Voices: Baptists, confessions and church autonomy

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The use of confessions by Baptist denominations is controversial, to say the least.

The debate over how to use confessions cuts straight to the heart of what it means to be Baptist. This is the central question: “Does it violate the autonomy of the local church to exclude congregations from fellowship if they do not uphold a particular confessional stance?”

I believe the answer is, “Not necessarily.” However, I think this answer requires careful explanation and qualification.

Historical precedent

There is no single, centralized authority that determines who is and is not Baptist. Therefore, determining which practices and beliefs are incompatible with Baptist identity requires taking a broad, historical view of the practices and beliefs of those who have claimed the label “Baptist.”

In his article Baptist Confessions: Use and Abuse, Baptist historian Albert Wardin highlights historical diversity on this issue. Some Baptists opposed written confessions altogether. Others used them simply as “a general system of principles.” Still others were even stricter. Historically, Baptists were not unanimous in their approach.

However, Wardin adds: “Because of a general theological consensus among Baptists then on Scriptural fundamentals, exclusion was seldom for heretical belief, but it did occur. In addition, Baptist associations disfellowshiped churches for not adhering to its doctrinal standards.”

Timothy George provides an important historic example of Baptist confessionalism. In the early 1800s, a minister named Alexander Campbell was very popular among Baptists. However, he fiercely opposed confessions and creeds—the two terms frequently were used interchangeably—of any kind, especially the widely used Philadelphia Confession of 1742.

In response to Campbell, the Franklin Baptist Association of Kentucky said, “If there be any divine warrant for a church (in this day), there is a divine warrant for a Creed, as a test of union, a bond of fellowship, a fence against error, and a shield against that spirit of restless inspiration, which esteems every novelty an improvement.”

Campbell and Baptists eventually parted ways, though some Baptists retained his anti-confessional stance. While Baptist history is not monolithic on this subject, there still exists a strong historical precedent for strict forms of Baptist confessionalism.

Church autonomy?

Some may ask how this sort of confessionalism is compatible with the autonomy of the local church, a key Baptist distinctive. Baptists are opposed to the use of force—especially state power—to impose beliefs on anyone, including other Baptist churches. This also gets into freedom of conscience, religious liberty, etc.

There is a key distinction necessary for understanding the issue. When a Baptist fellowship excludes a congregation over doctrinal issues, it is not forcing the congregation to believe anything. The churches which make up the fellowship are deciding not to have fellowship with the church in question while still remaining in fellowship with one another.

That is a vital distinction. According to Baptists, every congregation has the right to govern its own affairs. But congregations do not have the right to claim fellowship with other congregations who do not consent.

Baptist denominations, fellowships and associations are fundamentally voluntary, mutual agreements between different congregations. Just as a single church has the right not to have fellowship with another church, so also does a group of churches have the right not to have fellowship with another church. Exclusion from denominational fellowship is, in fact, a logically necessary corollary of church autonomy.

A church excluded from a Baptist fellowship still has complete governance over its own affairs, including its beliefs. But it has no right to demand that other autonomous churches have fellowship with it.

Confessionalism can be good or bad

Confessionalism can go wrong, however. Some might use dishonest, manipulative tactics to attempt to alter and/or enforce their fellowship’s confessional stance. It is also possible to codify relatively unimportant beliefs in a confession and then break fellowship over exceedingly minor issues. And of course, there’s always the risk of a confession being unbiblical.

These risks, however, do not invalidate the right of Baptist groups to define themselves by particular beliefs and to exclude from membership those who do not share those beliefs.

Another issue that muddies the waters is what is meant by “fellowship.” Breaking denominational fellowship and breaking Christian fellowship are profoundly different. There are many Christians whom I love deeply and with whom I gladly will labor for the sake of the gospel, even though I do not think they or their churches can be part of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

We always must remember that breaking denominational fellowship does not necessarily mean breaking Christian fellowship. In fact, sometimes breaking denominational fellowship can strengthen Christian fellowship.

To use an (imperfect) analogy, sometimes being roommates can ruin a friendship. Differences that don’t cause problems for regular friends can cause severe conflict for friends who live in the same space. Sometimes, it’s better for even the best of friends to live in different spaces.

All relationships need boundaries, and perhaps the boundaries the universal church needs are confessional. Sometimes, we need to recognize and respect our differences on secondary theological issues, not try to downplay them.

Charity and humility

For this to work, however, we need to approach confessionalism with a spirit of charity and humility. Even when we think we’re confronting a severe and dangerous theological error, we must exercise charity, humility, grace, patience, etc.

Confessions are only human documents. Scripture is our final authority, and a confession is true only insofar as it faithfully reflects what Scripture teaches. For every issue we elevate to a test of denominational fellowship, we must ask, “Just how clear and important is this teaching in the Scriptures?”

As Baptists, we do not have a council, a bishop or a presbytery to make the decision for us. The local church—all the members, not just a committee or the pastor(s)—must make the final decision on what it will believe and with whom it will or will not have fellowship.

We will be held accountable by God for our decisions, including the way our decisions to break fellowship might harm the cause of the gospel. Decisions to exclude congregations from denominational fellowship—even when made with mutual consent and goodwill—are serious decisions. We must never make them quickly or lightly.

Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.

 


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