The current Declaration of Principle was adopted in 1906 as a basis for our union. Amended in 1938, it still preserves our ecclesiology today. This article will concern itself with the first clause:
That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws.
I have found the Declaration often quoted in the conversation around sexual ethics, and in the recent discussions about the proposed changes in the Ministry Recognition Committee rules, which will potentially permit ministers engaged in same sex activity to continue in Baptist ministry. The argument for these changes, and indeed for affirming same sex relationships in general, appeals to the latter part of the first clause in the declaration ‘each church has liberty…to interpret and administer [Christ’s’] laws.’ It is basically an argument centred around the extent to which we may ‘agree to disagree.’ It is said that congregations can make up their own policy about such things while remaining in covenant relationship within the Baptist family.
I strongly disagree that any such position can be legitimately reached from the Declaration of Principle. I would first like to consider a brief history of our denomination to show how and why we arrived at the statement to begin with; what spirit these carefully chosen words were written in, and how they cannot justify some modern interpretations.
These carefully chosen words factor in hundreds of years of Baptist identity. This was not easily attained. Historically, Baptists, radical dissenters born of the Protestant Reformation, chose to gather in local congregational meetings, which held the authority of Christ himself. Baptists chose to form associations with other Baptist fellowships. The need to associate in covenantal relationship is deeply embedded in our Baptist identity, worked out in a commitment to interdependency.¹
Each Baptist congregation was its own entity but the need for association with like minded people, can historically divide English Baptists into two groups, “General” or “Particular”. Both groups believed God’s grace was at work in salvation, they differed on how this work was actualised. The former asserted God’s grace was at work generally, drawing in the “whosoever”. The latter believed grace was particular, predestined only for the elect. Some attempts were made to nationally organise Baptists based on their own theological views, but these were often short lived.² The late eighteenth century, however, saw the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society.³ BMS was instrumental in drawing together Baptists of different persuasions and laid the foundations of the Baptist family we know and love today. Paul Beasley Murray remarks,
The Baptist Union is [primarily] a mission agency…existing not for the sake of itself…[nor]its member churches and associations, but above all for the sake of the world for whom Christ died.⁴
It was this missional impetus which propelled diverse Baptists to come together in covenant relationship. The national organisation required a statement to hold them together. This is the spirit out of which the Declaration was born and how our forbearers adopted it. Covenant remains at the heart of these words. It is worth reminding ourselves that ministers seeking accreditation through our network of churches must agree with the Declaration of Principle.
Even though the Declaration was born out of theological struggle, I find it difficult to accept the idea that the Declaration gives credence to interpreting moral issues, such as those pertaining to sexual ethics in any way which is contrary to the plain reading of scripture. To suggest so, would be to ignore the spirit these words were founded in. Despite their theological differences, neither group of our forebears would recognise the Declaration to give licence to interpret moral issues in an unbiblical way.
In the words of the first clause of the Declaration, we find a theologically weighty statement, affirming the Trinity and incarnation. It is noticeably a Christological basis of agreement. Our covenanted life together is based on a person, Jesus Christ. It is He who is the sole and absolute authority on all matters pertaining to faith and conduct; this conduct includes our sexual ethics. Ultimately, it is Christ who will judge us and the world (Jn. 5:22-23; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Jn.12:31-33). This Jesus who judges is not some Jesus we make up in our own image, rather He is the Jesus Christ revealed to us in Scripture, as the Declaration rightly affirms. The first clause refers to the scriptures as ‘Holy,’ indicating the reverence in which our forbearers held Scripture. The Jesus Christ of authority is the Jesus Christ of Scripture. Scripture testifies of its own authority (2 Tim. 3:16). Christ’s written word holds the authority of Christ. It is used as our boundary to protect us from wandering in the wrong direction. When we come together to discern the mind of Christ, Scripture is there to safeguard us from error. The sacred church meeting should not serve as a democracy to do the will of self, but as a theocracy to discern the will of Christ. Christ will not contradict himself. He will not speak anything which undermines his own apportioned authority in his written word.
Given that it accords supreme authority to Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, the idea that the Declaration can be used to give ‘liberty’ to different opinions on the issue of sexual ethics is absurd. Our forebears would be scandalised at the notion. It is true that both the Particular and General Baptists would have considered the issue of how grace is at work in salvation important in their time. They recognised, though, that this disagreement could be set aside for the sake of mission because it was not a primary issue. Mission is the reason we exist. Some disagreements, however, cannot be set aside or disagreed well on. These issues are ones which pertain to salvation. Our forebears were more concerned in seeing people saved than they were arguing about how it happened. The issue of sexual ethics is a primary issue and, as such, it cannot be set aside or covered over with the ‘liberty’ each congregation has to interpret the Scriptures. This is because it pertains to the Lordship of Christ. Same sex relationships are inconsistent with biblical teaching. For a person to openly sin is to deny the Lordship of Christ in their lives. For a minister to do so is so much worse as we are called to set an example for others to follow. The words of Jesus come to mind, “if anyone causes one of these little ones … to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6). This is serious stuff!
There is no liberty to agree to disagree, or even to disagree well when it comes to this issue. It is a primary salvific issue on which we will be judged by the one who has sole and absolute authority to do so.⁵ The history and spirit of the words of the Declaration of Principle cannot support such liberty. Christ is not double minded and nor should we be. We should take our stand upon the written word of God, trusting in the Christ of Scripture who inspired our forebears to choose the words of our Declaration of Principle.
- Paul-Beasley Murray, Radical Believers: The Baptist Way of Being Church. (Oxfordshire: The Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1992), 75.
- David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), 256-257; Hayden, 65-66; Earnest A. Payne, The Baptist Union: A Short History, (London: Offset Litography, 1982), 29-31, 35.
- Hayden, 118-119.
- Beasley-Murray, 75.
- I will defend this assertion in a subsequent article.
Aly Fulford is a Baptist Minister in Ilfracombe where she works with the local Baptist Church as “Pioneer Missioner”. She completed her ministerial training (2019) and her post graduate certificate in Theological studies (2021) at Bristol Baptist College. She loves introducing people to Jesus and exploring different models of being church today.