One Sunday, after our church worship service a visitor came up to me to enquire about our church. One of his first questions was whether we were “confessional.” I put that around quotation marks because as I stared back at his eager face I was scouring my brain trying to figure out what that meant. We live within a church culture that is plagued with confusion over its linkages to the doctrinal history of the church. As a product of this culture I’ve been no exception, yet I am an amateur historian and have an interest in creeds and confessions of faith. If I’m slow to discover the importance of confessions, then I know there are plenty of other latecomers behind me. While I don’t intend here to make a case for strict confessionalism, (I’m not there, at least not yet) I wholeheartedly believe that Christians ought to know and cherish their historic and contemporary confessions of faith.
It is quite evident that the Evangelical church in North America has become too individualistic in its approach to faith. Church services cater to people’s needs to the point of turning members and visitors into consumers and churches into products. Our worship is designed primarily to move individuals into an experiential state, our primary focus of spiritual development is personal spiritual maturation/development and personal piety. Essentially, the church today is all about attending to the individual’s personal relationship with God and that’s it.
Certainly, God saves individuals and thus we ought to be focused on individuals, but we have swung too far in this direction. The danger of this individualistic approach has begun to reveal itself. When catering to the individual is the prime methodology it means that everything needs to be personalized. Everything is tweaked, adjusted, made slightly different according to each person’s taste. When we bring this into the church it becomes a hammer with which we begin to smash away at the doctrines that shape our faith and practice. Doctrines no longer have levels of importance such as primary and secondary, rather we begin to have basic fundamentals and then a free-for-all. In this church culture of personal spiritualities, where is the unity?
As I imagine this type of church environment I remember a visit I made to a church plant in the city years back. It looked really hip and cool, and I was in a place where I wanted to go to a hip and cool looking church. However I was also a doctrine nerd, and I was soon to learn these two things rarely go together. I was fortunate to get a brief chat with the pastor and promptly asked about their beliefs since they didn’t have a statement of faith online. I’ve never seen someone so quickly slide out of a conversation. I never did learn what particulars of faith this church held, and from conversations with different people who attended that day it seemed like a pretty big tent. Unfortunately with such a big tent the church can only affirm the bare minimum which leads to a shallow life of faith.
There’s another, less obvious example of hyper-individualism eroding the church’s doctrinal unity. When I started planning for an English-language ministry at New Canadian Baptist Church the first thing I did was write a statement of faith. At the time the church didn’t have one, and I knew that the guidelines of a doctrinal statement was essential. I was admittedly proud of my accomplishment. This statement of faith would be tweaked over the years and has been the statement of faith for Voyage Church until this year. Looking back I realize that even though we had a statement of faith, it was the expression of one person’s synthesis of systematic theology rather than the tried and tested doctrinal guidance of generations of mature and learned leaders of faith. Sure enough, as my perspectives changed so did the statement of faith. Not in major ways; slight movement in eschatology and the ordinances as I became more in line with classic Reformed theology. Yet still, since the statement of faith was the product of one individual it lacked the rootedness and foundation of history. You can reject a Confession but you can’t tweak it, and that makes a church seriously consider the beliefs that guide and identify them.
I see all of this within our post-modern problem of being unmoored from tradition. We’ve become free-floating people with no history, no grounding truth, nothing ultimately greater than ourselves to hold on to. When you think about it, it’s actually quite scary to float around with nothing to hold onto. The Evangelical church has been floating and we need to start tying the ship back to the dock before we lose ourselves in the meaninglessness of our day. The quick retort is that all we really need is the gospel, and I absolutely agree with the statement, however there is more here that’s not being said. The gospel is our foundation, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:11, no one can lay any other foundation in the church than Christ. But as we exponentially become more tethered to individual tastes and perspectives instead of our historic traditions our grasp of the gospel, and corresponding truth and results from it, becomes dangerously loose. It is now easy to find churches where the gospel preached is not salvation from sin and brokenness through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but rather a gospel of how God can improve your life (or any number of topics about God’s positive influence). The danger of losing the true gospel is very real.
Enter the tradition of confessions. These timeless statements remind us that the church is so much greater than our personal spiritual experiences, that we are but one small part of God’s work in this world through the Body of Christ. We can see each creed and confession as part of a growing story that began two thousand years ago, and we are just the latest edition. The confessions also connect us to a doctrinal tradition that has been vetted and tested. Countless believers have framed these doctrinal stances out of the Scriptural witness and countless others have double-checked and ensured their faithfulness to the Bible. They are far better guides than our personal efforts, or even the efforts of leadership teams.
Hierarchical church traditions like Anglicanism don’t nearly struggle with this problem like the rest of the Evangelical world. As Baptists, we’re on the other end of the spectrum. It is in the congregational and non-denominational church world that we most desperately need to return to the confessions. Thankfully, for Baptists, we actually have a wealth of options. The 2nd London Baptist Confession (aka the 1689 Baptist Confession) follows from the great Reformed confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) but adds the Baptist distinctives. There is also the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, and the Baptist Faith & Message which was most recently updated in 2000. This last confession is currently held by our denomination, and is the confession held by Southern Baptists.
I have personally found great joy in digging deeper into the historic confessions, because as I look into the past I see more clearly the wonderful tapestry of the church through the ages that God has woven. I can see our part of the bigger picture, and that’s exciting. As I confess the current Baptist Faith & Message, it not only links me back to the historic Baptist confessions and beyond, I am also joined to the many, many other churches and believers that confess the same. We might do a lot of things differently, and our churches might look very differently, but we are united in beliefs that have been tried and tested against scripture through the ages and this unity and foundation can be used by God powerfully in our uncertain future.