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The Reformed1 Baptists of the 17th century were charged by some Christians as being heretics seeking to bring false teaching into the church. In 1643/44 they put out a Confession2 of Faith in order to vindicate themselves from being falsely accused as ‘Anabaptists.’ However, that confession became scarce and some who, despite their subscription to that confession, embraced unorthodox views. Thus, the Particular Baptists felt the need to put out a new statement of faith that drew both from broader Christian theology and, especially, from the English, Puritan Confessions of Faith (specifically, the Westminster and the Savoy) while still retaining the distinctive emphasis of the Baptists.
They self-consciously drew from these other sources because, in their words, they had:
…no itch to clog religion with new words, but to readily acquiesce in that form of sound words which hath been, in consent with the holy scriptures, used by others before us; hereby declaring before God, angels, and men, our hearty agreement with them, in that wholesome protestant doctrine, which, with so clear evidence of scriptures they have asserted.3
In other words, the Baptists were clear that they had no intention of inventing and ‘clogging’ Christianity with new doctrines that were unheard of or un-practiced. Instead, they sought to align themselves to what is “in consent with the holy scriptures” and which was “used by others” before them. And as far as they were concerned, this was “wholesome protestant doctrine.”
Fast forward to our day and age, Christianity has been clogged by all kinds of doctrines that are so far removed from the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Today, there is a greater need for Protestant churches and leaders to not fall prey to reinventing the (theological) wheel. As John Whitlock said, “The reason why men slide into new errors, or old ones newly patched up, is because they let slip old truths.”4 Therefore, there is a need to ‘unclog’ Christian faith and practice. This unclogging is not by developing new truths but walking the old, worn paths of our Protestant heritage in order to retrieve it for the present5.
One of the ways leaders of a church can retrieve good, Protestant Christianity for their congregation is by studying, teaching, and adopting a confession of faith as the doctrinal statement of their church. Much can be said of the benefits of adopting a historic confession of faith. Carl Trueman, for example, lists 7 reasons why Christians (and by extension, a church) need confessions6. In that same spirit, I want to briefly touch upon 4 practical benefits, specific to the Indian context, for adopting a historic confession as the church’s statement of faith.
Firstly, Confessions provides stability to a church by preserving church power/authority from being concentrated or centered on any one individual. Many churches in our country are often run by one man or one family. They are the ones who call the shots on the church’s doctrine, budget, membership, vision, mission, etc. If that man changes his view on any matters that affect the structure and workings of the church, the change is adopted and implemented without challenge. The church then exists in a constant state of flux, shaped more by the leader than by Scripture. Therefore, adopting a confession as the doctrinal statement provides stability to the church through an external means: namely, through the biblical truths summarized in the confession. This protects the church from being swayed by the charisma or personality of any one person on matters concerning faith and conduct by holding all (members and leaders) to the same standard – the Word of God. Should a member or leader seek to persuade and insist on their pet doctrine as being vital and important to the church, the confession provides an appropriate tool by which the church assesses the validity of such a claim.
Secondly, Confessions provide a readily available summary of biblical truths for members to fall back on in the absence of their leaders. There is a two-fold emphasis here. On the one hand, as has been the case throughout church history, there is a possibility that the leaders of the church would become the target of persecution, imprisonment, and even death. Should such a situation arise, the members of the church would not be left to fend for themselves spiritually, both, as individuals and as a church. The members can continue as a church in sound, biblical teaching using the summary of biblical truths in the confession as their guide till the Lord sees it fit to raise a new shepherd for them. On the other hand, should the present leadership of the church be removed from the church for discipline, relocation, end of tenure, or even death, the members have a fairly comprehensive guiding document of biblical truths to hold to. This aids them both, as noted earlier, to help remain within orthodoxy, and also as a tool to help assess whether a potential pastoral candidate is indeed fit for the role of being the shepherd of their church.
Thirdly, Confessions provide a readily accessible constituting document for young churches. There is a discernible movement of the Spirit among biblically sound churches in the country towards church-planting. The Lord must be praised and this work ought to be celebrated. Yet, the work of planting the church is not done with the mere gathering of a congregation. Rather, there is a need for the newly planted church to draw up a doctrinal statement that publicly declares what she believes and confesses as biblical truths. More often than not, the hard work of learning doctrines and putting it in writing is watered-down or all together neglected. It may be because of the inexperience of the elders, their lack of adequate theological preparation, or even the post-modern tendency towards being a seeker-sensitive church that settles for the bare minimum Christian doctrines to make church ‘accessible’ for everyone. This inevitably allows the church to be influenced (and adopt) all kinds of innovative theological ideas merely because it sounds vaguely Christian. However, studying and adopting a confession of faith as a constituting document provides the young church and her leaders a tried-tested-and-proven-to-be-faithful summary of biblical truths. The adopted confession essentially functions in two ways: as a guardrail to keep the young church rooted in the old truths of the Ancient Word. And it also functions as a guard to keep the young church from being influenced by old heresies in a new form.
And a fourth related point is that the Confessions provide a means of preserving the purity of the church beyond just the immediate generation of Christians in the church. A church continues in the right worship of God and purity of life when the leaders and the members are committed to orthodoxy. However, more often than not a church’s faith and practice are shaped only by the leaders of the church. So, if the successors of the present leaders are not committed to orthodoxy, the church can fall into legalism, antinomianism, liberalism or even full-blown heresy, depending on the convictions and practice of these new leaders. Though the successors may profess that they “believe, preach and practice biblical truths”, there would be no way to verify this if there is no measure of objective truth against which such a claim can be tested. Therefore, in order for the church to remain pure in her doctrine and life, she requires a commitment to truths outside of the personal beliefs and practices of the present members and leaders. Having a historic confession as the church’s statement of faith provides one such means of guarding the church from impurity in her teachings and life. The confession provides an external, objective measure against which future leaders are assessed for their fitness to be the leaders of that church; And it also provides an objective, external teaching tool that church members can use to disciple future generations of Christians in the truths of God’s Word.
In conclusion, adopting a historic, Protestant confession as the church’s doctrine does two things for the church: Firstly, it keeps the church grounded in the truths of Scripture that Christians have always believed, thus keeping them within the fold of orthodoxy in her faith and conduct. And, secondly, it helps the church from being swept away or even swayed by the tide of false teaching that can corrupt her faith and conduct. Thus, churches in India stand not only to gain but also not be the cause of the ‘clogging’ of Christianity in India through idiosyncratic beliefs or practices by adopting and committing themselves to the Biblical truths summarized in the Protestant confessions of faith. Much more can be said but sufficient to say that it would indeed do much good for the church to heed the Word of the Lord that says, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16).
1. The word ‘reformed’ is used anachronistically here. In the 17th century, these Baptists were considered as congregationalists who practiced believer’s baptism. They were later referred to as ‘Particular’ Baptists in distinction from the General Baptists for their view that the atonement of Christ was ‘particularly’ for the elect.
2. A ‘confession’ in this article refers to a historic document containing a summary of Biblical truths that served both as a constitution and as a statement of faith agreed upon by a group of churches. Examples include: the Three Forms of Unity, The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Savoy Declaration, the London Baptist Confession of Faith, etc.
3. Appendix to the 1677/89 Confession of Faith, titled “To the Judicious and Impartial Reader” in W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia; Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; Toronto: American Baptist Publication Society, 1911), 224.
4. John Whitlock, “Remember, Hold Fast and Repent” in Sermons on the Great Ejection (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1962), 183.
5. The 9Marks movement is one such attempt where the older, Reformed Baptist ecclesiology is retrieved for a new generation of Christians.