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Our Unity is Only as Strong as the Clarity of our Mutual Confession: A Case for a Confessional Baptist Union

06 Nov

Later today (as it is after midnight when I am posting this!) I will present the following to a group of 20-30 Baptist Union pastors in Auckland. This is certainly not all that needs to be said on the subject and one could approach the issue from different angles. However, I do pray this will serve as a helpful and stimulating conversation starter.

Here is a PDF which maintains all the formatting.

“No creed, but the Bible,” “Our unity is formed around ‘Jesus is Lord’”. These and similar statements are very common today, both among Baptist churches (just look in the latest issue of The Baptist Mag) and broader Evangelicalism.

Today many Baptist churches have a statement of faith which will fit on one side of an A4 sheet of paper, while having a constitution which forms a small to medium size booklet. Many will have more details in describing how they are to conduct business meetings than in describing what they believe about Jesus and/or the Bible.

More than that, this practice has actually been encouraged. As new churches are planted and new pastors are trained for ministry, the idea that all a group needs to unite around to be considered a church is a simple and single statement of “Jesus is Lord.” This is supposed to encourage unity.

This has not only occurred at the local church level but also at the level of inter-church fellowship. We have built a union of churches on a minimalistic outline of doctrinal statements in the name of fostering unity.

There are two glaring concerns with this:

  1. The supposed unity this forms, both at a local and national level, is weak. We will be stronger with the more ties that bind us together not less. The more strands which are wound together produce a stronger cord.
  2. No local church or national body functions this way in reality.
    1. Firstly, all of our statements of faith say more than just “Jesus is Lord.” But why? And why do they only say what they say?
    2. Secondly, most of our churches have unwritten beliefs which affect our practice.  However, being unwritten they are not open for scrutiny and critique nor do perspective members really know what they are committing to fully.

i.      Example: You may be in a church where the leadership holds to a theistic evolutionary view of creation and Genesis 1-11, but there is nothing in your doctrinal statement to indicate this. Why not? Are people really able to know what your church teaches before committing to it?

ii.      A. A. Hodge observed, “The real question is not, as often pretended, between the Word of God and the creed of man, but between the tried and proved faith of the collective body of God’s people, and the private judgment and the unassisted wisdom of the repudiator of creeds.”

Yet, there is more…

Firstly, the idea of “no creed but the Bible” doesn’t actually follow the Bible’s teaching. Secondly, “Jesus is Lord” alone doesn’t really say much.

  1. The Scriptures themselves call us to have a robust confession as opposed to a minimalistic statement.

Most heretics will be willing to say “no creed but the Bible.” One writer proclaims: “To arrive at the truth we must dismiss religious prejudices . . .We must let God speak for himself… Our appeal is to the Bible for truth.” The problem is this statement  is drawn from Let God be True, published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Consider a selection of passages where the church is instructed to maintain a more robust confession:

2 Timothy 1:13 => “hold fast the form of sound words”

Jude 3 => “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”

Philippians 1:27 => “stand fast with one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel”

Even those passages which compel us to maintain unity:

Ephesians 4:3 => “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.

Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 1:27; 2:2 => We’re to be “of one accord,” i.e., one in heart, soul, spirit, mind, and voice

As Jesus said in Matthew 12:25 => “Every house divided against itself cannot stand”

As Carl Trueman has recently stated, “It’s striking that Paul regards ‘divisiveness’ as those who depart from sound doctrine.”

These passages presupposed a body of teaching or sound doctrine that God’s people faithfully confess and pass on to generation after generation; thereby ensuring a robust unity bound together at multiple points and providing a demarcation for who is considered true or false in their teaching or confession.

  1. “Jesus is Lord” alone doesn’t really say much.

A statement like this is beautiful in its simplicity, and certainly Paul states in Romans 10 that we must confess that “Jesus is Lord,” but by itself (without the first 10 ½ chapters of Romans) the statement doesn’t really say a whole lot.

Jesus who?

Is – why not, was or will be?

Lord – is that like a slave master, or a political dictator? What does Lord mean?

At a very basic level surely we have to affirm:

Jesus –

The Jesus we are referring to is the Jesus of the Bible. The man who is attested to within the Gospel accounts, who walked on earth some 2000 years ago, born of a virgin, lived without sin, claimed to be God Himself, died a voluntary and substitutionary death in the place of sinners, rose again three days later, and ascended to heaven.

Is –

The present tense form of this verb excludes the ideas that Jesus’ Lordship is something of the past or only to come in the future. He is right this very moment Lord.

In addition He is Lord, not over some people or the church in general, but over me personally. Therefore, I cannot claim lordship or authority over my own life. I cannot, myself, determine what is acceptable to God because Jesus is Lord.

Lord –

Jesus is Yahweh/Kurios. He is Lord of heaven and Earth. He was active at creation and nothing that was made was made by any other source other than Him. While on earth He claimed to be God Himself, in the flesh. The second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully man. He asserted clearly that no one can come to the Father but by Him. In dying in our place He was able to satisfy God’s wrath and make salvation possible for His people because He was Lord/fully God. All of creation is subject to Him and He sits as final judge over all people.

