One of the most-cited arguments against Baptist standards of doctrine and practice is that Baptists have historically opposed confessions of faith. This anti-confessional argument has been used by certain Baptist leaders over the centuries, but it is a false argument. Confessions have been a consistent feature of Baptist life since the 1600s, though Baptists have often disagreed about the content of these statements of faith.

The latest version of the anti-confessional argument comes from Pastor Rick Warren. His Saddleback Church is protesting the decision of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, which recently determined that the congregation is “not in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. This decision followed Saddleback’s ordination of several women as pastors, including one woman as a “teaching pastor.” The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM) stipulates that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Warren says that Baptist “unity has always been based on a common mission, not a common confession.” He bases this claim on the fact that the SBC did not have a denominational confession of faith for the first eighty years of its existence. This is true, but it is somewhat irrelevant since so many Baptist churches and associations already had confessions when the SBC was founded. All the delegates who formed the SBC in 1845 belonged to churches and/or associations that adhered to a confession of faith, usually either the Philadelphia Baptist Confession (1742) or the New Hampshire Confession (1833), the latter being arguably the most influential Baptist confession in American history.

Southern Baptist churches of the pre-Baptist Faith and Message era widely adopted the New Hampshire Confession, which is also why E.Y. Mullins depended heavily on that confession for the original BFM of 1925. As a denomination, the SBC has now affirmed a confession of faith (the BFM) for almost a hundred years, or the majority of the time it has existed.

The idea that Baptist unity has “always” depended on a common mission (presumably evangelism), not on confessions, is even more difficult to support when you consider the vast array of English, American, and other national Baptist confessions from the 1600s to the present (1500s if you include Anabaptist confessions). A recent scholarly compilation of Baptist confessions, running the gamut from liberal to conservative Baptist denominations, is 548 pages long!

It’s hard to know what these confessions were used for, if not to identify a common set of beliefs and practices for denominational unity and boundaries. There’s no clear mission if you don’t have a clear set of beliefs.

Historically, Baptists have intuitively understood that confessions foster unity by setting up ecclesiological and doctrinal fences. The truth is, all churches use doctrinal tests to maintain denominational boundaries, whether they are written ones or not. For example, what would be the point of keeping a church in fellowship with a Baptist denomination if it rejected believer’s baptism? Or if its pastor was an agnostic? Would critics of confessions really say that we are obliged to maintain fellowship with churches regardless of what they believe?

All social, political, and religious groups have to set some limits, or they’d become incoherent and pointless. No one wants to join a group that is for nothing.

Traditional Baptists have always affirmed the Bible as their final authority. But anyone marginally familiar with church history knows that Christians do not always agree on what the Bible teaches. Even when the application and meaning of a text has seemed clear to people for generations, culture changes can ignite new disagreements.

Confessions, therefore, allow churches to express their official understanding of what Scripture teaches. They lay out basic tenets of Christianity like the nature of the Trinity and the necessity of personal salvation. They also distinguish churches from one another by describing positions on doctrines and practices like baptism and church government. Affirming a confession typically indicates that a church intends to teach in accordance with it and to align itself with other churches who do the same.

What we’re really debating, then, is how the boundaries of the denomination should be maintained, and what issues are non-negotiable in order for churches to remain in good standing with the SBC. There are a number of other Baptist associations that allow women’s ordination as pastors, but the SBC does not. SBC messengers will decide whether a church that is in open disagreement with the BFM should be regarded as in “friendly cooperation” with the denomination.

Warren and his supporters are welcome to keep making the case for the ordination of women pastors, but let’s stop appealing to the myth that Baptists have “always” been against confessions. The idea that Baptists have found unity in “mission” and not in confessions crumbles under an avalanche of historic evidence to the contrary.

See also Obbie Tyler Todd, “Have Southern Baptists Ever Been More Divided?” – TGC