional strain of Baptist thought persists, and those who hold it can be passionate in their defense of it.
And the questions from the anti-confessionalists are good questions—they deserve answers. Why should Baptists have and use confessions of faith? I offer a polite response to Brother Leland:
Because it is more fair and unifying to have a written, stable confession of faith than to have an unwritten, secret, volatile one.
Let’s face it: Every church has a confession of faith. Become a leader of a Unitarian-Universalist “church” and start loudly opining that everyone in the congregation is going to Hell unless he or she repents and accepts Jesus as Savior and Lord. Share with me afterwards how that went for you. How long would the CBF permit Westboro Baptist Church to persist in affiliation with them before they started figuring out how to disfellowship them?
You can get booted out. I don’t care what denomination of churches it is…I don’t care how creedal or confessional or anti-creedal and anti-confessional they are…I don’t care how libertarian or latitudinarian the group claims to be…I don’t care how much they prize tolerance and how loathe they are to show anyone the door: I’ll bet you I could get any church or group of churches to kick me out within five years of my deliberate trying.
Gosh…for all I know the SBC is close to doing so, and I haven’t even really tried that hard.
Every group has a set of doctrines that they hold sacred. Every group draws theological boundaries. With confessional churches, you get the great benefit of knowing what those boundaries are. They are out in the open. They have been set down in writing. There is consensus over them among the group. The process for changing them is formal and transparent, and change of those boundaries comes with due notice and due process.
With anti-confessional churches, the theological boundaries are unwritten. You only learn what they are when you violate them. What would John Leland have done with a Baptist church that, for example, decided to embrace episcopal church governance? I can promise you, a man who would author a book subtitled, “The High-Flying Churchman, Stripped of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo,” would boot straight out of a Baptist association any church that adopted episcopacy. Why? Because the church would have violated Leland’s unwritten confessional boundary.
What’s more, when you have an unwritten doctrinal standard it can change without notice. I’m willing to hazard a guess that being a radical abolitionist Baptist church in 1846 would have jeopardized your membership in the SBC. In 2014, every SBC church is what would have been considered a radical abolitionist church back then, and being a racist church will put you in grave danger of being booted out. That’s a good change, but when did it happen? I don’t know. Certainly not in 1963, when we amended the Baptist Faith & Message to include a strong statement on racial equality. The change has taken place after that time, and it took place below the surface. What other changes are underway just beneath the surface?
The question that we face is simply this: Which system is more fair? Do you prefer above-ground fences or buried landmines?
The Southern Baptist Convention at present is in a strange situation: We have BOTH a written confession AND an unwritten one deployed in a way designed to bring out the worst of both systems. All of the dangers posed to Christian liberty by a confession of faith are present in the SBC. You can’t gain employment by any SBC entity without affirming the BF&M. Your odds of election to SBC office or assignment to an SBC board or committee diminish precipitously the more you disagree with our confession of faith. And yet, since the BF&M is not at present the official confessional standard for affiliation within the SBC, the written confession is not the doctrinal standard by which the convention determines whether your church is welcome to continue in friendly cooperation with the convention. What is that doctrinal standard? Who knows. It’s whatever any given year’s group of messengers decides it to be. Your church’s affiliation with the SBC presently is conditioned upon your continuing agreement with the unwritten, informal confession of faith—the mysterious one that is ever-changing without due process or due notice.
Personally, I believe that your church’s autonomy and liberty are protected better when the doctrinal standard of the convention is subject to your scrutiny, has been approved by your vote, cannot be changed without debate to which you are invited, and is set out as a set of universals by which everyone has to live rather than being adjudicated case-by-case according to the prejudices that may favor or disfavor individual churches because of their size, gifts, or influence.