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FIRST-PERSON: Baptist confessional accountability

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Sometimes the things we know to be true appear to be so simply because we don’t know enough. We have accepted without evaluation what we have been told.

This seems to be the case in much of the opposition to the requests by the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board of their respective missionaries to affirm the current edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. Two assertions that have had the widest circulation among opponents of the IMB/NAMB request include the claim that Baptists are not creedal and the related claim that Baptists have never used confessions of faith as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.”

Either the opponents are unaware of Baptist history or they willfully misrepresent our history. In either case, the historical record on this matter is clear and convincing: Baptists are creedal, and we have used confessions of faith as doctrinal measuring tools in employing our denominational servants.

A short word about terminology is in order. Our Baptist forebears did not share our modern-day hangup with the word “creed.” The word “creed” comes from the Latin word “credo” meaning “I believe.” In the past, “creeds,” “confessions of faith,” “articles of faith,” etc., were used interchangeably. This is demonstrated in the E.Y. Mullins essay, “Baptists and Creeds.” Like Mullins, I use the terms interchangeably.

Baptists are confessional

It’s remarkable to me that any Baptist would assert that he or she is not creedal. One of the central Baptist distinctives is our mode of baptism. Unlike many other denominations, we are credo-baptists, not paedo-baptists (those who practice infant baptism). We insist on what we call believer’s baptism, that is, the ordinance of baptism follows rather than precedes our profession of faith in Christ. We reject infant baptism because the biblical witness is clear that baptism is the public testimony of our new faith (belief) in Christ — something that infants are incapable of doing.

On one Lord’s Day this year, I attended two different Baptist churches in which the ordinance of baptism was administered (praise the Lord!). In both churches, the baptismal candidates were asked to briefly testify to their faith in Christ. The message of the candidates was essentially the same: “Jesus is Lord of my life.” That is a creed. In fact, it’s the most basic confession of the Christian life without which a person cannot be considered to be a true Christian.

Baptists also insist on a believers’ church — persons are accepted into membership of our churches only after a public confession of their faith in Christ. Salvation, we believe, is not inherited from our parents or imposed by the state or church. Unlike certain other denominations, the church is composed only of those who have experienced the new birth in Christ.

Thus, the mode of baptism and requirement for church membership demonstrate in the most basic way that Baptists are indeed confessional in our practice.

Furthermore, Baptists are instinctively confessional — we are compelled to say what we believe and to do so in statements of shared conviction about the elemental truths of Scripture. If you doubt that, pick up a copy of William Lumpkin’s “Baptist Confessions of Faith.” It includes no less than 42 confessions in more than 400 pages, with the earliest dating back to 1525.

Timothy George, a historical theologian and dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, notes in “Baptist Confessions, Covenants and Catechisms” (Broadman & Holman, 1996) that while Baptists have rightly “never elevated any man-made doctrinal construct above Holy Scripture” (what George calls “creedalism”), “the idea that voluntary, conscientious adherence to an explicit doctrinal standard is somehow foreign to the Baptist tradition is a peculiar notion not borne out by careful examination of our heritage.”

Confessions as ‘instruments of doctrinal accountability’

Most opponents of the IMB/NAMB actions will concede that Baptists have adopted many confessions of faith, but argue that those statements functioned merely as a public testimony and had no instructive use within the denomination.

The phrase, “instruments of doctrinal accountability,” comes from the preamble to the 2000 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message. It has evoked great consternation from certain (few, but loud) quarters. Opponents charge that using confessions of faith as a doctrinal measuring stick for denominational employees is an unprecedented development in Baptist life and one that undermines what it means to be Baptist. Wrong on both counts.

It’s remarkable to me that any Baptist would assert that it is inappropriate for those who serve the denomination to be expected to adhere to the beliefs that are common among us and that they should not have to demonstrate that belief by affirming the current confession of faith adopted by the SBC.

Writing around 1920, Mullins’ essay speaks directly to this matter: “The Baptist denomination is not a free lance club as some would like to make it. … Baptists have always insisted upon their own right to declare their beliefs in a definite, formal way, and to protect themselves by refusing to support men in important places as teachers and preachers who do not agree with them. This group right of self-protection is as sacred as any individual right.”

Doctrinal accountability of denominational employees runs throughout SBC history. When Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded in 1859 (just 14 years after the founding of the SBC) as the first Southern Baptist seminary, the school required faculty members to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” its Abstract of Principles, the seminary’s confession of faith. That remains true to this day.

James P. Boyce, the first president of Southern, said of this requirement: “You will infringe the rights of no man, and you will secure the rights of those who have established here an instrumentality for the production of sound ministry. It is no hardship to those who teach here to be called upon to sign the declaration of their principles, for there are fields of usefulness open elsewhere to every man, and none need accept your call who can not conscientiously sign your formulary.”

B.H. Carroll, the first president of Southwestern Seminary (1908-14) asserted the same principle: “The modern cry, ‘less creed and more liberty,’ is a degeneration from the vertebrate to the jelly fish, and means less unity and less morality, and it means more heresy. … It is a positive and very hurtful sin to magnify liberty at the expense of doctrine.”

Confessions of faith have played a central role in all six SBC seminaries, and also among the other entities.

At the 1969 Southern Baptist Convention, messengers adopted a motion calling the “attention” of SBC entities to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message and “vigorously” urged “the elected trustees responsible for these agencies to be diligent in seeing that the programs assigned to them by the Convention are carried out in a manner consistent with and not contrary to the Convention’s aforesaid statement of faith.”

IMB President Jerry Rankin has noted, “Since 1970, under the leadership of Dr. Baker James Cauthen, and then later under Dr. Keith Parks, every Southern Baptist missionary appointed by what was then the Foreign Mission Board signed a statement that he or she had read and was in agreement with the Baptist Faith and Message.”

This principle of confessional accountability has also applied in the broader denominational family, including our state conventions. As of last fall — less than two years after its adoption, nearly 60 percent of the state conventions affiliated with the SBC have affirmed the current edition of the Baptist Faith and Message.

In 1921, the Baptist General Convention of Texas adopted a resolution in response to the evolution controversy and certain other “heresies” that called on “all our school presidents and boards of trustees to see to it that none of these false teachings be allowed in our schools, and to this end that the most vigilant, painstaking and continual care be exercised in the selection of both teachers and textbooks.” Baptist statesmen L.R. Scarborough and George W. Truett were members of the committee that brought the resolution.

Many other examples could be cited, but the constraints of space forbid me.

It must be said that there is a minority stream in Baptist history of those who vehemently rejected confessionalism. Although that view has not prevailed in our practice, it has advocates today.

The potential for misuse of confessions of faith also must not be understated. Unlike certain other denominations, Baptists have always believed that manmade statements of faith are secondary, while the Bible is primary. “They are not intended to add anything to the simple conditions of salvation revealed in the New Testament, viz., repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord,” as the Baptist Faith and Message asserts.

Every confession of faith is a human, fallible statement that must always be placed under the judgment of the divine, infallible Bible. Confessions are subject to change, unlike the Bible. Confessions should be confessed and used as an instrument of doctrinal accountability only to the extent that they are consistent with the Word of God.
Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith Sr.