In most denominational circles a confessional statement or a creed (with their marginal differences) are sacred holy cows, not to be questioned. Their presence saves the denomination from doctrinal drift and error, or so the parrots tell us.
But is this the case?
A little Baptist History
I have a Baptist background, so I know Baptist history better than other groups. However, I suspect that the Baptist dealings with confessional statements is true of most in the free-church movement (a free-church is a church that rejects state influence). The Protestant churches have been much more creedal-friendly than the free-church churches.
The development of confessional statements among Baptists was controversial (and for good reason). Baptists have always struggled with being “confessional” or “non-confessional.” The non-denominational, local-church oriented Baptists have been non-confessional: no creed but the Bible. John Leland, the famous Baptist pastor of colonial days, said, “Confessions of faith often check any farther pursuit after truth, confine the mind into a particular way of reasoning, and give rise to frequent separations.”
Denominational Baptists, on the other hand, have almost always been confessional, to varying degrees. Since most early Baptists shunned denominations, all Baptist confessions prior to 1833 were strongly Calvinist and were accepted only by “particular Baptists,” which were pseudo-denominational in structure and ministry.
In 1833, Baptist life changed forever. From an almost completely non-denominational background, the Baptists formed The Triennial Convention of Baptists. This was perhaps the first denominational Baptist organization in the USA. This organization brought about The New Hampshire Confession of Faith in 1833. From this point onward, denominational Baptists were confessional, non-denominational Baptists were non-confessional.
Here’s what you should note, however. The denominational Baptists claim that confessions save the denomination from denominational drift and error, yet it is almost exclusively the denominational baptists that have gone into denominational drift and error!
A better approach: deal with the issue Biblically.
A confession is always an attempt to deal with an issue in succinct form but creates an extra-Biblical guide that supplants healthy study. After all, why study when you can just check the denominational confession and settle the matter?
A confession is almost always an attempt to avoid direct confrontation, typically current, possibly future. When denominations have a theological problem with a certain professor, agency, or group, what do they do? They change their confessional statement to deal with it. Wouldn’t it be better to confront the person, agency, or group directly, have the confrontation, and deal with the matter that way?
A confession gives the unfounded comfort that an organization is secure from future theological drift. It can (and often does) cause the organization to have a dangerous sense of peace. The experience of the Southern Baptist Convention since they last updated their confessional statement 20 years ago could be “exhibit A.” The SBC is far from the once-conservative force they were after the conservative resurgence. After updating their confession in 2000, they simply sat back with assurance that all the SBC Presidents, agencies, agency leaders, and missionaries were doctrinally pure because they had signed the supposedly non-creedal Baptist Faith and Message. They were fooling themselves.
The Bible tells us how to deal with doctrinal error: talk directly to the one who has it! That is much better than the indirect approach of the confessional statement.
Little Drift Among Non-Confessional Groups
Isn’t it interesting that organizations and movements that have stayed true to their founding principles have almost completely been “non-confessional.”
While we would reject the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, we must admit that it has only the most basic creeds, and yet is largely unchanged over the centuries.
The Churches of Christ are strongly anti-confessional, and strongly anti-denominational, and yet almost exclusively untainted by changed thinking from their founders.
The Independent Fundamentalist Baptists shout, “No Creed but the Bible!” They are also amazingly uniform across the movement and consistently hold to their local church founder’s vision.
Question the Assumptions
We have been told a thousand times that without confessions doctrine will be compromised. But does the evidence show this to be true?
I, for one, and convinced that confessions take us away from studying doctrine. We rest in the confession rather than the Word.