I am a member of Brackenhurst Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is in turn a member of Sola 5—an association of God-centred evangelical churches in Southern Africa. All member churches affirm Sola 5’s Confession of Faith. As a church, we are currently studying the Confession during our Family Bible Hour. My blog posts for the next little while will take the form of reflections on the Confession. To begin with, I want to think a little about the importance of Confessions in general.
When the early Baptist churches were formed in the 17th century, they were met with great disdain from the British government and existing Christian denominations. Our earliest Baptist brothers and sisters faced intense persecution, which was fuelled by gross misrepresentations of what Baptists believed. One early British opponent wrote of the Baptists, “They pollute our rivers with their filthy washings.” It was claimed, among other things, that Baptists subscribed to libertarian free will, denied original sin, baptised women in the nude, and opposed church and crown. Their opponents openly (but wrongly) associated the early Baptists with the more radical wing of the Anabaptist movement.
To combat these misrepresentations, and to show that Baptists were orthodox in faith and practice, representatives from seven Baptist congregations in London came together to draw up a common Confession of Faith. Published in 1644, and “corrected and enlarged” in 1646, the Confession was titled “A Confession of Faith of Seven Congregations or Churches of Christ in London, Which are Commonly (But Unjustly) Called Anabaptists.” This first Confession was very basic, written largely to defend the churches against charges of unorthodoxy and heresy. In 1677, a larger body of Baptist leaders came together to formulate a more comprehensive Confession. Because persecution against Baptists was still rife, the Confession was not formally published until 1689 (after the British Toleration Act). That second Confession is therefore commonly known as the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. It is still widely used among Reformed Baptist Churches today.
This history illustrates that the earliest Baptist Confessions were formulated to display the orthodoxy of Baptist convictions. Many Baptist denominations, associations, and conventions have formulated their own Confessions, and the desire to maintain Christian orthodoxy is always one goal in doing so.
It should be noted that this move to formulating concise Confessions is not without biblical precedent. Even within the New Testament, there are examples of shorthand explanations of the faith: Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 15:3–5; Philippians 2:6–11; 1 Timothy 3:16; etc.
But what is the purpose of a formal Confession of Faith? Here are four reasons that a formal Confession is important for a local church.
First, Confessions are designed to guard orthodoxy. Creeds and Confessions are not designed to replace the Bible, but to guard the soundness of biblical interpretation. They are useful tools to protect the church against embracing age-old heresies.
All orthodox Creeds and Confessions admit that they are subservient to, not superior, or even equal, to the Bible. Nevertheless, the framers of the Confessions are men who have thought through biblical errors of the past and have framed their Confessions to guard against error.
While orthodox Confessions universally affirm that they are subservient to the Scriptures, there is at the same time a danger of subscribers to the Confessions elevating the Confessions above the authority that they actually carry. Confessions reflect scriptural authority only to the degree that they faithfully interpret the Scriptures. On the one hand, we must be careful of quickly casting aside the teaching of a well-constructed, orthodox Confession of Faith; on the other, if careful study of Scripture leads us to conclude that a particular facet of a Confession is not a faithful reflection of biblical truth, Scripture must trump Confession.
It is also important to remember that, while Confessions are a reflection of biblical orthodoxy, they are not necessarily the standard of orthodoxy. It is possible to disagree with a particular element of an orthodox Confession and still remain orthodox. (After all, the orthodox Confessions sometimes disagree with one another.)
A shared Confession provides something of an interpretive framework for churches and church members. If your interpretation of Scripture is radically opposed to the Confession that your church embraces, it gives you pause to reconsider your interpretation. It is certainly possible that your Confession is wrong and you are correct (Confessions are, after all, fallible documents), but it may be more likely that your interpretation has been skewed.
Second, for a church to affirm an orthodox Confession of Faith places that church in continuity with centuries of churches that have preceded it. For as long as the church has existed, Creeds and Confessions have been a part of church life. The tendency of some churches today to divorce themselves from an orthodox Confession is a radical departure from how God’s churches have operated over the centuries. We want to be careful of thinking that we have so successfully worked through our beliefs that we don’t need what churches before us have recognised they needed.
Third, the embrace of an orthodox Confession assists a church in maintaining unity both within its own membership and with churches of like faith. While we may not agree on every minute matter of interpretation, a common Confession assures us that we can enjoy likeminded fellowship with each other in the church and with other churches beyond our own. Confessing churches can enjoy great harmony, despite minute differences, because they confess a common faith.
Fourth, a common Confession helps us to trust one another when it comes to matters of ministry. If the church shares a common Confession (and common core values) and expects those who teach in its ministries to affirm these, it deepens the trust between members in matters of ministry. We can trust our Sunday school teachers and youth workers and ministry heads because we know that they believe what we believe. Similarly, we can trust that ministers sent to us by fellow confessing churches will teach in keeping with Christian orthodoxy because we share a common Confession.
For the above reasons, and perhaps more, there is benefit for any church and any Christian to take the time to slowly work through whatever Confession they affirm. That is what I hope to do for my own benefit over the next several months, and I trust it will benefit anyone who might stumble across these reflections.