As a benevolent Lord/Ruler in His kindness, He has left us with a trustworthy and infallible revelation of Himself and the way of salvation (both justification and sanctification). We find in His Word, the Scriptures, the only way of salvation and the clear teaching on how those saved by grace are to live. Therefore sin (whether gluttony, greed, heterosexual lust, homosexual activity, lying, stealing, etc.) is not culturally defined, but Lordship determined.

This reminds me of a statement by Samuel Miller, “Men are seldom opposed to creeds, until creeds have become opposed to them.”

So what do we need? What are we lacking both on the local church level and the national level?

A robust, biblical, historical and Baptist confessionalism.

Sam Waldron has said, “A confession of our loyalty to the Bible is not enough. The most radical denials of biblical truth frequently coexist with a professed regard for the authority and testimony of the Bible. When men use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy, when the Word of truth is perverted to serve error, nothing less than a confession of Faith will serve publicly to draw the lines between truth and error. …

The church is to “hold fast the form of sound words”(2 Tim. 1:13), to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints”(Jude 3), and to “stand fast with one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel”(Phil. 1:27). In the fulfilment of this task, a confession is a useful tool for discriminating truth from error and for presenting in a small compass the central doctrines of the Bible in their integrity and due proportions. …

Nevertheless, our confessions are not inherently sacrosanct or beyond revision and improvement; and, of course, church history did not stop in the seventeenth century. We are faced with errors today which those who drew up the great confessions were not faced with and which they did not explicitly address in the confessions, but it is a task to be undertaken with extreme caution. …

A confession is a useful means for the public affirmation and defence of truth…(it) serves as a public standard of fellowship and discipline…(and it) serves as a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word.” R. P. Martin in Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, (Evangelical Press, 1989), p9-23.

Minimalistic statements are not even very honest in that every church with such statements has unwritten doctrines they hold to. In addition, such statements do not provide the basis for a strong unity.

Finally, such statements do not give adequate grounds for the freedom of autonomy.

Autonomy cannot mean that we as churches can do whatever we want. This isn’t autonomy but anarchy, and our fellowship is no longer a union but a disunion.

True autonomy is only enjoyed when bound by some standard. The stronger the boundary in which our fellowship functions, true autonomy can flourish while still maintaining genuine unity.

Consider same-sex marriage…

When our unity is bound by a minimalistic doctrinal statement which leaves manifold aspects of the interpretation of Scripture and the practical outworking of the Christian life “open for individual or local church interpretation,” then anarchy reigns. A church can quite legitimately claim their independence from censure based on the Baptist distinctive of autonomy because they never agreed to any doctrinal position that clearly excludes their view. As a result you end up with churches in the same fellowship which could hardly be more different in doctrine and/or practice, and this is no union at all.

To have two churches in “fellowship” with each other taking differing views on same-sex marriage is essentially saying to all those in our churches (and the watching world):

We’re not sure what the Bible actually says about sin – what is sin and what it  is not.

We’re not sure what the Bible actually says about the Lordship of Christ – what is He Lord over, when does His Lordship begin/end.

We’re not sure what people really need to repent of (if at all) to become a Christian. Perhaps repentance isn’t as necessary as the church once thought.

We’re not sure why a person really needs to place their faith in Jesus Christ.

We’re not even sure how trustworthy the Bible is, because we cannot say with certainty that we won’t change our view on something else that we all agree is sin at the moment.

We may look confused, it’s because we are…Why would anyone believe a message from such a confused lot?

I want to suggest that for the sake of genuine/lasting unity, for the sake of a clear proclamation of the glory and majesty of Christ, for the sake of a true and powerful gospel call of repentance and faith, and for the sake of a consistent and unshakable witness to an ever changing and degrading world, we need a robust, articulate, Biblical, Baptist confessionalism. Without such there will little left for the next generation that will look anything like historical Christianity.

 

 

Some quotes:

Gerald McDermott – http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/10/is-evangelical-liberalism-an-oxymoron

The lesson Evangelicals should learn from this new dust-up over evangelical theology and modernity is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy. Only a “single-source” view of scripture and tradition in which hermeneutical authority is given to the mutual interplay of Scripture and orthodox community—the method that the church practiced for most of Christian history—can protect evangelical theology from going the way of all flesh, to liberal Protestantism.

Post-conservatives claim conservative Evangelicals elevate tradition—both evangelical tradition and early church tradition—above Scripture. But Great Tradition Evangelicals say they want to submit their individual interpretations of Scripture to those of the wider and longer orthodox church, and interpret Scripture by thinking with the Great Tradition.

http://www.ccel.org/creeds/bcf/what.htm

“This little volume, is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness. Here the younger members of our church will have a body of divinity in small compass, and by means of Scriptural proofs, will be ready to give an account for the hope that is in them.

