The Baptist Union’s Declaration of Principle (DoP), the basis of our union, is a very significant statement, and it deserves our commitment and respect. Its three clauses draw extensively on Scripture, including Matthew 28.19, John 1.14, 1 Corinthians 15.3 – 4, and 2 Peter 2.20, 3.18. The first clause is essentially a summary of our congregationalist ecclesiology, the second offers a description of Baptist baptismal practice, while the third represents an aspiration with respect to our commitment to mission. Although there are a few significant theological statements embedded within the declaration, it reads more like a description of the shared key characteristics of Baptist churches than as a coherent summary of Baptist beliefs about God.
While recognizing all that is good about the DoP, it is also appropriate to acknowledge its deficiencies. Firstly, it is not a coherent theological statement. Secondly, it does not offer an adequate summary of our ecclesiology. Finally, its meaning is not always clear. On the first point, while it contains a statement about the deity of Jesus, there is no equivalent statement about the Spirit. Next, while there is a reference to the flesh of Jesus Christ, this need not be understood to mean his true humanity. Then, the Persons of the Trinity are mentioned but only in an allusion to the biblical text and without any specific reference to their constituting the Godhead. On the next point, the declaration focuses on the autonomy of the local churches but fails to mention their associating. Connection, even if, in the final analysis, it can be trumped by local independence, has always been a part of Baptist ecclesiology and its omission from the DoP is regrettable. On the last point, it is unclear what is meant by the term ‘His (that is Christ’s) Laws’ at end of the first clause and this has led to some Baptists claiming that DoP makes statements about the rights of local churches to interpret the Bible. Indeed, it has occasionally been argued that historically Baptists have been committed to interpreting the Bible through community reading and that this practice is enshrined within the DoP. Both these points are open to challenge.
There are lots of ways that the Bible can be interpreted. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the divisions within the Great Church all have their roots in different approaches to understanding the Bible. The Baptist tradition is no exception to this. However, it is not at all clear that our theology has been shaped by a commitment to community reading. Historically, this was the practice of some parts of the Anabaptist movement and may have been practised by some General Baptists, many of whom had an aversion to creeds and confessions. However, it was probably not true of the Baptist traditions that came together to form our current union. Principally, these were, and this group comprised most of the original members, an existing union of Particular Baptists who were evangelical in outlook and moderate (as opposed to high) Calvinists in their theology; and secondly the New Connexion of General Baptists, a group that was intentionally evangelical in their sentiments and their theology.
In other words, the churches that formed our union were, and understood one another to be, confessional in their nature. That is, for all their differences, they were all committed to an evangelical understanding of the Bible. This is a tradition, with roots in the early church, that flowered during the Reformation and found a particular expression in the theology and practices associated with the Great Awakening in the US and the Evangelical Revival in the UK.
The original DoP, rather briefer and even less doctrinal that the current version, was clearly a statement of ecclesiology. Its minimalism helped generate the well documented Downgrade Controversy. The response to this of the union’s council was not to amend its intentionally ecclesial declaration but to adopt a broadly evangelical statement of faith. So far as I am aware, this has never been retracted and remains our union’s formal position. It begins with the assertion that ‘The following facts and doctrines are commonly believed by the Churches of the Union’. In addition, other actions taken indicate that the union understood itself as an evangelical body. For example, the model trusts for Baptist buildings agreed in 1902 refer to ‘the sole authority of the Scriptures and that interpretation of them usually called Evangelical’. Furthermore, the current model trust deeds on the Baptists Together website (dated 2003 but updated this year) permit as pastors only those ‘who have been Baptised, who affirm the Declaration of Principle, who hold the authority of the Holy Scriptures and that interpretation of them usually called Evangelical’.
This all demonstrates that our tradition is not one that encourages congregations to decide for themselves how to interpret Scripture in respect of every doctrinal issue. It is one that emerges from and remains rooted in the evangelical tradition of biblical interpretation.
I will turn now to the meaning of the words ‘His Laws’ in the first clause of the DoP. It is extremely unlikely that this phrase was ever intended to refer to the whole of the Scriptures. It is unlikely that those responsible would have understood the Bible as ‘Laws’ and they were, as I have tried to show, committed to an evangelical hermeneutic. One possibility is that they refer to some understanding of the law of Christ (related to bearing one another’s burdens) in Galatians 6.2 or to fulfilling the law through love of neighbour as in Romans 13.10 and Galatians 5.14 – which may be linked to the royal law of James 2.8. Another option was proposed by the authors of Something to Declare; A Study of the Declaration of Principle whose rather vague conclusion is “We ought then to understand the phrase ‘His Laws’ in the Declaration as something like ‘His purposes and demands on our lives’”. A final possibility, and I think the most likely, is that the reference is to the rules for church discipline set out in Matthew 18.15 – 20. In the circumstances, the interpretation of Christ’s Laws was probably intended to refer to the right of each local church to appoint its own pastors and officers, to decide the times of its services and the nature of its local mission, and, most especially, to disciple and discipline its own members. This certainly involved reflection on the Scripture to see how it applied in particular cases, but not the right to determine points of doctrine.
In conclusion, neither our Baptist tradition nor the DoP encourage churches to engage in community readings of the Scripture that lead to changes in church doctrine.
There are evangelical Christians who claim to have arrived at an affirming position on same-sex marriage on the basis of a reading of the Bible. This may be true. However, while the person involved may be an evangelical, this does not mean that the method of interpretation used was the one ‘commonly called Evangelical’. Nothing in that tradition, whether in the early church, the Reformation, or the Evangelical Revival, suggests anything other than an understanding of marriage as being a creation ordinance uniting a man and a woman.
While our ecclesiology is focused on the local church and encourages local decision making, this authority does not extend to matters of doctrine. While our union may be able to hold and include some who believe that their churches can do this and remain part of our movement, their views should not be allowed to influence our collective position on Christian marriage, or the standards of exemplary discipleship expected of those who are our nationally accredited ministers.
Our churches are in covenant relationship within our union. It seems absurd to think that we should encourage a situation where God is discerned to say one thing about marriage in one church and something else in another church that meets less than a mile down the road.
* I am indebted to Revd Jeff Jacobson and his research for many of the points made in this article.
Stephen Finamore has been a lawyer, led a community development project in inner London and worked for a rural development project in the Andes of northern Peru. Having trained for ministry and read theology in Oxford, he is currently Principal Emeritus of Bristol Baptist College. He has been elected to serve as President of Baptists Together for 2024–25.
Stephen has written a number of books, and his short commentary on Romans is available free with Bible Reading Fellowship: www.brf.org.uk/product/romans-unwrapped/