Editor’s note: As part of an emphasis leading up to Baptists’ 400th anniversary in 2009, EthicsDaily.com is running a series of columns by staff of the Baptist History and Heritage Society about lessons from Baptist history and why they are relevant today.

Thousands of Baptist individuals, churches, associations, conventions, and other organizations have written and used (and sometimes misused) confessions of faith. This process started in the early 1600s among the first Baptists in Amsterdam, and it eventually spread throughout the world.

Some confessions took on major importance for one or more reasons: their adoption by numerous Baptist churches, associations, conventions, and/or other organizations; their influence in shaping the theological views of Baptists on local, regional, national, and even international scales; and their roles in Baptist controversies.

Randomly described across Baptist history as articles of faith, declarations of faith, statements of faith, and even creeds, confessions of faith are simply lists and/or descriptions of the theological views of those individuals, churches, and other groups who voluntarily wrote them, adopted them, and confessed them.

Some churches did discipline members who deviated significantly from doctrinal expectations, but the voluntary nature of confessions always gave individual Baptists the free right to move in fresh theological directions when prompted by new understandings of Scripture.

Put plainly, no individual or church in Baptist history has ever had a duty to buy into someone else’s or some organization’s set of doctrinal values. Thinking for oneself is part of what it means to be created in God’s image.

Historically, Baptists usually adopted confessions of faith for positive reasons: to describe their distinctive doctrines; to show their ecumenical commonalities with other Christian denominations; to provide theological guidance in times of controversy; and to remind themselves of biblical shaping points on their heritage.

Not all Baptists wholeheartedly supported the use of confessions. The Separate Baptists of the 1700s, for example, registered skepticism that confessions might be misused. Subsequent history, especially recent Southern Baptist history, has verified that some Baptists have turned free confessions into enforceable creed-based instruments of accountability—with harsh punishment for violators.

Baptists misuse confessions of faith when they:
–Employ them to stifle dissent and nonconformity
–Apply them to individuals and/or groups who did not adopt them
–Canonize them into the 67th book of the Bible
–Give them higher authority than the Bible
–Use them to control the doctrinal views of other Baptists
–Impose them so that they violate liberty of conscience
–Exploit them to suppress academic freedom
–Abuse them by forcing missionaries into narrow lines of thought
–Maneuver them to curb freedom of the press
–Employ them to intrude upon the rights of individuals and churches to read Scripture for themselves and determine their own theological futures.

Baptists entered the human picture in 1609 precisely to combat authoritative, heavy-handed, top-down, externally originated, liturgically based, state-church-sanctioned doctrine that defied the rights of Baptist individuals and congregations to hammer out their own faith.

In the 1600s, Baptists kept the jails of England filled because they refused to let the state church box them into unwanted spiritual parameters. Ironically, Baptist fundamentalism today supports an objective similar to that of the state-churches of England and Colonial America: It still guarantees that non-conforming Baptists will be targeted for punishment. And that is one reason why fundamentalism is a curse on Baptist life.

Lessons for today: Confession of one’s faith is an intensely personal and church-based spiritual experience with God. The most absurd myth floating around in Baptist life today is the arrogant presumption by some that a convention or church has the right to tell you what you ought to believe. No one has the right to tell you what your faith should be like; led by the Holy Spirit, only you can decide. The other side of this coin is that each of us should use every opportunity to use our spiritual giftedness to share our faith and our financial resources with a hurting and lonely world.

For Further Reading:
Bill J. Leonard, An Introduction to Baptist Principles (2005). Available from the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (1969). Available from Judson Press.

Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.

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