Be not ashamed of your faith; remember it is the ancient gospel of martyrs, confessors, reformers and saints. Above all, it is “the truth of God”, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.

Let your lives adorn your faith, let your example adorn your creed. Above all live in Christ Jesus, and walk in Him, giving credence to no teaching but that which is manifestly approved of Him, and owned by the Holy Spirit. Cleave fast to the Word of God which is here mapped out for you.” C. H. Spurgeon (from the preface to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith which he republished for use by his congregation).

“A confession of our loyalty to the Bible is not enough. The most radical denials of biblical truth frequently coexist with a professed regard for the authority and testimony of the Bible. When men use the very words of the Bible to promote heresy, when the Word of truth is perverted to serve error, nothing less than a confession of Faith will serve publicly to draw the lines between truth and error. …

The church is to “hold fast the form of sound words”(2 Tim. 1:13), to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints”(Jude 3), and to “stand fast with one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel”(Phil. 1:27). In the fulfilment of this task, a confession is a useful tool for discriminating truth from error and for presenting in a small compass the central doctrines of the Bible in their integrity and due proportions. …

Nevertheless, our confessions are not inherently sacrosanct or beyond revision and improvement; and, of course, church history did not stop in the seventeenth century. We are faced with errors today which those who drew up the great confessions were not faced with and which they did not explicitly address in the confessions, but it is a task to be undertaken with extreme caution. …

A confession is a useful means for the public affirmation and defence of truth…(it) serves as a public standard of fellowship and discipline…(and it) serves as a concise standard by which to evaluate ministers of the Word.” R. P. Martin in Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, (Evangelical Press, 1989), p9-23.

“This may be affirmed, that no private Christian would fail to benefit largely from a deliberate and studious perusal and reperusal of the Confession of Faith or the express purpose of obtaining a clear and systematic conception of sacred truth, both as a whole, and with all its parts so arranged as to display their relative importance, and their mutual bearing upon, and illustration of each other…

A confession of faith is not the very voice of Divine Truth, but the echo of that Truth from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call.” W. Hetherington (concerning the Westminster Confession of Faith).

“This unique doctrinal and practical outlook of Reformed Baptists was summarised historically in the London Confession of Faith published in 1689. For almost 300 years this has been the standard doctrinal statement of such Baptists. Most Reformed Baptists today hold to this Confession as comprehensively summarising their understanding of the Word of God”. Samuel Waldron, Baptists Roots in America, p.viii,ix)

http://scribblepreach.com/2013/10/29/carl-truemans-top-10-quotes-on-creeds-and-confessions/

  1. “It’s striking that Paul regards ‘divisiveness’ as those who depart from sound doctrine.”

 

  1. “Scripture is the norming norm, creeds are the normed norm.”

 

  1. “Awareness of our beliefs creates security in our stance.”

 

  1. “If you don’t write your creeds, no one can critique them. Creeds strip us of magisterial authority.”

 

  1. “Notice – no creed has the words ‘we just’”

 

  1. “We all operate from a tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not. Some write it down, others don’t.”

 

  1. “The love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.”

 

  1. “Human marriage begins in joy and ends in heartbreak. Divine marriage begins with heartbreak and ends in joy.”

 

  1. “Doctrinal understanding and love work together, as does knowledge of our spouse and love for our spouse. If your doctrine is dry, you’re not getting it.”

 

  1. “It was a great tragedy that Luther and Zwingli did not come to an agreement on the Lord’s Supper. But it would have been a greater tragedy if they had agreed to disagree because it ‘just wasn’t important.’”

Helpful Resources:

The Baptist Confession Of Faith Of 1689 With Scripture Proofs – Http://Www.1689.Com/Confession.Html

The Sola 5 (Http://Www.Sola5.Org/) Confession Of Faith – Http://Acu-Usa.Com/Images/Documents/Sola%205%20confession.Pdf

The Core Values Of Sola 5 (Http://Www.Sola5.Org/) – Http://Acu-Usa.Com/Images/Documents/Sola%205%20core%20values.Pdf

Reformation Creeds & Catechisms Available on ESVBible.org – http://www.crossway.org/blog/2013/10/reformation-creeds-catechisms-now-available-on-esvbible-org/

Monergism’s Directory of Creeds and Confessions – http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Creeds-and-Confessions/

Hiscox, Edward Thurston, and Edward Thurston Hiscox. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1980.

Machen, J. Gresham, and Presbyterian. Christianity and Liberalism. New York: Macmillan Company, 1923.

Martin, Robert Paul, The Legitimacy and Use of Confessions of Faithhttp://www.the-highway.com/confessions_Martin.html

McDermott , Gerald R., Is Evangelical Liberalism an Oxymoron?http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/10/is-evangelical-liberalism-an-oxymoron

Renihan, James M. True Confessions: Baptist Documents in the Reformed Family. Owensboro, KY: RBAP, 2004.

Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1963.

Trueman, Carl R. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012.

Vedder, Henry C. A Short History of the Baptists. Valley Forge [Pa.]: Judson Press, 1969.

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