(Note: This is a lightly revised version of an essay I posted on my old personal blog a couple of years ago. Most of the confessions referenced below can be found online via a simple Google search.)
Baptists have always been a confessional people. John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, the founders of the General Baptist movement, each wrote personal confessions of faith that provide us with a glimpse into their convictions and probably the convictions of their churches. Seven Particular Baptist Churches in London produced the First London Confession in 1644, and that was after the Particular Baptist leader John Spilsbury had already written a personal confession of faith. Both General and Particular Baptists would continue to write confessions of faith later in the 17th century and beyond, though the practice is somewhat out of favor among most contemporary British Baptists.
Baptists in America also adopted confessions of faith from an early time. A slightly revised version of the Second London Confession was adopted by the Philadelphia, Charleston, and Warren associations, respectively. The Baptists in the Sandy Creek Association opted to write their own confession, albeit about sixty years after their founding. The New Hampshire Confession became widely used during the second half of the nineteenth century and was revised and expanded into the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925. Besides these widely known confessions, thousands of churches, associations, institutions, and smaller denominations and associations wrote their own confessions of faith.
Confession writing and confession adopting has become a frequent occurrence in the SBC over the past few years. The convention voted to embrace a revised version of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000, and within a couple of years all of our denominational agencies had embraced that confession. Thousands of local churches and a number of state conventions and associations have also adopted the current BF&M. Other churches, associations, and state conventions have chosen to adopt or self-consciously reaffirm the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message because of theological differences between the two confessions.
Among Calvinistic Baptists, since at least the 1960s a number of churches in America (and in other places) have adopted the Second London Confession as their own. Within the SBC, many Calvinistic churches have embraced the New Hampshire Confession or the Abstract of Principles as their confession. Some Calvinistic Baptist churches that are skittish about Covenant Theology have adopted the First London Confession, claiming that the document is more definitively “Baptist” than the Second London Confession.
And let’s not forget that many Baptist churches of every theological stripe have chosen not to adopt an “established” confession of faith, choosing instead to write their own statement. Others have chosen to revise existing confessions to conform those documents with their particular church’s beliefs on debated matters like the terms of communion, eschatology, or the Lord’s Day.
We live in theologically confusing times, even within our various Baptist enclaves. Sometimes it is hard to know what a fellow Baptist believes, including potential pastors and other church staff. The phrase “I’m a Bible-believing Christian/Baptist” sounds pious, but communicates little in terms of content. The phrase “I’m a Southern Baptist” is not much more helpful, considering the variety of theological convictions present within the SBC tent. Phrases like “I’m a conservative” or “I’m a moderate” mean different things to different people because of the subjective nature of the labels, at least in some places. “I’m a historic Baptist” is used by Calvinists, Landmarkers, and the Baptist Identity guys (among others), and “I’m a traditional Baptist” is used by some conservatives and many moderates! Confusion reigns.
I think that every Baptist minister ought to “own” a particular confession of faith. If there is not an existing confession that you are comfortable with, then make some revisions to the one you like best or, if you prefer, write your own. The confession does not have to perfectly match your beliefs in every minute issue (unless you write it!), nor does it have to explain the totality of your beliefs. If it is an existing confession, it may even express some of your beliefs differently than you would express them in conversation. But owning a confession still marks a good starting point for understanding the basics of what you believe. And that is very helpful when you are candidating at a local church or applying to serve as a missionary or work for a denominational agency.
If you are currently studying for some type of vocational ministry, or if you believe it is possible you may be looking for a new ministry position in the near future, I would urge you to consider owning or writing a confession of faith. It can be as general or specific as you are comfortable with, but it needs to cover all the basic categories, including issues presently being debated in whatever context you find yourself (election, eschatology, the ordinances, spiritual gifts, etc.).
It will take time to read through confessions of faith and even more time to write one, should you opt for that approach. But the time spent will be worthwhile, and it could potentially save you quite a bit of trouble if the folks you wish to lead or the ministry for which you desire to work knows where you are coming from long before something controversial comes up in the pulpit, in the classroom, or on the mission field. So do something that is both ministerially prudent and profoundly Baptist by owning a confession of faith as your own.